Eyes to the horizon

The past year at work has been manic, to say the least. At One Dance UK I’ve worked in some capacity or other on three conferences, two national arts festivals, a fundraiser, a major organisational rebrand and a new website. Sometimes I look at the amount that I have done while there and I forget how little time I’ve spent there.

But nothing stays the same and employment in the arts is always precarious so it is time to move on. I will be leaving in July and I’m looking forward to having some time off to travel a bit and work on some other projects. At the same time I’m a bit apprehensive about the possiblity of being out of work for a while and not knowing where exactly my next opportunity will come from.

I spoke to a friend recently who has been freelancing for a while now. She said that we’re all freelancers, even those of us in long-term jobs. It’s the way that the economy and the job market are going. No one expects to work in the same job all their life anymore. Even if you’re a salaried employee, you have to always be on the lookout for the next thing. Even if you’re on a permanent contract, there’s going to be an end date and a degree of uncertainty as to what comes next. The smart people learn to embrace that uncertainty and seek out opportunities. I think she’s right.

My to do list has become so massive as to become frightening and unmanageable. Normally the standard wisdom is to break items down into smaller chunks that are easier to complete. This is great, except sometimes it makes me feel even more like I have too many things to do right now, which adds to my paralysis.

Today I broke down and made a primitive Gantt chart. I figured that it works at work, so why not do it for my life? I initially called it the Gantt Chart of Doom, but then decided to think positively and called it the Gantt Chart of Successful Life Planning instead. This is either the best idea ever, or it is something that I will forget about shortly. We shall see.

And if you know of anyone who’s looking for a totally awesome arts marketing professional who’s a good all-round generalist with experience in dance, theatre, music and film please do let me know.


Wanborough to Godalming

Watts ChapelMy friend Sam and I have been slowly working our way through the Time Out Book of Country Walks, Volume 1. I picked up a used copy online for £3, but they’re all avaliable online for free in their most up-to-date form through the Saturday Walkers Club website.*

The other day we decided to do walk 2: Wanborough to Godalming, which travels through the Guildford area of Surrey. At just over seven miles, the walk was considerably shorter than most of the other ones in the book, no doubt to leave walkers some time to take in the cultural attractions on the way. Most of the scenery was wooded and due to the absence of interesting wildflowers this time of year, pleasant, but fairly unmemorable.

Unlike most of the walks, this one crossed a highway, which was a bit frightening. I think the book said “with care, cross the dual carriageway” but neglected to add the bit about making peace with whichever deity one would normally pray to.

Across the highway the walk takes you through the middle of a vinyard where the signage warns you to not stray from the path, because the vinyard makes use of high quantities of sprays. We mused for a bit about how global warming has made owning a vinyard in southern England a viable business venture. Though if the grapes in England are sprayed with chemicals that make them dangerous to walk near, I doubt I’ll be purchasing any English wine in the near future.

We stopped in at Watts Gallery, which is dedicated to the memory and work of George Frederic Watts, though it also displays works by other related artists and craftspeople. Taken in its entirety, the gallery gives you a little snapshot into a particular period of Arts and Crafts and pre-Raphaelite romantic backlash against the Industrial Revolution. It was interesting to see a selection of work that spanned Watts’ career in a number of styles, some more academic or commercial, some more expressionist and symbolic. I particularly liked the collection of ceramics on display by William and Evelyn DeMorgan, and given that no one seemed particularly fussed about me having my camera out, I took a lot of pictures of them.

The gallery also had a temporary exhibit on the work and life of Richard Dadd. Dadd was by all accounts a complete nutter who suffered from what was probably some form of paranoid schizophrenia. After murdering his father he spent the rest of his life in mental institutions. The majority of his ouvre was created while he was living in Bethlem Hospital.

His work was really cool to see up close. When you view paintings online it’s so easy to lose sight of the scale at which they exist. His work has so much intricate detail that I’d always assumed that it was much larger than it actually is, but the paintings were surprisingly small and richly textured. The longer you stare at them, the more little details become apparent, and you can see in it the roots of a whole generation of fantasy illustration.

Watts Chapel

Watts Chapel

The real highlight of this walk though is Watts Chapel, designed and built by Watts’ wife Mary Fraser-Tytler as a means of training local people to work in crafts and trades. Both the interior and exterior are made of ceramic, richly patterned in Art Nouveau and Celtic revival style.

* The Saturday Walkers Club website is an amazing resource for anyone based in London without a car. The site has hundreds of itineraries for walks that begin and end at train stations within two hours of London that have been created by club members and are free to use. Most of them pass by some specific site of interest that you may have missed if you’d just set out on your own. Highly recommended.

Horniman Museum

After the conference I really needed a brain break. I visited the Horniman Museum and found it delightful despite being filled with screaming children.

My visit reminded me that museum displays are really a lost art. I loved the natural history gallery, not so much for the content but for the authentically art deco way in which it was displayed: lots of 20’s typefaces, carefully handwritten labels and bold geometrical design. There was a lot of care taken to display the taxidermied animals in really beautifully decorative ways as well. I was so enamoured with the design that I found it really jarring when one of the display cases had labels that had obviously been computer-generated.

Along with the old displays they also had some of Polly Morgan’s art taxidermy. I found it interesting and creative but I feel really ambivalent about the use of taxidermy in non-traditional ways. It’s a weird, irrational set of feelings about death that I have yet to parse.

I loved how a bunch of the galleries preserved a slightly random, cluttered Victorian wunderkammer sort of feel to their displays. It really did make you feel like you were walking into someone’s personal collection of interesting stuff. However, there were many times where I felt like I really wanted to know more context about the objects I was looking at, where I felt like I was probably missing some important bit of information that prevented me from really understanding it.

Right now the Horniman has a temporary exhibit on about folk art from Romania, featuring a lot of textiles. I loved the opportunity to really study the patterns and textures, took a lot of pictures and notes.

There was also an exhibit of photos of women from Sierra Leone. The photos were taken around 2007 and included a bit of information about the women and where they were in their lives, conveying the resiliency of people living in poor conditions in the aftermath of civil war. I would be very interested in seeing a new set of photos documenting where they all are now and what’s happened in their lives in the time since the original photos were taken. What has been the impact of Ebola on the lives of all of these women, I wonder?

In translation

Dance UK’s conference went really well. The sad thing about working on an event is that you never fully get the opportunity to experience it like a visitor. I was so focused on my work that I didn’t have the time to really attend the sessions, some of which would have been really interesting to a cultural policy wonk like me.

I may never get over squeeing a little bit internally every time I see some of my work being used. In this case, title slides for all of the presentations, projected all over the place.

A big highlight during the conference for me was a performance by Verve, the postgraduate performance company of Northern School of Contemporary Dance, performing Ocean, choreographed by Jamaal Burkmar. Such an inspiring and moving piece of work.

You can see footage of the whole performance here.

Right on the heels of Dance UK’s conference, I headed to the Nehru Centre to watch one of our interns, Gayathri Rajaji, perform a recital in tribute to her late guru Adyar K Lakshman. I was interested in going because bharatanatyam is a dance form I know absolutely nothing about.

I think it was a beautiful tribute and introduction to the style. I was really impressed by how complex the rhythms were and how much hand-finger-foot-eye coordination was involved.

But what I enjoyed most about the performance was that she took the time to explain the stories that the dances told, making gestures with her hands as she narrated. It meant that while you were watching the dance you could follow along with the story just by watching her hands.

Without that explanation the dance would have still been beautiful and interesting, but my comprehension would have stopped at a purely aesthetic level. As soon as the gestures were explained, the language barrier was broken and the dance communicated so much more, and didn’t feel foreign at all. The key was having that language translated.

I think sometimes I forget that dance is an abstraction of lived experience. This is something that both Jonzi D and Ivan Blackstock expressed in their own ways during the conference, in speaking about hip hop.


Take, for example, Jonzi D’s tree. Hip hop’s not my thing. I didn’t see a tree until he explained that this was a tree, and once he did, I saw it. It was there. I think it’s true of any style. Once you move past the abstraction and conventions you find that underneath the dance is communicating something far more universal.