Thursday, 20 October 2016

dancing through the gloom

I'm writing this in recovery from falling off my bike, a spectacular vault across the handlebars that has left me with a split eyebrow, a swollen cheekbone, a bruised lip and grazed knee: looking, that is, how I've been feeling for weeks, beaten-up and blue. Work – commissioned, paid work – dried up some time in June, apart from a single precious long-term project (bless you, Unfolding Theatre) whose deadline isn't until February. [Correction added later: there was also this piece for the Orange Tree, a brief flashback to journalism days; and of course the week at the Edinburgh festival with The Sick of the Fringe. Apologies to both for forgetting.] And while I could have spent the beginning of the school year wisely, seizing the opportunity to stretch out as a writer, or return to abandoned pursuits, or clear some of the Chris Goode & Company backlog, or overhaul my web presence to accentuate my brand (puke), what I've actually done is spiral down into a salt-stained gloom. A sense of failure is dismally self-fulfilling: you think you're not good enough, so you don't even try, which proves you're not good enough, for anything. And the problem runs deeper than self-pity (in which I've been triumphant: no failure there): once again I'm suffocated by a sense of pointlessness. I've fought the urge to dump this in the bin with every word. And no, I don't know why I say any of this in public, except that other people's accounts of anxiety and self-loathing help me, often, and I saw Jamal Gerald perform FADoubleGOT this week and was touched by the invitation with which he begins: this is me telling my truth, and I hope it encourages you to tell yours.

So here is something true: magic Megan Vaughan getting a job at the Live Art Development Agency earlier this year gave me the courage, for the first time since attempting to shift how I write about theatre, to apply to take part in the Agency's DIY programme. I participated in two: the first left me a wreck; the second, unprofessional class, run by dancers Jamila Johnson-Small and Mira Kautto as their collaboration immigrants and animals, might prove the beginning of rehabilitation. Ordinarily I'd never have applied for a dance workshop – I've never been to any dance classes, and amid the panoply of failures it's a source of particular shame that every one of the dances I've choreographed for the Actionettes has been performed by the others under a kind of duress and quickly forgotten – but there was something about Jamila and Mira's invitation that told me this would be OK. “we want to share our practice which is basically fucking about for ages in a room, getting tired and calling it work. we think that dancing on a stage need not look different to dancing in a club, kitchen or bus stop”, all of which are things I do; “some dancing that is a gleeful waste of time, a resistance to capitalism and the development of cultural capital (or capital of any kind) or function or product; non-practical bodies dancing towards no particular purpose or end”, all of which I believe in profoundly.

There were five workshops and I was invited to two (not, sadly, the one that took place in the pre-Raphaelite room at Tate Britain where they danced to Kate Bush). In my first, Mira and Jamila shared the tasks and music that form the basis of their show Pony, and invited each of us to interpret them for ourselves; we ran through them once for practice, and then performed for each other in two groups, which might have been excruciating (the performance-for-critique aspect being what broke me in the other DIY), except that Mira and Jamila held the space so generously: there were no wrong answers, wrong movements, wrong versions, only ways of moving, each as radiant in possibility as the other. For the second, they invited us to dress in “formal attire, whatever that means for you”, and serenaded us with cheesy pop – the kind of songs played at a wedding or adolescent disco – with barely any instruction for how we might respond to them. That they didn't know the words a lot of the time, that their voices quavered on the high notes, that they giggled at themselves and the struggle of the song, all contributed to the atmosphere of permission. Did I pick up any new techniques or moves? No. Did I manage to slough off self-consciousness for a couple of hours? Absolutely, and that is precious – the more so because each room held a performer I look to with awe, Gillie Kleiman in the first, Laura Dannequin the second. When Gillie told me that she'd enjoyed dancing with me, I brushed it off, told her I'd just been doing nonsense; but inside I was so grateful, to her and to the opportunity, not only to think through dance but to remember that the hierarchies of art that feel so real are just another social construct designed to oppress and harm.

Here's something else true: when I watched Jerome Bel's Gala at Sadler's Wells, it felt like a continuation of unprofessional class, not just because I could imagine myself part of it but because Mira and Jamila could so easily have shaped that performance and stepped up to that stage. I arrived there a mess, limbs aching, blood seeping through the skin splints holding my eyebrow together, but I had an inkling that being there would make at least my insides better and it did. Gala is glorious. There's an acid-bath article about it on the New York site Culturebot by dancer/thinker Lily Kind that dismisses it as “cliche, gimmicky, dull, cowardly, and exploitative … presenting bodies traditionally underrepresented in dance and theater [but] presenting them as interchangeable, as check boxes for their particular brand of otherness instead of as their actual, unique, individual selves”. And there's a less furious but equally critical comment elsewhere by another American dancer, Gregory Holt, which describes it as “reactionary rather than transformative”, adding:

Bel created a sentimental mirror that affirmed our desire to be open to diversity without challenging the basis of access to the festival space, funding space, cosmopolitan art space he is working in. In this way, he narrowly exploited ‘diversity’ to cement his own cis-white-male voice without sharing in the political and artistic risks facing marginalized artists who are also trying to show their dances.

All of which I appreciate (it is, after all, Bel and not immigrants and animals behind this work), without emotionally agreeing. Such joy suffused me in the room that I spent half the show crying, helplessly, snottily, partly as a release (of the pain of the fall, of the pointlessness of being alive), but mostly at the ineffable beauty of humanity, the ways in which limbs can move, awkward yet proud. A joy so serious that the laughter in the room unsettled me, especially that directed at anyone whose gender expression wasn't binary; too often it sounded like the clanging, judgemental, ugly laughter of enforced marginalisation.

Admittedly it took me a while to warm to Gala: the opening slide show of differently shaped theatres and stages just bored me, as did the exhibition of ballet pirouettes and jetes. The switch came with the three-minute collective solo improvisation in silence; because this was the flashback to unprofessional class, and because within the muddle it was possible to see the dancers as individuals, each with their own quirks. This is what I loved about Gala: the ways in which it underlined the point that “dancing on a stage need not look different to dancing in a club, kitchen or bus stop”. In this it reminded me of another beloved work, Krissi Musiol's long-term project The Dance Collector, in which she visits public spaces – cafes, whenever I've encountered it – and chats to anyone she encounters there, asking them to give her a dance move which she can incorporate into a bigger choreography of place, to be performed in the same room a couple of hours later. Some people gift her stories of meeting their spouses in a dance hall in their youth, but far more give her the instant response, “oh no, I don't dance, I don't have anything”, and it's only through kind and patient conversation that Krissi will discover the movement they can give her, whether it's the dance of the football terraces when a goal is scored, the dance of wringing out the dishcloth when the kitchen is tidied, or the dance of reaching for an item on a high shelf in the supermarket.

I guess I trusted Gala in a way those American writers didn't; trusted that it gave its dancers the same freedoms – not just of movement but from criticism – that Jamila and Mira gave me. I trusted that the Company/Company section, in which one individual after another steps forward and leads the group in a dance of their own devising, really did feature solos of individual and idiosyncratic devising, from people who are specialists in their own way. I saw a specialist in being a little girl, tossing your long blonde hair around to Miley Cyrus; a specialist in adapting the movements of breakdancing to a body twisted by cerebral palsy; a specialist in juddering hands to the beats of techno; a specialist in – possibly my favourite – effervescent hula hooping. (That last performer, a black woman with amazing candy-pink braids, reminded me so much of Hot Brown Honey, the ways in which they are clearly virtuosic but wear that talent so lightly, at the same time scouring off cliches of beauty to present a more complicated feminine identity.) Behind each of these specialists, the rest of the group followed their leader with total commitment, no matter what flailing and floundering it produced. What Gala celebrates is unprofessionalism – or, as another writer online so insightfully put it, the true meaning of amateur, its etymology in the French and Latin for lover.

I love dancing, but I'd never call myself a dancer. I love painting but I've never let myself be a painter. I had a love-hate relationship with playing guitar that petered out and still aches with the pain of unrequitement; I love singing but rarely sing in public, only if I feel camouflaged. Introducing myself to a group of strangers recently, I noted aloud that I write, but always use the verb to describe that: not until I've published something of imaginative scope, of actual invention, of worth in the world, and ideally not as a vanity project but as sanctioned by a third party, could I call myself a writer. So much of my innate sense of failure lives in this lack of professionalism. Politically, I am part of the chorus fighting against this: the blog I kept as part of Fuel's New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project articulated a lot of that, and I read the most recent blog post on the 64 Million Artists site murmuring over and over, true, true, true. Jo Hunter (I'm assuming it's her) writes:

There is creativity happening everywhere in the UK. Yes there is inequality and poverty in this country when we use the measures of money or formal cultural provision. But there is richness too, in every place – musicians and writers and dreamers and cake bakers. So let’s start by celebrating what’s already there rather than panicking about what’s not. Let’s champion the brass bands and the grime artists and the felters and the am dram and the pumpkin carvers, alongside the professionals and the existing infrastructure.

I can cheer these things in other people. It's what I'm loving so much about the project I'm doing with Unfolding: that, too, is a celebration of unprofessionalism, of playing music “as a gleeful waste of time... towards no particular purpose or end”. I just can't find a way to celebrate or even accept them in myself. My salve this week has been to wonder if anyone can, whether the affirmation that makes it possible for others to work as artists comes not from within but without: from the partners they collaborate with, the community that surrounds them, the organisations that say yes, we want to work with you. In some ways I have those things, but four straight months of no commissioned paid work can very much make it feel otherwise. In that absence, it has been altogether too easy to turn inwards, to pummel myself from within. I've been telling myself since I was a teenager that I don't have anything perceptive to say about the human condition; two decades later that truth is so solid within me it's unbreakable. (Writing about theatre is the only way I've found to evade that, because it's the makers being perceptive, not me, but even that isn't working any more.) And as I mop up the orange gunge oozing from my knee, I wish I could as easily cure the infection in my soul.

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