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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Invisible identity? Invisible voice?
Independent dance artist Brenda Edwards reflects on her experiences over the last twenty years and raises important questions for the future
Almost twenty years ago I attended the London School of Contemporary Dance (LCDS) and later joined the London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT). Under the leadership of Dr Richard Ralph, LCDS reflected 'British' nationalities, multi-cultural Londoners and exciting international students. Similarly, Robert Cohan as the Artistic Director of LCDT, was leading a beautiful, exciting company, who, along with Rambert Dance Company (directed by Robert North), championed dynamic performers who were culturally diverse and physically mixed.

Dance to me at that time was without boundaries, very colourful and very dynamic and, more importantly, I never once felt cultural diversity was an issue. I was not, however, naive about the positioning of 'black arts' within the wider arts establishment, and throughout my subsequent career, I have been aware that its place remains ill defined and insecure. Professionally, I have felt, more often than not, that I have walked the tight rope, like many others before me, in the firing line, simply waiting to be 'picked off'. There has been no real guidance or textbook. I don't think there will ever be one if each generation of policy makers tries to grapple with transient and ever changing concepts disguised behind all-encompassing labels.

Cultural Diversity appears to be one such concept.
Here we are again, in 2004, re-entering the cycle of debate, discussion and politics about cultural diversity. Yet the very concept of cultural diversity somehow remains mythical and intangible: we know it in the general sense, but don't quite know how to tie it down. In dance, this means we are talking about several different complex issues that change every five years or so and are re-made with a different outer shape. We have had, over the past twenty years, minority arts, multi-cultural arts, equal opportunities, black arts, African People's Dance and so on as the issues are re-examined, redefined, new language found and new definitions made.

The issue of cultural diversity is currently high on Arts Council England's (ACE) agenda and prominent within its monitoring policy. But is ACE's prescription for cultural diversity the same as what cultural diversity means as it is experienced in the wider social context? Arts Council England's language isn't an arbiter of what everyone might want or indeed should think, but, like the might of Hollywood, it carries dominance and clout. Most organisations and individuals are reliant on its funding and therefore adjust their vision in order to secure funds. Given that we are talking about taxpayer's money, results have to be visible, swift and accountable. It can be uncomfortable for many individuals to work in arts organisations largely determined by 'white people' and 'white powerful executives' producing predominately 'white institutional thoughts'. It is uncomfortable to be thinking and categorising creativity this way. But for years this has continued to happen to many artists under the Cultural Diversity tag. Some black artists can fit comfortably into these labels; it is suitable for some artists and not for others and indeed not for all. The problematic reality is that we are still operating within a paradigm where some ethnic, marginal and non-white cultures continue to experience exclusion and where some white communities are fearful of change; a context in which what it means to be English or British is a major political arena for debate. As a country we are still in the process of social integration, we are becoming a more an inter-racial - inter-breeding culture constantly repositioning life and Art. Similarly, we are still in the process of developing British dance, and our appreciation of it. The dance profession is still repositioning its relationship to diversity. However, we should have come through the period of feeling ashamed and guilty as artists whose only means of showing work is via such labels. How can we expect artists to feel welcome in a system that has always ghettoised their artistic expression?

The issue of 'invisibility' is a very hard one for many artists who cannot walk away from their melanin or indeed their individual identity. Artists who specialise in non-institutionalised as well as institutionalised practice with a clear sense of self-pride fuse their British cultural experience with their cultural identity and choose not to abandon either. They are 'clever' at retaining both: they embrace and offer both modernist values and Caribbean/Asian/African traditions but it is hard work re-using inherited history, honouring the moment we are in and appropriating it to this experience. I have listened to many producers and representatives of dance institutions judge the works of these artists as 'old fashioned', non-progressive and dated. But the contribution that these artists are making, whether it is liked or not, is British work created and made here by British based people and citizens. Furthermore, we seem challenged by artists who are of mixed parentage, non-Caribbean and African Blacks, dark skinned artists, dancers whose disciplines are classical/or contemporary institutionalised training, hip-hop dance and urban culture and who often, by the very nature of their being, cannot be summarised by the pre-coded designs of social authorities. Additionally, all artists have the right to choose to produce art for art sake and say 'look at my work, not my pigmentation' therefore assertively defying the prescribed labels.

My objective here is to share, in part, the changes and the dilemmas faced by artists in a climate of 'identity politics' lead by powerful institutions and organisations and I will surprise no-one in proposing that there are many issues relating to Cultural Diversity that still need to be aired and debated. Why, for example, is there a lack of home-grown female black artists and choreographers? Why is hip-hop urban culture, though very accessible, still rife with male dominance? Why has the female creative voice, whilst visible, been (very invisibly) almost silenced? How can the process of Cultural Diversity improve with very few teachers of colour in vocational schools, universities and colleges? How many issues regarding mid scale touring have had a diverse round-table discussion with the type of group that venues are trying to attract? Might we someday realise that years of black and Asian community outreach work has produced today's thriving shift in dance? These debates and more are there to be had!

I recently attended a conference at Swindon Dance on Cultural Diversity, programmed by Maria Ryan. At one point I looked across and remarked, 'we have been here before'. Obviously time had not transcended the same old issues - lack of investment for continuity, negligible trust and belief that dance and cultural diversity is more than just a well written funding application and so on.

My own experience reflects this: with "Hip" (a celebration of the 'diverse' work of artists of colour) I am presenting for the fourth year yet each year I have to present something different from the year before whilst attempting to build on the foundations of the previous year and battling sheer exhaustion.

Every so often, institutional powers appropriate change within the very being of artists and companies (Adzido and Phoenix Dance Theatre come to mind). Their cultural meaning becomes lost and we are made to understand that a prescribed change is for the best. Does this happen to Richard Alston Dance Company and Siobhan Davies Dance Company? They have not changed; they represent something very distinct within the diversity of 'white dance': they are not forced to represent works performed by white British people, but works by our leading choreographers. From this perspective, Cultural Diversity can be represented as thus: you Black, Asian and Chinese have made significant contribution to arts in Britain during the last 50 years but you still are not quite like us - 'white' and, like the new migrant 'refugees', you are somewhere in the middle waiting to be elevated.

Nevertheless, we are well ahead of most European dance and our integration has been immensely consistent though at times it can appear non-progressive. But there are exceptions! I remember curating a wonderfully progressive and dynamic programme - Innervisions - with Marie McCluskey, one of many individuals along with Brendan Keaney, Brenda Last, Emma Gladstone, Harold King, Peter Schafuss, Ken Bartlett, Robert Cohan the late, great Leonine Urdang, Bill Louther and Jane Dudley to name but a few who truly understood diversity and development.

Cultural Diversity in the twenty first century has its own new history and a new purpose, being reinvented by a whole new generation for whom a political definition of identity will not suffice. Can we start to celebrate fifty years of what Britain's diversity has enriched? Can we start to look beyond elitist power and develop the process of tomorrow's young vision in tandem with a more continuous awareness of our immediate social surroundings? We should by now be taking leadership of five year strategic programmes and developing a more reflective approach to the cultural contribution of dance beyond, 'We have built a good relationship with this artist and this company so let's stick with this!'

Brenda Edwards an independent dance artist. Email

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Animated: Summer 2004