Tuesday 8 July 2008

Dancing around the issues

Excellence and Social Inclusion – an impossible partnership?, RSA, London, Wednesday 2 July

The launch of a new project - Destino - at the RSA, by Dance United, an organisation that aims to transform lives through dance, centred around a discussion about whether using art to promote social inclusion was at loggerheads with pursuing artistic excellence. The discussion was chaired by Christopher Frayling, recently re-appointed Chair of Arts Council England, and longtime defender of the view that social inclusion and hard-nosed standards can exist hand in hand when it comes to the arts.

Government policy has long focused on the benefits artistic practice can bring to the confidence and skills of individuals, and the positive effects it can bring to rejuvenating communties. Social inclusion has been at the heart of cultural policy for many years, but in July last year, a report published by James Purnell, Secretary of State for Culture, claimed to place excellence, and judgement not measurement, at the heart of arts funding. How this filters down to the everyday activities and views of arts practitioners, enthusiasts and critics is a complicated and open question, not least when it comes to investigating how government money is allocated across the ‘cultural sector’. In this, the very existence and work of Dance United is an interesting case study.

Since gaining charitable status in 2002, Dance United has sought to use dance to realise the potential of individuals and communities. Its supporters run around the globe – they’ve have projects in Ethopia – as well working in prisons, and have now developed a long-term project in partnership with Sadlers Wells that will proudly see teenagers perform on the main stage.

Their central argument is simple: dance instills confidence. Not only does it give teenagers discipline, but as Artistic Director Tara-Jane Herbert explains, ‘you have to be still before you make an action’, thinking about the impact what you do will have on those around you. Dance United takes a professional attitude towards the teenagers it trains, giving them a one-on-one teaching relationship (often for the first time), pushing them hard, and making no bones about the fact that in the final peformance, they ‘will be judged’. The event starts with a short film about Darrell – one of the Dance United Academy’s former pupils. It shows him sitting around looking bored in hoody, and the voice-over has him explain that in the past his approach to life was if he wanted anyfin, he’d just get it. Darrell comes to join the discussion afterwards – he’s recently got a job, having been helped by Dance United staff to fill in applications, and cracks jokes in his thick northern accent. Darrell has undoubtedly done well for himself, but despite Frayling’s correct contention that to give young people anything less than the best would be patronising, his inclusion in the discussion about the role and purpose of Dance United makes me, at least, feel slightly awkward. Darrell is held up as the success story he undoubtedly is, but at times it feels a bit like he’s wheeled out as an exhibit rather than really asked for his view. The other panellists are former Chair of the Youth Justice Board, Professor Rod Morgan, who has condemned overcrowding in the prison system, and Paul Collard, from the government’s Find Your Talent scheme, which aims to give disadvantaged children five hours of quality cultural experiences a week. Asked if this approach uses the arts as an educational tool at the expense of focusing on a better-worked out educational policy, and whether artists should be spending their time teaching children rather than focusing on their own work, Morgan talks about how art can take you to unknown places, bringing a ‘rigorous doubt’ to the way we see and experience the world. But this view is later challenged by another of Dance United’s choreographers, who claimed that artists are important above all for their creative vision. The talk ends by looking at the idea of leadership in the arts. If getting involved with projects like Dance United can make people turn their lives around, then perhaps there’s a role for those committed to the arts more generally to benefit the disadvantaged in society. The transformative role an involvement with any creative activity can play in a person’s life is what’s at stake. And the last question of the session takes this further: what should happen to those who’ve taken part in these projects once they’ve finished? Few want to go onto be professional dancers, and the aim has always been to find ways of ‘reintegrating’ them into society. Dance United stays in touch with people who’ve gone through their schemes for up to three years afterwards, finding out what they’re doing and offering support. But here, the discussion really has to blow open to consider not just the general role of the arts in contemporary society, but the socio-economic reasons for such wide inequality in the first place. The second point is overlooked by Dance United, and indeed, by much thinking about ‘social inclusion’. While the work of Dance United is born of a passion for dance and a desire to pass that onto other people, and in this provides a method for all involved to spend their time doing what they love; broader – including governmental – thinking about the arts shouldn’t be forgotten so easily. On a case by case basis, arts charities that aim towards ‘reintegration’ do some worthwhile work. But the broader context is one characterised by a general lack of cultural authority in the arts and criticism about them. The idea of ‘excellence’ should not just mean making individual value-judgements’ it should encompass a whole attitude that values artistic activity on its own merit, and that’s something that can hardly be taken for granted today. In this context, answering the question of whether social inclusion and excellence are an impossible partnership has only just begun.

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