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  • A democracy of dance
Room for us all on the dance floor
Date posted: 24 March 2017
People Dancing's Chris Stenton shared a post show discussion panel with Paula Turner, artistic director of Grand Gestures Dance Collective at Leap 2017. Paula likes to push the boundaries of dance, especially dance made by older dancers...

The title of our most recent piece 'What Lies Beneath' turned out to also be an opportunity for thinking about and sharing the guiding principles on the processes which underpin the work of Grand Gestures Dance Collective (GGDC).
We were invited at the recent Leap Dance Festival in Liverpool to take part in a panel discussion about the nature of older dance, with the general discussion being “Creativity versus Activity”. What is it about performing/making dance that keeps older people engaged, active and involved in meaningful ways and that enhances their well-being as a consequence?

It was a very fruitful discussion, with a delightful panel who considered the content and context of dance for older people. One member of the audience felt strongly that, in presenting dance, we should always consider who the audience is, what the audience likes and what the audience expects and wants to see... and then to provide this. To do otherwise, she said, is to be “self-indulgent”. This interestingly is the total antithesis of the GGDC approach, not only to dancing but to life!

Given that much of our work takes place in the public realm i.e. in public, open access spaces and places, we readily invite, welcome and enjoy the fact that the audiences we interact with are largely accidental and can be anyone.

Anyone who happens to pass by and/or who stays to watch because they are puzzled, intrigued or just curious. Whether they like what we do and whether it is what they expect is not really a matter of concern for us.

Our favourite piece of audience feedback still remains that from a 22 year-old undergraduate: “I like this very much....what is it exactly?”

The issues raised about being pleasing and living up to expectation are for us particularly poignant when we talk about art for older people and we actively resist this call to convention.

Art surely is a process by which we can all play, experiment and interrogate what it is to be human and bring all our rich experiences to the table. It offers us a time to embrace the knotty problems of life to embrace its messy multi-natured layers of complexity and intrigue.

The comments made about considering the audience served to remind me of how, as humans, we do like to do that duality thing in an attempt to contain complexity. This is the right way to present dance and that is the wrong way……!

As a dance collective, we have limited our participation at traditional dance venues because we are aware of the hierarchical and structural nature of such events and the limits it can place on how dance is seen and experienced.

There is much to be discussed about this but suffice to say that within a theatre setting, there are limits on performers and audience alike just by how the space is structured and controlled.

As a consequence when GGDC do co-create work for such settings, we play knowingly with the conventions and try to subvert them. We emphasise the fact that we are in lines and looking at you or are very purposefully still and or pedestrian. The act of looking at someone in a theatrical space should not be a passive act, we want people to notice what it is they are noticing and for both performer and witness to be present to this process…. it is a mutual awareness and not, we hope, passive entertainment or attempts to be pleasing - we have the TV for that!

The panel discussion has therefore been a really energising spark to carry on doing what we do and in the way that we do it. However we are wondering about the call to convention for older dancers…are they expected to be pleasing and to provide the expected?

What Lies Beneath was a piece which was a multi layered response to the festival’s given theme of 'Camouflage - Seen and Unseen'.

Within our creative response we made reference to ideas surrounding cosmetic surgery. The fact that there is an unprecedented surge in the number of women having surgery to enhance their appearance worries us and we wanted to comment on this. We also wanted to comment on memory and how medical intervention can so easily become an inevitable reality when you get passed “a certain age”.

After a certain age, things that happen to you are contextualised through a medical lens - you are related to more and more as a health assessment and potential burden on resources. This has been the lived in reality of members of our collective. As a consequence this is the stuff we want to dance about and talk about and express. It is  the stuff we want to laugh at and subvert….it is the stuff of life….our lives and the lives of many others, and we have things to say about being dismissed, patronised and medicalised….

If we want to shift patronising attitudes about age and ageing, we think dance and related arts offer a fabulous opportunity to present these ideas in multi-faceted, non-linear ways which can articulate several ideas at once….and we relish this.

“There is room on the dance floor of life for everyone….
Come conformist, come rebel, come all!”

So, we will continue to push at the boundaries of dance generally and specifically for dance made by older dancers. I think there is room for everyone… for older dance groups who want to think about what audiences want and to ensure that they provide this, and room for those who want to challenge and subvert and delight in being awkward and unidentifiable.

For GGDC the performance is not really the point, the process is. The journey is far more important than the destination, and it is the creative processes which help us think about the world we live in and the kind of world we want to live in.

For GGDC this absolutely means we are proponents of the democracy of dance, and that people can come together as they are to celebrate this and not be subjected to hierarchies of convention, expectation and conformity.

In these troubled times this is something precious that the arts offer us. We should nurture and encourage it, let us welcome in diversity and difference to the dance.

Paula Turner - GGDC
4 April 2017