On Race and Racism in UK’s Contemporary Dance by Jane Chan

I am Jane Chan, a choreographer and dance artist of East Asian heritage who works within the intersections of choreography, storytelling, performance, teaching, producing, project management and change instigation. 

As a person of colour, first-generation immigrant in the UK and a dance artist with a diverse training portfolio, intersectionality is no stranger. I know I cannot possibly fight every single battle that is thrown my way so instead, I choose the battles that I cannot put aside. With the battles I do choose to fight, I always remind myself that they are meant to be long, time-consuming, labourious, uncomfortable and messy all at once. That said, I know that if I want to make things right, I have to start by making changes within myself today and be able to carry this on into the next few decades; and this includes creating a presence for myself at events. I hope I can contribute to the arts and culture sector by leaving a legacy for our next generations through my being, presence and practices aimed at dismantling, re-distributing and reconstructing the hierarchy of power alongside other people of colour and marginalised communities.

I am an avid instigator of change within organisations. As bodies of colour, we often find ourselves in situations where we feel it is our responsibility to raise awareness regarding racial issues and right the wrong. However, in my opinion, issues regarding race is only one facet of a much bigger issue, that is, white middle-class cis males and sometimes white cis females, continue to be regarded as the default whilst anyone who is not, is excluded from this whiteness. 

It is also important to acknowledge the intersectionality that many people embody. The many layers of hurdles that a person of colour, non cis-gendered body is required to go through in order to make a presence, hold space, raise concerns and make their voice heard entails great amount of emotional and mental labour which are often unaccounted for. It is taxing and causes fatigue.

Promises and words are all well and good but sadly, speaking from experience, I am often left feeling suspicious of the underlying intentions of various organisations. Actions, as we know speak much louder than words. Buzz words mean nothing and they will certainly not fool the laser-sharp senses of people of colour. We see through the fluff. Unless arts and cultural institutions and organisations are truly committed to being at the forefront of change for the better, nothing will really change, particularly those have unrivalled reputation for platforming and uplifting global arts for its selected artists, companies and audiences and therefore hold the power to change the conversation surrounding orientalism, fetishisation and othering in the arts. Let’s not forget that the arts are for everyone, regardless of age, gender, religion or socio-economic background. These institutions should be held accountable for their cultural responsibilities to respectfully represent all cultures.   

I appreciate a lot of work has been done by independent artists, but their time and resources are relatively scarce compared to that of an institution. I am by no means demeaning any of the work that individual artists do, in fact I applaud them, however, without the institutions owning up to their responsibilities, we as communities of the arts and culture sector will not be able to move forward as a whole. We will be left behind and soon become irrelevant. 

For allies who wish to support people of colour, may I urge you to do a tally of people of colour in every room or space you walk into. Keep a record of this and you will soon realise how white spaces are, especially spaces linked to power. This is of course the first step of raising awareness of the status quo. I would also suggest as a general rule that arts organisations have their artistic director and CEO as two separate roles. When these roles are combined, the ultimate power of an organisation would be held by one person which in my opinion upholds the status quo than disrupt it. These roles should be mutually exclusive with fixed terms where applications take the form of open call, not by appointment nor invitation. Moreover, conversations regarding equality, diversity and inclusion needs to be conducted and maintained at all levels of an organisation on an on-going basis, with people of colour forming an integral part of the dialogue. There are of course many other things that allies, organisations and institutes can do, but this would be very specific consultation work that this article will not be able to cover.

We all need to join forces in doing and being better regardless of whether you are an independent artist or an employee of an organisation. Let us all celebrate small steps.  However small a step, it is still a step forward. 

To conclude, I want to take this time to share a thought from Zhou’s article: 

we hear diversity and inclusion a lot but being inclusive, the power still lies within the person or organisation who is being inclusive, for example, I invite you to dance, I decide the music, venue, genres, context, rules. 

In another words, those with privilege and power needs to actively give up some of the power and make space for those who hold less. And if this statement makes you uncomfortable, ‘then it’s clear your interest in this idea of diversity and inclusion is only when it serves you, not for the benefit of others’. (Zhou, 2019)

https://www.pantograph-punch.com/post/julie-zhu-power-of-inclusion-speech?fbclid=IwAR3omDLf6DW4Q_F-z35zWYDP7nlmkMnPT6t1T5gqpv-N8joPy3sv4-IZWNs (accessed 15 Jan, 2020) 

Jane Chan is a choreographer and dance artist trained in Chinese classical, Chinese folk, contemporary, ballet, wing chun and kathak who works in the intersections of choreography, dance, performance, teaching and change instigation. Also, a member of Amina Khayyam Dance Company since 2014, one of the artists of colour steering group at Chisenhale Dance Space, the London Correspondent for dancejournal/hk, one of the Overture 2019/20 cohort for Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, a mentor for Arts Emergency and the founder of Passion Project, a teaching initiative that aims to share the joy and benefits of movement and dance to non-dance professionals, immigrant women group, older adults with and without dementia.

www.chanjane.com

Problems, Obstacles, Saboteurs

In my previous post I ended on this note ‘But, more importantly, making space on the part of us people of colour, has to also simultaneously be about sabotaging processes by which (white) spaces are and have been historically produced, such that we can start ‘taking up space’ (Kwakye and Ogunbiyi; 2019) and upending power.’ In this post I want to specifically develop the idea of sabotage as a mode of dismantling whiteness (and other hegemonies) in contemporary dance. 

Last month my colleague Broderick Chow and I co-presented our The UCLA Letters: On Dismantling Whiteness in the Academy at a seminar for graduate students in University of California, LA’s Department of World Arts and Culture / Dance. Taking the form of six letters (three each) that we wrote to each other over a period of two months (September to November 2019), our dialogue navigated personal experiences, critical theories, and embodied realities as scholars of colour living and working in the UK to create a matrix of protest in and through which to approach dismantling the whiteness of our fields. During our presentation, we incorporated an additional performative gesture by reading out the letters we had received, as opposed to the letters we had written. There was something in that complex layering of my voice reading out Broderick’s letters, and Broderick reading out mine that punctuated the dialectical verve of our dialogue further, while allowing us to vocalise and process the other’s thoughts, experiences and interventions. We are planning to publish the piece for anyone interested in encountering the full exchange. But in this post I want to journey through the sections of our letters that got me to the point to advocate for antiracism in our fields as acts of sabotage to systems and performances of whiteness. 

Through our letters we dwelled on whether being a problem is indeed a problem, that is, ‘a bad thing’. Broderick began with problematising the pejorative associations with ‘being a problem’ and through the course of our letters, we journeyed to the conclusion with me advocating for sabotage to systems of whiteness.  I trace our thinking below through citing key points in our line of thinking:

Letter 2 from Royona to Broderick signalling how PoC are framed as problems within institutions:

‘[Sara] Ahmed has further noted that taking on institutions through complaints work and pointing out problems on the grounds of social justice invariably positions us undertaking this work as the problems.’.

Letter 3 from Broderick to Royona claiming back the word problem:

‘But is being a problem such a bad thing? Maybe it is, in terms of how decolonization has been smoothed over and gentrified in the academy. When universities use the term “decolonize” today, it is in service of a fantasy that we could ever really remove coloniality. Decolonizing sounds too much like de-scaling to me—you descale your shower every two weeks, but it keeps coming back. I wonder if decolonizing evacuates the political from coloniality, the political project of assertion of your self-hood and interests against those who want to deny you these, a political project that is fundamentally antagonistic. Perhaps this is why I prefer “anti-colonialism” as a term, because it still holds that the process is one of contestation. Is this anti-colonial work then? Not to point out problems, or what’s “problematic”, but to be a problem?’

‘At the start of this letter I used the term problem interchangeably with obstacle. But they are very different. An obstacle resists the volition of another. But a problem reshapes the world around it to accommodate its own desires, if only to make that transformation for herself.’

Letter 4 from Royona to Broderick on problems as blockages that stall systems:

‘So I hope that in our call for overcoming the stuckness that grips us scholars of colour through more movement, we can consider the resistive power in stillness. Could we also imagine stillnesses as proactive blockages that stop whiteness from functioning as a system? In this perhaps I want to invert Sara Ahmed’s evocation of social justice workers as plumbers who locate and ease blockages in systems. What if we are not plumbers but indeed the blockages themselves?’

‘To be still in this mode then might mean to stay put, to claim, to own, to create blocks, to become obstacles, to cause spanners, to take up space, to become the problem as you say.’

Letter 5 from Broderick to Royona on problematising / complicating ‘making space’ on white terms :

‘Making space, turned around: how is space made? Not just space, but what Henri Lefebvre called the production of space, the consideration of space in all its dialectical relations: ideological, architectural, lived and embodied. What forces, for example, lead the British university to decide there is only room for six things a year, and only three years? (I can hazard a guess). What forces produce our endless movement as academics—our international travel to places like UCLA, to Hawaii, our productivity, our disseminations of ideas across the world—while still limiting our potentiality?’

Letter 6 from Royona to Broderick on antiracism as sabotage to white systems:

‘Might […] sabotage include the mere presence of black people and people of colour, within the relational context of the white academy? Might we be able to extend recent Cambridge University graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi’s provocation, that for black bodies to exist within white institutions is in itself an act of resistance, in order to reimagine black people and people of colour in the academy as saboteurs? To resist is to object to the operation of a system. But to sabotage is to disable it.’

‘In her article ‘Dramaturgy and Sabotage’ Arabella Stanger reminds us that dramaturgy is a set of relational acts and that ‘sabotage resides […] in acts that disrupt production or slow it down’.  She argues for dramaturgy as a potential act of sabotage that upends artistic power asymmetries by ‘transforming the relational capacity of those involved’. Following this line of thinking, I am pondering whether, within the relational nexus of the white academy, might you and I and scholars of colour carrying out antiracist and anticolonial work, function as saboteurs practising disruptive dramaturgies to dismantle the performance of whiteness?’

‘In refusing to move on the terms of coloniality, in rejecting smoothening over dialectics in favour of civility, in dwelling in tense stillnesses, and in ‘taking up space’,  I end then on the potentialities of antiracist and anticolonial thinking and doing as a dramaturgical sabotage to systems of whiteness.’

What then can sabotaging the whiteness of contemporary dance and dance studies look like? How might us artists and scholars of colour reimagine ourselves as saboteurs in these fields?

anti-racist contemporary dance: a conversation (Tuesday 3 December 2019)

With Alexandrina Hemsley, Rob Jones, Seeta Patel and Rajni Shah, facilitated by Royona Mitra. The panel will discuss the structural racisms and racist silencing that operate in the contemporary dance sector. By centring anti-racist and decolonial works by dance artists and programmers of colour, the discussion will reflect on coalitional strategies for moving against and beyond the forms of racial violence and erasure that shape our field.

Independent Dance, Tuesday 3 December 2019; 7pm to 8:30pm.

Siobhan Davies Studios
85 St. George’s Road
Elephant & Castle
London SE1 6ER

the tools of a racist patriarchy

‘What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable’… ‘For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own games, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.’

— Audrey Lorde 2007: 110–112: Comments at Second Sex Conference, New York, September 29, 1979. Cited in Mirza, H.S., 2018. Racism in Higher Education: ‘What Then, Can Be Done?’, in: Arday, J., Mirza, H.S. (Eds.), Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. Palgrave MacMillan, London, pp. 3–23 (this quotation p.3)

white privilege and black deprivation

White privileges are the relative advantages racism affords to people identified as white, whether white people recognize them or deny them. To be white is to be afforded one’s individuality. Afforded the presumption of innocence. Afforded the assumption of intelligence. Afforded empathy when crying or raging. Afforded disproportionate amounts of policy-making power. Afforded opportunity from a white network.

The inverse of white privilege is black deprivation.

– Ibram X. Kendi

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/10/too-short-lives-black-men/600628/

skin in the game

This Thursday 28 November 2019 at Z-Arts in Manchester:

SKIN in the Game is a bringing together of a representative cohort of artists, journalists and researchers of colour from across the UK. It offers a platform to thinking and discussion around ghettoisation, radical constitutions, anti-racist work, representation and leadership both within Live Art and in culture. It is an open space for discursive honesty. 

http://www.liveartuk.org/blog/skin-in-the-game

Giving Up Space / Taking Up Space

Over the last few years I have spoken widely with colleagues and students about ‘making space’ for perspectives, peoples, epistemologies and practices that both academia and contemporary dance world have historically ignored. I have advocated for people in dominant positions to ‘make space’ for marginalised narratives and practices to actively decentre our disciplines. ‘Making space’, I have said, is about recognising that space is finite, that occupation of space is power and that the production of space is a political act. Working on this anti-racist contemporary dance project over the last six months, and through conversations with my colleague Broderick Chow at Brunel University London while writing our joint presentation for UCLA earlier this month (The UCLA Letters: On Dismantling Whiteness in the Academy), however has led me to think in more nuanced ways.

Making space relies, naively, on our white institutions, colleagues and peers to take on the task of producing space while we wait. In reality though they are likely to ignore, even blame, the finiteness of space itself by foregoing nothing (or very little) of their own, while squeezing in some cursory references to other knowledge-systems in trite and tick-box ways. Within university curricula, space-making manifests in optional modules for hitherto marginalised practices, while dominant narratives retain core slots. Within the dance industry the diversity agenda abounds as ways of making space, fraught with Orientalisms and power asymmetries. Nothing changes. We continue to wait.

Making space has no purpose and certainly no bite if nothing gives on the part of the status quo. Things have to go. Content has to be displaced. People have to be replaced. Perspectives have to be erased. Making space has to be fundamentally and necessarily about ‘giving up space’ on part of our white colleagues. But, more importantly, making space on the part of us people of colour, has to also simultaneously be about sabotaging processes by which (white) spaces are and have been historically produced, such that we can start ‘taking up space’ (Kwakye and Ogunbiyi; 2019) and upending power.

Anti-Racist work in dance studies and the contemporary dance field has to be about redistribution of this power from those who are in current possession of it. On our own terms.

from the classroom

This blog has been quiet for a few weeks. One of the reasons for our radio silence is the somehow-always-a-surprise lack of time ushered in by the intensity of the university teaching term.

There’s an upside to this intensity: the great pleasure of being in sustained, weekly dialogue about challenging ideas with undergraduate students, groups of people who are mostly in their late teens and early twenties, and who (in our case as dance and performance university lecturers) are making art, reading about art, talking about art and its place in the world. Being part of these dialogues is where the job of being an academic is its most challenging, invigorating, and world-shaking. It’s in these classroom discussions that I usually learn the most.

Over the past few months, one group of students and I have been having a kind of on again / off again conversation about all the ‘NOes’ in Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto (1965).

(Read the manifesto, in its 2008 revisited form, in an interview with Rainer here.)

In the context of a tangled conversation about the politics of saying ‘yes’ or saying ‘no’ to things as an artist, one of the students proposed the following neat idea: “you have to have already been awarded many ‘YESses’ in your life, for your ‘NOes’ to get listened to“. (Let me know if you’d like to cite this particular comment and I’ll ask the author/speaker in question for her permission and if she would like to share her name.) This student was inspired to formulate that thought especially by having read passages of Miguel Gutierrez’s brilliant article ‘Does Abstraction Belong to White People’ (2018). I’ll share a brief part of that article here, in partnership with the YEses/NOes insight, as a kind of a dispatch from the classroom:

Who has the right not to explain themselves? The people who don’t have to. The ones whose subjectivities have been naturalized. It enrages me. No, it confuses me. I’m all for being confused, for searching, for having to do a bit of work. But the absence of explanation is somehow … somehow … somehow what? 

— Gutierrez, Miguel. ‘Does Abstraction Belong to White People?’, Bomb Magazine. 2018. https://bombmagazine.org/articles/miguel-gutierrez-1

hopelessness-hope

I spent a long time yesterday reading and re-reading a text shared by choreographer and dancer Malik Nashad Sharpe on their webpage. They write about (their) dance as a practice that slides across the place where hope has been foreclosed but where possible futures still appear. That radical slide between hopelessness and possibility is at play also in Saidiya Hartman’s new book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), a work about intimate acts of rebellion performed by young black women in U.S. cities at the turn of the twentieth century.

I wondered what it would be like to read back-and-forth between these two texts. Here…

dance is a belief system and choreography is space. these things do not make dreams come true but they are where dreams are made into material texture. performance is fodder for hope and the positing of something else. in defense of marginal and radial practices, choreography that is coy and dysfunctional, a moment where things are not always what they seem. dancing and making it mean something to me, asking something of it. asking it to give me a future if only fleetingly. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Wayward, related to the family of words: errant, fugitive, recalcitrant, anarchic, willful, reckless, troublesome, riotous, tumultuous, rebellious and wild. To inhabit the world in ways inimical to those deemed proper and respectable, to be deeply aware of the gulf between where you stayed and how you might live. (Saidiya Hartman, 227)

i’m favouring the complex, the tug and spiral, the working with what is known now and before hierarchies of importance were forged under the influence of others. working with being a faggot, not woman not man, unruly. ordered differently. against an unspoken genocide. working where things are built and fallen, trying to build and falling. giving rise to another possibility, again. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed. It obeys no rules and abides no authorities. It is unrepentant. It traffics in occult visions of other worlds and dreams of a different kind of life. Waywardness is an ongoing exploration of what might be; it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, when there is little room to breathe, when you have been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms in whatever direction you move. It is the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive. (Saidiya Hartman, 228)

willing futurity, the body as a repository for memory. desire. the history lessons that refused to be learnt. Imagination. possibility. maintenance. relief. there is an assumption that those make us powerless and i don’t believe that. do you know what its like to not be made human? i will ensure subjectivity and remake it again and again. that is all. (Malik Nashad Sharpe)

Malik Nashad Sharpe (2019) http://maliknashadsharpe.com/about

Saidiya V. Hartman (2019) Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval