On sacrifice, opportunity, bureaucracy and bringing about change

Susan Kempster’s work ‘Black Widow’ was showcased as part of this year’s Resolution, The Place’s annual festival for emerging artists. Amongst other themes the piece tackles the issue that dance artists do very little dancing, but lots of other work. It is part of our mission to enable artists to grow artistically and to help them understand and be efficient with all the other work they need to do to make their career work. Therefore we wanted to hear more about Susan’s ideas.

17.05.04. Blog Susan_Kempster_15Feb_Black_Widow_N.Minns_
Susan Kempster and Nicholas Minns in ‘Black Widow’

Susan is a dance artist, performer, teacher and award-winning choreographer. She holds an MA in Contemporary Performance Practices from Royal Holloway University of London.

What motivated you to create the Black Widow?

On a simple level, just the desire to make something. I’d had a similar idea quite a long time ago, but never got around to making it, so I thought I’d try a smaller adaptation, but the piece ended up being quite different to that original idea. I was also motivated to make a duet with another older performer that wasn’t specifically about our ages

Can you tell us more about the analogy between the male Black Widow and the dance artist suggested in the work?

Since being in London I’ve been a bit surprised at how difficult the situation is for making work, and how often even unpaid opportunities are hard to get. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to perform in some great contexts, and for this I am very grateful, but these performances have more often than not been for free. There’s a kind of necessary sacrifice that must be made, the opportunity comes ahead of whether it’s paid or not, and this is not a comment about those providing these opportunities, rather it’s a sad state of affairs for all concerned. So much work done that is not properly compensated, and that gets done for the love of it, both on the side (at least in my case) of the people organising as well as those performing. It’s as though within the dance world particularly there’s still a kind of collective guilt about being paid for something we love doing. The story about the male black widow, is that he gives his own life in order to assure that the species continues, as he provides food for the female. I guess, although it’s a stretch, there’s a sense that somehow this sacrifice is what we’re all doing, in order to try and keep doing what we do.

What may ‘consume’ the dance artist in your opinion? 

Certainly it’s not the dancing, but all the “other work”. Here in London particularly it’s difficult to even have a place to work in unless you have access to a studio that you teach in for example. And then to get opportunities to show your work, or to get that illusive seed money with which you can feasibly apply for ACE funding. It’s not a new phenomenon, it’s been going on for a long time, but the dance/choreography/creation side of being a dance artist is, more often than not, the much smaller part of what dance artists do. A colleague in Barcelona some years ago made a trademark / logo, of free use for all, and it was My Other Work – so when he’d write applications that ask who’s the producer he’d write “produced by My Other Work”.

In the programme notes it says the work “is a reflection of an era where arts and education have been forced to become commodities in order to be marketable” – is that era now? 

Absolutely. And it’s getting worse. I came to the UK directly into arts education, and was in shock as to how much box ticking was part of the everyday. Talking with the professors after finishing my MA, reading what I’ve read, hearing about what’s going on, has made it very clear that no-one’s happy about this, and that teachers in creative subjects are feeling more and more pressured to do stuff that has nothing to do with their courses. I had an experience teaching at a FE college, with sessions on “customer satisfaction” for example, and so much paper work I felt exploited and swamped – and this was just for one 1.5 hr dance class per week! The students are no longer students, they’re customers.

In the arts, in order to justify receipt of any monies one has to be able to sell the product. We all have to have a brand, know our target audiences, know how to sell our work and know how to “evaluate” it in ways that are tangible for administrative bodies.

Do you think there has been an era where arts and/or education have not been forced to become commodities? Where and how?

When university education is free, or close to free, then the job of education can happen. As soon as teachers have to satisfy customers and can’t fail people because they’ve paid high fees, then there’s a problem. And with the arts, I am a firm believer in public subsidy for arts, but when this gets repeatedly cut, then the processes become more bureaucratic. Perhaps in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s there was a greater possibility to get by more easily with less and certainly in this period there was a lot of experimentation happening. In general, we can blame austerity and capitalism!

Would you say your work is a complaint, a lament or a protest?

I’d say a complaint, because I think that protest requires, somehow, the ability to incite others into action. And this is perhaps one of the shortcomings of the piece. I wanted to speak about the subject, but how does that not become just a bit of a whinge.

What do you think might bring change? How might that change look?

Gosh, I wish I knew what might bring change. It seems to me that we, humanity, are hell bent on going backwards. It seems to me that we are at a turning point – either we go straight on into destruction and disaster, or we find a way to start to turn things around. I guess then it comes down to each individual doing the best they can. As for dancers and the dance community, well, I guess we have to try and make things happen. I sometimes think that dance might be the way to save the world, but how to get there… but maybe the path is just in continuing to do it, in spite of all the odds against us.

Thank you Susan for your time and insights! We don’t think your work is ‘just a bit of a whinge’. We think it’s a powerful and thought-provoking expression of a problem the dance industry faces and we think it should be expressed in as many ways as possible, including of course in dance! We wish you all the best for the work and hope to see it again soon.

The interview was led by Lucia Schweigert and Konstantina Skalionta and now we put the questions to you: How can we bring about change? Are you consumed by the non-dance aspects of your work? Let us know in the comments below!

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