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By independent means
Animated, Summer 1998. Ana Sanchez-Colberg reflects on the challenges that the current cultural climate poses to the working artist - choreographer... thoughts which as a non-British national, resident and working from London have been crucial determinants of her artistic creation for more than ten years
I am aware of my own biases and prejudices. But perhaps, this in itself is relevant to the question at hand - the issue of an artist's and or choreographer's necessity to adopt unconventional approaches and methodologies in the context of current working practices. In considering the question I see it is subdivided into several issues, separate but interrelated. I will begin by defining unconventional approaches not as a creative concern dealing with artistic form but as the way in which some artists weigh and measure structures and circumstances (resources, energies, materials, politics, etc.) affecting their practice and proceed to adopt a position vis-a-vis these. This in turn defines the context in which their work will be placed. It is in fact, the position adopted with regards to that huge yet amorphous network of operations and politics termed 'the Establishment'. 'Cultural climate' I will interpret as that prevailing 'zeitgeist' which attempts to define and identify the historical present as singular and homogeneous. There is a strong link between notions of Establishment and a 'current climate' - one creates the other. I would propose that 'current climate' is usually descriptive of the aims and agenda of a domi-nant culture from amongst the multiple cul-tural practices within a given society.

From where I dance today, I see the current climate comprising a series of contradictions and challenges. Amongst the challenges is having to take a position with regard to the now common (and seemingly unchallenged) language (and mechanisms) of industry and manufacturing which dominate the structure which support and promote dance. Since the 1980s we have been faced with the challenge of adopting and adapting to the requirements of industry which sees dance as one commodity amongst many others, where standards of achievement and 'quality' (let's throw that one into the equation) are measured on the basis of performance indicators taken from manufacturing and marketing - the buying and the selling of a product.

Success (in funding terms) is measured by the choreographer's ability to emulate criteria set by this agenda. One's practice is deemed to be successful in as much as one can prove to be similar to, as opposed to, singular and different from. The requirement to be seen to be creating quantity of work (performed quantitatively as well) has supplanted any in-depth discussion of what constitutes quality of work. The aims and goals of the current climate of dance are dictated and determined by innovation - the saleability of a product (ie. to attract more consumers - a passive audience of cus-tomers). We have therefore, suffered immensely from a lack of concern with the process, assuming that the more you bombard the audience with 'what they want', the more they come to dance. In fact, such attitude has created a degree of dull repetition in which dance remains inscrutable and inaccessible. Moreover, funding selections made on the basis of an agenda designed to formulate a saleable notion of what constitutes 'British' dance - the new and the best - have been allowed to act as arbitrators of 'excellence'. Not all dance of 'excellence' is funded; therefore, the funding system cannot claim to be the sole source of that which is of 'British, new, best'. This leads me to the notion of the relationship between Establishment and innovation. Given the fact that we have defined innovation as that through which artists face and or resist and or find alternatives to the status quo, I propose that innovation and the present forms of Establishment are in fact incompatible. Innovation, which in the history of most art forms (prior to the post-modern?) has defined the ways in which artists (and their works) resist cultural 'climates' (and thus seek the not-yet-known) is irreconcilable with any notion of dance Establishment.

The lack of avenues to deal with the connection between dance and its processes has inevitably left us unable to consider crucial questions about what we do, and most importantly unable to propose radical ways in which we may want to engage with our audience and or spectators. Dance, the most obvious art form which, through its own physicality, could be addressing key issues about the way we transform and create ourselves as active subjects of our destiny, seems to be stuck in a mere reflection of a hyper-commodified society. I propose that this situation is linked to notions of 'accessibility' and the way in which it has been used to foster a 'dumbing down' of dance. I have difficulty with notions of accessibility when they imply a dance that is only seen as entertainment, or of 'audience outreach programmes' geared towards allowing the audience a bit of' dabbling' into what the artists do. For me that is vicarious involvement in dance. The idea that a critique of 'dumbing down' is caused by an elite educated minority frowning down upon notions of popular culture obscures the more problematic issue. The real problem with dumbing down is that it is linked to a mechanism of subtle censorship which only allows for a limited range of our human capacities to be addressed. It is in fact a type of cultural fascism hidden behind 'democratisation'. Dance works have embraced technocracy, proliferation of stylistic form (the Jamesonian 'pastiche', empty rhetoric), new forms of physical virtuosity and spectacular display and has managed to avoid any confrontation with its own limits, its own finality. For some reason, theatre, literature, even film ('the independents') seem to have addressed these crucial questions from within the specificity of their medium in a way which dance in this country (with some exceptions - DV8, CandoCo, Rosemary Butcher come to mind) has yet to do.

My particular response to the current climate is to embrace being independent. I have accepted that in order to be consistent with my personal goals I will have continue to divide myself in various activities. I may remain unfunded, but in a strange way I am privileged by being able to write, teach and choreograph, and therefore, although divided in energies and resources at least they are all within the practice. That means I no longer wait on tables. I recognise the debt that my 'independence' has to education. In speaking of education I do not refer only to education as an institution (although I am of the opinion that educational institutions, particularly centres of Further Education including those with graduate and post-graduate studies are the true laboratories for the art) but education as a framework within the practice, an arena of debate, a place of encounters, and reciprocal confrontations between artists and their audiences, teachers and students. I remain perplexed that the Establishment has confined education to training and skills acquisition, as that which happens in preparation for the 'real profession'.

Thus, anything related to an educational environment, including artists working within education, are relegated to a non-professional status.

Ironically, whilst shunning notions of (and in those) education, most of the new programmes in the Establishment have, in fact, hijacked frameworks from education - mentoring, choreographic laboratories, the notion of research and development - whilst disfranchising the places whose very reason for being is to nurture these.

At present I am focusing - choreographically, educationally and scholarly - on exploring alternative ways of dealing, not with the form of the medium, but with its audience. I think that this is where the next stage of innovation within our field may be. Any changes to the formal aspects of the dance are a result of a dialectic with its audience. I want to reconsider the audience as part of the creative process in actual, factual ways, not just as the final link of a communicative chain in which they are perceivers or receivers. The primary focus of future work will be to explore links between intention, impression and interpretation as shared processes (which involve makers, performers and spectators equally) away from the conventional notion that artists 'do' something and audiences 'make of it what they will'. This is an extremely simplistic understanding of the way performance works, one which has been fashionably used to disguise the vacuity of many a contemporary choreographer's work. In pursuing this approach I am wanting to understand the complexity of dance as a very distinct artistic practice.

Successful dance remains that which can be explained by transference to and from another medium, be it film, literature, fashion or music. I am wanting to explore the specific conventions of the body - how does it 'constitute' itself in performance (considering there are three constituencies of bodies involved - the choreographer, the dancers, the spectator), how does the body in performance create its own context from within the theatrical elements available. I am wanting to break away from codified movement vocabularies which remain stable and fixed and are only reconstextualised by manipulations of the design aspects of the work. I want to be involved in a dance that is complex, difficult and requires revisiting, in as much as that if dance 'reflects' anything at all, it is our own fragile existence with its ruptures, displacements and contradictions and, in spite of the many millenniums we have resided on this planet, we remain infants in our understanding of our self-constitution. If this all sounds too utopian, I always thought that was precisely the point of why we chose to do what we do.

Ana Sanchez-Colberg, Artistic Director, Theatre EnCorps and Lecturer in Choreography and Dance Analysis, Laban Centre London. Contact Theatre EnCorps at 89 Cranworth Gardens, London SW9 ONT or by email: encorps@aol.com

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001