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The leap into the abyss and the need to heal again

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Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash
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Anastasio Koukoutas
Anastasio Koukoutas spoke to some recent dance graduates to find out how they feel about their future, in the face of the coronavirus crisis

As a teacher of dance history, I’d like to think that to most dance students the school is still considered a safe place. Up until now, ‘safe’ meant not only providing the space for experimentation, but also creating the room for possibilities that will enable transformation according to the will of each student. History, after all, is the space of the emergence of possibilities embodied in subjectivities, both individual and collective. With the arrival of Covid-19 in our lives, ‘safety’ has been transformed into something clinical – as we are all exposed to the threat of being infected – compromising not just the idea of ‘together’ but also altering the very notion of possibility within the dance field. Nothing will be the same again, cried many professionals, now facing the highest rates of unemployment in decades.

This is not only a fear: it’s a fact that has an enormous effect on dance educators when I think of the graduates and their narrowing prospects, due to the pandemic. What is out there for them? The great unknown, undeniably, but without the excitement that they could finally go chasing their dreams. Fear, most definitely, but one that pulls them down instead of making them trust their instincts – as they will be told to do, innumerable times. A continuous paradox of imperatives demanding students to be always adaptable and versatile, even in the most difficult times: be malleable, strong, sensitive, gracious, fearless, dazzling, daring, winning, a fully grown individual. A litany of stereotypes, if not binaries, that leave no space for an in-between alternative. And now? No prospects. No future. In what ways might their experience differ from an older generation already doomed by austerity measures, neoliberalism and political conservatism?

I had the chance to interview five of my recent students, to talk about their fears and dreams – as it is only anticipated from people of their age. Eugenia, Aristea, Fenia, Ioanna – and Stali, who has only sent me some written comments – are five promising dancers, in their early twenties, whose graduation coincided with the unprecedented global crisis. For years now, many generations have been confronted with dystopian scenarios about the future, but theirs might be more like waking up in a nightmare. Is there any room left for hope? Their disarming honesty leaves no room for excuses. Where my generation failed – the moment of our breakthrough coincided with a major economic crisis back in 2008, leaving us with rancour where there were once high hopes – their fear isn’t primarily about professional doom and the shortage of possibilities. When Fenia says ‘I fear that I might not be able to dance again,’ she wonders if she would be able again to achieve a moment of belonging, to reach for and support the other, to be creative and try the limits of collective creativeness. When I hear them talking, I think of their will to actualise the many possibilities dance has to offer, I understand their priority to share first, to achieve second. So, with dance among the activities that needs to be restrained because of Covid-19, their crisis seems both existential and real.


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Dancers are highly trained to notice and honour subtle nuances that permeate both their minds and bodies

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In the months that followed the quarantine and the Zoom hype, which many schools adopted to stay in touch with students, we were invited back to the physical space of the school. Returning, though, did not mean going back to the usual. Students felt the need to protect themselves and others by respecting distancing measures, but also to touch and learn to trust again. The imperative to stay safe demanded a reworking of the concept of togetherness and co-immunity. Covid-19 was not perceived just as a public threat; it was above all a forced reminder that even our bodies are not always a safe place. Aristea mentioned, for example, ‘I tried to figure out if it made any sense staying fit/healthy, taking care of myself and eventually what being a graduate really feels like.’

Dancers are highly trained to notice and honour subtle nuances that permeate both their minds and bodies. The pressure to perform well in the exams in mid-July, only two months after the shock of the quarantine, combined with a certain ‘amnesia’ – both of the embodied subtleties and the discomfort – since success is perceived in one way: through hard work and discipline. Those two aspects collided with the feelings of the students. Fenia speaks of a ‘leap into an abyss’ once you graduate, ‘a realisation that all of a sudden you are alone, unprotected’. Eugenia also feels unprepared in relation to knowing how to live up to the status of professional dance life. ‘How to preserve a value you don’t even know you own?’ If the school is a promise and learning is the process of becoming, are we showing them the way to a world that has already collapsed.


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Greek dance students in Athens agains the sky
Clockwise from bottom: Ioanna, Eugenia, Fenia, Aristea, Stali

Let’s be realistic: in Greece, there has been a steady but unmet demand for higher dance education, so studying dance could easily seem like career suicide. But how could dancers be productive if we think they are useless to society? What if we thought of dance in terms of possibility and not mere productivity? ‘What is possible for a twenty-year-old graduate with no work experience, especially in a moment when there is no demand for such expertise?’ they ask. Teaching? Maybe, hopefully. Freelancing? Unfortunately so. Ioanna talks humorously of their struggle to familiarise themselves with marketing tools, to make their curricula more appealing, observing how the market solicits an entrepreneurial approach to their craft and artistic identity. However, as Fenia argues, we shouldn’t demonise the market, we need to think of it in terms of sustainability and horizontal procedures and not just as an endless parade of entertainments offered to an apathetic and politically alienated public. Otherwise, she suggests, we could easily be trapped in our own bubbles, losing what we can achieve collectively and failing to become conscious of our identities, socially and economically, as dancers.


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Aristea’s words keep echoing in my head: maybe healing is what we ought to bring back into discussion

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Athens was for my generation the place to be; gentrification was still mild, housing was affordable, we didn’t think of dance in terms of cultural hegemony and we believed that institutions would foster our community. Now, for many artists, Athens is no longer an option – unless you are generously funded by institutions and ‘living your myth in Greece’. When faced with the dilemma – ‘should I stay or should I go?’ – younger people don’t feel nostalgic about the past. They don’t feel defeated either, knowing that if leaving Athens is a valid scenario, then it should be sustained as such and not as an emergency exit. Stali, maybe a bit more romantic, talks of a sustainable love, one that empowers the relations of dancers with the rest of the community. But will this generation be able to demystify the metropolis as the place of endless opportunities and turn to something more rewarding, that prioritises human relations instead of personal fame?

As they prepare for auditions and their placement in the market – however timid, there are some opportunities rising again – these recent graduates insist that it is important to keep those profound realisations that were made with the arrival of Covid-19. It is, after all, the generation who saw a person of their age, Alexis Grigoropoulos, being murdered by a police officer back in 2008, when they were still in school but willingly flooded the streets of Athens to demand justice and a fairer future. Years later, with politics taking a conservative turn and art being sacrificed as an unnecessary luxury, they acknowledge that maybe the power to affect anything with dance is limited. ‘It will take time to heal,’ Aristea mentions, but in the meantime there’s a lot to protest about, still, if we think that the present moment is of any significance. As we end our conversation to go and join a demonstration, Aristea’s words keep echoing in my head: maybe healing is what we ought to bring back into discussion, contrary to the inescapable financial violence which has jeopardised the social consciousness and the sensibility of our art. 


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