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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
Critical faculties
Shifting his sights from Gene Kelly to Palestine, Donald Hutera tries to get a handle on the concept of community
I'm not sure I could really and truly love someone who hates movie musicals. Blurting out this statement during a rambling, culturally-inclined phone conversation with a friend, I mentioned, by way of example, Gene Kelly. Who, I wondered aloud, could resist the sight of that man splashing about in the title number from Singin' in the Rain? They'd have to be missing a gene.

Yes, it's a groan-worthy line, but at the time we chuckled over the unintentional pun.

My thoughts rolled back to good old Gene as I was kicking around the catch-all term community. This is one of those words or phrases, like 'postmodernism' or 'Arts Council policy,' that is regularly bandied about, but what do we really mean by it? When in doubt reach for the dictionary. Kelly, a dictionary-reader from childhood, might've done the same.

Community, according to the Reader's Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary, is: 1. Joint or common ownership, liability, etc. 2. Identity of character, quality in common. 3. Social intercourse; life in association with others; body of people organised into political, municipal, or social unity; body of men living in same locality, or with common race, religion, pursuits, etc., not shared by those among whom they live. 4. Body of persons living together and practicing community of goods.

I like the collective use of the word body. (Is it too fanciful to also read it as an insider's reference to the major tool of dance-makers everywhere?) It's interesting, both linguistically and semantically, that after several unifying words (joint, common, association, organised) the third entry takes a sudden plunge and defines community by contrasting one group or 'body' (in this instance a corps specified as male) against another and by what is not shared between them.

Community, I suspect, is meant to foster a sense of inclusivity. But there's a built-in danger: identify with one group, philosophy or ideology and you're almost automatically separated from another. I'm reminded of Groucho Marx's famous put-down about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

Stretching the word, you could say that I belong to a community of people who love movie musicals. Yet I tend to be as attracted to a ghoulish gorefest as I am to a glossy Technicolor knees-up. Does being a fan of one genre immediately cancel my allegiance to another? I'd like to think the answer is no.

So, community embraces plurality. I'm able to belong to several communities concurrently, including professional dance-watchers, say, or film buffs (the latter obviously entailing lots of subdivisions) and so on. Of course the kind of occupational or taste-based cultural preferences I've attached to myself are generally easier to negotiate and intermingle than often less flexible religious or political leanings. I'm thinking particularly about the Muslim protests arising from the Danish publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. This is a touchy, complex situation, and one that ropes in big questions about community and communication. What common ground can be found here?

In January I met Nagham Awadallah, a young woman who is a member of the El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe. She'd come to Britain as part of a Visiting Arts initiative dubbed the Young Critics Programme, an intensive exchange between a dozen aspiring arts journalist from the UK, Lebanon, Pakistan and the Palestinian Territories and a handful of established arts critics and social commentators in Scotland, Newcastle and London. I was invited to lead a day-long session that examined how we look at, talk and write about dance.

Founded in the mid-1970s, the folkloric El-Funoun has survived an Israeli occupation that has entailed travel bans and random arrests, as well as discrimination against women, resistance to cultural change, a relative intolerance of intellectual pluralism and other manifestations of outdated traditions in Palestinian society. Towards the end of the day Awadallah showed parts of a DVD of the troupe's work, afterwards explaining how important it is for her and her fellow dancers to be able to assert their cultural identity: 'We exist. We are strong. We are human beings.'

El-Funoun exists because its members pull together. Other communities have to struggle to live up to the label. In February I attended the second Greek Contemporary Dance Platform in Athens. The country is crawling with talent. It's also rife with insecurity and instability. Scrabbling for support from a fickle and impenetrable Ministry of Culture produces an almost palpable level of distrust among the native choreographers. This is a community in dire need of unification and a sense of collective ownership.

Maybe, as I suggested earlier, community divides and polarises us more than we tend to think. Or perhaps I'm simply more of a loner than I imagined was the case. I can probably come up with more kinds of communities, groups or bodies to which I'd not want to belong than the reverse. No, in no particular order, to smokers, hunters, the military, terrorists, metalheads. Yes to... Well this is harder than you might think. I'll try coming up with a list later. First I've got to decide which to watch first, Hello, Dolly! Or Cannibal Holocaust.

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 and summer 2005 editions of Animated.

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Animated: Spring 2006