Sunday, October 22, 2006

Artist Links

I spent Tuesday at the Barbican: a British Council - Arts Council joint event celebrating the Artist Links China programme (complete with a bi-lingual book all about it) and launching the new Artist Links Brazil programme. As with lots of these sort of events, the networking over coffee, lunch and glasses of wine is probably the most important bit: in one day I manage to catch up with Valerie Synmoie, Shobana Jeyasingh, Sita Ramamurthy, Joseph Alford from Theatre O and Franko Figueiredo from stonecrabs, as well as encountering several people for the first time, many of whom I'd wanted to meet for a while. Louise Jeffreys, the Barbican's Head of Theatre, with whom I chat about Fred's Amrita group from Cambodia. Sarah Hickson, who I've spoken to on the phone and emailed a lot through ENO and British Council connections, but never actually met before: she's going to be Executive Producer at the South Bank from January, and she's very inspiring to talk to. Sally Cowling, the British Council's Director of Drama and Dance - she knows all about our recent project, which it turns out was the very first production in the Connections Through Culture programme (I didn't know that).

Much of the morning is spent looking at work created through Artist Links China. The programme has shown a strong inclination towards visual arts: I remember that when I first approached them about Dis-Orientations, I was told that they didn't feel theatre was really suitable for Sino-British work because of language barriers - how wrong we've proved them! If anything, the language barriers and cultural barriers seem to me to be more problematic in this work than they were in ours: there's not much that seems directly to engage in real dialogue - some of the visual responses to the travel strike Shobana, Sarah and myself as variations on "what I did on my holidays". It's exciting to watch Rose English's collaboration with Chinese acrobats - but the book reveals that the acrobats are doing exactly what they do in traditional circus - all Rose has added are the costumes, set and music. Is that collaboration? Or is it more like Merce Cunningham's approach: things are co-inciding in the same space, but without any necessary connection? So I'm heartened to hear Simon Kirby, the Artist Links China Project Manager, point out to his successors in Brazil that the programme should develop to take on board more collaboration and more work from forms other than visual art. To my mind, the two issues are related, and are probably the result of the programme looking at individual artists rather than organisations (even for our oblique involvement, the book cites my name, not that of the company). Theatre, music, dance, film - all of these are collaborative forms, which need some sort of organisation (and hence the use of language!) to get them going. But, of course, it's cheaper to fund an individual, and I do wonder whether this isn't one reason for these programmes. There's far less British Council touring than there was even a few years ago. They say it's to do with "shifts of policy", but it may also be to do with less money. Working with individual visual artists lets them be seen to be doing a lot of projects. It's "good value".

It's political considerations that have led to the choice of Brazil as their next target country, of course. China is the big booming economy, but the Foreign Office also pays very careful attention to India and Brazil when it comes to Trade, Industry and commercial decisions. These three are now the work-horses of the world. I must confess, I'd not really been attracted to the idea of working with Brazil. Unlike with China and India, there doesn't seem to be any readily identifiable tradition of theatre into which we could tap, unless you count carnival, which is already very present in the UK. But, as I listen to Adriana Rouanet from the Brazilian Embassy talking about Brazilian culture, my mind begins to change. She gives a brilliant and inspiring overview of the nation and its art, with lots of emphasis on the diversity of the place, and no governmental gloss on the problems. It's very refreshing, and I find the imagination beginning to tick. One idea from her talk especially sticks in the mind: the useful anonymity of the Brazilian passport. Since the country is so ethnically diverse ("anybody could be Brazilian", she says), and the passport comparatively easy to forge, it is one of the most popular passports for people on the run. Like Ronnie Biggs, I suppose. Another idea I like is the way in which Brazilian artists in the 20th century defined themselves in terms of "anthropophagism" - the country's indigenous inhabitants had been labelled cannibals, and so its artists came to celebrate their own cannibalistic tendencies, devouring what they found tasty in the culture of other nations, and spitting out the bones.....

After Adriana's talk, I chat with Paul Heritage, who teaches at QMC and has done lots of theatre work in Brazil over the years, including in favelas and prisons, running People's Palace Projects. He's very inspiring. Brazilian theatre, he tells me, is at its most vibrant in the poorest communities, among companies who would never get funded in the UK, because they wouldn't be able to fill in the forms, and they don't have established artists. "Here, it's all top down, " he says; "there, it's bottom up". There's a real hunger for culture in the favelas: a need for theatre which gives voice, worth and definition to people on the margins. And the work which they create is world class. Back home, I re-read Paul's essay on the favela-based company Nós do morro in Theatre Matters (great book). You don't want to be funder-led, but........ at least I can start thinking. Valerie asked me if we were interested in Brazil, and then suggested we have lunch again.....

No comments: