Feature: Writing from Silence

Monday 15 February 2016

Ruth St Denis (in brownface): The Mother of American Modern Dance authenticates herself with Indian men dressed as priests - New York 1906. (From 'Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Tansnational Labor' by Priya Srinivasan)

Following the recent debates about gender inequality in the UK dance industry which were triggered by Akram Khan’s reported comments on female choreographers, a transnational collective of dance scholars and artists of colour (including three London based dance academics) came together to offer their perspective on what they believe has been a polarising and one-dimensional debate, split along gender lines alone. Although they sent their response to The Stage, (whose short interview with Khan sparked the debate) and other national press, it has not been published. They raise important questions, so we are including it here..

We write to offer an alternate perspective on the recent debate that has been generated about the unequal representation of female choreographers in the British dance industry. There has been a great silence from some sectors of the dance community and we are among them. We acknowledge that as dance scholars and artists of colour, many of us have been aware of the complexity of seeking a side in a debate that has been reduced to such a simplistic binary between women and men. Historically, feminists of colour have experienced these concerns and been pulled in different directions, having to either stand up for ‘their men’ (prioritising race/nation) or women (prioritising sex/gender). The implication has been that people of colour have to choose a side. Therefore, we have begun a transnational dialogue as a group of women and men from diverse geographical and social locations, who speak from and to the silence of these gaps.

This debate was triggered by an interview in The Stage with Akram Khan where he was quoted as saying ‘don’t have more female choreographers for the sake of it’. This was then followed by an article by Luke Jennings in The Guardian providing a polarizing and one-dimensional response to the debate. As many of you know, an Open Letter signed by 400 individuals across the UK and international dance sector, was delivered to Khan and subsequently published in The Stage. Finally, Khan wrote an apology to this Open Letter which too was published in The Stage. It is also worth reading Ismene Brown’s piece in The Spectator and Article19’s take on Khan’s apology.

Through all these exchanges, which have predominantly been aimed personally at Khan, what has been left out of this debate is an intersectional analysis of the situation. Coined by American law academic Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, intersectionality argues that oppressive institutions (such as racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, classism etc) must be examined only in relation to each other.

So why and how is intersectionality relevant to the debate on the underrepresentation of female choreographers in the UK? So far this discussion about institutionalised sexism in the British dance industry has not engaged with the fact that Khan is an artist of colour in any substantial way. Instead the debate has generated a simplistic split along gender lines alone (between men and women choreographers). What we want to put forward is a viewpoint that considers race, sex, gender, class, disability, nation, and sexuality together in relation to each other.

Khan has already spoken for himself, so we do not need to defend his statements. However we would like to offer the following three points for consideration: firstly we feel that the debate which has so far been aimed at a personal level needs to move on to a suitable public forum; secondly we wish to put Khan’s responses in a larger historical and political context, and finally we want to expand the debate beyond the simple binaries of men and women choreographers, to look at the issue of exclusion more broadly in the UK dance industry.

We need to acknowledge the various contexts from and within which Khan has emerged as a prominent British South Asian male dance artist. From the 1950s onwards, kathak, the dance form Khan trained in, has predominantly been practiced by middle and upper class South Asian women in the UK. But it has had a long and complicated history in India where a version of kathak was performed by women known as nachwalis till the end of the nineteenth century. The forms that the nachwalis practiced eroded due to British and Indian laws and attitudes under colonialism, and the practice moved from female to male dancers, since women of that caste were prevented from performing their art forms. This then shifted back to predominantly female dancers of higher castes both in India and the British South Asian diaspora. As a second generation Bangladeshi Muslim man, Khan’s tutelage in the diaspora under a male guru, and his decision to pursue dance professionally resist norms at various levels.

We further need to consider that Khan’s insistence on merit and hard work is indicative of a belief that many people of colour, immigrants and other minority-groups have adopted in order to legitimize our success; we often think that we need to work twice as hard to not be seen as products of affirmative actions and quotas. Thus the issue of merit can be seen to complicate Khan’s relationship to structural inequalities, which can of course affect women, artists of colour and other minority groups equally. All of these historical, political and biographical details collectively offer a more nuanced way of reading Khan’s responses.

In addition to rethinking the context of the debate, we also need to rethink the terms of the debate itself, namely the simplistic sex-based distinction between female vs. male choreographers. The binary ways we conceive of and conflate sex and gender has led to longstanding exclusions of choreographers who do not fit easily into simple sex/gender categories. For example, what of queer, inter-sex and transgendered artists and choreographers? Where do they and their art fit into this debate? Perhaps these questions can enable us to reconsider how simplistic this debate has been so far given that Khan’s own recent work Until the Lions probes some of these very questions of shifting gender.

The question, we argue, cannot just be, ‘do we need more female choreographers?’ Because the obvious answer to this is of course, yes. Instead the question must also be extended to: how do we create stage space and funding for racialised/queer/trans/differently-abled bodies and choreographers who occupy a spectrum of identities?

What we truly need is a more complex platform and series of open discussions about which racialized, sexualized, gendered, classed bodies and which dance forms get funded. If the goal is to truly diversify who gets to dance, and/or whose dances get staged, then we also have to diversify what is being danced.

Khan has said that he is open to this debate and further discussion. So let us include him and other choreographers, but most importantly, arts-management, funding and decision-making bodies in a productive dialogue. This will enable us to move the debate on from a personal to a much needed public forum, in order to engage each other in the complex issues that this debate has brought to the fore.

Yours sincerely
A Transnational Collective of Dance Scholars and Artists of Colour (names appear in alphabetical order)

Takiyah Amin (USA, Assistant Professor at University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
Melissa Blanco Borelli (UK, Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London)
Pallabi Chakravorty ( USA, Artistic Director at Courtyard Dancers and Associate Professor at Swarthmore College)
Meiver De La Cruz (USA, PhD Candidate at Northwestern University)
Anusha Kedhar (USA, Assistant Professor at Colorado College)
Kareem Khubchandani (USA, Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Texas, Austin)
Hari Krishnan (Canada/USA, Artistic Director of InDance and Associate Professor at Wesleyan University)
Royona Mitra (UK, Senior Lecturer at Brunel University London)
Prarthana Purkayastha (UK, Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London)
Munjulika Rahman (Malaysia, Senior Lecturer at University of Malaya)
Urmimala Sarkar-Munsi (India, Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University)
Priya Srinivasan (Australia, Independent Artist/Scholar/Consultant)
Ying Zhu (USA, Assistant Professor at University of South Florida)

Photo: Ruth St Denis (in brownface): one of the three Mothers of American Modern Dance authenticates herself with Indian men dressed as priests – New York 1906. Take from Sweating Saris: Indian Dance as Transnational Labor

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