2017 in Review, P.1: Dance Advocacy Conference in Belgrade, Serbia

This blog is the first in Slender-White's 3-part series of reflections on his work with FACT/SF in 2017.

 A wee bit of dancing at the dance conference.

A wee bit of dancing at the dance conference.

Written by Charles Slender-White

I first got to go to the Balkans in 2015 to conduct research for my project, (dis)integration. This was funded by Movement Research and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, and made possible by the insightful Julie Phelps, CounterPulse’s Artistic Director. Julie connected me to the funds, and to artists and arts workers in Serbia and Bulgaria. That first trip in 2015 went well, and FACT/SF was invited to return in 2016. This time, Liane Burns and I went together for five weeks to teach, make choreography with the local dancers, and develop our own duet, Platform.

And then, earlier this year, I was encouraged to return to the region yet again. Arts organizers from Belgrade’s Station: Service for Contemporary Dance invited me and a dozen other Americans to attend their Nomad Dance Advocates conference. As in 2015 and 2016, this trip was also funded by Movement Research and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, in collaboration with local partners.

 Sit, listen, learn. Mid-way back, L to R: Barbara Bryan (Movement Research), Tania Gordeeva (Vaganova Academy), Jeanne Pfeffer (CounterPulse), me (FACT/SF), and Marya Wethers (Movement Research)

Sit, listen, learn. Mid-way back, L to R: Barbara Bryan (Movement Research), Tania Gordeeva (Vaganova Academy), Jeanne Pfeffer (CounterPulse), me (FACT/SF), and Marya Wethers (Movement Research)

The Nomad Dance Advocates conference brought together about 50 arts workers from the US and Europe to address one question: how can the artists in Belgrade and throughout the Balkans build sustainable, accessible, equitable, and well-funded spaces for contemporary dance? The Germans, Swedes, and French shared models from their respective countries, the Eastern Europeans explained the economic, political, and cultural situations they were dealing with, and the Americans talked about the fundamental role individual donors and private foundations play in our ability to create work and engage with our communities. We all listened attentively to each other, took notes, and spoke up when we thought we might have something to contribute.

During breakfast in the morning, we would convene over coffee and omelettes and talk about the previous day’s discussions. Throughout our lunch break, we would get to know each other more personally. And, after the conference ended each day, we’d go together to a local theatre to watch a performance. We’d talk more on our walk back to the hotel. In between all of this, we’d gather in a more formal and organized ways for discussions, lectures, debates, presentations, etc. The conference was just four days long, but jam-packed full of revelations, proposals, counter-proposals, radical transparency, and real solutions to very complex problems. This was perhaps the most impactful experience I’ve ever had where talking led to action, where conversations were well-balanced between learning and sharing, and where imaginative thinking lent itself to practical solutions.

 Sharing thoughts about existing power structures and proposing how we can work to change them.

Sharing thoughts about existing power structures and proposing how we can work to change them.

We covered many topics in those 96 hours, including:

  • the role of dance in society,
  • the relationship between the government, its people, and art as a public good, and
  • the importance of aligning dance education and community outreach with both the values of the arts sector and the needs of a local population.

Big stuff. Heady stuff. Necessary stuff.

Jeanne Pfeffer was there, too, representing CounterPulse. Jeanne and I worked arm-in-arm from 2009-2014 to build FACT/SF in those early years, and she’s currently on our Board of Directors. On a personal level, it was fulfilling to get to spend time together in a far away place. On a professional level, it was incredibly rewarding to get to witness each other as the arts professionals we have become - literally at the table with dozens of experts and feeling like we, too, had valuable insights to share.

 Me and Jeanne getting situated on our first day in Belgrade, Serbia

Me and Jeanne getting situated on our first day in Belgrade, Serbia

Throughout the conference, we did all we could to adequately represent the Bay Area and the many different types of work (and ways of working) found in our region. People had heaps of questions for us, and we’d toggle between sharing anecdotes and strategies from our own organizations, and providing insight about how the contemporary performance field more generally functions in Northern California. We received a lot of new information, too, and we're currently in the process of reflecting on all that we learned and are writing down some of the major take-aways. Our ultimate aim is to start new local conversations and make positive change in the Bay Area dance ecology. You’ll be hearing a lot from us about this throughout 2018 - stay tuned!

This trip was significantly different than the others I’ve gotten to take. I didn’t teach or perform, and I wasn’t there to convince anyone that my choreographic vision was superlative in some way. Instead, this conference afforded an open and inquisitive type of field-wide exchange that seems both rare and necessary. It was inspiring to learn how others are thriving and struggling. It was reifying to realize that I had a set of knowledge and experiences that others wanted to know about. It was empowering to gain a palpable sense of community and inclusion, and to reinvest yet again in the importance of taking action.

 All the 2017 Nomad Dance Advocates 

All the 2017 Nomad Dance Advocates 

Charles Slender-White is the Artistic Director of FACT/SF. He has created dozens of original dance works, is a Certified Countertechnique Teacher, and has performed and taught across North America, Europe, Russia, and in Hong Kong and Australia. Slender-White started his career with Provincial Dances Theatre (Yekaterinburg, Russia), and received his BA in English Literature and Dance & Performance Studies from UC Berkeley.