BLM – Reflecting within dance

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

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.

Review of VOID in The Skinny

Project X

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.

Review of Ghost Dimensions in The Skinny

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.

Obituary

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.

Review of Just Us Dance Theatre Platform in Seeing Dance

Review of Blak Whyte Gray in The Skinny

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

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.

Ballet Black Website

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.

IWB in Contact Quarterly 

Ballet shoes

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.

Article in The Independent, 2018

A falling ballet – Residency Research

Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, my March residency with Citymoves Dance Agency SCIO has had to be postponed. I had planned to run a series of movement and community workshops, exploring concepts related to my work ‘A falling ballet.’

Citymoves have very kindly continued to support me during this time. I am hoping to continue some of the research online and explore how the piece may change in reaction to these weeks of isolation and social distancing.

As such, I have created the below survey which can be completed by anyone. The responses may be used to further develop the piece. Before completing the survey, you may (or may not) want to read more about the piece here or read some of the reflections I have written below.

Thanks, and keep safe.

Survey Link

Róisín O'Brien 21.06.19 (photos Sid Scott)-19

On missing class

Many people might be surprised at how little ballet dancers move in class. On screen, I watch Tamara Rojo and two ENB dancers in their newly built studio in East London take class (‘we have to leave our beautiful building today’ Tamara bemoans), and I recognise the same behaviour from the many ballet classes I’ve taken in Edinburgh. Tamara demonstrates each exercise: the dancers stand still, taking it in. Occasionally, their hands map the foot patterns (wrists crossing back and forth, a dynamic ‘swish’ to communicate ‘ballon’). An extremely logical language combined with years of daily class mean the dancers learn what appears complex in seconds. When they don’t immediately get it, there’s almost a glitch. The dancers pause: can you repeat?

There is something about the social framework (even pressure?) of class. On days when I’ve previously not been able to make class, I’ve re-arranged the study, put up a chair and done a ‘barre.’ Sometimes it’s nice to take your own time about things. But seeing as all that I have right now is my own time, I’ve sought out these recordings. I relish having to turn up and adapt: to take instruction and to be present. I even yawn, daydream: the rigour allows me to relax.

I’ve missed the physical expanse of class. And whiIe I quite happily count myself as introverted, I’ve missed even the small interactions . The ‘Good mornings’ as you arrive in the changing rooms, the communal taking away of barres for centre practice, the shared laugh at a teachers’ joke. Turning up for a live stream seems to alleviate some of this – while my leg barely graces the lofty heights of the company’s dancers, I am responding to someone, acknowledging what they are giving to me.

The dancers move to pirouettes, and the first attempt goes poorly. Can we go again, one dancer asks, for pride? Yes, laughs Tamara, we do it for pride. I’ll go again, not for pride, but to feel that familiar strain in my legs, and to find comfort through focus, with others.

Róisín O'Brien 21.06.19 (photos Sid Scott)-7


Thoughts on distance

Looking through the window at The Outside, pigeons can be seen on the ground. With less people hurrying about, the birds do not have to perch up high or even fly (it could be imagined). They circle and peck at litter – their behaviour on the ground almost human like, in the way that they watch and interact with their environment. Though, perhaps, with less haste or direction…

…We all dance in our government mandated daily exercise, as we navigate in and out of the approved two metre distance from other walkers.  The distance becomes sacred, powerful, scary, fraught, humorous. We are either potential violators or decent citizens.  Runners and cyclists are dangerous, frowned upon….

…The guilt of being in a supermarket. Cutting down on unnecessary outings. Gloves, facemasks, homemade, officious, plastic, fabric. We used to meet up without any thought, now every body and touch is dangerous (even the touch of doors, bins, or food is fraught)…

…I imagine the virus as a glow, living on surfaces, transferring constantly to new terrain.

Róisín O'Brien 21.06.19 (photos Sid Scott)-21

Photo Credit: Simon M Scott

Can I Show You Something?

I talk to fellow dance artist and friend Christina Liddell about her work Glimpsing Air Pockets. Inspired by the show’s invitation to its audience to wander around the set, I show Christina what I saw, and she, in turn, tells me more about the creative process…

I saw a young child laughing as a creature invited her into the woods. I saw another child sit upon a toadstool.  

I heard clicks, coming from a bird that seemed to twitch, flick and flit through the trees. 

Christina: The idea for Glimpsing Air Pockets sprang from my work as a dance artist with the Edinburgh Children’s Hospital Charity. Since 2016, I have been offering dance sessions to children and young people within the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, assisting in the recuperation of the children’s physical and emotional wellbeing. I had no idea what a profound impact these children and young people would have on my own perspective on life. Glimpsing Air Pockets was created as a poetic response to these many beautiful encounters: I wanted to show both the influence these inspirational children had on me, alongside showcasing their creative work that I had worked on with them.

There have been a number of times when I have walked out of the hospital after the dance sessions, thinkingthat people have no idea about the lives of these children and how inspirational they are.

Picture 1

The production is based on the following saying: ‘You can’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can definitely prevent them from building a nest in your hair.’

I’ve heard many interpretations from people when I’ve shared this with them: what does it make you think of?

Róisín: I guess there’s that first reading that bad things will always happen, but you can choose how to react to them. But there’s also something about staying still, because for the bird to return to a nest, the nest needs to be static: so there’s something about the danger of not adapting, and of how we need to keep moving.

How does the quote relate to your work with the children?

C: I think at a point in my personal life (when I started working at the RHSC), there was a nest which had been forming and settling on my head. Thoughts began to pile up and fester, to the point where they became all-consuming and I struggled to see beyond what was right in front of me.

Picture 2

When I began working with these children and young people, this changed. Despite what they were experiencing, I was struck by the number of times they expressed so much joy. It was as if they were able to look beyond their situation. This really opened up my eyes: I saw that what I was experiencing was just a small part of a much greater picture. They had quite miraculously put everything back into perspective.

R: There’s almost four ‘turns’ in the work: it starts very much as a narrative, watched piece with you at the centre. You then invite the audience in and switch to quite directly talking about your experience with the children. After we’ve moved around the space, you show us a beautiful film made by Tao-Anas Le Thanh documenting your work at the hospital, and then conclude by dancing with one of the children from the hospital. Glimpsing Air Pockets moves between an almost fantasy, dream world to very real responses and lived experiences – but they’re inevitably tied together.

How did you work creatively with the children and young people?

C: During workshops, a creative team of artists and I would bring in stimuli or examples of what we had envisioned for the production. These included pictures, a poem, an example of a ‘wish’ made by Ecoscenographer Mona Kastell and footage of choreography I’d been trying out. I didn’t want to give them too much, as that could have impacted what was then given back – we were going into workshops not fully knowing what the outcome was going to be.

With regard to the movement in the piece, I went around the wards within the hospital saying, ‘we’re making this show and would love you to be part of it – what dance movement would you like?’ Many of the movements of the piece directly came from the children, or from beautiful encounters I had shared with them during their long-term recovery in hospital.

A wonderful example of this was when I was working with one boy who would always tell me I was being silly by signing this with his hand: he also loved gesturing that we were both playing guitar to funky music. Each movement that was contributed held so much beauty and significance – I love that it came directly from them!

R: Were there any surprises?

C: I thought I was going to get the floss…

I found myself struggling to choreograph the section of the piece where I try to express the undercurrent of thoughts that are starting to take root and take over my perspective: this builds up to me expressing movement which is quite distressing.Picture 3

So, I stripped back everything I was doing, and focused on one of the scores from the children: and that’s where the whole section came from.

R: This creature at the beginning of the performance: is it you?

C: I’m never another creature or character. The movement is very stylised, but it is me.

My mentor, Christine Devaney, asked me what I was trying to say at the beginning of the piece: is it meant to be childlike? How I move in that beginning – [R: open, darting, quick, and joyously!] – that very much represented for me, in a completely ideal world, how we are meant to be: uplifted, soaring and free. But there is an underlying naivety in that movement, in me not realizing this nest exists and is building up.

R: Isn’t there always going something there, restricting or blocking us?

Picture 4

C: There’s no doubt that life will always have its hardships, its trials, its challenges… I don’t believe we will ever be able to live a life that is completely free, the way life was intended. Yet, I do believe we gain empowerment in how we view situations – we can recognise there is a greater purpose within what we are experiencing. It might not change the present circumstances, but if we are able to look beyond the immediate, as these children and young people have helped me to do…I really do trust that goodness can come out of any situation.

 

 I walked over a bridge, I felt a lot of natural fibres: wood, twigs, plants, flowers. 

I saw leaves and vines wind their way and grow across the ground and over a pond. Seeds were scattered, gathered, and passed around.

Picture 5C: The inspiration from the set came from a personal journey I had with a girl within the hospital. I found out she had a love for fairies and made her this little fairy garden.

I gave this image to Mona and she brought the whole vision to life! The set has been donated back to the hospital now as a quiet space for families to escape into.

Picture 6It’s wonderful you mention the tactile elements of the performance as it was always within the work’s vision to make it a fully encompassing, multi-sensory experience. What did it feel like to interact with all the different elements: were there any moments that stuck with you?

R: I remember approaching the bridge with care and delicacy, which felt reflective of your work with the young people. It’s unusual, walking through a space as an audience member, for the height of the floor to change!

C: I knew very early on that I wanted to invite the audience in. I wanted to ensure they felt comfortable and that anything that was suggested was only ever an invitation, an offering for individuals to choose for themselves how much they wanted to be immersed in the world that had been created. Audio recordings of children’s voices are played over the sound system to create an informal atmosphere that encourages curiosity.

R: It’s always interesting, that moment, when you ask audiences to come into a world – it can be quite violent, or people can feel tricked – but that wasn’t the case at all in this performance. I think that’s because, as well as the atmosphere you created, you enter the performance by walking through the set right at the beginning: so, we’re already comfortable with getting up and moving around.

Picture 7

C:  I’m so pleased to hear the immersive aspect came across as a welcoming invitation for you as an audience member Róisín!

There is another element of the work that I would love to share with you which is the use of seeds. The seeds have a very intricate meaning within the performance for me. In the first half, they hold negative connotations: they are seeds of doubt, subtly getting planted in my head. In the middle, I use them to form the circle the audiences gather in, symbolising my nest. When I then dance with the young performer at the end, they’re teaching me to sow these seeds and that they can grow into something new in a beautiful garden.

I was given a hand-made structure, woven with colourful threads that I hung on a tree trunk. 

I saw adults protectively watching the children run around the garden. I saw a young girl tentatively perform in a duet with the creature from the garden.

C: The handmade structures were ‘wishes’ made by the children and young people from the hospital. We asked them during the workshops to not only made a physical wish out of willow and wool, but to also weave in a wish from their heart, so they were incredibly special.

At the beginning of the performance, the audience is invited to choose a ‘wish’. During the immersive section, the audience is told that ‘a wish comes true when it is placed in a tree.’ Gradually the audience take the wish they have chosen and attach it to the wishing tree. There is a beautiful crescendo moment within the performance, where nothing is happening in the space, but the entire focus is on the wishing tree. We all take a moment in the stillness to reflect on the visual beauty of seeing all of these wishes and hearts’ desires displayed in front of us.

How did it feel as an audience member choosing a wish? Was there a particular one you were drawn to?

R: There is something undeniably present about each wish. You’re given something that has been made by one child in particular: you‘ll never know what the wish is, but you know it exists, and that you hold something uniquely special.

Picture 9

I wanted to capture and express the incredible journey I have been on with these children and young people, and the change they birthed in me. For the audience to tgo on this journey with me, it felt key for them to see the children themselves through the short film made by Tao-Anas Le Thanh. The film so beautifully draws you in and almost makes you feel like you’re there in the hospital ward.

Directly after the film, the audience then see one of the children physically dancing in the space with me, which is something quite special. It’s their story and a real testimony of what they’ve gone through. With one of the young performers involved the production, her mother mentioned how thrilled she was that her daughter was able to be part of this experience. She said, ‘it was so beautiful to watch the delight she showed participating in both performances.’

 R: In having a young person or child perform, you are honoring that initial spark – you’re keeping true why you wanted to make this performance in the first place.

Picture 10

R: Will you show the work again?

C: People have asked me if the show would go on to tour and be taken to other hospitals. I delved into this project whole heartedly, with an open mind and a hope of it having a touring life. As the production began to unfold, however, I became aware of how personal this work was to the individuals involved and how they impacted me. This is their creation: to take it to other hospitals, it would almost need to be an entirely new production.

I always said to myself that I would only ever make a work if I was compelled to do so. When the vision for Glimpsing Air Pockets came to me, I knew I had to pursue it. The work was an invitation for those taking part to play a significant role in a creation that would to be seen by an audience. I hoped that the performance would then impact the audience, too.  One of the most touching things said to me after one performance was when a gentleman took my hands in his saying, ‘Bless your work – the tears were just rolling, right down into my beard!’

I loved the fact that even when we were far into the development of the production, there was still this element within me that didn’t know what the end piece would look like! To then see, piece by piece each incredibly special contribution come alive…I’m completely lost for words, it was simply magical!

I hope as you watch this video that you may catch even the smallest glimpse of how amazing these children and young people are!

 

 

Photo Credits: Simon M Scott and Christina Liddell