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Dance in a Cold Climate
Dance in a cold climate: Why Iā€™m so optimistic about the future Ken Bartlett ā€“ October 2005 ā€“ International Conference, Huesca

I just want to begin by saying that whatever I say in the next few minutes is based in a British context; however, I hope it has resonance with colleagues from other parts of Europe.


I want you to imagine me sat in my kitchen last Sunday morning reading the papers. I began to wonder how insane I was to choose this title for my talk- I was confronted by the economic and banking crisis, the environmental crisis, war in Afghanistan, political corruption and confusion in the UK, a crisis in cultural provision - the old tension between heritage and the avante garde and a general assessment about how cynical we British have become.


So I’m finding it hard to hold onto my original thesis, but I promise not to cut my wrists as I continue.


I am however very optimistic about the future of the arts even in this time of international crisis, and more so after hearing the talks yesterday. On the basis that this moment is an opportunity for change, an opportunity to build new partnerships and networks, an opportunity to forge new ideas and discover new and meaningful modes of cultural expression and to explore together what the arts might become rather than assuming that they will always remain the same. It’s a time to consider how we in the arts can use our passion and skills to transform our world, now and for the future.


I want to start by showing you a short film which records a bi- annual event in the UK – the Big Dance. This is an opportunity for people from all walks of life and all ages and across cultures to take to the streets to share their dances and connect with their communities. For me it demonstrates something positive about life in the UK, its diversity, a willingness take part and to work with people of difference, a celebration of our idiosyncrasy, a general optimism about the world, as well as setting out some of the positive contributions dance can make to the lives of individuals and their communities –community, health etc.




Show Dance Conversations


I want us to briefly to consider the cultural journey that has taken place, certainly in the north and west of Europe about whose voice were heard and whose cultural expressions have been valued. And it is the change over history that makes me so optimistic.


In the middle ages there were only two voices in town that had to be listened to – The Monarchy and the Church.

By the 16th and 17th Centuries the Aristocracy began to be heard more forcefully. In the 18th Century the bourgeoisie began to clamour for attention. By the 19th Century the working class were being heard.

In the early 20th Century women were claiming their right to be heard, taking into account Mary Brady’s timely assertion about the invisibility of women choreographers.  By the end of the century as civil rights movements took hold, Black people, disabled people and gay people asserted their rights and saw their voices beginning to be listened to and their cultural contribution noted.


What is dispiriting is that it is still the cultural values and cultural expressions of the 18th and 19th Centuries that have dominance within the current mandarin cultural elites of the arts politics and the arts economy.


And African, Asian, disabled and gay arts practice is still seen as minority arts, even in cities like Birmingham and Leicester where within the next ten years the majority populations will have a cultural heritage originating from outside Europe.


In fact, in a recent exercise by Arts Council England to map dance activity across England, South Asian Dance and African People’s dance didn’t even have their own sections, they were placed in a category “other”! So significant parts of our nation’s population and their cultural life were relegated by an elitist set of values yet again into the minority category, where their true contribution to wider cultural activity was again ignored or by default dismissed.


So why am I so optimistic? I am optimistic because, when I was at a meeting of artists from those ’other’ cultural traditions they talked about how they saw their cultural contribution as British, rather than  ‘other’.  Maybe a bit further in the future we in England will start thinking about our contributions to European culture, what a step forward that will be for the English!


Why am I so optimistic? I’m optimistic because..


The journey these artist are taking, linked now to an increasing focus on the right of the individual to an expressive life has opened the door for more voices, vistas and artistic expressions that enriches our cultural and civic lives, rather than challenging or diminishing it.


Why am I so optimistic? I’m optimistic because….


What I am seeing particularly in the younger generation is a demand for an expressive life as of right, and that is a real challenge for cultural elites as people begin to see themselves as both creators and curators, (by which I mean pulling different strands together to make new connections and caring deeply about the artist/creator and the creation) as well as passive consumers of the arts.


Why am I so optimistic? I’m optimistic because…


Another shift that makes me positive is something Jonathon Holloway spoke about yesterday and it’s a shift in what people are prepared and want to spend their money on in this time of economic crisis. They are not spending their money on ‘stuff’ cars etc. Yet they are still spending their money on experiences that make them feel positive about themselves and the world.


Why am I so optimistic? I’m optimistic because…


This last summer, across the UK there have been more festivals of all kinds than ever before, music, dance, food and so on. And people have flocked to these events in their thousands and tens of thousands in some cases and being prepared to pay for the bigger ones around £150.00 per head to attend - to celebrate together, to sing together, to dance together, and eat and drink together and most importantly to belong together in a melange of cultural expression. Old and young, men and women, disabled and non-disabled, black and white and brown, gay and straight.


Why am I so optimistic, I’m optimistic because…


I’m really excited by the way in which the activity of dance and dancing has become almost the zeitgeist art form. Its positive messages being taken up by companies like TMobile to sell their phones, the speed with which mob dances have taken over our city centre spaces in Brussels, London and Oslo. And ‘pace’ Michael Jackson even in prisons in Thailand.


Why am I so optimist? I’m optimistic because..


If you log on to You Tube and type in dance, ‘Where’s Dave Dancing’ had had 35 million hits and there are other sites with nearly as many, so the audience for dance is incredible.


Why am I so optimistic? I’m optimistic because…


On the last series of Britain’s Got Talent a competition to see if Britain has any talent, other than performing dogs and people who can make recognisable music from burping. 40% of this years finalists were dance acts. 20 years ago they would have been comedians. This year the winning act was a dance performance by a group of culturally diverse young men who had had no contact with the commercial dance sector, or state subsidy, of private tuition. They were energetic, skilled, took their form of hip-hop based dance in new directions with a developing aesthetic and wowed the millions who voted for them.


Why am I so optimistic? I’m optimistic because


We are beginning to see a new and democratic vision of what dance might be or become, and its place in our imaginative and cultural lives, to see afresh who might be a dancer not just in the kinaesthetic pleasure of dancing, but saying something about ourselves and the world that is meaningful to ourselves and our audiences.


So how do we move forward?


So in summary, why am I still optimistic about the arts in this seeming time of crisis?

nPeoples’ changing wants and needs

nChange in values

nHappiness and well being

nArts connected to everyday life

nWatch, listen and create

nChanging relationships between cultural institutions and the public


I’d like to finish with a film of a positive change by a mainstream cultural institution, to illustrate that even the most traditional organisations have much to gain and little to lose by developing different kinds of relationships with people.


It’s the film of a project called Ballet Hoo undertaken by Birmingham Royal Ballet, to develop a performance in their main house using dancers who came from some of the most working class areas of the Midlands in England, young people who had fallen out of education, came from broken homes and were involved in crime. This project was transformative not only for these young people, but the dance company their audience and even some members of our National Parliament.




For me this is another reason that I am optimistic and why the arts are not only important but also vital at a time of crisis, they cultivate our imaginative lives and allow us to create a new and inspiring future. I believe it is one of our key roles as artists to imagine the future and leave the world a better place, not just for ourselves but for the wider population – so lets go out of here committed to a better future for our world, not leave it to    the bankers and industrialists and politicians.