The UK development organisation and membership
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Animated Edition - Summer 2013
As the importance of working with older people in the arts becomes increasingly prominent François Matarassowriter and independent researcher, offer some reflections about the work

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Image: François Matarasso. Artist: Mik Godley
Some artists use their creativity directly as a way to challenge stereotypes of age and to celebrate its distinctive quality. Dance, particularly in contemporary and folk forms, has become very open to the ageing body in recent years, even celebrating its different quality of movement and expression. Merce Cunningham marked his 90th birthday with a new work at Brooklyn Academy of Music and remains an inspiration to many contemporary dancers. After his death in 2009, the Guardian’s dance critic wrote:

“Even in his 90s, when he was ravaged by arthritis, his dancing contained a burnished intelligence. And the choreography he created was just as compelling, just as rich.” Judith Mackrell, 2009.

Seeing Cunningham was a highlight of Colin McLean’s journey into dance. It had been a passion from earliest childhood but not one he had imagined might be his path in life. A performance by John Gilpin with the Festival Ballet was Colin’s first glimpse that men could dance professionally and to the highest standards, but his own career began only when he retired, after careers in the army and the church. After first steps in local dance classes, he auditioned for the Laban Centre at the age of 69 and was accepted onto a course with students a fraction his age. It was an exhilarating and liberating experience as the joy he had always felt in physical movement was harnessed to knowledge, technique and training. He gained his diploma with distinction and has been working as a dancer ever since, performing in dance pieces, films and at one-off performances.

“I just grab everything I possibly can. I dance for anybody, go anywhere. I have the advantage of being retired and so I’m not totally dependent on dance income. It’s absolutely wonderful.”

Colin’s story is unusual because he trained late and because his grace and presence in performance have drawn choreographers to work with him. But dancers such as Fergus Early (born 1946) and Liz Lerman (born 1948), among many others, have pioneered an engagement in dance for older people that has become, in the best sense of the word, almost commonplace. Other forms of dance, from ballroom to folk, also attract and welcome older dancers. Joy and Eric Foxley are in their 80s but still very active in traditional dance, where age has a different relationship to the form’s values.

The growth of Indian dance in the UK has made accessible another form that sees old age differently. Bisakha Sarker, who has been performing Indian creative dance as pioneered by Uday Shankar, since the age of five, initially sought to conceal the effect of age in her performance, before rethinking how to deal with it as part of who she is:

“I cannot hide and I don’t need to, so I’m saying, take me as who I am. I’m not pretending to be able to do what I cannot do. You accept that you cannot do it, so you find another way.” Bisakha Sarker.

The narrative of her dance has also evolved as she has worked through complex feelings about vanity, ageing and mortality. Her dance has opened up to other stories that draw on a lifetime’s experience: she naturally sees things differently in her late 60s than in her early 30s.

Fortunately, her artistry and technique are capacious enough to accommodate such explorations. There is something very important in contemporary dance’s openness to age. Dance exists in the body, where time inscribes itself also. A writer or a painter can expect their work to represent them; a musician like Kate Bush can stop performing in public so her persona ages slowly in her work. But the dancer is the dance. This is the great embodied art and its celebration can be a profound discovery even, or especially, when it comes late, as it did for Colin McLean:

“I was a bit stunned when my dance tutor wrote in my report, ‘He’s a beautiful dancer to watch’. I found that hard to take on board because no one had ever said that to me. The affirmation of my body – that’s something enormous.”

The best make up, the most expensive surgery, can change our appearance but will not make us look young. So perhaps, precisely because they cannot avoid it, dancers have been courageous in the face of ageing. Dancers know everything there is to know about losing suppleness and strength, about quick injuries and slower recoveries, about stiffening joints, arthritis and disability: no one is more in touch with their body than a dancer. But they also know about how new feelings and expressions become possible if you slow down, if you are avoiding or failing to avoid pain, if you listen, sense and appreciate. Perhaps artists in other disciplines, and people with no artistic ambitions too, could learn something important from the dancers.

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Winter Fires – Art and agency in old age by François Matarasso, published by the Baring Foundation visit

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Animated: Summer 2013