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The rise, and rise, and rise of Woman SRSLY

[Grace Nicol - Image Isaac Sakima]

Grace Nicol is fired up for change. As a choreographer she has been challenging the traditional structures in dance and performance. Her platform Women SRSLY for female identifying makers in the arts is a year-round programme that celebrates, supports and amplifies female voices. She talks to Run-Riot about why this is so important right now.

Edward Gosling: What are you working on at the moment and what have you got coming up over the winter months?

Grace Nicol: There’s a lot going on for me at the moment in terms of my choreographic work and the platform, Woman SRSLY, that I run. I have just come out of a project where I collaborated with fashion designer, Sinéad O'Dwyer to create a piece of work, which was performed by Becky Namgauds, as part of the all in: bodied exhibition. It was really interesting for me to bring my work into a fashion context. I feel that Sinéad’s work already disrupts the notions of the female ‘fashion’ body and I was happy to challenge this further through performance.

I am now working on a new piece of work R-AGE, a collaboration between myself and choreographer, Jacky Lansley, which is supported through the Chisenhale Dance Space’s 'Collaboration Between Generations’ commission, where we will be asking ‘why are women never the right age?’ I’m really enjoying creating this work and collaborating with Jacky Lansley. Jacky was a founding member of Chisenhale Dance through the performance collective X6 in the 80’s so it feels like we are somehow bridging the generation gap (which in my opinion has been particularly polarised in the current political climate) and starting to open up discussions about issues for women of all ages.

Edward: You've spoken before about the glass ceiling many women experience in different industries. That they have to work harder for less acknowledgment and less access to resources. How have you found that to be true within dance?

Grace: There has been much written about the statistics of the gender disparities within the preforming arts industry and much speculation as to why this is. You just have to look at pretty much any theatre programme that stages dance to see the discrepancies. In 2013, Luke Jennings wrote an article, Sexism in dance: where are all the female choreographers? He gave the example of the situation at Sadler’s Wells; at the time, ‘out of 12 associate choreographic artists just two were female’. Now there are 17 associates and only 5 female choreographers, so nothing has really changed there. Another prime example of this is the recent FEMMES festival by Montreal-Based Dance company, Grands Ballets Canadiens. It comes as no surprise that in a ballet festival entitled 'Women' all the choreographers are male. There has also been a massive surge of male choreographers in the contemporary dance world making work about the female experience, which given the rise, at last, of #metoo and other movements giving women a genuine voice, seems, at best, incongruous and at worst, an expression of patriarchal privilege. It is indicative of the situation that when Medhi Walerski resigned from Femmes Festival he stated that, '…the recent press release and subsequent criticisms on social media have made me reconsider my participation in this particular programme'. Although his action is laudable and he, of course, is not responsible for the disparities in the dance world, it is clear that this imbalance is so engrained that, perhaps, he only became aware of it due to media pressure. Instead of dealing with the issue, the festival, of course, just changed its name! I believe that it is the responsibility of institutions, funding bodies and critics not to perpetuate this issue. Statistics aside, it’s also something that female dance artists feel so keenly. You can see it in our bodies, in the bags under our eyes. It’s time for a change. Not just talk. Real systemic change.

[The Yonis at Woman SRSLY birthday - Image by Alex Gent]

Edward: You founded Women SRSLY? Tell us about it. What are you trying to do with this platform?

Grace: Woman SRSLY is a performance platform and network for female identified and socialised female artists and was created in reaction to sexual discrimination and male dominance in the performing arts industry and the wider socio-political context. Our aims are to support artists through creating a space where artists are able to support each other, challenge norms, take credit, and take risks in a safe environment, a space that can acknowledge desire and emancipation, instead of merely adhering to stereotypes of male expectation and one where performers and makers can feel a sense of autonomy over how their bodies are represented. This space manifests in a physical sense through our performance platforms at The Yard Theatre and our ancillary events, discussions and mentoring, as well as in a metaphorical sense through building up support networks for artists where we can (and they can) support each other after the platform event. From the feedback we have had from the artists I think this is almost the most important thing we do as there is a real sense of need to feel like they are not just scratching away alone with no one to back them up. It’s also really important for us to create a climate of celebration. We want to tackle these issues in a positive way and celebrate the work of these amazing artists.

We have some really exciting events and opportunities coming up. We are continuing to expand our mentoring programme; recently supporting dance artist Alethia Antonia at Dance 4. Valerie Ebuwa will be working with students at London Contemporary Dance School and WAC Arts. This is part of the Woman SRSLY mentoring in school programme which aims to support younger women of colour in their transition into professional life. We’re also really excited about our upcoming club night on Friday 8th February at The Yard Theatre. This is a celebratory and fund raising evening, which will combine really exciting performances with sets from female DJs throughout the night. After that we are staging a ‘reunion platform’ at The Place Theatre on the 14th March called Woman SRSLY Takeover: Wildlife in Strange Waters. We will be taking over the theatre to bring back some of our favourite acts who we have programmed over the past year.

Edward: Do you think that by giving women a space to create and showcase work, you can affect systemic change in the industry?

Grace: I don’t think that it is enough for Woman SRSLY to only give space to create and showcase work to affect change. I think that it’s definitely part of our mission, but not all of it. It depends on what you mean by systemic change. I think there are two sides to the change that needs to occur. The first is the content of the work and the second the context. It’s not solely about opportunity, but that is definitely one of the issues. The problem with not providing access to space for women or underrepresented artists is the resultant narrative. We often see pieces of work in performance where male makers have (for many years) decided on how to portray female bodies or stories. This can end in a very singular or in some cases problematic narrative around female bodies. Furthermore, this way of working, which only promotes the male voice, supports the idea that women’s bodies are not their own and that they belong to men. I believe it is clear what this can do in terms of the abuse of power within the arts, we only have to look at Weinstein.

By creating space for women, or socialised female artists, this narrative has the potential to be disrupted. It gives women more choice around how to present their bodies on stage. The Woman SRSLY platform also helps to raise awareness around these issues, for example, without the platform I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. Although these are all really important factors to affect change, I think it’s the platform’s holistic approach, as I explained above, which makes it a potentially climate changing initiative.

There has already been some change since the inception of Woman SRSLY. Theatres and institutions are actively supporting work which is ‘female’ or ‘queer’ or from people of colour. Unfortunately, these are often once-a-year festivals where the artists are separated out from the main programming. Woman SRSLY is intended to be an all year-round deal. The change is affected, in my opinion, firstly, by the initial support of showing work which also raises awareness of the issues and then, subsequently, by providing advice, inviting programmers, marketing and setting up collaborations and other activities throughout the year.

It is not possible for Woman SRSLY to affect change on its own. As we have seen with the recent letter to Jan Fabre and what happened with The Old Vic, it is really important for institutions, funding bodies, theatres and the arts media to support this movement and to really take responsibility for what they do decide to support. The more platforms that are willing to allow our voice to be heard, the more likely they are going to be to start to listen.

[Mother Dearest by Grace Nicol - Image by Camila Greenwell] (3)

[Ballons by Grace Nicol - Image by Nina Robinson]

Edward: Do you think of yourself an artist first or an activist? Is there a tension between the two or do they sit naturally for you? When you think about creating movement and choreography does it stem from a political or an artistic place?

Grace: I believe all art is political, whether there is a political intention or not. This is particularly prevalent in dance because it deals with the live body. Therefore, when creating movement, I am always working from a political and artistic place. All forms of embodiment emerge through a discursive engagement with what it is to be or have a body. I don’t believe that there is a way to work with bodies without it being political. Activism comes with the territory. ;)

Edward: As we near the end of 2018 the world feels increasingly polarised. #metoo has gained world wide attention and major figures in entertainment and politics have been removed from their positions. Feminism seems to be ever more mainstream with many celebrities advocating for feminist causes, yet at the same time Brett Kavanaugh joins the supreme court and Jair Bolsonara becomes the new Brazilian president. This seems to suggest that traditional power structures are resisting change. You mentioned the recent allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Jan Fabre. Are you optimistic that things are changing for the better or not? And what role do you think performance and the arts has in this wider conversation?

Grace: The arts often determine or reflect the cultural narratives of our time. As I said previously, I believe all art is political. Therefore, I think that the arts can help effect change by challenging the narrative which allows these people to gain power. I believe we still have a really long way to go. The issue with negative globalisation and nationalism is that it seems like there is no possibility to affect change because the challenge is so large. Globalisation doesn’t have to be a negative force, it also has the power to bring us all together, because we are all interconnected. As you say, it allows for movements, such as #metoo. The problematic nature of the #metoo movement is what now? How can we convert this raising of awareness into real action for change.

One of the complicated issues around movements such #metoo - is how do women articulate the issue of sexual violence and inappropriateness without articulating the position of the victim in relation to desire. Woman SRSLY is not suggesting that men should never touch or look at women or that men are not vulnerable to violence, but, instead, asks what systems are in place that permit power to be distributed unevenly and what are the effects of this? It’s not about returning to the idea that women should be pure virgins who need to be protected. It’s about having the choice to invite touch and want to be seen.

Although women have been empowered to speak up more about personal issues, the problems, particularly within the arts, will not change until institutions and funding bodies take responsibility by not supporting the work of performance makers who are creating problematic work or working in damaging ways. I think it’s really great that the Belgium dance artists spoke out against Jan Fabre but that is one tiny instance. We don’t seem to have the equivalent in the UK. When someone does speak out it is often hushed up, or they are told they are naïve, inexperienced, misinformed. As a consequence, the established performance maker continues to work in a privileged position. This narrative is also wrapped up in a power dynamic between cultural, institutional and governmental systems. The slowly diminishing resources for the arts under the guise of austerity add to these issues. The fear of not having a job, or existing on something less than a living wage, drives people to accept the circumstances.

I heard recently about a female dancer starting at a prominent dance company where some of the male performers were betting on who would have sex with her first and desperately trying to win the bet. She did not report it. She did not leave the company because she wanted to have a regular salary and felt it would only damage her career. This is one story in the multitude of issues that have been reported to Woman SRSLY, of course, these stories are not solely about male choreographers, but the institutional silencing of female voices, whether it be through complaints procedures or through not supporting our work through programming, is still live and well. I believe, more women have been empowered to speak out but there needs to be more listening, and more public discussion for any real change to occur and for all people to feel empowered to speak about things that are problematic.  

[Marked/ Mark Making by Grace Nicol - Image by Despina Pats]

Edward: You've spoken about “celebrating” female led work and amplifying female voices. Who are your heroes? Who's voices do you think we should be listening to right now?

Grace: I have many heroes, to name a few: Lucy McCormack, Florence Peake, Lindy Nsingo, Jacky Lansley, Katye Coe, Lizz Agiss, Annie Lok, Kira O’Reily, Sinéad O'Dwyer, Haley McGee, Hannah Ballou, Klara Andersson, Victoria Sin… the list goes on. I also think it’s really important to have male allies and I feel I have found really special allies in academic and dramaturg Martin Hargreaves, Choreographer Theo Clinkard and all our male allies who support Woman SRSLY. My heroes are also the people who support me and my work. The Woman SRSLY team, Valerie Ebuwa, Becky Namgauds, Claudia Palazzo, Holly Beasley Garrigan and Alice White. Mostly, I think we should listen to the people around us, support each other and start small to try and affect big change.

Grace Nicol

grace-nicol.com | @GraceBNicol | @woman_seriously

8 February 2019
The Yard Theatre
Queen’s Yard, Hackney Wick
Tickets via eventbrite

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