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Animated Edition - Winter 2007
Critical faculties
Donald Hutera considers the risky business of risk, failure and his own (nominal) instability
When was the last time you really put yourself on the line, whether as an artist or a human being? (Not that the two are mutually exclusive.) Did you, perhaps, go for a big, scary job interview or brave an open audition? Maybe you courted physical danger by climbing a particularly vicious mountain or fording a couple of raging streams. (Thank you, Oscar Hammerstein.) It could have been something more communications-based like, I dunno - revealing a long-held and scandalous secret, telling off once and for all-time a busybody relative, or letting a lover know that he or she needs to be a tad more attentive in matters of personal hygiene. Whatever bomb you dropped, doubtless it was done tactfully. No?

Each of us has our own set of definitions of what constitutes risk, whether emotional, psychological or corporeal. Thanks to some recent conversations I've been mulling over the implications of risk-taking, both in the arts and in life, and the fear and/or excitement this may engender.

One chat was with Swindon Dance's veteran director, Marie McCluskey. (You can read about her and that organisation elsewhere in this issue.) It seems obvious that just about anyone in a position like hers must cultivate a healthy appreciation of artistic gambling. At the moment there are less opportunities to take big risks in the system,' she remarks. 'Sometimes you just have to stick your neck out by constantly trying things and seeing if they work. There's such a huge pressure in dance for people to be instant successes, but a lot of big discoveries happen randomly from failure.'

Ah, the f-word. Never far behind when talking about risk. Most of us have some degree of familiarity with the internal tapes that accompany a fear of failure. 'What if I fall flat on my face?' Or, 'How will I cope with rejection?' But unless that fear induces absolute paralysis, failure can be edifying and engaging. Certainly as a professional dance-watcher I'm rather partial to it. (I refer to others' failures here, not my own, although, to be honest, I know that I can get it wrong - overrating this work, underrating that one, or simply failing to find the most accurate words to express my thoughts and feelings about a given performance within the allotted space and time.) Sometimes a piece that bellyflops in one or more areas of endeavour is actually more interesting or revealing - about me, the artist or the state of the world - than something polished to the point of near-perfection.

Take this notion a few steps further and you could argue that the biggest risk in the fast-paced, terror-riddled 21st century is simply being alive. Pulling this train of thought back to the arts, when are people at least theoretically more alive than in performance? It may not always come through in my criticism, but on some level I'll give credit to anyone just for having the guts to get up onstage, or anywhere, in front of an audience.

Consult the dictionary or thesaurus about risk and among the words that crop up are hazardous, chance (of bad consequences, loss, etc), speculation, venture, danger, peril, insecurity, jeopardy, precariousness, instability, exposure, vulnerability, heel of Achilles, threatening, alarming, ill-omened and a string of terms that put me in mind of earthquakes or storms at sea: unsteady, unstable, shaky, tottering, tumble-down, ramshackle, crumbling. I confess to a personal attraction to the latter group mainly because my surname happens to be a Finnish word meaning 'unstable,' as in the hutera feeling of a hangover or sitting at a wobbly, i.e., hutera table. (Apparently I have no Finnish ancestry).

Some of the above risk-associated ideas - particularly venture, exposure and vulnerability - are potentially positive, valuable qualities in a creative context. In the arts shouldn't there always be room for daring, doubt and even dread, for pushing boundaries and testing limits, for the outlandish notion or outrageous action, for not playing safe or for doing what scares you most. And let's not forget embarrassment. It may sound naive, but I wonder if our world wouldn't be a more agreeable or possibly kinder place if more of its movers and shakers could recognise and acknowledge their own embarrassment on a daily basis.

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, and writes Critical Faculties as a regular column.


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Animated: Winter 2007