Our Dance Democracy, Liverpool, November 2018

By Skye Reynolds & Bridie Gane / 26.11.18

Reflections from Skye Reynolds & Bridie Gane

'Our Dance Democracy' conference at LEAP Dance Festival 2-3rd November 2018

Bridie Gane

LEAP dance festival is in its 26th year, and while I'm not massively familiar with it, it came to my attention this year because of its predominantly female line up. The theme for this year's festival is suffrage in a tribute to the Suffragette movement celebrating 100 years since some women first won the right to vote. In celebration of this, the festival features female protagonists in each of the dance performances.

I was delighted to be one of the recipients, along with Skye Reynolds, of The Work Room's bursary to attend 'Our Dance Democracy'. The focus of the two day conference was democracy and civic responsibility through arts and academia.

The conference brought together academics in the field of dance performance and dance practitioners themselves. After hearing many theoretical inputs I found it refreshing to hear from practitioners. It was not just a relief, but truly exciting when key note speakers Charlotte Vincent and Rosemary Lee spoke.

I am a long standing fan of Charlotte Vincent and her work. Her speech ' Holding the space, people in performance, the logic model' did not disappoint. Her language and her message were clear and concise. She outlined how she made work that “everyone can relate to”, made accessible using film and online platforms as well as for the stage.

Her phrase, “Tell the story, let it be heard”, rang in my ears for the rest of the day as she explained how her work shifts away from ego and encourages empathy, something we could all benefit from practicing.

Despite her work being highly accessible, Rosemary Lee clearly stated that she was not a community artist, a statement which I found both challenging and admirable. She opened by stating that she makes “work for strangers”, a much stronger statement in contrast to the word 'community' I'd heard being used a lot at the conference. She went on to explain how she wants her work to allow audiences to be “more open to everything around them” and “see that site in a new way”. She argued, for example, that encouraging people to be in touch with their surroundings is a vital tool in fighting climate change.

It was refreshing to hear her voice her own issues and concerns on beginning a new project as an English artist invited to make a work in Londonderry/Derry. I found her careful consideration of the issues surrounding the project and her involvement both necessary and very relatable to as a constantly self questioning female artist.

I left the conference exhausted but revitalized and inspired by hearing two strong female voices speak so eloquently and unpretentiously about not only their work but the world around them. Despite the theorising of academic contributors, for me this conference reaffirmed the role of artists within society, not through the use of graphs, quotes or long words, but through creative practice, as a way for us to further understand ourselves and the world around us, approaching current and pre-existing social issues whilst maintaining artistry, encouraging understanding and building empathy.

 

Dance is an art of change and a breeding ground for democracy:

Skye Reynolds’ reflections from the Our Dance Democracy conference, Liverpool, November 2018

It was a stimulating opportunity to attend the Our Dance Democracy conference at LEAP festival, Liverpool, with many thanks to The Work Room for making this visit possible for myself and Bridie Gane.

The 2 day event was inspired by the suffragette movement and 100 years of the female vote, jam-packed with presentations delivered almost exclusively by women. Bridie has covered the presentations by Charlotte Vincent and Rosemary Lee so I’ll draw attention to several other stand out moments. It’s difficult to select as the content was dense, varied and covered an incredibly broad spectrum, from ethics and motherhood to ‘place mapping with a sense of corporeality’ to ‘manifesto for dance class’ to pole-dancing!

On the afternoon of Day 1, there was a trio of well-curated presentations featuring Mary Prestige’s contact improvisation framed between Lucy Nicholson’s paper on embodied practice and dramaturg Ruth Little’s talk on ‘Threshold’ spaces.

Lucy Nicholson is a dance artist, lecturer and mother. Having worked with Dance United and disaffected youth, she’s experienced first hand the transformational power of dance and it’s ability to change lives. Lucy and I met almost 20 years ago working with Scottish Youth Dance and it was exciting to see how her career has developed. After a morning having our brains stimulated through lecture and video, Lucy’s paper ‘Return to the Body’ reminded us to come back to center… relax the shoulders… breath… align the spine…place the feet.

Lucy discussed the value of embodied self-reflection within the creative act of teaching and facilitation. She gives equal weight to stillness and movement within the dance. She considers ‘return to the body’ as a principle for finding equilibrium to support balanced communication between student and teacher. How do we meet each other outside hierarchy? Lucy’s democracy is embedded in the foundations of her teaching practice, growing upwards and outwards.

Following ‘Return to the Body,’ dance elder Mary Prestige invited us to stand up out of our front-facing seats and come into a circle. In this way we could see each other face to face for the first time.

With her colleagues Paula Hampson and Vicci Riley, Mary presented a dance conversation through contact improvisation. Occasional text was read and rhetorical questions posed. We observed dancers physically negotiating the complexities of weight, balance and leadership with an embodied simplicity and resonant listening. Their questions were explored and answered through their act of dancing, with us witnessing. Their presence energized the room, a reminder that dance is always a physical act involving the body in space. Reflecting on the conference theme ‘Dance and Democracy,’ I was reminded how the live act of dance is essential to create the context for theory and dissertation.

Dramaturg Ruth Little’s presentation on ‘Thresholds’ was an appropriate follow on, “ what if the edge becomes the center when we incorporate the audience into the making and into the performance.”

Ruth introduced us to the concept of ‘Threshold’ as a place of change where meaning is discovered not delivered. She describes dance as being an art of change and asks “what if we bring the mode of change into the place of change?” She describes the threshold as being a non-binary place and a place of resistance, as it hasn’t yet settled. ‘Threshold’ sounds exciting and I recognize it as a place I like to be.

Ruth talks about skills that we can develop together to deliver resilience: ecological thinking, permaculture. These are threshold spaces where dynamic processes are happening, she proposes that we can develop the capacity to move with these processes and support each other being in and with uncertainty. That we can’t do it alone.

Being together and making connections at the conference was an essence for me. Erica Stanton and her colleagues from Roehampton invited us to join round table discussions to consider a ‘Manifesto for Dance Class’. We opened our creative minds to talk about kinship and holding space, the dance class as being a place for doubt, for structure and enabling, for the creature mind, for nourishing language. Dance class as being a ‘trialogue’ space– between teacher, student and the work.

We talked about the art of dance, the body as a tensegrity model – where are the shifts and pulls? Vitally, we acknowledged that because dance empowers, it is inherently a form which will dismantle the restrictions that refuse it to evolve and become, transform, travel and change. For me dance seems to be the perfect breeding ground for democracy.

To conclude my Dance and Democracy round up with some dazzle, I now hand over to the Grand Dame of Slap and Tickle – Liz Agiss!! (Applause and streamers)

Liz Agiss rocked the LEAP festival floor on Saturday night. House lights up for ‘pass the parcel’ (I won a box of penis-shaped jellies) and ‘let’s throw balloons around’. 

“Are we having fun?” Liz asks. Yes we are, and if not, she says “You’ll get over it.”

I first saw Slap and Tickle premiere at Rise Festival Findhorn 2016. It was fabulous (despite several rude interruptions from the fire alarm) and is even more sizzling now - having marinaded over 2 ½ years in its slick, dark, humid comedy. Liz teaches us how to read a children’s book from a feminist perspective, Liz strikes poses that conjure Martha Graham, a buddhist month, a 50’s housewife, a punk diva, a dominatrix. Liz crosses the line again and again, each time reinventing a new line which she will cross over in due course.

Her physically powerful presence and inventive use of costumes, props, balls and coins - pulled out from who knows where - reference an erotic magic show with Liz as both magician and assistant. The work is perfectly programmed for LEAP which this year celebrates the female artist.

Liz stealing the show leaves us in no doubt as to her brilliance as performer and creator, especially with her stylized, ironic handling of topics that often underscore a darker truth. How far have we come in 100 years…?

I am left with the image of Liz during the encore, crawling across stage dressed in apron and horsetail revealing her fine, strong haunches and dragging a doll between her legs which dangles via an elastic umbilical cord from her teeth. We’re applauding her daring, her sensuality and her sheer creative force.

 

Image credits: Rosemary Lee, 'Passage for Par', a performance specially created on Par Sands beach in Cornwall for Groundwork, June 2018, photo by Steve Tanner