A Conference Investigating Heritage Through Dance 

transition|Dance and Heritage
Concluding thoughts by François Matarasso

This has been a special conference in many ways. It has brought together an exceptional range of people from many professions and cultural backgrounds. They have shared not only their insights gained in dance, arts management, heritage, academia and medicine but also some of their personal experience of heritage, identity and culture. As a result, artistic, theoretical and political perspectives have been grounded in individual and shared reality. The unique combination of art, performance, exposition and conversation, allowed understanding to deepen not only through reason, but also through feeling, sense and physicality. What could be more appropriate for a conference about such a personal and complex matter as how heritage is expressed, transmitted, changed and transgressed through dance?

We have been offered some memorable metaphors. Naseem Khan spoke of how driving a car requires us to look forward while keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror, arguing that without an understanding of the past, we cannot go confidently towards the future. Judy Ling Wong reminded us that the 'English' cottage garden is a glorious collection of the world's weeds. Olu Taiwo examined the audience with a magnifying glass, when we thought we were watching him, Julie and Christian gave a physical demonstration of how our personal heritage shapes our relationships, and Eric and Joy brought us together in celebration before singing us the Leaving of Liverpool. Every participant will take his or her own images and impressions from this intense but never pressured meeting.

At the heart of the discussions was the question of what we mean by heritage. The complexity of the concept was widely agreed. In Ranjit Sondhi's terms, heritage is fluid, dynamic, unstable, contaminated, above all, constructed. It changes according to circumstance as we choose to adopt the identity that seems o be most acceptable and appropriate at the time. But unlike chameleons, people often adopt identities in opposition to their surroundings, taking on contrasting colours that differentiate. Absence provides our heritage as much as presence. Dr Dutta's recessive and dominant genes resolve themselves to give us our human traits; or perhaps they sometimes remain a source of dynamic tension, each gaining or losing strength according to the changing environment.

And yet there is an irreducible core - Shane Sambu's 'status that is acquired through birth' - that cannot be made other than it is. Certain things we inherit from our parents: a place of birth, a mother tongue, some genes. We can change how we think about these as we use culture and art to reshape identity, but we cannot change the facts themselves. To be born female is to inherit a life experience that, in every culture, will be different from that of those who are born male. One can accept or reject the cultural consequences, or struggle with them, but not, at least before adulthood, the biology. To grow up and discover the world in a particular language shapes a child's understanding of her or himself: other languages may be learnt, as culture is acquired, but the first remains the fixed point against which what follows is contrasted.

Naseem Khan, quoting Peter Badejo, said 'there's no way you'll have a tree with good leaves without a taproot'. Perhaps that is what heritage is: the taproot that must produce an elm, an ash or a willow. An apple tree can blossom and bear fruit, or struggle to thrive in poor soil and strong wind: it can be cut, trained and transplanted, even grafted - but it cannot be a cherry tree. Making or finding identity is a common human experience, though some find it easier than others: part of it is always about some degree of acceptance.

Interleaved among these broader debates were questions about the heritage of dance. Whose dances matter and whose do not? How are they remembered and why are they forgotten? What histories does dance have or lack? While some people seemed anxious about the difficulty of recording dance, of preserving and celebrating past achievements, to me it seems as much an opportunity as a threat. Dance, like all performing arts, exists in the present. It challenges the performer and the spectator to be present, to invest themselves fully in the moment. Dance cannot be owned, so it cannot easily be controlled. It resists commodification and consumerism. Without books, it is inscribed in the physical memories of millions of dancers' bodies. There will never be a museum of dance - though there are places that preserve old ballet shoes, photographs and programmes - because dance is living. It is dancers themselves who form the museum of dance.

And it is dancers who choose what to remember and what to forget. They pass on to the next generation what they value and the young in their turn choose what to remember and what to forget. Judy Ling Wong evoked Chinese artists who see their work as unfinished, believing that others may take it further than they can. In this concept, being a good teacher is the real test of an artist's worth, because it is her students who move the culture on. I began to see dance as a body of knowledge, carried forward in the imaginations of innumerable dancers who serve rather than use it. Each of us plays a unique part, now, in the transmission of humanity's common heritage - which is, in the end, all that we can call our own.

Among many impressions and ideas gained in these days, I am infused with gratitude for the insight, creativity and care so generously shared by all the participants. I am also grateful for the access to culture from which I have benefited in the course of my life and for the way it has enabled me to understand and accept my own heritage. I leave Liverpool with a renewed conviction that access to culture - on our own terms - is the foundation of everything that is important about being human.

François Matarasso

9th March 2008

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