This last week has been tough, and I can only imagine how much tougher it has been for people of colour.
I’ve sat at my computer, thinking through what I can do: read more, watch more, listen more. Donate, sign petitions. I’ve also thought about my own industry and what I can do there: be more open and ready for difficult conversations, and be open to being corrected.
As a writer, one small thing I want to do is reflect on some of the performances and work by black artists I have written about or seen in the past few years, and conversations that are happening in the sector. I do not think this is enough to do, and my white voice is not the viewpoint we need now. My small hope is that my words might highlight artists who people may not have heard of.
I see many of the conversations I mention below within the industry regularly. If I am seeing these conversations, so is everyone else, I unconsciously think – but this is not the case. So I hope also to communicate some of these conversations to those outside of the industry and bubble that I am in.
In a meeting with other freelance Scottish artists last week, someone correctly pointed out the lack of diversity within our sector (and in that meeting). It made me think of what we define or allow to be ‘art’ or ‘contemporary dance’ – it is overwhelmingly white. Ballet, for instance, is a Western/European dance but is synonymous with high art and is treated and disseminated as the default (from which other dances deviate). Ballet is not neutral, it is historical.
The below is a small selected list of performances, artists, and conversations – it is by no means exhaustive.
Edinburgh in Solidarity for Black Lives Matter Protest, 7 June 2020 – Photo credit Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images
V/DA are a Scottish based multi-disciplinary collective of black and POC artists, made up of Mele Broomes, Claricia Parinussa and Sabrina Henry. Mele Broomes’ choreography and performance in VOID under a motorway flyover as part of Dance International Glasgow in 2017 remains one of my favourite performance experiences. Inspired by J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, Broomes’ physical commitment accompanied by pumping acoustics and video projections manifests in a total, audio-visual performance.
Alongside Ashanti Harris and Rhea Lewis, Mele Broomes is also part of Project X, who have just celebrated their 3 year anniversary. They are a multi-disciplinary, collectively run organisation based in Scotland that platforms dance of the African and Caribbean Diaspora. I saw their work Ghost Dimensions last year at a //BUZZCUT// Double Thrills performance night, alongside Travis Alabanza’s brutal Burgerz.
Rosina Osei Bonsu
There is nothing I can say that has not already been said more beautifully and aptly by others within the Scottish dance and yoga community who knew Rosina, who passed away earlier this year. Rosina taught yoga classes at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland while I was working as an administrator – her knowledge, kindness, and perception were undaunting. I had practiced yoga before but Rosina fully brought me to yoga: her words and teachings stay with me every time I arrive on my mat.
Just Us Dance Theatre Platform – The Place, September 2016
This performance first introduced me to artists Joseph Toonga, Dickson Mbi, and Boy Blue Entertainment. Dickson Mbi is a phenomenal dancer, both graceful and strong, lithe and succinct. The images from Boy Blue Entertainment’s NOIR still unfortunately resonate today: after a dance of struggle and anger, the men pull together at the end with one man raised up, inert, the others standing with raised fists. I interviewed Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante of Boy Blue in 2017 in advance of their performance of Blak Whyte Grey at EIF, one of the most electric performances I have seen at the Edinburgh festivals.
In the above review I state that the movement in the second act is ‘derived from African movement.’ I know very little about different African dances; this comment is unresearched, and is something I will correct in my future writing.
Ballet Black have been doing a lot of the heavy lifting within ballet in Britain for the past 20 years, both in terms of opportunities and representation, and through Artistic Director Cassa Pancho’s constant interrogation of the (white) status quo of ballet. The Company was founded in 2001 with the purpose of providing ‘dancers and students of black and Asian descent with inspiring opportunities within classical ballet.’ In 2019, they performed with Stormzy as part of his headline set at Glastonbury.
Improvising While Black
Contact Improvisation (CI) developed in the 1970s in America: it is a form of dancing that is based on an intimate relationship and keen perception between its participants, who use weight, touch, and awareness to respond instantaneously to those around them. Penny Chivas, a Dance Artist based in Glasgow, first introduced me to the publication Contact Quarterly and also then shared the following project ‘Improvising While Black’ on social media (Penny personally credits the influence of Karen Nelson’s ‘quiet allyship’). I am not an expert in CI but I think the discussion of how safe spaces can operate from a position that does not account for a non-white experience to be a crucial one, one that I intend to read more about within CI and the broader dance community.
This has been a conversation within the industry for the past year or so but it is worth still pointing out – firstly, because widespread change still needs to happen, and secondly to baffle at how long it has taken to get here. Ballet shoes traditionally come in pink: this is meant to mimic skin tone, but of course the skin tone of ballet dancers in 19th century Imperial Russia is not the same as the skin tone of different ballet dancers across the world today. Dancers of colour have been campaigning for companies to create shoes in a variety of skin tones, as well as question what is counted as ‘nude’ in costuming. Dancers of colour use a process called ‘pancaking’ to change their pink shoes into a colour closer to their skin tone. It is a clear example of how when we don’t question tradition, we perpetuate discrimination.