Dance Craft and the impossibility of booking University rooms

This is a little unfair. It isn’t impossible to book a University room, even from within the University. But they are intensively challenged spaces; and the fights over them can be fractured and friend-breaking.

So to ask for a set of rooms not just for a day, but for three weeks, was a challenge to the booking system; and it demanded special resolve from those with reasonable claim on the rooms; and it was absolutely essential to the smooth working, the privacy as well as the communality, of the project Side by Side.

It helped, to be sure, that the request for space came not from a jaded academic, but from one of the UK’s most celebrated contemporary dance companies. And it helped, too, that this great company, Siobhan Davies Dance, had serious form when it came to craft. This made the proposal for a partnership project with the Crafts Study Centre, a University Museum of modern craft and a Research Centre situated in the University for the Creative Arts at its campus in Farnham, such a powerful one. Here at a stroke was a project of individuality, innovation, risk and dialogue: of opposition and collaboration; of craft and dance.

Craft and dance?

The Crafts Study Centre could not point to a long and distinguished history of work between the art forms. Its ‘form’ was endearingly limited: a set of teacher’s notes finding ways of connecting some of the collections with notions of movement.

But we could see how such a project could begin to say something about movement across practice(s) that might be evocative and telling; mesmeric and reflective. We knew Helen Carnac to be a maker of lithe intelligence and serious endeavor; and we imagined that her partner, the dancer Laila Diallo would be too. We recalled some great moments of craft movement: Stephen de Staebler in the UC Berkeley ‘Pot Shop’ in California in the 1970s listening to the great and iconoclastic potter Peter Voulkos and caressing, beating and thumping mounds of clay with his head, his whole body and his heart in a kind of ceramic performance where physical exertion was paramount. De Staebler learned that the wrestling of clay was inherently creative. If he pounded and pummeled it and put his whole body weight into it, then he would extend the language of clay. Clay, thus combated by physical exertion (I now think of this as a form of dance) could uncover human, geographical and even spiritual truths in this rough manner. The whole body could be pressed into craft.

The University room booked for the very start of the project at Farnham was, like many of its fellows, unprepossessing. Serviceable (that is a good thing of course) but not romantic. Its doors, painted in the corporate green, clashed politely with the carpet, another nearly verdant approximation. Perhaps these tones were in deliberate debate, and if they were that would be fitting for the room was the regular home of our University research students, and therefore a room used for the defense of the doctoral thesis. A site for contest and contesting.

I waited outside this room.

A sign on the door said ‘Caretakers please don’t clean the room it is in use for the Side by Side project’.

It was.

Inside I could hear Janet Baker singing ‘When I am laid in rest’ the final, pathetic lament of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. It usually makes me cry. On that day it also made me ponder. The room was occupied by two motivated, high-achieving, modest and reflective practitioners who had come together to see what might happen when they came together. No predicted outcomes; a three week period to talk, move, make work or not make work. Side by Side was therefore a maturely-considered and highly risky project about the beginning of art and not its ending. It didn’t have an ending in sight. Its outcomes were unplanned. If it were a grant application, I imagine it would have failed at the first hurdle.

And yet, this exacting imprecision, the chance for something to happen conjoined with the risk of nothing happening, gave the project its creative impetus and its rare creative force. Here was a space for the possibility of creative engagement; for a conversation to lead to movement, sound, making or silence. For craft and dance both to get physical; or to rest in a moment of intelligible silence; to point to each other and to each other’s medium speculatively and respectfully.

The room used for a performance (I am not quite sure what the right word is) of the project at its ending moved location. Laila and Helen had occupied the textile studios. They were working together, re-enacting, I suppose, the conversations, the tasks and the thinking of these three powerful weeks. The rooms were eerily empty: the textile students and their tutors having decamped to New Designers in London. This was an invasion. No longer loomed and threaded, the room was filled with seemingly random studio materials: rolls of paper; waste paper; shredded paper. Tools of a sort. These Helen and Laila laid out, hit, tore at, rolled on and moved to.

This was ordinary, domesticated, fragmentary, mimetic and consequential. It felt like action and the symbol of a work being made: material, random and highly organized. It seemed like a private view of the silence and noise of making, harmonious and counterpointed, powerful and secretive. It made me think how patient makers must be. How rehearsing an action is profound and energizing. How captivating the private moments might be; and how makers when pushed beyond what they know can do things that are not just unusual, but engaging and contemplative and resonant. How the work is like the movement of words and noises and how this is demanding of physical energies.

Here, at the end of this remarkable project in Farnham, was a remarkable witnessing. The pain of room hire was long forgotten. This felt like something that had an Arts University as a proper and fitting destination. It was practice led by research. It was research led by practice.

Simon Olding



11 October 2013


Simon Olding



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