Dance must fall

Last month, our colleague and friend Sita Balani wrote about her experiences of attending Literature Must Fall, a literary festival held in Birmingham on 28 September 2019. Aimed not at celebrating literature but ‘challenging it head-on’, the festival as Balani describes it has me dreaming about similar gatherings in the field of contemporary dance.

Balani writes:

I took the train to Birmingham for Literature Must Fall, [small in scale] but conceptually ambitious, aiming to dismantle literature rather than hold it up for admiration. […] As co-founder Imandeep Kaur wryly explained, they just get on with doing things, like providing childcare and prayer space, that other people like to theorise about but rarely put into practice.

[…]

The festival itself was unlike any mainstream literary event I’ve ever encountered. There was little distinction between speaker and audience, and the majority of participants were women of colour. Looking at the programme, it seemed to be for people who were critical about the white publishing industry, but just as skeptical about the diversity initiatives that sought to include us. If the implicit rationale of most literature festival turns on the civilizing potential of art, Literature Must Fall asked how writing could help to bring down what passes for civilization. The conversations were expansive and ballsy. There was no grandstanding, no celebrity-worship. Some of the familiar tropes got an airing (the white gaze, exoticisation etc) but even these ideas were given new life in an atmosphere that allowed for genuine disagreement without rancor.

[…]

The day pushed back on the identity talk that characterises much of the diversity discourse, including its intersectional offshoots. Instead, people hunted for new paradigms and thought collectively about the limitations of postcolonial theory, confessional literature, folk stories, narrating our experiences, trauma, and the written word itself.

Sita Balani, ‘Gather’, 26 September 2019, https://medium.com/@balani.sita/gather-cf2c825ac022

Two questions are on my mind:

1. Where in our daily work as artists, producers, scholars, workers in the field of contemporary dance could we take more chances to dismantle dance rather than hold it up for admiration?

2. What kind of festival formats are necessary for swerving the moribund work of diversity initiatives but instead creating the conditions for people to reflect collectively on the limitations of dance as a mode of anti-racist action but also to ask: ‘how dance could help bring down what passes for civilisation’?

two places at once

Another extract from some writing (this time by Vron Ware and Les Back) disguised as a blog post:

Putting his finger directly on the erratic pulse of “white writing,” [Mike Hill] continues: “the presence of whiteness alas within our critical reach creates a certain inevitable awkwardness of distance. Whiteness becomes something we both claim (single out for critique) and avoid (in claiming whiteness for critique, what else can we be, if we happen to be identifiably white?).”

Hill suggests that this conflict, characterized by “the epistemological stickiness and ontological wiggling immanent in whiteness,” might be called a second wave of white critique. By this satisfyingly graphic formulation I think he is trying to represent the problem that many designated “white” writers confess to in their own work: their motivation stems partly from a recognition that their “whiteness” ties them historically into a system of race privilege from which it is hard to escape, but by providing a critique of whiteness, they begin to situate themselves outside that system. Does this mean that they are in two places at once?

— Vron Ware & Les Back, 2002. Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.29

enlightenment and division

A number of Enlightenment thinkers, including influential German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, defined humanity without really having much of an idea how most of humanity lived or what it looked like. “A universal understanding of human origins was actually created at the time by white men in Europe who only had indirect access to information about other people in the world through the lens of colonialism,” explains Porr. So when they went out into the real world and encountered people who didn’t look like them, who lived in ways they didn’t choose to live, the first question they were forced to ask themselves was: Are they the same as us? The problem was that, because of the narrow parameters they established of what constituted a human being, setting themselves as the benchmark, other cultures were almost guaranteed not to fit. In universalizing humanity by seeing themselves as the paradigm, they had laid the foundations for dividing it.

– Angela Saini. Superior: The Return of Race Science

stepping aside

I trained as a dancer in Melbourne in a conservatoire called the Victorian College of the Arts. The studios at the VCA are huge, and a key part of learning to be a dancer in those spaces was how to take up that space, how to consume that space. We were encouraged to ‘dance big’ and to develop the strength in our legs to fill these spaces; perhaps even to ‘own’ the space.

Part of my identity as a dancer is about taking up space.

Part of my role and work as a white person in anti-racist practices is making space, or more accurately giving up space, for people of colour.

Royona sent Arabella and me an article the other day called Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People. The author, Kelsey Blackwell, writes that “I believe that in most circumstances, doing race work in an integrated setting is harmful.” She demands that “white people step aside to support spaces in which PoC members of the community are invited to feel, to be, and to touch our humanity on our terms, in a way that feels not like colonization but like coming home.”

Stepping aside. It’s a different kind of dancing, but it’s a dance I am practising.

Accomplices, not allies

Royona, Simon and I talk often about ally-ship. That issue’s been on my mind a lot lately and especially since Royona’s blog post – ‘Anti-Racist Research’ – on 25 August. In this post, she wrote:

Anti-Racism research teams should take care to ensure they are comprised of more than one person of colour (PoC) when working with white collaborators. The burden I have felt as the only PoC on this project, and how this burden has at times debilitated me from actually moving forward with the work, is difficult to put into words.

As Royona’s collaborator and also her friend, I felt a tight feeling in my chest when I read these words. Her burden was something we had spoken slowly and haltingly about through our work together, in team meetings and in private conversations. And I think my chest’s tight feeling came from my knowing that I couldn’t fathom this burden my friend was carrying until she told me about it – and even then only barely. (Not to mention that the act of telling, and having to tell all the time, is a heavy burden itself.)

In this kind of work done by people of colour and white people together, I’m learning that being an ally, someone who offers solidarity and support and who has their friend’s back, is not enough.

Accomplices, not allies, is the message delivered in a call to arms published in 2014 by Indigenous Action Media. I cite from this text below and then follow up with some questions for those who wonder about white allies in contemporary dance.

ac.com.plice

1. a person who helps another commit a crime

The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different from that of an accomplice. When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation, we are accomplices. […]

Understand that it is not our responsibility to hold your hand through a process to be an accomplice. […]

Accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs, they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism.  […]

Don’t wait around for anyone to proclaim you to be an accomplice, you certainly cannot proclaim it yourself. You just are or you are not. The lines of oppression are already drawn. 

Direct action is really the best and may be the only way to learn what it is to be an accomplice. We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence.

— Indigenous Action Media, ‘Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex’, Version 2 – (2014), http://www.indigenousaction.org/accomplices-not-allies-abolishing-the-ally-industrial-complex/

Some questions for contemporary dance:

If an accomplice in anti-racist struggle is a white person who helps people of colour commit crimes so they can survive and transform the racist spaces they’re forced to live in, then what do we do about contemporary dance as one of those racist spaces? Some more pointed questions below.

  1. what kinds of actions and attitudes have been ‘criminalised’ by the white liberal cultures of contemporary dance?
  2. which of these actions and attitudes are ‘criminalised’ implicitly so as to fortify white dominance in the field?
  3. what work have people of colour been doing that transgresses contemporary dance’s laws of operation, that agitates the field’s whiteness?
  4. how can white people be accomplice to those transgressions and agitations, even and especially if they are vilified or punished as a result? (the latter because people of colour are subject to punishment for such transgressions but cannot exist in the context of whiteness without transgressing, and so white people cannot hesitate at those same risks without operating on a double standard. “We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence.”)
  5. how can, and how should the transgression of contemporary dance’s racist (soft) laws work in alliance with the transgression of the racist (hard) laws that legitimise state violence in the UK? The crimes to which Indigenous Action Media refer when they write about decolonial struggle are defined as such by white settler/white supremacist legislation and policed by the very real consequences of the criminal justice system.
  6. how can we white people who work in the field of contemporary dance act as accomplices to those who confront and face the consequences of racist criminalisation? Here are some places to start when looking for answers in the British context…

Migrants in Culture

AAA Radio Live: A Series of Uncomfortable Conversations #4 Art and Activism

performing borders

race and violence

There was a long read in the Guardian recently about fear of migrants in the West: theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/aug/27/immigration-panic-how-the-west-fell-for-manufactured-rage. It got me thinking about anti-black violence more generally and the systems in place for stoking and building this violence. Here’s an extract about Facebook’s role in anti-refugee/black violence:

But the greatest facilitator of race-hatred against refugees isn’t a tabloid; it’s Facebook. Researchers at the University of Warwick recently studied every anti-refugee attack – 3,335, over two years – in Germany. They found that among the strongest predictors of the attacks was whether the attackers are on Facebook. The social network aids the dissemination of rumours, such as that all refugees are welfare cheats or rapists; and, unmediated by gatekeepers or editors, the rumours spread, and ordinary people are roused to violence. Wherever Facebook usage rose to one standard deviation above normal, the researchers found, attacks on refugees increased by 50%. When there were internet outages in areas with high Facebook usage, the attacks dropped significantly.

Obviously this doesn’t directly relate to the way racism functions in contemporary dance, but how our thinking and imaginations are infiltrated by media is profoundly related to the construction of our individual and collective identities in whatever groups or “tribes” we work in and for.

Anti-Racist Research

In How to be an Anti-Racist Ibram X. Kendi puts forward five tips to become an anti-racist: 1) acknowledge your own racism; 2) confess your racist ideas; 3) define racism and anti-racism ; 4) identify racist systems; and finally 5) work to change racist systems.

When we designed this research project for our grant application, we really did not think through the implications, in embodied terms, of what we were taking on. We did not think through the extent to which every aspect of our proposed research methods are tied into colonial / racist power asymmetries. We saw ourselves as anti-racist, but did not acknowledge to what extent our scholarly and artistic practices perpetuate the systems we are critiquing. We did not think through the implications of centring whiteness within a project that commits itself to anti-racist work. We did not consider that, in fact, it is contemporary dance’s anti-blackness that we should have signalled more forcefully through our project title.

Now, half-way through our project, we are encountering all kinds of resistances from within and without that we have been digging deeper to learn from. Here are some of the thinking that has been occupying my thoughts lately:

  1. Anti-Racism research teams should take care to ensure they are comprised of more than one person of colour (PoC) when working with white collaborators. The burden I have felt as the only PoC on this project, and how this burden has at times debilitated me from actually moving forward with the work, is difficult to put into words.
  2. The requirements of research grants by way of acceptable modes of dissemination, research methods etc are fundamentally bound up in colonial modalities and structurally racist mechanisms. Doing anti-racist work through racist research mechanisms is counter-productive. We urgently need to re-invent our own tools.
  3. Contemporary dance in the UK is a dance of white fragility. An industry and a sector that attempts to address its exclusionary guilt by purporting to diversity and inclusion, without addressing the structural racism that is foundational to its operations. Including artists of colour into a sector that is defined by white ideologies does not address its inherent racism. It masks it by wielding its power through a performance of fragility
  4. Addressing racism in the dance sector is intrinsically linked to addressing racism in the dance academy. One feeds and upholds the other in a permanent sealed dance of white power. Our project has not even scratched the surface of the role of dance studies and university/conservatoire based dance training in perpetuating racism in the dance sector.

Despite challenging circumstances, our collaborative research dynamic continues to be generative, caring and brutally honest. This is truly meaningful because, despite the very different stakes the three of us have in the project, what remains constant is our commitment to learning, relearning and unlearning together.

“Difference Must Not Merely be Tolerated” – Audre Lorde

In her essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House’ Audre Lorde writes:

“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must not merely be tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. “

Lorde’s words are equally applicable to contemporary dance at large. If the contemporary dance industry merely tolerates difference through the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, what it fails to do is to fundamentally acknowledge difference as necessary for creativity to thrive in, through and as a process of dialectic.

What then does contemporary dance as a field of practice find threatening about the potential of interdependency between points of differences?

Is it the threat of such interdependency that maintains the anti-blackness of contemporary dance?

How will universities, organisations and conservertoires invested in dance training move from the rhetoric of tolerance that keeps such anti-blackness in place to actively investing in creative training that rests on dialectic between different realities and perspectives ?

a person of principle and conviction

I’ve been driving people mad recently by constantly sharing ideas from a book called Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen — a book first suggested to me by Colin Poole many years ago. There’s a lot in the book about what lies beneath all of our conversations, but these can be summarised by what the authors describe as three different conversations: 1) the ‘what happened’ conversation about interpretation: “difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values … They are not about what is true, they are about what is important” (p.10); 2) the ‘feeling’ conversation to do with how each of us feels about what is being discussed: “difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings” (p.13); and 3) the ‘identity’ conversation to do with who we are and how we see ourselves.

When I think about talking about race I think about difficult conversations — about values, feelings and identities.

Towards the end of the book the authors ask us to consider how we see others with differing opinions about things that are important to us:

Consider this assertion: The more passionate we are about the issues that matter most to us, the more likely we are to have a cartoonish view of those who see things differently. That statement may infuriate you. You may find yourself chafing against such a ridiculous generalization. But flip it around: When others think your view is self-interested or shallow, base, and maybe even evil, do you think they see you clearly? Is what they’ve heard and read an accurate portrayal of what you see and feel? No. They’ve turned you into a cartoon they can dismiss without having to confront the fact that you care as much as they do, that you are a person of principle and conviction, that you’re working hard to do what’s right in the face of the very same human limitations and frailties we all confront.
And they are too.

— Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S., 2003. Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss what Matters Most. Penguin Books, New York, pp.243-44

the action of language

Toni Morrison died last Monday. She once described the english language as “at once rich and deeply racist”. She also discussed the way language acts more than just represents in her Nobel Lecture after she won The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993:

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.

We in academia have a responsibility to understand the work and actions of the language we are using, and to wield it in a way that does more than represent ideas.

Update 13 August 2019:

A reader suggested that “you guys should say on your blog that one really has to read/ listen to the whole thing to really get it. It offers so much to think about.”

So, here I am suggesting that you read/listen to the whole thing.