Read Rose Fenton and Roberto Casarotto's recommendations
Forward steps are wider steps
By Yasen Vasilev
The three sessions of the Action on Equity inquiry focused respectively on gender and financial equity, disability, and race and ethnicity, posing questions about the future of the network and how to diversify the artists it represents; how to reach, empower and make visible marginalised communities; and to question power structures, access and language. The main question that comes up is: is contemporary dance diverse enough in the first place, and if not, what can we do to encourage change?
Point of application
The data Aerowaves collects currently reflects only its selected artists, so the picture of its applicants in relation to gender, class, race, (dis)ability and training is blurry. Collecting and thinking about this information at the point of application is a first step to ensure more just representation. Subtitled video and audio versions of the open call and the option to apply with a video or audio file will also make the application more accessible to artists with disabilities. Translating the call to other languages can help non-English speakers get to know the network and apply.
Reaching potential new applicants is a challenge because of the already overwhelming number of applications – twenty artists selected annually from 600 –700 applicants. This extreme competition should also be softened and artists made to feel more welcome, while the benefit of applying even if not selected should be made clear.
How you look at what you see
What standards do we use in relation to ‘contemporary dance’? Maybe the network has to be more open to practices from different subcultures, communities and people with non-formal training; their work can still be ‘contemporary’. Diversifying the selection committee, including Springback writers and previous selected artists as recommenders, and decolonising the understanding of ‘contemporary’ are steps that could encourage openness to wider varieties of forms and disciplines.
Aerowaves’ Springback Academy is a good example of how the network can build a community. The writers are invited every year, creating a sense of a group and an opportunity to really know the Partners over time. Whereas an Aerowaves artist often comes for one or two days of the Spring Forward festival, and is too busy to figure out who to talk to, and how. Maybe another networking event without live performances should be included, in the form of pitches, one-on-one meetings with producers, or a longer residency with the network.
Quality and inequality
Artists from poorer regions with less infrastructure have fewer resources to develop professional paths. Support from Aerowaves might be instrumental in giving them a boost in international visibility. It’s easy to look at North European artists as professional and Eastern Europeans as amateur, but they often have to work much harder than their peers in the North to make one production possible. When quality is judged, inequality should be taken into account.
Outside the box
In all three cases (gender, race, disability) a distinction has to be made between the artist’s identity and the artist’s work to avoid pushing people into boxes. Gender non-conforming people do not necessarily make work about oppression, disabled artists do not necessarily make their bodies the central topic of each piece they make – and so on. When choosing a topic unlimited by these identities, minority artists can feel that festivals and programmers try to put them back into a box that’s marketable. Often they question their own abilities and the quality of their work because they think they might be selected just to tick the right box.
Invite people with both lived experience and expertise on these problems to contribute to solutions together with artists and audiences. In relation to disability, the compromises and commitments artists can make can’t be taken for granted, and should be discussed on a case-by-case basis. The same is true for audiences with disabilities, who deserve to be offered at least two different ways of translation and experiencing a work, so that they have a choice rather than a single option that is imposed on them. Dialogue, honesty, care and trust are of crucial importance.
Integral, not additional
Dance artist Chiara Bersani pointed out that educational programmes are often inaccessible for disabled artists, and these artists feel the professional circuit is not open to their work. This is reflected in the number of choreographers who collaborate with disabled performers as a form of social and artistic practice, as opposed to the number of disabled choreographers and makers who actually have the space, recognition and resources to make their own work.
I want to finish quoting the guest speakers Chiara Bersani – “coolness is not cheap, coolness is important” – and Freddie Opoku-Addaie: “widen the centre, decolonise the programme”. When the exceptions become part of the norm, when they’re not sticking out, when they’re not questioning their place and capacity, when they own their identities and positions, when they’re not used as proof of inclusion – a word that already reveals existing divisions and exclusions – that’s when we will know we have made the step forward.
'Tokenism, tickbox, tolerated’ – How do we widen the centre?
By Irina Glinski
In her introduction to Hold On: Diversity and Managing in the Arts, Amanda Parker suggests that in the UK, we have “a long tradition of maintaining structural inequalities, while simultaneously wringing our hands about it.” She suggests that we are held back from making change by a lack of imagination, and by fear – of losing status, of stepping out of line.
I recognise that fear. Many of us do. And as I interweave some themes from the Action on Equity inquiry with personal reflections and recommendations, I will sometimes ask open-ended questions of ‘us’ – by which I mean both Aerowaves and the wider dance community.
Why do some people not apply to Aerowaves? Is it time to reconsider the way we look at work when making selections? Demystifying the application– for example, by being transparent about who is involved in decision-making at each stage of selection, and the criteria to which they make their judgements – could work towards dismantling the belief held by some that Aerowaves is ‘not for me’.
In the session on disability, it was agreed that the application process should be made as accessible as possible. Consideration should be given to the possibility of audio application, subtitling videos and social media materials, and to a visually accessible website. Best practice guidance in this area can be sourced from other arts organisations where available; there is no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.
Widening the centre
Invited as a guest speaker, dance artist Chiara Bersani spoke of being considered “an exception within the world of professional dance”, and still feels pushed to represent disability at every turn. Images of her body have been used in promotional material for a piece she had choreographed but was not performing in; her body and disability becoming the ‘hook’. She also referred to the necessity of compassion and care: for her, it is not possible to work quickly. It is essential to consider different paces of working when commissioning and programming.
All of the Partners at the inquiry expressed the desire to form more meaningful relationships with artists, as a means to build trust in the network. This would provide opportunities to give individualised and responsive support, and encourage applications that are more representative of our wider dance communities.
Addressing issues of inclusion is not cheap: financial precarity and economic inequality are spectres that haunt all discussions on equity. For example, Bersani spoke of the financial implications of making sure that venues were accessible, for both performers and audiences. Similarly, having space for a more reflexive and responsive development and rehearsal process simply costs more.
Aerowaves as a cultural institution
Guest speaker Anthea Lewis suggested that some artists deliberately create work outside the scope of the ‘institution’ because they have historically felt othered by it. Can Aerowaves be seen as a place for these people? Competitive entry might put off anyone who simply does not have the energy to go through that process, and developing deeper and longer-lasting relationships with artists might go some way to dismantling this barrier. There were multiple references to the barriers inherent in traditional training paths, which have an impact on the range of work put forward for Aerowaves selection.
Of course, Aerowaves cannot be responsible for implementing the sector-wide reforms that would be required to redress these structural inequalities, but the network does have the opportunity to look beyond formal dance education programmes, and to work with performers from more diverse backgrounds.
It is understandable that these discussions can prompt feelings of defensiveness or hesitance; sometimes we are frightened to ask difficult questions because we are afraid of how the answers will reflect on us, and of the perceived workload that these answers might bring. However, I believe this can be reframed as an opportunity to take compassionate, brave action.
Aerowaves may have been born of anarchic roots, but it now has an opportunity to set out a stall for deep-rooted and sustainable change. I believe it is possible to compile a toolkit or manifesto that is both specific in its recommendations and guidance, and also has the capacity and nuance to account for country-specific contextualisation. It is essential that we take guidance on these matters from people with lived experiences ofthese barriers at every stage of the process.
Aerowaves has the potential to become the vehicle for change: I can envisage a future where organisations feel able to turn towards Aerowaves for guidance and best practice on equity. AsParker states, imagination takes courage – but surely now is the right time to be brave.
The 3 Ts – tokenism, tickbox, tolerated – are from Freddie Opoku-Addaie, director of Dance Umbrella festival, London.