Review Stepping Out of Line - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Review Stepping Out of Line

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MAXIMILIANE LEUSCHNER // X6 Dance Space (1976-80): Liberation Notes

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Stepping Out of Line

X6 Dance Space (1976-80): Liberation Notes

Cell Project Space

06 February – 22 March 2020

 


Manley Struggles, 1978, Fergus Early and Julian Hough Riverside Studios. Framed c-print, photograph by Geoff White, 35.5cm x 26cm. Photography Rob Harris. Images courtesy Cell Project Space.

 

Cell Project Space’s residency programme will be familiar to today’s contemporary art audience in London. The institution provides affordable workspaces for emerging artists across the capital and prides itself on being an experimental platform for artistic and curatorial ideas. Following Cell Project Space’s twentieth anniversary in 2019, the exhibition programme reflects this milestone with a retrospective on an exciting chapter in British dance history, that of the collective X6, their dance space in the London docklands and magazine New Dance. Between 1976 and 1980, five dancers – Emilyn Claid, Maedée Duprès, Fergus Early, Jacky Lansley, and Mary Prestidge – inhabited a derelict tea warehouse on floor 6, block X in Butler’s Wharf. There they rehearsed, led workshops three times a week and explored new dance techniques (such as release and contact improvisation). Their political commitment to the future of the discipline inspired them to lead discussions with fellow dancers and artists and to create the magazine New Dance, which later lent its name to this nascent practice of experimental dance in 1970s Britain. Following the gentrification of the docklands in the early 1980s, X6 found a new home in a veneer factory on Chisenhale Road. These days, the Chisenhale Dance Space is best known for its contemporary art gallery offshoot. It seems fitting that for its milestone celebration Cell Project Space chose to pay tribute to a British cultural institution, which paved the way for countercultural, artist-run, not-for-profit galleries in London like their own.

At first glance the exhibition X6 Dance Space (1976-80): Liberation Notes in the gallery on the first floor resembles a rather lifeless shell of archival material. With only two videos on display, the introduction to one of the liveliest disciplines of performing arts and one of its more experimental chapters is not ideal. The curatorial choices reveal a generic mixture of previously popular exhibition techniques and designs: a white cube in an industrial-style arrangement, blown-up photographs and xerox magazine spreads, archival material in glass vitrines, a suit hanging from the ceiling, the odd television in the corner – either on a plinth or on the floor. What, if anything, caters to the experimental vocabulary which the institution prides itself in?

A second glance reveals that the exhibition and its documentary materials pay tribute to a time when dance classes were reserved for professionals or children, and when contemporary choreographers and dancers were tied to dance schools and institutions with few freelancing opportunities. Discussing the future of the dance discipline with fellow practitioners seemed more important than the documentation of new work, and magazines and journals presented a convenient means to archive, communicate, exhibit and preserve.

From costumes, dance scores, photographs and rehearsal videos to writings, schedules and journal excerpts, X6’s history can be traced through extensive archival materials, which most notably consist exclusively of primary sources, with only one video unidentified. The New Dance magazine takes centre stage in this exhibition. Two large vitrines in the centre of the gallery show exemplary double spreads with provocative covers (‘The Bleeding Fairy’ – a menstruating dancer performing an arabesque en pointe), posters, photographs, schedules for weekend workshops, diary entries, flyers, interviews and more. X6 published the magazine between 1977 and 1980 and used it as a platform for anything that had been disregarded by fellow dance critics at the time.

New Dance was also instrumental in promoting the collective’s own ideas and practices. The writers, feminists and deeply political at heart, were unafraid to write about disability, gender, sexuality, motherhood, body image or other dance forms from folk dancing to breakdancing. As relevant now as forty years ago, these observations undoubtedly resonate with today’s audience and echo recent interviews with principal dancers and artistic directors of renowned institutions in London.[1] Within the exhibition, significant articles such as ‘Liberation Notes’ by Fergus Early (which sets the scene within the context of British dance) were blown up and pinned to the wall.

The contributors to New Dance are all renowned practitioners in their respective fields. This highlights the collaborative effort of the collective to change Britain’s attitude to dance through a constructive dialogue and exchange. What might surprise is that four of the five members have formative backgrounds in ballet but distanced themselves from the anarchic energy of contemporary dance as taught at The Place on the teachings of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.[2] Most notable was their collaboration with the Theatre Department of Dartington College of Arts in Devon and its annual dance festival. As shared allies, their defining characteristic was a fierce commitment to ballet as a technique and a theatrical tradition. They sought to liberate the discipline from its elitist background, and many performances and workshops, such as By River and Wharf (1976), took the dancers outside into the Bermondsey docklands. Two performances of previous work and a panel discussion with all members of the collective present complete the picture.[3] These events were really the only occasions when X6 and its achievements were truly resurrected in this exhibition.

The retrospective X6 Dance Space (1976-80): Liberation Notes is the first of its kind for the collective and provided a reading-intensive but informative introduction to this innovative chapter in British dance. Whilst capitalising on X6’s radical ideas towards feminism, gender, disability and body image within the dance as a discipline, as detailed in the New Dance copies on display, it soon becomes clear that many of these ideas, still unresolved, appeal strongly to today’s audience.

 


Maximiliane Leuschner is a recent graduate of Professor Sarah Wilson’s MA Special Option, Global Conceptualism: the Last Avant-Garde or a New Beginning? At The Courtauld, she researched the documentation of ephemeral art forms in the countercultural milieus of New York, Cologne and Moscow.  A passionate ballet dancer, she continued her dance training during her studies in London.


 

[1] See Judith Mackrell, ‘Death of The Dance Dictators: Ballet in The Wake of #Metoo’, The Guardian (16 July 2018, accessed: 28 August 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jul/16/dance-ballet-metoo-culture-bullying).
[2] As Britain’s centre for contemporary dance, The Place (also known as The Artists’ Place) unites dance training, creation and performance since 1969. Its founder Robin Howard initiated the teaching of modern dance techniques from America at the dance conservatoire, after recognising a lacking tradition thereof in Britain. See Stephanie Jordan, ‘British Modern Dance: Early Radicalism’, Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, 7.2 (Autumn 1989), 3-15; Judith Mackrell, ‘Post-Modern Dance in Britain: An Historical Essay’, Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, 9.1 (Spring 1991), 40-57.
[3] See the performance Now what…. Emilyn Claid Fergus Early Jacky Lansley Mary Prestidge, Cell Project Space, London, 22 February 2020 (n.d., accessed: 28 August 2020, https://www.cellprojects.org/events/x6-revisited) and the Round table discussion with ‘Funmi Adewole, Emilyn Claid, Fergus Early, Jamila Johnson-Small, Jacky Lansley and Mary Prestidge, 1 March 2020 (n.d., accessed: 28 August 2020, https://www.cellprojects.org/events/round-table-discussion-collectivity-dance-and-writing).

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