Ken Bartlett finds Akademi's community dance initiatives thriving outside the conventional framework
Written in 2006.
There are some remarkable parallels between the development of South Asian dance and community dance in the UK. Misunderstood within the aesthetics of critical discourse and boxed in by a funding system that, certainly in the early days, didn’t understand the cultures from which these dance forms emerged – their roots, purposes or complexities – they were identified with ‘guilty liberal’ notions of doing good for the poor, the disadvantaged and the other.
I can recall, within the last ten years, a senior Arts Council officer responding to a funding application from a South Asian dance artist of renown by saying that she should concentrate on doing work with ‘her own community’, implying, therefore, that she should not aspire to be taken seriously as a mainstream artist, but more importantly revealing a lack of understanding of both art and communities and the potential of the relationship between them. Confusion about dance, community, South Asian dance and South Asian communities abound and indeed there are many versions of them all within each frame. That confusion can be used to limit what can be done or it can be used as a liberating power – to make definitions that suit us, at any given moment for any given audience. In a sense that is what the best community dance has developed into over the past twenty-five years. Our practitioners have reached out to the widest range of people in our society and have offered creative outlets and forms built on the expressive needs and aspirations of individuals and groups, without forgetting that artists are people and people are artists in the full flow of their lived experience which together with their body experiences can create moments of great beauty that rupture the mundane and offer future hope.
Having observed and having been involved in various ways with Akademi over the past ten years, it seems to me that as an organisation they have covered the ‘field’, taking on everything from tightly focussed projects with schools relating to key stages in the National Curriculum and health projects in hospitals and communities, to popular cultural initiatives with young Asian men, professional development of artists and wild, vastly scaled extravaganzas at the South Bank Centre.
Akademi, under the direction of the fiercely indefatigable Mira Kaushik, has taken definitions of dance, education and community, sunk its teeth into them and shaken them until they surrendered. The organisation, its staff and the artists it has collaborated with have then carefully put these ideas back together, making new definitions and providing new opportunities that have consistently challenged and surprised. Whilst doing that it has worked both within and against the traditions and diversity of South Asian dance. Akademi has recognised that community is something that is dynamic and changing so it has worked within and across the Asian British cultures that are emerging and changing as identity and culture continue to be redefined in twenty-first century Britain.
Akademi nonetheless continues to support strong connections to the spirit and roots from which its distinctive contribution to dance in Britain arises, but it has resisted accepting a single definition of dance or South Asian dance; dance artist or South Asian dance artist; community or Asian community and in that lies its strength and its survival. Resisting the boxes others want to place us in and define us by is one of the important roles artists have in society, but perhaps challenging the notion of boxes altogether is the most important function in a time when ‘the uncertain and afraid’ are seeking to pin everything down and have ‘a place for everything and everything in its place.’ Community dance can and should be about creating more options for living, more human connections for survival and feeding dreams of what we want our futures to be.
Long may Akademi keep refusing to be boxed in, in its work within and across communities, while continuing to build new, unexpected and startling links in the world of dance … and in life.