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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
The politics of inclusion
The face of cultural diversity has changed but brought with it new and more fundamental challenges. Naseem Khan - writer and policy advisor - pinpoints some of them: their difficulties and their extraordinary potential for transformation
If you had been around the city centre of Bradford one June weekend in 1990, you would have seen an unusual sight. The city's rather drab dual carriageway leading up to the Alhambra Theatre was seemingly taken over by an orderly crowd of Indian dancers - scores and scores of them. Saturday shoppers stopped and gawped as the procession wound past them - cheerful, excited, sari-ed, dance costumed, turbaned, with sweet-sounding ankle-bells and led by the deafening drumming of a large, benign and bearded Sikh.

The event had been staged by Aditi, the then new South Asian dance development agency, in order to put South Asian dance and dancers in all their extraordinary diversity on the map. But it was also intended to make a symbolic point. The event had been choreographed so that wave upon wave of dancers would rush forward in sequence and bang on the closed doors of the Alhambra. Clearly overwhelmed by this determined onslaught, the doors opened and the Lord Mayor himself formally welcomed the dancers in.

The image was strong and simple, and fourteen years ago had validity. South Asian dance was booming, and it was excluded. And the institutions - represented by the Alhambra - did regard including it as a challenge. Fourteen years on, it does not seem quite so straightforward, nor would the same device seem quite so appropriate. Why should this be?

The intervening years have seen a number of changes. The Akademi (in 1990, the Academy of Indian Dance) has acquired increased confidence. Anyone who saw their large-scale ventures that took over the vast exteriors of the South Bank Centre will recognise a mind-set that is not afraid to think large and to think public. Above all it is a mind-set that is writes its own history. 'Coming of Age' in particular mapped out the parameters of the South Asian dance scene - from the older traditional teachers to hip hop by the river - as seen from within the form itself.

In the Midlands, Sampad and the redoubtable Piali Ray, have consistently addressed the broader and less obviously sexy elements that stand in the way of progress - marketing, research, training. In the North there is Kala Sangam and in the East of England there is Kadam, both engaging vigorously with education and community development as well as with production. On the face of it, there is no need to attack the doors of the establishment.

This is illusory. A closer look shows that progress brings new challenges. It is of course not surprising: change is never contained and complete within itself. It always has repercussions - sometimes unexpected ones. In this case, it has brought a shift in priorities. In 1990, the aim was to enter the (symbolic) building; in 2004, the aim is to be able to live in it fully. The politics of inclusion, in other words, have taken the place of the politics of exclusion.

Being included is more complicated than it might appear, and frequently entails a whole rethink of systems and values.Take the case of 'Da Boyz'., for instance - Theatre Royal Stratford East's feisty hip-hop version of 'The Boys from Syracuse. The director, Ultz, had boldly vowed to produce a show that had the genuine feel and smell of hip hop, not of actors pretending to be hip hop enthusiasts. So he presided over a determined (and successful) attempt to recruit the genuine article - young local street dancers, rappers and body poppers.

The theatre had given thought to issues that might arise since the cast was largely new to the disciplines and format of a long run. But despite that, misapprehensions - based overwhelmingly on different perspectives, experiences and life styles - abounded. The mantra of 'social inclusion' assumes that those to be included will meekly accept the dominant modes. But this - and are we surprised? - often fails to happen.

The experience for instance of the New Audiences programme of Arts Council England confirms the tendency that people have to want to retain their own 'language' and way of doing things. The programme gave priority to cultural diversity and created a section that funded partnerships, with the proviso that they had to be equal in nature. Some extraordinary outcomes took place, but by and large the overall lesson was that artists and arts organisations that came from different worlds need time to find a common way of operating. When it worked, it was exciting - the alliance of Huddersfield's Lawrence Batley Theatre and the Hudawi Centre expanded the understanding of both sides in this black-white partnership. BRIT (Black Regional Initiative in Theatre) - part of the Huddersfield equation - has also been building strong quiet bases for getting to that much desired outcome: shared public space. But they have been going for eleven years.

The implications of inclusion are all-embracing. How representative are boards of management? And how about the staff of a venue, and that indefinable quality, the feel of the place, that makes it a comfort zone for some but not for others?

But it also involves thinking out of the proverbial box. When I was part of a touring Indian dance troupe in the 1970s, we travelled a Britain that was largely off the radar of so-called mainstream Britain, one that operated by different social rules and definitely to a different timetable.You can still dip into that, for instance, at an arangetram, the debut performance when a young dancer is launched formally by the teacher. The tension and emotion of those occasions, and the understanding that flows from the audience, is hard to match.

Inclusion is a challenging business. It involves the readiness to enter into a top to bottom rethink. It also means the readiness to accept change, with a diminution of what might be seen as control. But this is actually the true gift of diversity. It is not only the variety and range it brings, but the way in which it encourages a transformative process across society, in everybody, in whatever way involved: top to bottom.

Naseem Khan was Head of Diversity for Arts Council England till she left last year to run her own consultancy. She has worked with diversity both nationally and internationally as an independent writer, researcher and policy advisor for a considerable time, since her ground-breaking report 'The Arts Britain Ignores', stimulated attitude change in the late 70s. See www.naseemkhan.com for more information.

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Animated: Summer 2004