Men & Girls Dance – Successful risk-taking in participatory art

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

‘That’s a bad idea.’ It was months ago and I don’t remember now who told me about a proposed dance project involving men and girls, but I do remember my reaction: it just seemed like a really bad idea. On Saturday, I got the last ticket for the matinée of Men & Girls Dance at Dance 4 and was blown away by one of the most beautiful, moving, funny and joyous hours I’ve spent in a theatre. A bad idea? More fool me.

Apparently, Fevered Sleep’s co-artistic directors, Sam Butler and David Harradine, were surprised by the resistance they met when they began research. Their initial impulse had been aesthetic – exploring how bodies of tall, trained adults might move with those of small children. People’s reactions to the idea of men dancing with girls quickly changed that. At a time of intense and well-founded questions about how some adults abuse their power over children, this really was a dangerous proposal.

But to courageous artists like Fevered Sleep, those anxieties – and their ambiguous reverberation in the media – were a reason to persevere, not to back away. The project, in development now for over three years, gained a clearly political strapline:

A new dance piece celebrating the rights of adults and children to be together, to play together and to dance together

It’s always good to see a rights-based approach to participatory art. And this work had to be participatory, since its very conception unites children and adults, those who dance for pleasure and those who do it as a profession, the untutored and the highly trained. So it has developed as a series of residencies: Folkestone, Huddersfield, Salford and now Nottingham. (The piece goes on to Brighton in October and London in April 2017.) Each town brings a new partnership. In Nottingham, it was the ever-inventive Dance 4, finally installed in premises with their own beautiful studios.

From an open call for participants, nine girls are chosen to work with the five male dancers. The choreography leaves space for improvisation and the piece developed by each new company during a two-week rehearsal period is always different. These children truly are co-creators.  Their ideas, movement and presence remakes the hour-long performance. The result, at least to judge from what I saw, is extraordinary. The presence of two groups is inescapable and not avoided: the men’s maleness is plain in their luxuriant beards. But they are not in charge. One of the piece’s successes is how control of what is happening, or might happen next, seems to dance continually from one group to the other, or from one person to another. Who leads and who follows shifts as in true relationship. Authority here is not only physical.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

It begins in doubt as the groups look at each other across a space in which there is only a carpet of newspaper. Hands extend invitations. Posture and movement is slowly imitated. Tentative connections are made. In this playground the men remember their own childhoods while the children play at being adults in professional roles. Somewhere in the middle, as their paths cross, they meet and begin to play.

For set, design and costume, there’s only newspaper. It’s an inspired choice. These people are in a space literally defined by the media. In the next hour, they take control of it. What begins as a blindfold or a minotaur’s head is tamed and eventually mocked. They strip newsprint off a man encased in its pages, lift it high as a magic carpet, roll about in its folds and finally have a snowball fight with it until it’s just waste paper. The laughter, innocence and joyful movement have chased other stories from the room.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

At the heart of the piece is our natural fascination with other people. It reclaims the wonder of watching, as girls and men describe what they see in a partner’s body and its movements: ‘He’s on his left tip-toe.’ ‘He’s leaning back and looking at the sky’. ‘I can see she’s holding her ankle in her left hand’. When, at the end, the performers line up one by one in front of the audience to look at us, as we have looked at them, we are made aware of our watching and yet made comfortable in seeing that this is what people do. We do find one another endlessly watchable, endlessly fascinating.

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

Still, despite the smiles and laughter, we live in the world we live in and there’s plenty here to make you think. Waiting to go in, one man surrounded by families and couples, I felt uncomfortable, wondering if others would be looking at me. It’s an experience that David Harradine evokes in the newspaper that is another element of the project:

‘There was me, this solitary man, alone at the village bonfire, watching someone else’s children playing. A self-censorship: not letting myself watch for fear of being watched.’

The Men & Girls Dance newspaper is a rich artwork that brings together images from performance and rehearsal, critical reflection, personal memories, official documents, audience reactions and more. It acknowledges, in a lasting but approachable form, the project’s tensions and difficulties. But it also affirms the belief of those involved that the evil done by some must not be allowed to spread everywhere and poison the vital relationships of adults and children. Being aware is not the same as being wary.

The third element of this important project is the talking space, which is how I got drawn into it in the first place. Walking through the old Sneinton Market I passed a shop with its doors open and a neon sign: ‘come in we’re open’. So I did, and found myself talking with Luke Pell, whose task is to encourage conversations about men and girls dancing. Among blackboards, photographs and plates of posh biscuits, people can talk about their feelings, ideas and memories of their own childhoods. Some write in scrapbooks or – habit of the social media world – comment on what others have written. After each visit, Luke continues the discussion on the Men & Girls Dance blog.

No answers are sought or given: there’s just the aim of encouraging reflection. I specially liked the straightforward language used. Unlike so many works aspiring to be participatory, there was little sense of artworld language and preoccupations.

Why did I like this project so much? Partly, it’s true, because the show was delightful, thought contemporary dance isn’t always the most accessible form. It reminded me of when my own children were small and the joys of that closeness. It passes and is replaced with other kinds of closeness, but each stage of parenthood is unique and special. I never looked into my daughter’s eyes with the same intensity after she learned to talk: until then, all I had to understand what she wanted was the expression on her face. So yes, there is a personal dimension – but what is art good for if it doesn’t touch us personally?

'Men & Girls Dance' - Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)
‘Men & Girls Dance’ – Fevered Sleep (Photo Benedict Johnson)

But that feeling would not go far in this complex and risky project. There are so many traps  here that could have curdled my enthusiasm. Glibness, exploitation, grandstanding, incompetence: I’ve seen them all in participatory projects. Here, I saw care, method, bravery, openness and a consistent consciousness of the risks involved – especially for those outside the company. The decisive element was sensing that these artists were genuinely more interested in those they were working with than in their own ideas. That was evident in each dancer’s performance and in the project’s conception and execution. The different elements make a whole with beauty, political resonance and human integrity. That’s a rare trick to pull off.

Men & Girls Dance is a fine demonstration that participatory art can be as challenging as any other practice and that it can offer experiences that are second to none.

All performance photos by Benedict Johnson. Thanks to Fevered Sleep and Dance 4 for help with this case study.

The difference between teaching and learning: Participatory art and the skills agenda

The value of participatory art in informal education has long been recognised. People who take part in such projects can gain all sorts of technical, practical, intellectual, creative and life skills. Many organisations working in the field know that from experience and have wanted to show it convincingly to politicians and the educational profession.

For the past two years, a group of community organisations from the UK, Spain, Poland, Greece and Bulgaria have been exploring how to relate what people learn through their projects to EU Key Competencies and Employment Skills. The short video above gives a good idea of the thinking involved. The SILO Partnership’s work was supported by researchers at Liverpool’s Institute of Cultural Capital. Among its valuable results is a comprehensive toolkit that will be useful to anyone needing to demonstrate clear learning outcomes of their work.

Still, this approach has its drawbacks, not least in the time needed to record individual progress. Whilst structured assessment is important in more formal contexts, I worry that it might encourage policy-makers to underestimate the value of informal learning. So, when I was invited to give a keynote at the SILO programme’s closing conference, I spoke not only about the many skills that people gain through participatory arts practice but also about why it is different and what might be lost in making it too much like college:

Sometimes people participating in an arts project are conscious that they are learning, because an artist or a workshop leader or another participant is showing them how to do something. But mostly they are learning without thinking about it, because they are caught up in the moment, focused on the creative work and its ideas, concerned with the story they are telling or the feelings they’re exploring, or concentrating on doing something difficult because it is needed for the project.

For those reasons, participatory art is a very effective space for learning. Since there’s no programme or curriculum, people make their own course, led by their interest and enthusiasm. They learn better by following their interests, curiosity and being in charge of their journey rather than being instructed or taught. We forget most of what we’re taught. We remember what we’ve learned.

Click here for the full text of my talk at the SILO Conference in Liverpool on 24 August 2016.

With thanks to all the organisations in the SILO partnership for inviting me to speak:


Time in participatory and community art

Time is an important factor in differentiating in participatory and community art. The shorter the project, the less potential for the participants to influence its development. People may share a meal with an artist in a gallery or stand naked in the street to be photographed but their influence on the resulting work is marginal. Such works do not require participants to have or use any artistic knowledge or ability. Their experience, feelings or individuality are not required. One participant could be replaced by another and it would make no substantive difference to the art.

A project that develops over weeks, months or – as in the case of Granby 4 Streets – years has another character. Here, relations can become relationships. There is a basis for real negotiation between artist and participant. Power relations may shift as people acquire (or take) knowledge, skills, resources or consciousness. Time allows an art project to become developmental. The work is under no one’s complete control because it is impossible to know how it will evolve. It can only be the product of a genuine process of co-creation.

There are traps in durational work just as intense moments have transformative potential. It’s also true that short events can be the artistic marker of a long process of shared creation (as in the festival below). It would be simplistic to equate time and quality in a binary fashion. That said,  longer term work has always held most interest for me.

Note: The images on this page offer contrasting representations of Eastern Europe. At the top is ‘Total Chaos’ an immersive art project by artists collective Reactor which took place over four days in 2006. At the bottom the photos are from a 2003 Living Heritage project in Bulgaria developed by local people over a year that gathered hundreds of people to celebrate the ties of a community dispersed by economic and social change.

Remembering Craigmillar Festival Society

‘Art was always used at Craigmillar as a frontline activity, as a language of regeneration: it was about fighting talk, where the people of Craigmillar would not take no for an answer.’

Craigmillar Festival Society was one of the pioneering community arts organisations in Britain. It was particularly important in being created and controlled by local people. This short documentary, made by Plum Films in 2004, captures something of the creativity, passion and vision of the people involved. It is an inspiring glimpse into another time.

These people’s work – and their view of community, activism, art and themselves – is worth reflecting on today. It challenges many well-established assumptions about how and why participatory arts is now done.

Fifty years on, you wonder what we have learned – and what we have forgotten.

Connections and differences between participatory art and community art

Gormley 'One & Other' 2009
Antony Gormley ‘One & Other’ London, 2009

One reason why this blog (and the book it supports) is called ‘A Restless Art’ is to escape the trap of what to call the artistic practice I’m writing about. There is a huge range of terms: participatory art, socially engaged art, relation practice, geologic aesthetics, community art, interactive art, activist art… the list goes on. I’m trying to untangle some of that in the first part of the book, which I’ve now begun. My interest is less in the shifting theories behind these labels than in why artists and critics have felt the need to keep defining their differences. That says a lot about the place of the work within and beyond the art world.

However, since the book is about ‘participatory and community art’, it is important to explain what I understand by those terms, even if others have different interpretations.  I’ve written before about how many British artists stopped describing their work as community art during the 1990s and the ideological implications of that choice. (You can read that paper here.) But the term ‘participatory art’ has a much wider meaning in the art world. In an article on participatory art in the Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics (OUP 2014), Tom Finkelpearl relates the term to art

“created through the participation of people in addition to the artist or art collective. In participatory art people referred to as citizens, regular folks, community members, or non-artists interact with professional artists to create the works.”

This definition, which is clear enough as far as it goes, describes a very large landscape indeed, much of it beyond the scope of this project or my interest. So it is necessary to consider the relationship between this vast field and the work that I – still – describe as community art.  That seems particularly important since the  Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics has nothing to say about community art, although many artists have been describing their work in that way since the 1960s.

So, in this book, I use both participatory art and community art, though not to mean the same thing.

Gormley 'One and Other' - 2

By participatory art, I mean the whole field of collaborative arts work, from Gormley’s Field to Streetwise Opera, where artists involve the public in making art.

By community art I mean a radical rights-based approach to participation in art characterised by a critical social engagement.

'VULNUS'' Transformas, Barcelona 2016
‘VULNUS” Transformas, Barcelona 2016

Participatory art is a vast and varied field of artistic practice of which community art is only one part. But it is important to focus on community art because – as well as being a practice in its own right – it has functioned as an avant-garde to the field as a whole. Community art is exploratory, innovative, radical and challenging. At its best, it’s the R&D section of participatory art. As such, its work has not always been good or successful. Some of its ideas have been dead ends or embarrassing failures. But even these are interesting and worth learning from. The ground-breaking work of community art has tested ideas and practices that have since become established across and beyond the field of participatory art.

Rosie Wheatland, in 'Bed', Entelechy Arts, Bristol, 2016
Rosie Wheatland, in ‘Bed’, Entelechy Arts, Bristol, 2016