Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Aviary

A treat for you today everyone! Back in October I choreographed an installation with a wonderful group of dancers. Here are some of the highlights of that evening.

Music: Music: Zoe Keating, BBC Sounds of Spring, David Attenborough Paradise Birds. Mix by Fenella Kennedy.
Dancers: Emma Acheson, Marissa Ajamian, Anthony Milian, Paige St. John, Marissa Thomas

The Aviary is intended to be a long installation, and was limited in this performance by both space and time. This film shows the most theatrical end of the spectrum that the choreography could occupy, while in my head this piece lives outdoors in a zoo-like structure and takes about an hour. The improvisation scores used in this performance are based on instructions from ballet classes, and things you can do with pointe shoes. I encourage you when you watch to consider the alien, feathered dinosaurs that are both birds and ballet dancers.

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Is Free Speech Created Equal?

Today was the third time this year that anti-abortion protesters have been invited to host demonstrations in my university. This may seem an unlikely subject for a dance blog, and for those of you who want to skip this post we will be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon, I promise. But this blog is my professional platform, and the university is my professional home; my colleagues, and my students are being affected. As a dancer I deal with bodies, and there are (as one of my professors would put it) “bodies on the line.”

The group in question is Created Equal, an organisation that sends protestors, literature, graphic displays and giant TV screens to universities and towns across the United States. They are not a university group; they are a collection of people dedicated to using shock tactics to spread a nationwide political agenda. The first time I saw them on campus I tried to get them removed by security, only to find that they had full permission to be present, rationalised as “free speech.”

Unfortunately, the terms of free speech do not quite apply here: the university requires external organisations to get permission to use the grounds, which means that somewhere in the administrative chain someone has looked at what this group stands for, decided it seems like a good idea, and offered them university space to continue their work. I believe this also makes the university complicit (at least tacitly) in the tactics used by Created Equal to do that work, which include harassment, invasion of privacy, and causing deep fear and anguish among the student and faculty populations.

I will clarify now: this post is not for me to argue my position on abortion. Instead I want to state my heartfelt objection to the way one particular stance has been promoted in university space, and with university backing.

To begin with, Created Equal’s protests are in the centre of campus grounds, and obstruct the majority of students on their way to and from class, home, and other resources. This means that when walking across campus you have no choice but to see the violent, bloody images on signs and screens, which are a regular feature of these demonstrations. You must pass through a scowling army of volunteers who try and interview you – some of the volunteers are women, some men, and some just teenage boys.

I won’t belabour the nauseous horror induced by that particular gauntlet, but suffice to say that it’s not something anyone should have walk through just to get to class.

Secondly, Created Equal volunteers are all equipped with cameras on body harnesses. I don’t know if these are video or still, but I do know that they record images of students without their consent, and threaten anyone who objects to their presence with a warning that those images will be spread around. A superbly brave collection of students who staged a counter-protest during the first visit, found that exercising their – actual – right to free speech (students may use campus grounds without applying for permission) resulted in harassment from which they were not protected. One student was asked if she would “drown a two year-old,” and said that Created Equal seemed determined to provoke them into an emotional reaction.

It’s also worth noting that Created Equal did not target the university’s own counselling staff, who came down in their own free time when notified of what was going on. Created Equal does not want to engage in debate, or convince others of their position with logic – their primary methods are bullying and intimidation, backed up by a known history of violence towards those who disagree with their stance.

When students first protested the presence of Created Equal on campus, they were promised a number of protections: a warning that Created Equal would be on campus, and privacy corridors for getting to class. Neither of those measures were in place at any of this year’s protests. If the university will not stop this group from coming it should, at the very least, allow students to avoid them.

But why does the university continue to allow them to come? This group deliberately sets out to horrify/intimidate/traumatise students, photographs or films them without permission, and threatens those who try to stand up to them. They spread information that is demonstrably untrue, and have no official representation inside the student body.

My final consideration is that this university has a young population, but nevertheless it is a population who may already have had to make difficult choices about their lives and bodies, or may have to make those choices in future. The goal of an educational establishment should be to serve that population with the best information available for its wellbeing, and the university should therefore be making sure that it promotes the best knowledge available, in an atmosphere where students can think, discuss, and use that knowledge without fear.

I have prioritised logic over feeling in writing this post, because I hope that will help those who do not empathise with my feelings at least understand my argument. Nevertheless I am shocked and appalled at what I had to walk through today. I have deep gratitude for those who have attempted to mitigate the impact of this unwanted incursion into our space. I feel betrayal at how the university is shielding Created Equal behind a tenuous justification of free speech, but turning its back on the students it should be educating and keeping safe.

A Rebuttal

As this post is currently averaging 100 readers an hour, I would like to add that this article represents solely my own views, and not those of TrinityLaban or any other institution.

 

I remember the day I finally lost my temper with “named” company auditions. It was the day I saw this: “Candidates selected for the second round of the audition will be expected to spend the subsequent week in rehearsal with the company, following which a final selection will be made.” Think about that for a minute…. So I can only audition for you if I can take a week off of work without notice? How many dancers do you think that’s actually feasible for? Or rather, what kind of financial support system do you need in place to even go to that kind of audition?

A similarly appalling lack of empathy for the practicalities of the non-celebrity dance world was displayed yesterday, when three major choreographers got together to slam the quality of UK dance training. Hofesh Shechter, Lloyd Newson and Akram Khan publicly announced their ongoing disappointment in the rigour and technique of dancers emerging from England’s three top contemporary dance schools.

But…. Hofesh Shechter isn’t looking for recent graduates…. Neither is Akram Khan. Lloyd Newson would famously prefer you to have a northern accent than for you to have had any kind of dance training whatsoever…. So really, are these the guys we want to be listening to about UK dance education? The guy who, for example, decided that his apprenticeship for graduating students required them to leave their degree two months before completion?

The triumvate compare TrinityLaban, Northern and The Place unfavourably to P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels, as well as to contemporary conservatoires in the United States. What they seem to have forgotten is that this is a comparison of apples and oranges: the MAJOR difference between these UK training schools and those in other countries (especially those stateside)… money. The UK programs are government funded, and you don’t have to pay private tuition fees to get in.

I’ll speak to TrinityLaban, because I was a student there in the past and I teach there now. I got through Laban with no financial support other than a UK government student loan, which covered my tuition, housing and expenses (with the help of a weekend job). While I was going through my degree, they lost nearly three quarters of their government funding. Three quarters. And they’re STILL providing a world-renowned education for nearly 100 students a year. Now, living in the US, I can walk into pretty much any contemporary dance audition I choose on the strength of where I trained. Undergraduates in colleges over here are thrilled to bits to come to Laban as foreign exchange students – and so they should be!

Being a government-funded program means your curriculum must be validated by an external university, which means you have to divide your time in a particular way, and use your money to certain ends. A macrobiotic lunch provided every day – as they do at P.A.R.T.S. – is simply not in the budget. Two dance classes a day, however, with internationally recognized professionals, a substantial theoretical program, movement analysis, opportunities to choreograph and to dance in rep. by Rosemary Butcher, Wayne McGregor, Martha Graham, Richard Alston, Jose Limon and others… that we can do.

And think about who we’re doing it FOR. I argue that the student population at Laban is more diverse than that of all three of those other dance companies combined (ish). They don’t have an age limit. They don’t weigh you. They don’t require you to have had a particular kind of private training. In fact if the big three got anything right it’s the fact that early dance education in the UK is patchy, and poorly funded. But we’re taking in students from community dance programs, BTECHs, hip-hop, after school ballet… and turning out internationally successful artists.

Because we are turning out internationally successful artists. Maybe not the kind who go to one company, and are one kind of dancer for the rest of their careers, because in the contemporary financial climate that kind of career is simply not an option for the vast number of recent graduates, and to train only for that kind of platform would be an exercise in futility. There are not enough companies available who have the funding and jobs for the number of dancers graduating each year, and pretending otherwise is to fail as educators.

But our graduates are in those companies. And they’re independently funded choreographers. And they’re photographers. Teachers. Therapists. Physical Therapists. Company Mangers. And again and again and again they’re dancers. The kind of dancers they want to be.

Take me, for example. By the end of my first year out of Laban, I was paying my rent and bills from freelance dance work. I was a qualified Labanotator, so I could (and did) restage repertoire for other companies. I was a university lecturer in dance by the time I was 23. I’ve presented at international conferences and been paid to dance in more countries than I have fingers. This is the success that TrinityLaban trained me for.

I’m angry with what was said about dance training yesterday. Not least because I have to introduce my students to the work of those choreographers. And one quick google will teach them that they’re not wanted. That they’re not good enough. That three big names with no investment in the higher education system have decided in a blanket statement that the UK is doing it wrong. Is dance really only for the rich kids, who can afford to pay for private schools and leave without a degree?

Perhaps before we listen too seriously, we can pay attention to the teachers, educators, and leaders of dance education who can give a more rational perspective on the matter. Who have consistently demonstrated a commitment to the employability and success of UK dance graduates. What about letting the students have a voice in talking about what they need?

Because when choreographers this important think it’s ok to pull a stunt like this… things need to change.

 

 

 

Edit: I have been asked to clarify that this post was not intended at a critique of P.A.R.T.S., which also produces phenomenal dancers, and makes every effort to award scholarships.