Dance and Cultural Heritage. By Charlotte Waelde.

In her blog post of 21 May for the Guardian, ‘Stepping out of the past: modern dance’s heritage debate', Judith Mackrell reported on arguments made at a panel discussion held by Rambert to explore issues around if and how contemporary dance should become a part of our cultural heritage. Some choreographers and dancers it seems are adamantly opposed to the capture and preservation of dance: dance is ‘of the present moment’; its ‘slippery’ nature resists commodification; and a slavish approach to reproducing the past could lead to a sacrifice of effectiveness of the work and of its integrity. For some the mere mention of the word ‘heritage’ conjures up images of ‘crumbling castles’. For others, safeguarding our dance heritage is as important as safeguarding classics from music, art and literature, although it is recognised that there are significant practical and theoretical challenges.

These are questions and issues that have arisen during the course of our research for our InVisible Difference project, but there is much less of a reticence to embrace contemporary dance made and performed by our project collaborators – including Caroline Bowditch and Claire Cunningham – as a part of our cultural heritage. Why might that be? Part of the answer lies in the same reasoning that Farooq Chaudhry uses to scorn the relevance of heritage to dance: that we would dismiss and misinterpret works being created now if we cling to the classics of the past which bring with them traditional ideas of beauty and meaning. It is precisely these traditional notions of beauty and meaning that stand as high impediments to an informed public appreciation of the work made by our collaborators. But the impediments do not arise because of the presence of traditional forms of dance within our cultural heritage institutions. We would rather argue that it is the absence from our memory institutions of almost any form of dance made and performed by dancers with disabilities that is a root cause. That absence means that many of the pressing philosophical questions around notions of difference, of invisibility, and of otherness, that need to be addressed within disabled dance if it is to find its place within our cultural milieu are doomed to be constantly repeated: each new production, each dancer, and each generation has to confront these same questions because we have not learned from our past. When disabled dance secures a place within our cultural heritage we believe that this will help the debate to move on from its current obsession, to a focus on the virtuosity (or otherwise) of the dance.

How it can become part of our cultural heritage is a different and challenging question particularly when our memory institutions are mostly concerned with tangible objects rather than intangible performances. We are hoping to expose the processes that could lead to disabled dance performance becoming part of our cultural heritage in a project for which we are seeking follow-on funding. Watch this space!
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