‘A Gathering’ at Independent Dance | Review

Words by Katie Hagan and Stella Rousham.

Launched in July 2021, Independent Dance’s International Festival of Learning is designed to put the accent on expanded approaches to learning, collaboration, performance and international exchange, with 30+ artists bringing a fortnight of labs, talks and performances to the second edition in December 2022. 

We attended A Gathering on 10 December, an all-day event marking the festival’s halfway point and one bringing together over 20 artists with work spanning ritual, collectivity, belonging, support and joy

A Gathering was delicately and carefully curated. Like tributaries of a river, A Gathering was a complementary assemblage of discussion, performance and active participation that converged in a powerful yet fluid wave that flowed through Siobhan Davies Studios.

A Gathering started gently and warmly, with the crisp December sun lighting the beechy roof studio that crests Siobhan Davies Studios. Laughter yoga with dance artist and laughter leader Flora Wellesley Wesley eased us into this dance day marathon, assuaging any early winter chills from our bodies. 

After laughter yoga and a brief pause away from the studio to redress the space, we were welcomed back in and invited to sit in a circle. Different scents and smells imbued the room with a sense of calm but also anticipation for what was to come. 

The first ‘talking’ session of the day was a conversation with Brian Lobel, artist and scholar whose work deals with his personal experience of having cancer, Denise Rowe, director of Earth Dances and Rebecca Swift, Creative Director of Entelechy Arts, chaired by Nic Conibere called Who belongs, where and how.

After introducing themselves, Nic invited Brian, Denise and Rebecca to reflect on what they believe belonging to be. The conversation quite organically and quickly turned to looking at unbelonging and the ways in which we ‘gather’ in a professional context. The three speakers and Nic – also bringing us ‘spectators’ into the conversation – discussed important touch points including the nature of ‘gathering’ when we work and how we can avoid gathering in a way that’s exclusionary to people who have different life experiences. 

We then had the pleasure to participate in a movement session led by dance artist Denise Rowe. Bathed in the golden warmth of the sunlit Roof Studio, we, along with the other 20 odd participants, were guided through a grounding, restorative and calming improvisation, accompanied by the soothing tingles of the mbira. Rooted in themes of ancestry and orbiting a central bowl of water that gently ricocheted with the vibrations of movement and music in the room, Rowe used focussed contact based partner work and floor patterns – placing hands on the back of another, stepping forwards, away from the hands – that evoked strong sentiments of what it meant to feel and embody (be)longing. 

Around the building at certain intervals was a durational performance featuring Adam Moore, Abby Nocon, Erin Robinsong, Sophie Seita and Florence Uniacke who shared winter readings and rituals.

The durational performance was both elegiac and boldly experimental. As audience members were free to wander between studios, performances and talks, they were gently washed over by these durational performers, who, like the current of a river, meandered into every enclave of the Siobhan Davies Studios. Costumed in dark electric blue overalls, the water-like performers delicately toyed with audience comfort and expectations, found at unpredictable intervals draped over banisters, arranging miniature installations of dried flowers and incense on the landing or tumbling in the courtyard (which, interestingly, attracted the quizzical eye of pedestrians). We particularly enjoyed passing the performers by on the stairs; transforming what could be a rather repetitive journey between studios into a kind of improvised dance itself. 

A watch party of streamed live performances followed, Witnessed in Translation, featuring Mary Pearson, Carolina van Eps, pavleheidler, Michael Kaddu, Elvan Tekkin and Ava Riby-Williams. It was live mixed by George Maund and screened on a projector in a dark room. The streaming was kaleidoscopic and trippy in its aesthetic, sometimes intentionally and at other intervals unintentionally so due to connectivity issues. Still however, the distorted shapes and glitchy sounds added to this kind of weirdly dystopian virtual art show in which questions of identity, belonging and not-belonging were raised.

The anticipated and potentially rather meaty longtable discussion led by some of Independent Dance’s artist-ambassadors Mira Hirtz, Alisa Oleva, Teresa Skamletz and Rosalie Wahlfrid came just before dinner. All participants were free to take a seat at the table when they had the urge to contribute – either verbally or textually, adding their thoughts to a mind-map running the length of the table.

Touching on vitally prescient issues with the contemporary dance/art sector – care, accountability, structural inequalities – the  fluid format of the discussion did have its drawbacks. Some people did share personal reflections and experiences of working in the dance industry. Sharing was something we were all encouraged to do. Yet, it wasn’t quite clear where these important conversations could then be taken once the longtable ended. Whilst laudable for its radical intentions to generate a participatory and horizontal discussion of sensitive industry issues, the ‘open’ format nonetheless seemed to empower those who already felt confident and safe in the space to speak, leaving a significant number of participants who still did not feel comfortable to take a seat at the table. 

After an ambrosial dinner came a comic, whimsical, dancing-in-your-bedroom style solo performance by Flora Wellesley Wesley. In this piece Flora used laughter as a way to offer respite and relief. Meme-like in its tone, Flora bedecked her dance with humorous, nonsensical but strangely sensical statements such as ‘More of a chokehold, a somatic choker’ as a way to bring us together, to create a sense of sharedness and commonality at the end of the day.  

A Gathering finished in true style with a participatory performance by A Band That Dances (fka The Yonis). Through a series of their greatest “hits”, this contemporary movement band did not shy away from using spoken word, pulsing rhythms, wit, and audience engagement, to transform the Roof Studio into a festival of joy and collective experience. Through a skillful balance of iconic unison dance numbers, sharp comedic timing and nuanced social commentary, A Band That Dances carefully captured the continual tensions and contradictions of womanhood. The grande finale – a Ceilidh-remix weaving together audience and performers alike – was a true hit and the absolute embodiment of belonging.

Header image: Who belongs, where and how talk featuring Brian Lobel, Denise Rowe, Rebecca Swift and chaired by Nic Conibere, at ID International Festival of Learning (2022), photo Cheniece Warner.