Interview: Jacky Lansley - celebrating 30 years of Chisenhale Dance Space

Tuesday 15 October 2013 by Carmel Smith

Jacky Lansley, with Fergus Early. Photo: Roswitha Chesher

Choreographer and performance artist Jacky Lansley was one of the group of radical artists who made an old veneer factory in Chisenhale Road Bow their creative home in the mid-1970s. Some thirty years later, Chisenhale Dance Space is still a space for artists making cutting edge work – and Jacky is back there to take part in the venue’s Big 30 celebrations. This Sunday (20 October) she’s taking part in Here and Now, a round table discussion with other artists who were there in the early days of Chisenhale – and in advance of that, asked her to look back for us…

When you made the Chisenhale building your home, the collective X6 had already been existence for a few years. How did it come about?
In the ‘70s, space was a crucial dilemma for dance artists wanting to work differently from the major companies and in 1975 a small group of us searched for a space and were eventually offered the top floor of an old tea warehouse: X Block in Butler’s Wharf. The space was inspiring; it had large beams and a beautiful maple wood floor that had been polished by the tea and when in 1980 all the artists who had colonised Butlers Wharf had to move out as the developers moved in, we took the maple wood floor to our new home – an old veneer factory in Chisenhale Road, Bow.
The Chisenhale founders had by then expanded from the original X6 group (Emilyn Claid, Fergus Early, Maedée Duprès, Mary Prestidge and I) to include many artists who are leading practitioners in diverse contexts today. Chisenhale has continued through consecutive generations to remain an artist-led collective and as such it is now unique, which gives it a cutting edge status within our rather corporate culture.

On Sunday (20 October) your round table discussion Now and Then – will use your X6 Conference Agenda (Summer 1976) as a starting point. How do you feel about that Agenda over 35 years later – what jumps out at you?
The 1976 agenda encapsulated much of the philosophy that the members held at the time. Now 40 years on it still seems very relevant. The point about creativity and new aesthetic criteria jumps out as I think that was very central to our work. X6 has, over the years, been rather labelled as only political but I know that our experience of working in the warehouse was also about creating radical and experimental performance. Our ‘dance’ was interdisciplinary and our collaborators were artists from visual art, performance/live art, theatre, film and radical music; it was a hub for artistic research.

What has surprised you most about developments in dance practice in the intervening years?
When we moved to Chisenhale it was a fragile time for the arts; Thatcherism was pushing the idea that the arts had to look after themselves – become commercialised and do without subsidy; it no longer felt ok to be poor, minimal or alternative. Many arts organisations that had emerged during the ’70s had not had the time to lay deep enough foundations to survive this. The fact that Chisenhale has survived is remarkable and suggests that its roots were strong. This struggle to survive has tended to push the dance sector towards conformity and at times it has seemed that the diversity, parody and ‘playfulness’ of post modernism has become a tool for a conservative culture that is more interested in product and style than process or substance.

What characterised ‘progressive dance’ then?
New Dance (progressive dance) could be about, with and for people with disabilities, people of any ethnic background, of any gender, of any age and take place in any context. This shifting ground required new strategies both artistically and theoretically.

You danced with the Royal Ballet. Did you turn your back on your ballet training – or is it something which is always a part of you/your practice? How do you feel about it now?
I have not really turned my back on any of the skills, knowledge, experiences I acquired within the ballet world – all of this has been useful to me as a choreographer and teacher. I have always, though, questioned the context and ideology of the ballet world. The tension between discipline and play, structure and de-construction often felt like a struggle between two realities. The act of going to a daily class becomes complex and seems to imply that which independent choreographers and dancers are attempting to change and move away from; yet alternative dance techniques and strategies that involve improvisation, chance, the mundane, gesture, interdisciplinarity, the site specific, context, visual image, somatic process all require the discipline of some form of daily practice – and that is an ongoing dialogue.

One of the points on the 1976 agenda is concerned with creativity –and ‘the individual choreographer versus collectivity’. That sounds very much ‘of the time’. Did you manage to work as a collective? What were the challenges of that way of working?
Working together as a collective created a sense of cooperation which produced, for example, the New Dance magazine which, it could be argued, laid the ground for the whole of the UK’s academic dance research programme. There were also tensions; modernist/post modernist art allowed the individual artist a voice and this encouraged choreographers to find new languages that were hugely diverse, personal and their ‘own’. Many of us went on to develop our voices in different ways and there were contradictory feelings about this. Dance is a very community orientated culture, however, and unlike painters or sculptors we don’t tend to work in isolation and this is a great strength.

It sounds like feminism was central to the thinking of the collective [Bleeding Fairies (1977) dealt with the ballet stereo-types of swans, nymphs, sylphs and earth mothers in a ‘menstrual riot of radical feminism’.] If someone had told you in 1977 that some 30 years later, Dance UK/Dance Umbrella would be organising a seminar entitled ‘Where are the women?’ and that two young women felt the need to establish a Female Choreographers’ Collective – would you have been shocked?
In the ‘70s I became a ‘speaking dancer’ inspired by a broader context of cultural and political change. Many of us had been through a classical training which was like an intensified experience of growing up female – working with your own image in the mirror all the time – and feminism gave us a tool to articulate that experience. I think the question about whether or not things have improved for women in dance needs to be looked at in the broader context for women generally. I have certainly been disappointed in recent years to see that there are less, not more, visible women choreographers. I think the problem is part of a broad cultural resistance to the idea of women as creators of meaning and image. There are lots more women involved in the arts but not in those top creative roles. It was very positive that Chisenhale organised a discussion as part of BIG 30 to explore these issues.

What characteristics of dance making in the 1970s would you like to bring to the present day?
The beginnings of an idea that dance could be a major art form – rather than just part of the entertainment industry, or an art form that is dominated by a seductive technical virtuosity.
And what’s better about dance practice today?
More understanding about dancers’ health and anatomy. There are more community contexts for dance where non professionals can participate. There are more dance degree programmes which is great, although I would like to see a more robust dialogue between academic researchers and practitioners in the field.

Chisenhale today still feels like it’s at the cutting edge of dance practice – does it feel that way to you?
Yes, it’s part of its DNA! The eclectic diversity of the BIG 30 programme exemplifies this. The ‘open labs’, ‘community days’, ‘coffee mornings’ dance and politics discussions, classes and workshops for all age groups, radical films and the ongoing commitment to platforms for new performance work is a remarkable collection of activities. As a venue it has the perfect size experimental studio theatre (with that historic floor!) a spacious warehouse lounge with a bar – the ideal space for conversation, an open office through which artists flow in and out working with the core team to organise and produce the programme. It is both welcoming and edgy!

Have you started work on your archive show yet (9 November)? Give us a sneak preview of the flavour of the work you’ll be presenting…
In photos, video, anecdote and discussion, Fergus Early and I will contemplate work we created in those early years and consider what Chisenhale meant to our development as artists. For Fergus it was the birth of his pioneering community based company – Green Candle Dance Company – and works such as Ubu, Oonagh and Finn and Cheating Fate. For me it was a time of content-based work such as A Child’s Play and The Impersonators a piece exploring male and female impersonation within the 19th century music halls – which I will enjoy re-visiting!

Now and then – X6 & Friends, 4 – 8pm, Sun 20 October (£5, advance booking necessary)
Jacky Lansley & Fergus Early present an Archive Performance, 7pm, Sat 9 November (£5, advance booking necessary)

Photo – Jacky Lansley with Fergus Early by Roswitha Chesher

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