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 place of storytelling in participatory art

Is participatory art essentially about artists creating work from the raw material of other people’s life experience? That seems to be the view of some artists I’ve met recently. Their projects begin by identifying a neighbourhood or community seen to be in some kid of difficulty. A process of ‘research’ leads to collecting the stories, memories or experiences of the people who participate, to be retold in theatre, installation, or some other form to those who shared it, or to a wider audience.

Telling unheard stories is not a new practice. It was often the essence of community plays, a form once more popular than it is now. It has been at the centre of much community arts work, such as Amber Collective’s, and my own work: 25 years ago, I worked on a project that enabled people with mental health problems to create work about their lives, when a change in policy saw the hospital in which they were living close.* A belief in helping marginalised people use art for self-representation was at the heart of the community art movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fireplace (Sydney Bowler)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Today, artists seem much readier to tell people’s stories on their behalf. I have seen some extraordinary work result from this, but I also wonder whether the gain in artistic virtuosity may be at the expense of other kinds of quality.

Stories are how we make sense of our lives. They are both private and public, and it matters what we share, with whom, how and why. Our stories are never objective, even if we believe them absolutely. They shape our relationships and behaviour. Sometimes, they are keys that unlock rights or access services. Stories are central to art and art is central to how we create our stories.

No wonder artists invite people to share their stories in a participatory art project. No wonder too that doing so raises complex ethical, artistic and philosophical questions. What consent is sought and given? What promises are made or implied?  Do both sides have a common understanding of what they are doing? If it is in the nature of art to produce unanticipated results, what guarantees can an artist give about how a person’s story might be used or received? Similar ethical dilemmas arise in other fields, such as documentary filmmaking or academic research, but I wonder if participatory arts has yet developed a comparable reflection on them.

Refreshment Room (Aiden Hammer)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Then there is the question of how a story becomes art. Is it simply in the act of public presentation? Hardly, or the life stories continually retailed in the media would be art. Is it in the use of artistic techniques to retell it? Perhaps it is in being retold by an artist? But then who is an artist? Many community artists base their work in the idea that anyone can be an artist – which raises further questions, for another day – so how does a story change if it is told by a hired interpreter rather than the person whose experience it retells?

Is telling a story enough? Some artists take the view that it is, that the artwork is sufficient in itself and that their task is to reflect their lives to those who participated. Others argue that mirroring past or present realities should be a step towards debate about what might change. This is not just about politics or theory. It is also about art and whether what is created in a participatory process is rich and profound enough to stand without the context that produced it.

And finally, are stories essential to participatory art? Personally, I don’t think so. Art does not have to be narrative. Nor does it have to be rooted in lived experience. Participatory and community art has a far wider range of resources and languages to draw on than life stories, valuable as they are . Rituals, metaphors and symbols; inarticulate feelings, fears and dreams; private imaginations and public images; shared creation, shared memory – the possibilities are almost endless. I have many uncertainties about how and why artists use other people’s stories to make art but I’ve no doubt that it should only ever be one of the ways in which participatory art is created.

Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
  •  The photographs illustrating this post were made by participants in that project, working with the late Ross Boyd, a fine photographer and teacher . They were published in 1990 and 1991 in two books and toured the UK in an exhibition called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’.

Radical Vulnerability – The Making of Art Lady

The remarkable comes in all shapes and sizes. Last week it was an inspired performance of Mozart by prison inmates. Today, it’s one artist’s work with residents of a sheltered housing scheme on the south coast of England.

Eve Turner-Lee - 4It’s not the project itself that caught my attention – similar work happens across the world – it was how the artist, Eve Turner-Lee, has recorded, thought about and shared her work. One reason for beginning ‘A Restless Art’ is my sense that practice – what artists actually do when they work with people – is not thought or talked about enough . In publishing The Making of Art Lady, a 32 page A4 comic documenting her project, Eve has produced a rich resource for students and artists who are thinking of working with people in similar contexts – and a rare portrait of her own developing practice.

Art Lady is an unusual superhero – gentle and domestic, in keeping with the challenges she confronts, and none the worse for that. But, in common with some of her comic book peers, she is assailed by self-doubt and ethical dilemmas as she learns how to be an ‘inclusive artist’. The comic, like the project it follows, were undertaken as part of Eve’s MA studies. Looking back at the experience, she told me:

‘I felt I was researching both ‘how to’ and ‘what is’ Inclusive Arts. Participatory arts practice was new to me having previously studied Fine Art and aspired to be a ‘solo visual artist’. I found working with others profoundly inspiring. It replenished my enthusiasm and faith in arts practice (both my own and more generally).’

The comic follows the course of her work with seven people as they explore art’s possibilities together. Very early, the project takes a sidestep, when one person wants to do something with a puppet she has made in a workshop with another artist. It’s not uncommon to find that one group member has different desires and the story of how those are fulfilled while also meeting everyone else’s interests is honestly told. In explaining why she chose the comic book format to reflect on the project as it evolved, Eve says that one of her discoveries was that film, which she also used to document the project, was not very approachable to the participants:

‘Many seemed to put it off with the intention of watching it with someone but never finding the right moment. On the pilot project, I had given them all booklets with images of the work we made and I found this a much more accessible and popular format for them.

A commitment to reflexive practice is not unusual (though it’s more often honoured by words than deeds). What impressed me about Eve’s approach was how she extended that commitment to the people she was working with, even to the extent of adopting an entirely new medium through which to practice art as research.

ArtLadyComic1 (15b)

It takes courage to speak about your feelings to those you work with. To share the work not just with your tutor and fellow students but with the world is something else. Many readers will empathise with the artist bullied by dark fears about competence that crowd into some of the frames. But the comic is also honest about how a project develops, when things don’t work or when good ideas emerge by accident rather than intention. One of the most powerful pages describes Art Lady handling a situation where one participant’s judgement undermines another member of the group.

It is one story, of one project, but it is precisely its particularity that makes it worth reading.

Eve Turner-Lee - 3

For an outsider, the comic has the admirable quality of demystifying what actually happens when an artists works with people.  Good community art practice strips away the mystification that makes the artist into a magician (with all the power that brings) while preserving art’s true mystery which is, as Art Lady finds, that you can’t control it so you never know where it will take you.

Done well, as it is here, it’s a kind of radical vulnerability that creates space for the best work to happen. This is a complex issue, at the heart of how an artist establishes relationship with the people she works with. Finding ways to accept and share one’s own vulnerability – honestly – can be a path towards a more equal power distribution within the group.