Document Journal – Above the Fold, 15th Nov 2021

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6 creatives reflect on the impacts of Brexit and COVID, and imagine adaptive futures for their industries

It’s easy to be cynical about the state of the world. For younger generations, the end of the world has been a constant, ever-impending, not-so-far off future. First it was Y2K, then 2012. Today, our planet is, quite literally, on fire, while multiple strains of a deadly virus are circulating at alarming rates. In the United Kingdom, the pandemic has been compounded by Brexit, throwing its creative industries and its wider economy into chaos.

Across its disciplines, however, the arts have been a solace. Locked inside, shut off from any offline form of socialization, entertainment served as the last delicate thread by which we clung to some version of sanity. Film, fashion, dance, literature—the arts remind us why we want the human race to survive the mostly self-created disasters that threaten to drive it to extinction. Through the closure of live venues, pulled funding, and threats to safety, artists have adapted. They’ve moved their practices to their bedrooms, live-streamed, built home studios, coordinated online creation.

For Document, British photographer Edd Horder captures some of those who are shaping the rapidly changing state of the arts. From actors to designers to dancers, Horder’s portraits celebrate the faces creating the performances the world consumes for catharsis.

Alessandra Ferri, one of the rare few to be granted the title of prima ballerina assoluta, emphasizes that, for many, art is not just passion, but work upon which they are reliant. “Their art is what they live on, what they pay their rent with, what they support their families with,” she explains. Actress, pianist, and model Amber Anderson, best known for her role as Jane Fairfax in the 2020 film Emma, stresses that “it’s part of our DNA to be together and be creative,” speaking not just of artists, but of humans. DJ Fat Tony, the crowned prince of clubs and memes, “never stopped dancing.” Below, Ferri, Anderson, Fat Tony, ballet director Cassa Pancho, designer Christopher Kane, and creative fashion producer Sylvia Farago explore how Brexit and the pandemic have been shaping their worlds and share their hopes for its future.

Alongside producing stunning performances, your work also spreads a vital message concerning diversity in the dance industry. Can you talk about why it’s so important to safeguard your company’s work in order to continue actioning this mission more widely?
I am frequently asked if Ballet Black is still needed in 2021. And my answer is always a resounding YES. Even now, in 2021, we are only at the start of real discussion about what it means to be a Black or brown artist in classical ballet in the UK. And by ‘real,’ I don’t mean panel discussions that don’t go anywhere. I mean digging into the work and having honest, frank discussions, from tangible, easy-to-understand ideas like having ballet tights and shoes in shades that account for Black and brown skin tones to the deeper issues surrounding our traditional ballet repertoire and the representation of cultural identities within those works. For example, British ballet no longer uses blackface, and is slowly removing the use of brown and yellowface on stage, but there are still a lot of ballets that contain ethnic caricatures that some people within the ballet world view as a legacy that must be protected and preserved. Ballet Black’s existence provokes the question, why does a company like this need to exist, and it forces that question to be examined. Our own repertoire and the diversity of our artists is essential to the UK ballet scene because, right now, we are the only ballet company in the UK that can tell Black stories and give them a platform at large-scale theatres like the Barbican in London and smaller houses like DanceXchange in Birmingham, meaning we get our work out to a really wide audience and a wonderful cross-section of the population.

Over the past year, what have been your main concerns for your work resulting from Brexit and COVID?
When the closure of theatres was announced, we were about one week away from the premiere of our new double bill at the Barbican. No matter how many risk assessments or contingency plans you write, the closure of all theatres due to a global virus was a shock to the system for everyone in the arts; not only could we not perform, we also couldn’t have any physical contact, and that is 95% of the job. Ballet Black is very fortunate that we’ve been able to find ways to keep going, but we are part of an ecosystem: at one end, there is a generation of vocational students who will graduate from a three-year course of arduous training with no jobs to go to. There are freelance artists, crew, and administrative staff who have been without jobs for so long they have been forced to find work outside our industry. There are theatres that may never recover from the financial devastation brought on by COVID. We all feed into each other, so even if pockets of the arts industry are surviving, the arts as a whole is incredibly fragile. Because we haven’t been able to earn money for over a year, we’ve had to trim the budget. I won’t be able to hire any new, young, upcoming Black British talent without finding additional financial support, [so] Ballet Black won’t provide that vital professional experience to new dancers, and we won’t have much-needed cover if something happens to one of our dancers, like injury.

As far as Brexit goes, the red tape surrounding visas, and essential things like freight for sets and equipment are causing the cost of European touring to go up and up, and I worry that these issues will make UK companies less attractive to overseas promoters. It feels like we will emerge from COVID only to find the European touring landscape bleak.

What are ways you’ve had to pivot to cope with what’s been happening?
We discovered Zoom fairly quickly and moved training sessions for our company dancers online. Once the government announced that professional dancers could continue to train and rehearse, we were able to reconfigure our studio and dressing room, and returned to work. One of the many pivots we’ve had to make is to ask how we can connect with an audience without live performances. Our temporary solution of sharing archive performance footage free of charge was okay, but none of it was made for sharing, and a lot of companies were doing it; the internet was awash with free stuff, which was really exciting at the start, but I think a lot of people soon became overwhelmed and switched off to it.

While this was happening, George Floyd was murdered in the US, sparking a fresh wave of awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing it into mainstream consciousness. I wrote a brief ‘beginners guide’ about how to examine your dance school or organization. It’s a personal, daily challenge not to let my cynicism of those black squares on Instagram cloud my ability to be of use in the movement for equity for Black, Asian, and ethnically diverse dancers.

This, lockdown, and COVID made me even more determined that we needed to hear—and see—Black stories represented in classical ballet. Our first attempt at dance for film was a short piece entitled Like Water, created by our company dancer and choreographer, Mthuthuzeli November. Provoked by the Zong massacre in the late 1700s, Mthuthuzeli wanted to pay tribute to our Black ancestors—enslaved, drowned, treated as cargo—and acknowledge the ongoing resilience of generations of Black people. We are also planning to release a very special new dance film, Eightfold, directed by Mark Donne, featuring eight choreographers from around the world. With this film, I wanted to show the passionate, joyful aspects of our diverse existence, not just the despair. Blackness is constantly categorized as a singular experience, but we do not all share the same background, beliefs, trauma, or even skin color. I felt compelled to respond to the recent BLM wave by showcasing the multifaceted aspects of joyous human emotion, and also the incredible artistic power of Ballet Black, an organization that has been championing positive change for Black and Asian dancers for almost twenty years. I hope, with these films—and more to come—that we can develop new ways to share ballet and bring a different audience to our work.