From 9 to 10 February 2023, Dance Limerick and Dance Ireland organised the Atelier Dancing on the Edge, Peripheral Practices, with the support of European Dancehouse Network, as part of its annual theme of Equity. Programmed alongside Dance Limerick’s What Next Festival (covered in Springback here), its aim was to look into what it means to be on the periphery in geographical, cultural and social terms, with the participation of artists, curators, programmers and cultural policymakers from around Europe. Its main questions were: how can the periphery become the centre, and how can we produce and present work that is rooted locally and connected internationally.
On the day I started my long trip from Athens to Limerick in Ireland I posted on Facebook that I was very excited to be joining the conference, noting its title. Among the comments from friends and colleagues wishing me safe travels, one stood out: ‘Great! May I ask what are these peripheral practices?’ The question highlighted how we make sense of widely used terms in different ways, so I responded: I will let you know afterwards.
The topic was important to me from a variety of perspectives: I live and work in Athens (Greece), at the southern periphery of Europe geographically and symbolically, acknowledging the power centres of Europe. In addition, I work as a dance theorist and dramaturg, two occupations that in Greece remain marginal to being a choreographer or dancer. I also work with mixed-ability companies, which is considered another peripheral practice. Eager to find out more, I headed as far northwest of central Europe as Athens is southeast, to Limerick – Ireland’s third largest city but a considerable distance, geographically and symbolically, from its capital.
So, here I am. What are peripheral practices?
What does it look like?
The Atelier kicked off with the artist and curator Mary Wycherley, who discussed peripheral practices through the prism of rural and urban, bringing forth the relativity of the terms we use and what they connote. She pointed out how crucial it is to have artists working in rural areas, and emphasised the notion of situated learning as an important tool in the field of the arts. To her, locality matters as it allows the cultivation of a variety of practices, in different places by different artists.
Next came Dylan Quinn, a dance artist living and working in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, who discussed how working in the periphery comes down to partial isolation, less visibility, fewer artistic collaborations, devaluation of work, marginalisation, and a constant re-motivation of your own self to keep on working, creating the terms, the frames, the principles on your own. ‘What does it look like?’ he asked repeatedly. What does it look like to have a family of four, live in a rural town, and work as a dancer? What does it look like to work alone? What does it look like to create your own opportunities and infrastructures in order to survive? To these questions he recounted a telling anecdote: on hearing that Quinn had moved to the outskirts, a former colleague commented that he would be finished as an artist. Apparently, being in the periphery means the death of your artistic identity.
Or maybe not? Quinn recounted the infrastructures he has created over the years and the work he is still doing, even if he remains invisible to the so-called ‘centre’. He also highlighted the necessity to invest time for caring, creating, and working in local contexts as well as the need for artists to be able to survive through their work, arguing for the value of artistic work made in the periphery – and so for its respect, support and inclusion in funding schemes.
Later, choreographer Catherine Young and her musicians drew us into a moving circle trying out a fusion of Irish folk dances, Palestinian dabke, Ukrainian dances and afro beats that she has been taught working with refugees in Ireland. Based in the southwestern county of Kerry, Young also lives in the periphery, but she told us that travelling a lot had made it easier to keep going. It was funny for her to think that a programmer from Dublin or elsewhere would come looking for her in the ‘middle of nowhere’, so to communicate her work to the outside she needed to travel. Periphery becomes isolation unless kept in touch with the ‘centre’.
Nigerian-born mulitidiscipinary artist Tobi Balogan delivered his whole presentation through rhyming – about his name, his black identity and masculinity, the challenges of racism and exclusion, discussing how hip-hop culture is a dynamic site of belonging experimenting with identities and forms of movement. In his work and teaching, he uses repetition and bouncing as his main tools, thinking of bouncing as a wider methodology and mode of thinking: bouncing back and forth not only bodily but also in time, bouncing from his past to his present, creating ephemeral lines of how he shapes and is shaped by the world. Bouncing becomes an empowering proposition in relation to the periphery, a jumping in and out of things that decentralises; or in other words, creates several centres.
On curation and inclusivity
The second day, we turned to inclusive dance practices advocating for differently abled bodies and the ways in which they reshape so called mainstream contemporary dance. It started with a ‘Boombox’ warm-up: a pre-recorded format created by artist Sanders Verbeek and Stopgap dance company during the pandemic. Boombox is a reversal of what we are used to, as dancers with disabilities take over warm-up sessions that can occur wherever – living rooms, kitchen floors, studios – guided by unknown voices and sounds. Boombox was followed by a discussion on a newly funded research programme looking at law and disability taking dance as its case study – turning the peripheral practice of inclusive dance into its major research example. The discussion on rethinking dance through disability was continued by Stopgap co-artistic director Laura Jones. She focused on the social model of disability, proposing to re-examine the values and educational methods of dance so that we keep asking ourselves how to make our field, studios and methodologies more inclusive, so that inclusive practices are no longer peripheral but become good practice for all.
One idea that kept popping up was curation as caring for one’s own community. At a roundtable on The art of co-curation, Jenny Trainor (Dance Limerick Director) and Catherine Young shared their experience and thoughts of how they co-curate What Next Festival as a site for emerging local choreographers, providing them with space and a presentation platform (covered in Springback Magazine here). The roundtable questions were ‘Where is the leadership in co-curation?’ and ‘How much do we or should we as curators implicate the community in the festivals or other kind of platforms that we run?’ Community dance quickly became the major topic of discussion, but for those of us from countries where community dance is not really evolved or supported, curation was mostly discussed as a practice that goes beyond the selection and presentation of artworks to take into account, question and address the needs, modes and aspirations of diverse agents within a community or communities. In this sense, exploring how peripheral practices happen and how can they be empowered within the European dance scene is an act of curating.