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  • Jo Parkes

Sharing the text of my speech at the German Dance Prize celebrations

This time last month, I was in the middle of the celebrations for the German Dance Prize. It took a while to come to earth and let the adrenaline out of my system after this wonderful, strange and sometimes challenging experience.


At the event honoring myself and Isabelle Schad, the wonderfully articulate Clare Conner of The Place spoke about my work and then I had the honour of replying. Both at the event, but also in the weeks following, people have asked me if I could share the text of my speech. One of the most important things about winning the award for me was the opportunity to draw attention to the field of participative dance, community dance, cultural education, dance mediation - it goes by many names. So I am very happy to share the text of the speech with you here and hope you might find it useful in making arguments for why we need to get more people from more backgrounds dancing together. It is based in part on the text I wrote in April when the award was announced - so if you read that text some of it might be familiar.


If you prefer to hear the text (and see me gesticulate wildly as usual) rather than read it, you can also see both Clare’s speech and mine on video thanks to TanzWEB: https://vimeo.com/367442858


When I spoke, I shifted between English and German depending on who I was addressing. In the written text I have decided, for the sake of clarity, to stay in English. I spoke from cards, so this not a verbatim text should anyone compare the written and spoken versions - those who know me know I like to improvise a bit when I speak - but in this context I was nervous and I only had a short time to speak, so I stuck pretty much to what I had planned!


Here it is:


I would like to thank Clare Connor for giving my laudation. I asked Clare to speak not only because she was there at the beginning of my career and has followed it for the longest of my colleagues, but also because her own career, whether at NewVIc in east London where we met, or at the Southbank Centre or The Place, has demonstrated a sustained commitment to widening access to high quality arts experiences and she is an inspiration to me. Thank you Clare.


I would like to thank the jury of the dance prize for this award and also the team at the German Dance Association and Michael Freund for the supportive preparation of this event. Thanks also to the highly professional, engaged team of PACT Zollverein.


The nominations for this award are drawn from the dance scene. Dear colleagues, I find your recognition very moving and I am happy to see so many of you here tonight to celebrate with Isabelle and me. I am happy to represent our field here, but I am also aware that I am only one of many artists doing excellent work in the field. I am delighted that this area of work has this moment in the limelight.


My work is participative and co-creative - I make it with people - so alongside me on this stage, I am imagining thousands of people who have danced in projects with me or the Mobile Dance team over the years, who have given of their creativity and left me changed. Around me too stand hundreds of artists with whom I have collaborated or who have worked for Mobile Dance over the years. Many of them are named in the programme for the video installation in the foyer.

In particular, however, I would like to thank one collaborator and ask her to stand. I want to thank Barbara Weidner. In 2014, Barbara Weidner, a specialist educator with a focus on working with families who have experienced trauma, asked me to work on a project with her in an accommodation centre for refugees. From this small project grew the project JUNCTION, which now works in five accommodation centres for refugees in Berlin. Thank you, Barbara, for your eye-opening co-leadership of the project over the last 5 years.


Mobile Dance works at the meeting point of cultural, social, educational and political concerns in partnership with many organisations. I want to thank all the partners who make the work possible. While it feels difficult to name some partners and not others, I would nevertheless like to thank Berlin Mondiale, Uferstudios and HZT for their long term, ongoing collaboration on the project JUNCTION.


Thank you to all the funders and supporters of the work, in particular to those who have supported us repeatedly over the years. We have no core funding and work from project to project so those who invest in us repeatedly enable long-term work with groups evolve over time. Thank you.


To Isabelle Schad, my congratulations on this well deserved recognition: what an honour to get to share this moment with you and your extraordinary work and to see our different approaches to similar themes in conversation with each other.


When I was preparing for this speech, a few people told me that it is not cool to thank my mum and dad...but I am going to do it anyway. When Clare described the social deprivation and poverty in east London, where we met so many years ago, I was reminded of the west Midlands in England, where I grew up. To my mum (who is here tonight) and my Dad (who cannot be here): thank you for not questioning that a career in the fragile world of freelance dance was an appropriate choice for a girl from a working-class background, with no financial safety net. Thank you for having the courage it must have taken to support me into worlds which were so unknown for you.


Clare mentioned that I am a mum. Here is my most important thanks. To my sons, Oscar and Toby: my impulse was to thank you for your patience with me when I am stressed before big events - you know a little about that after the last few days - but that is not really what I want to thank you for. What I really want to thank you for are all the times when I had an idea and you let me try it out with you, for all the conversations about ideas I am working on, the creative exchange, for dancing in workshops and performances and for all those wonderful dances in our living room.


I work with anyone who wants to dance with me and sometimes with people who do not yet know that they want to dance with me. They may meet me on the street, in an accommodation centre, in a school. My work is concerned with expanding access to experiences of making dance. I try to bring together people who might not ordinarily meet and to co-create with them. When I use the term “co-create”, I mean a creative process where a group of people, some familiar with making dance, some unfamiliar, come together to create something which no one in the group can imagine in advance because only THIS group of people at THIS moment in time could make it. Each person brings a “body” of knowledge with them. Everyone is valuable, each person has something unique to contribute. The process is as important as what we make, indeed the art is always to some degree to be found in the the intangible interactions between people. So what you see on the screens outside and tomorrow in Aalto Theatre is just one result of the work. The others are less visible, but not less important: the shift of perspective engendered when, for example, a teenager and an elderly person start to make a duet together, or the empathy generated by feeling the warmth of another’s hand as you learn a dance they danced as a child.


When you dance with someone, you cannot escape their “liveness”: the heat coming off their skin, the impulses which they give to you and which you take into your body, transform and give back to them. When we dance our singular identity (“I”) shifts to plural identity (“we”) - we are both an individual and part of group. I know we will see this later in Isabelle’s work.


When we work with diverse groups we are given the privilege of telling from multiple perspectives, discovering unreflected power relationships, creating space for new narratives. We are always looking for what connects us, while acknowledging the uniqueness of each individual and their experience. Everyone is changed in the process: artist and art-form too. As we rub our artistic practice against different realities, we shift our own entrenched perspectives, find our assumptions challenged, maybe even experience ourselves as absurd in the eyes of another - and discover new processes.


When we make dance accessible to those who may experience barriers to participation, we have the potential to inspire new dance-makers who will be creating from different perspectives. Our art-form becomes richer, more relevant and more responsive to it’s time.


I course I am pleased for myself and for Mobile Dance to receive this prize. But I am also excited about the “signal effect” of the prize. I hope that those of you working in the field of participative dance will also feel acknowledged and your work valued. I hope those colleagues who have not worked in participative forms might feel inspired to experience them, to see if it might be field which is for them. I am happy that the discourse about the role of dance in society is receiving a much-needed impulse which I hope will continue to expand and resonate. I hope we will talk more about what this field needs in the future and follow through with those ideas.


There is no doubt that we are living in complex times and that they can feel overwhelming. When we are frighted and overwhelmed, it is easy to reach for simple answers to complex questions (we see this in the rise of populism around the world). I genuinely believe (and have experienced) that when we co-create with people whose life experience is different to our own, we are practising how to live together, we are exploring diversity as normality and rehearsing how to live in the complexity which it generates. If there were ever a time when it is important for us to be making dances together - it is now.


Thank you.

Photo: Ursula Kaufmann

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