As Brucie and co hit our screens again this autumn with family favourite Strictly Come Dancing, just watch your tippy-toes don’t get trampled on by the stampede of policy pundits rushing to grab a piece of the sequin-flashing action. Dance, it is now declared, will make us healthy people, heal social and racial divides and regenerate communities. Oh cynicism, your name is New Labour - these claims appeal to a political elite whose mandate is so impoverished they need to hang on to Graham Norton’s frock coat-tails in an effort to connect with ‘the people’.
But what I really can’t stomach is the arts elite, people who should be the defenders of art, hitching an easy ride on the Strictly Come Dancing bandwagon. In 2006 the government’s Dance Manifesto was published, bringing the whole UK dance industry together to voice, as one, its priorities and ambitions. Many of the manifesto’s aims are laudable and many, quite frankly, suck - suck of political opportunism, dumbing down and, worst, a patronising ‘good enough’ attitude to art. What I wanted - what dance as art needs, what art needs full stop - is a no holds barred defence of excellence, endeavour and risk. And the thing about those three pillars of great art is that they aren’t easy-come, easy-go, accessible-to-everyone, all-things-to-all-men platitudes. Trotting out a whoopee-de-do figure of ‘10 million dancers’ (!) to show how popular dance is makes perfect sense if that equates to 10 million me-and-and-my-mums tuning in to Strictly Come Dancing. The Manifesto goes from the sublime to the ridiculous when it claims dance ‘is truly multicultural, can unify communities, and is open to all ages and abilities’ as well as, allegedly, being able to build healthy communities and bring together people of different ethnic backgrounds, ages, religions and mental and physical abilities. Oh and don’t forget facilitating intercultural dialogue, regeneration and social integration. Let’s not mince words - this is codswallop.
Skipping the light fandango is no more going to alleviate poverty in Tower Hamlets than me shutting my eyes tight, spinning on the spot and saying ‘I really, really wish the world was a better place’. The bitter irony for both the arts and politics is that great art left alone to be great art has society at its heart; it offers something to society that nothing else can. Elite dance in the UK today is in rude health: as well as the Royal Ballet, Rambert, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre to name just a few of the larger companies, we are blessed with brilliant small companies and choreographers such as Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan and now Christopher Wheeldon. Yet, in keeping with so much official arts policy these days, the Dance Manifesto seems to lack the guts to defend the excellence of these artists in and of themselves. The elephant in the amphitheatre is ‘elitism’ and the fear of being accused of such: if it’s not accessible and do-able by everyone then it’s a non-starter. We seem to have totally lost our bearings as to what art is and why it matters.
Take that nebulous term ‘community dance’. What on earth does that mean? Is that me and my auntie ‘cutting the rug’ down the Irish centre? If so - leave us alone. We were dancing before dance became a social regeneration initiative and we’ll be dancing long after. This social activity requires no professional intervention and has nothing to do with art. The confusion that arises once our national arts programme is given over to accessibility, participation and community cohesion is huge and, ironically, goes some way to preserving the stalest of stereotypes. What I want from art is unadulterated elitism: I want the best. It’s this very elitism that offers true universalism, something that we might all aim for and claim, shouting out ‘mine too’. Shobana Jeyasingh, the contemporary Bharata Natyam choreographer (the classical dance of India), has an instructive tale to tell here: ‘I asked Richard Alston to make a piece for my dancers and he chose the music of Purcell. In one of the reports that I got from the Arts Council observers was the comment “The dancers are now dancing to our music. It is wonderful that they have made it their own”’. As Jeyasingh goes on to point out, she had been imbibing Purcell since age 12 at her school assemblies in Malaysia. Purcell, like Shelley, was part of her heritage. As you claim Shelly, so I claim Tagore.
Great art is no respecter of boundaries: it kicks down doors. What I despair of is not just that we have lost our nerve to kick down the door, but that we are producing a generation of young people who don’t even know there is a door to kick down. Just because you can bop a bit doesn’t make you a ballerina. You need to have talent and you need to absolutely strive for it: there is a reason why the technique of classical dance has lasted so long, is so demanding and is still seen as a pinnacle that dancers will break and strain their bodies for. Such dedication and belief crashes through cultural pigeonholes. Reading Ian Archer-Watters, a dancer with Les Ballets Grandiva, an all-male company who dance on pointe, describe the agony and determination of learning pointe work - ‘I didn’t get discouraged - dancing on pointe is a privilege… any other way doesn’t hold the same thrill’ - is more of a spur to let go your preconceptions than any of those damn equal opportunities boxes the Arts Council seems so fond of.
What drives me mad about arts policies that put inclusion before elitism is the shoddy view of society behind them. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that great art and a great society is built by each according to his ability - have we become so shallow and self-obsessed that we can’t appreciate the best art unless we are at the centre of it?
When art is allowed to be art without being burdened by political expediencies and policy targets it can sometimes genuinely lead the way beyond its aesthetic purpose. December 1st this year marks the 50th anniversary of the debut of George Balanchine’s Agon for the New York City Ballet, with music composed by Igor Stravinsky. Agon was greeted, as Edwin Denby notes, by ‘an enormous ovation’. It was also greeted by protests because of Diana Adams’ and Arthur Mitchell’s pas de deux: Adams was white and Mitchell was black. Balanchine was not making a self-consciously political point - the aesthetics trumped all. This choreographer to beat all choreographers thought Mitchell was the best dancer for the job, pure and simple. As Denby notes: ‘The fact that Miss Adams is white and Mr Mitchell is a Negro is neither stressed nor hidden: it adds to the interest’. Balanchine ignored the protests and refused to allow anyone but Mitchell to perform the role on television (Southern state stations would have refused to carry the show and advertisers baulked at this). Agon remains an aesthetic landmark as well as a small but important moment in social progression to this day.
Art, standing alone and unbending before political demands, kicks down a door by the by. Elite dance - elite art in general - should refuse cynical demands to ‘give us a twirl’ for political purposes. It should also shun the cosy ‘shut-that-door’ consensus of easy art for all, with its philistine and mean-minded suspicion towards excellence and elitism. By itself, in and of itself, the best art has the potential to open all our minds.
Shirley Dent is Communications Director for the Institute of Ideas, the Battle of Ideas and development editor of Culture Wars, the reviews website of the Institute of Ideas. She writes a blog at Guardian Unlimited Arts and is co-producing the Battle for New Technologies, as well as several other debates, at the Battle of Ideas 2007. Shirley researched the editorial and bibliographic history of William Blake’s works for her PhD, and co-authored a book on the subject with Jason Whittaker, Radical Blake: afterlife and influence from 1827.
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