Critical Faculties

Donald Hutera plays word games as he faces a beautiful dotage

[From "Animated" Spring 2007 p4]

`Fairly fit for an old fart.' As self-description it seems to be working. Such politically incorrect labels as 'old fart' are, of course, perfectly acceptable when applied to your own flesh and bones. The thing is, much of the time I still feel like such a young fart.

I've been thinking more about age and ageing lately, and not only because of the impending completion of my first half- century. In January I was a speaker at a conference on dance and ageing called Marks of Time. (The title could, as the good-humoured British folk dancer Eric Foxley pointed out, easily be abbreviated as M.O.T.) Held at Liverpool Hope University, the two-day event was organised by Bisakha Sarker, director of the South Asian dance agency Chaturangan, and overseen by the educational trust Aspire.

My slot was as a kind of warm-up act for an evening of dance-based performance by Chris Bannerman, Prabha Appaji, Sian Edward Davies, Mary Prestidge, Jackie Guy, Debbie Lee-Antony and Chitra Sundaram. Quite a line-up. There was also, spread over both days, work by Sarker, Ann Dickie, Ana Sanchez- Colberg and the groups Marple Movers, Sadler's Wells Company of Elders and Growing Older (Dis) Gracefully [GODS]. Dotted around this were workshops, presentations and plenary discussions, not to mention a healthy number of tea breaks and buffets that served the dual purpose of networking and nourishment. The whole shebang was attended by well over a hundred people with, according to my notably unscientific observation, women outnumbering men by about ten to one. (Make of that what you will.)

I'd been given a daunting topic: The Aesthetics of Maturity. Where to start? Being a wordsmith, I turned again to my trusty thesaurus for help and possible inspiration.

'Age,' I discovered, had several subcategories. One began favourably with respectful and essentially up-beat words like durability, permanence, persistence, longevity, stability and survival. Soon enough, however, the associative definitions degenerated into protracted, lingering and long-winded. Things got worse when I dipped into 'Oldness.' Here senility, superannuation and second childhood ruled, trailed by a slew of d- based negativities (decrepitude, decay, dotage, declining years) and a catalogue of venerable a-words (ancient, antiquated, antediluvian, archaic, aboriginal). P- words, too, had their place: primitive, primeval, prehistoric and the sexist patriarchal. Mellow or ripe were at least neutral, with no whiff of dinosaur dung about them. Yet for every ancestral, classic or dateless there was a faded, waning, hoary or past one's prime. Hip hop has lent a certain lustre to old school. Time- honoured was another plus. But obsolete, stale, extinct, crumbling? And I still don't know what to make of effete, much less imbecilic.

This is some of the language we've been conditioned to use to contain our myriad ideas and impressions of what the complex process of ageing means.

I looked at 'youth' and 'newness' too. Alongside such expected words as green, virginal and beardless were the brighter terms heyday, bloom and innovation. Surely those or similarly positive qualities or states of being are not the sole preserve of the young.

Age doesn't automatically bestow wisdom. Nonetheless, I appreciated the sage flavour of certain things Bisakha had said in the run-up to M.O.T. "More and more of us are going to be active in our advancing years. And as my body is changing, I want my definition of dance to change." She then added something about "wearing dance as skin, not jewellery."

She was, I think, speaking poetically about authenticity. It's been my privilege to see a number of celebrated older artists dance, from Nureyev and Baryshnikov to Cunningham, Brown and Bill T Jones. Yet I value as much the older couple from Argentina whose presence graced a production by Tango Por DOS some years ago in Rome. These two blocky, box-like amateurs were the calm eye at the centre of a professionally sexy storm of a show. They glided amongst the sleek, younger dancers with a kind of weightless beauty that said, "We have history together."

Genres like Tango, Flamenco, Butoh or the many strands of classical Indian dance can be more accommodating to mature dancers than ballet or contemporary dance. For me the pivotal performance at M.O.T. was Bisakha's The Two Pots, a short, simple fable contrasting the value of a shiny new utensil versus that of its leaky older counterpart. She danced it with the timeless serenity it deserved, utterly authoritative yet infinitely sensitive to its nuances. By the end the audience was moved either to tears or up onto their feet, or both. Although made expressly for the conference, this small gem shouldn't be confined to conference-goers' memories.

Sanchez-Colberg reminded us that not all dance featuring mature performers has to be about loss. There is, in fact, much to be gained from either creating or viewing it. As Bisakha's performance implied, there are certain things that even the most prodigiously gifted young dancer simply doesn't know, or can't yet convey. Watching older bodies move is like looking in a mirror - a reminder of who we are or what we will, or could, become. It's about being desirable or desolate, cautious and fearless, vulnerable or powerful, adaptable and resilient. It's about taking pleasure, and taking time.

Sometimes it's about having the confidence to be still. It's also about limitations and liberation. This old fart says. Baby, bring it on!

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications, He edited the autumn 2003 and summer 2005 editions of Animated, and writes Critical Faculties as a regular column


[See here for details of Animated magazine published by the Foundation for Community Dance.]

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