Feature: SWAGGA - disrupting conventions in dance aesthetics

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Project O - Jamila Johnson Small & Alexandrina Hemsley. Photo: Katarzyna Perlak

Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley, who work together as Project O, met social worker Kay Hyatt and psychotherapist Charlotte Cooper in 2013, after they came to see Project O’s first work O, and expressed a desire to dance – but a prevailing feeling that dance wasn’t for them. Together, the four have created SWAGGA (Slowly Without Angst Giant Goddesses Attack) – in which Kay and Charlotte dance. It’s the first time Jamila and Alexandrina, who are members of the Bellyflop collective, have made work which they are not performing in themselves. So how does that feel? We asked them to tell us…

We are sitting in a studio a bit let down by the well-intentioned early readings of our first work O – a dance duet inspired by our experiences of racism and over-sexualisation as mixed race women. Apparently when we dance, we look like we are having loads of fun as opposed to suffering under the weight of racial and sexist stereotypes. Feeling a bit defeated, feeling that the urgency and pain in the work was overshadowed by our brown, female, trained dancer bodies that seemed to normalise and neutralise our efforts to talk about unconscious – damaging – prejudice and feelings of alienation; because there is little we are so used to seeing as a size 8-10 semi-nude female body, two legs, two arms, ten toes.. We were tired of being looked at and misrecognised in our exposure. We decide that for our next work we’d like to work with bodies that aren’t our own to see what meanings our choreography provokes then – we toy with the idea of working with men: “If these were men’s bodies, no-one could ignore this, no-one would leave saying how fun it had been, they would be affronted”, but quickly come to our senses, remembering that our priority is the visibility of invisible or un-discussed female subjective experience.

Charlotte Cooper and her girlfriend Kay Hyatt came to watch O and Charlotte wrote this personal and honest response to watching the work:

“I want to dance so much. Ohh God, there’s so much vulnerability and regret in that statement. I wish I’d known that dancing was a possibility when I was young, I’ve internalised it as a young woman’s game and now I’m too late. I know that injuries can happen very easily. I move tenderly, without gusto. There is often pain. There are so many things getting in the way of how I want to move: with fluency, without fear, with power and aggression, as a fat dyke, a working class woman of total wrongness, as a motherfucking queer aged 45 with arthritis in my knees and shitty lungs and shitty experiences and many many many things to say about everything”.
Dr Charlotte Cooper, Death to the Fascist Insect, 2013

We were moved. Charlotte really ‘got’ the show and at the same time felt that dancing – the space we feel we can utilise and take ownership, air our anger at the world and imagine new possibilities, was for her, a closed door. The decision to invite Charlotte and Kay wasn’t strategic or artistic but a very human one, we felt recognised, seen, and wanted to give back that gift. After reading this, we knew we had to invite Kay and Charlotte to work with us and to our luck they agreed. Last June, we all stepped into our unknowns.

Our collaboration is motivated in part around disrupting conventions in dance aesthetics and not stopping to consider the ‘boundaries’ between artistic genres. Working alongside Kay and Charlotte, we are continuing to do that. It is an interesting meeting where we confront issues around who has permission to dance and why; we want to trample upon the internalised social barriers between people and their dancing, and at the same time challenge the history of silenced black bodies as figures of fun, exoticism, entertainment and dance. SWAGGA has become a feminist practice of sharing, giving and taking space as we unravel our different preconceptions and privileges in the crafting of a dance show.

SWAGGA has led to The New Empowering School (developed with the support of Artsadmin), a ten-week course to support Kay and Charlotte and offer them different experiences of dance other than our own ideas about it. We opened up the school to ten other participants of different ages and backgrounds who, for whatever reason, felt that they did not have access to dance.

The development of SWAGGA and the school has felt a natural and important direction within our practice. By being in dialogue with ourselves as dancing people, and with people who feel dance isn’t/can’t be for them, we are continuing to create spaces (on and off stage) for experiences otherwise othered/marginalised within contemporary dance performance.

SWAGGA, 16 – 20 June, The Yard Theatre – part of a double bill in Now ’15 Festival

SWAGGA is supported by Arts Council Grants for The Arts, The Junction, The Yard Theatre, Siobhan Davies Dance, State of Emergency, Artsadmin and Dance Research Studio. Project O are Associate Artists at Dance Research Studio and and recipients of a 2014 Artsadmin Artists’ Bursary, supported by the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.

Main photo: Project O – Jamila Johnson-Small & Alexandrina Hemsley, by Katarzyna Perlak

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