Making Matters Dance/participation/communities/activism by Jo Parkes
I am happy today to publish my first blog post in my role as one of the three associated artists resident at Aktion Tanz in 2022, alongside Lucia Matzke and nomadic academy (Anna Konjetzky, Sahra Huby, Caroline Jingoist, Quindell Orton, who share the role as a collective). I hope this will be the first of many such posts.
In this year, I would like to reflect on what I have learned in my more than two decades in the field of participatory dance in discussions, talks, texts, recordings and moving together with international colleagues. I am curious to hear what thoughts, connections and impulses my ramblings inspire in you and invite you to get in touch if you want to share what occurs to you.
Why “Making Matters” as a title? Simply because it does: making art together helps us make meaning in our lives. It matters. Making art in and of the body allows us to access knowing which evades our conscious mind. Dancing together is vital in this time of isolation and fear: moving together to make meaning of our experiences helps us be resilient. Leaning into a diﬀerent definition, in science, matter is the substance of which any object consists; the basis. In everyday use, matter is the subject under consideration – the thing we are reflecting upon, talking about, the subject. The subtitle puts the terms dance/participation/communities/activism in relationship with each other. I want to explore this relationship this year as I write, talk, move and think. I think the fields of participatory dance and performance activism have much to learn from each other and I am curious to explore how these fields might be brought into fruitful exchange.
Lucia, nomadic academy and I will develop formats individually in this year as well as searching for formats we want to do together. Our first step in working together took the form of a chain interview which you can listen to on the Action Tanz website. There is a link at the bottom of this post.
There are some themes in this interview which I would like to highlight in this first blog post.
Lucia, who is a hip hop and Krump dancer, talks inspiringly about the history of the form and the empowerment she experiences when dancing it. “Somehow this dance helps you to overcome your own limits, your own borders, and also discover your “real” inner self. This is because of the supportive system within the community. When you dance a Krump freestyle round everybody is surrounding you and hyping you up and giving you energy, and you give them energy back, and then you get a dynamic of energy and you even get into a state where you maybe do things you wouldn’t think of doing before. The motion brings emotion and emotions again shape your motions. It’s like a circle.”
This description of the live presence of others encouraging and supporting a dancer touched me. I have rarely been inside such a circle and from the outside often find them intimidating (I have rarely dared to enter one myself). Perhaps I should try again sometime! Lucia’s comments also made me think about how this experience must have changed after having not had it for so long due to the pandemic. As we emerge from the pandemic hungry to be back in our communities, moving together, creating our I – we – us – in relationship with the bodies of others, I am curious to see how our support systems have changed, how our processes have shifted and how we as facilitators of physical encounters experience our work.
Lucia’s words remind me of text by the philosopher Arno Böhler:
“Bodies are – and this statement is politically highly relevant – in interaction.
In interaction with other bodies.
A body is not a body because bodies are constituted ecstatical: Sensorily aﬀected by all the other bodies surrounding a given body.”
Later he writes:
“Thus, when I am talking about the ethics of bodies I am not talking about isolated bodies;
about things, about rigid, locally identifiable single things ending at the boundaries of their body surface.
When I am talking about the ethics of bodies, I am talking about bodies in contact.
I am talking about ex-posed bodies
ec-statically interacting with other bodies. About bodies stretched between two skins.”
This is a text which keeps circling in my head in the last years and which opens a window on some interesting ideas for me: how we create encounters where bodies come into contact/ relationship with each other to (re)make themselves, the vulnerability of the dancing body, its exposure, and thus (this is the theme of the dialogue Böhler is having with performer Susanne Valerie Granzer from which I quote) ethical concerns in our practice(s).
In the chain interview between the Aktion Tanz associated artists, Anna Konjetzky talks about the relationship between the singular body and its context too. She is discussing how nomadic academy approach using dance as a way to think, test ideas and research: “To use the body as a research tool is to take it as a pool of knowledge. There is a lot of diﬀerent knowledge than purely mental knowledge and I think the body can reveal that. It is also to see the body as a body in relation – a relational body – so it is not within one body but certain researches, certain understandings, happen through seeing the body in a wider context. What happens among bodies….constellations, behaviours, spacial etc?”
Another theme which floats up in our chain interview is the vocabulary we use to describe our work. Lucia asks me what my approach to “dance mediation” is. This question prompts me to question the terms we use to describe our work. I talk about my dislike of the term “mediation” to describe my work. I explain that, for me, this term implies a hierarchy: one person has some knowledge about a field to share with someone else. I find it places the focus on the dance (which has to be mediated) rather than the interaction (which is the focus in my work). As I write now, I remember again that in English, the word “mediation” is defined as “a structured process to help parties resolve a dispute.” It has conflict inherent in it. The German term “Tanzvermittlung” does not have this inherent conflict.
My work is concerned with the exchange of embodied knowledge in heterogeneous groups, everyone bringing their own expertise. Participatory practice with diﬀerent communities is my art- making. I am not mediating something – I am doing the thing. “The thing” is collective art-making with various communities of practice. Some people bring dance experience, others bring experiences in diﬀerent fields; together we practice co-creating something. I am there with all of my skills as a maker. I am not there primarily to teach or explain something (although both of these processes take place). I am there to facilitate a creative process. I think there is a body of work which is concerned with artistic co-creation which is not served by the term “mediation”. It feels like an inaccurate description of the processes at work. I prefer the phrase “participatory, co-creative dance” for my work.
I have a concern that in the area of co-creative dance-making the word “meditation” might foreground the notion that there are two separate things: “art” (done by professionals) and “mediation” (making it accessible to non-professionals) which seems to me to be drawn from an outdated hierarchy between “professional” and “amateur” work. Some of the most inspiring performances I have seen in recent years have been co-created with communities. Did you ever get to be part of “Invited” by Seppe Baeyens?
Perhaps we need more specific terms for diﬀerent practices? I think there are practices which are about “mediating” work for audiences, practices which aim to make a piece more accessible to audiences for example, or journalistic practices, or some dance in schools work. I know many of my colleagues have no objection to the term and feel it is relevant to their work. Of course it should be available to those who identify with it. On the other hand, it seems to be the umbrella term gaining acceptance for the field of participatory dance in Germany and this I find problematic. In the UK, there is a similar debate around the naming of the field where the terms Community Dance / participatory dance / socially engaged practice / dance leadership are in circulation. I am not a dance historian or scholar – I am a dance maker – so I make no claims to a thorough knowledge of the evolution of any of these terms, but as they are used by others about my work, I am interested in questioning them, particularly when they do not feel like the right “fit” for my work.
There are some other interesting topics which float up in the interview, including intersections in thematic interests between we associated artists and the need for sustained, long-term research process introduced by Caroline Jüngst. Inspired by her words, I want to take this moment to thank Aktion Tanz for the opportunity to to work in a sustained way, to draw the strands of my thinking with, on and through dance together in a year-long process. And in the spirit of revisiting, deepening and extending work over time, I want to thank shibak sharqi gGmbH and the Dachverband Tanz (programme DIS-TANZEN financed by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media in the program NEUSTART KULTUR) for the financial support which has given me time and space to read, walk and reflect about my work in recent years, a vital precursor to me feeling able to start writing at all.
You can listen to the chain interview here.
Böhler,A. & Granzer S. (2018). ‘Bodily Grounds for Ethics: Wounded Bodies’ in Ertem, G. & Noeth,
S. eds. Bodies of Evidence: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Politics of Movement. Vienna: Passagen Verlag.