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Spirit Wisdom: Lessons in best practice for presenting dance in galleries from Lucy Suggate’s Spirit Compass

Lauren A Wright, Programme Director, Siobhan Davies Dance

Photograph taken at performance of Spirit Compass at Tramway, 2019.
Spirit Compass at Tramway | Dance artists: Annie Hanauer, Jamila Johnson-Small, Stephanie McMann, Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome, Isabella Oberländer, Claricia Parinussa, Rowdy SS, Lucy Suggate | Credit: Brian Hartley

Lucy Suggate’s Spirit Compass: Where there is movement there is change is a prophetic work. First performed five months before lockdown, the work came out of a strong intention to create an environment where everyone – performers, audience, staff at the presenting institutions – could have their needs met. It brought a detailed attention and care for the bodily experience of all in contact with it, a care that foreshadowed a wider societal shift once COVID-19 took hold toward attending to our individual and collective bodies as they faced new dangers, restrictions, and the visceral presence of anxiety. 

Spirit Compass was a dance installation that created ‘a site for communal listening and embodiment.’ It was the first new dance work for galleries commissioned by the CONTINUOUS Network, and premiered in October 2019 at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, before touring to Tramway, Glasgow; Turner Contemporary, Margate; and Nottingham Contemporary. Staged in flexible event spaces, its environment for performers and audience supported autonomy, comfort, and attention moving between absorption and drift. The performance area was at one end of the space, ringed in shimmering silver curtains and lit in gradually shifting oranges and pinks like a sunset. If this space was the sea, it was met by a shoreline of cushions disguised as pebbles over a carpeted surface. This large, soft area for the audience welcomed the audience to rest and experience the work, coming and going at will. The number of performers varied from five to eight across the different venues; these included Annie Hanauer, Alexandrina Hemsley, Alexah Tomey-Alleyne, Claricia Parinussa, Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome, Isabella Oberländer, Jamila Johnson-Small, Stephanie McMann, and Rowdy SS. They too rested on the shoreline, rising, rolling and ‘casting out’ into the performance space as their energies and sensations willed them. Their improvised movements followed a score that Lucy developed with a focus on the pelvis. Also on the shoreline was a drum kit manned by Tom Page whose propulsive live drumming underpinned each performance’s 45 minute cycle, shifting the energy of the space and the performers’ movements from calm and delicate to raucous and exuberant and back again three times for a total performance time of 2h 15mins. The performers wore sportswear embellished by designer Lydia Hartshorn with fringe, lace and jewels, with hoods and jackets taken on and off to transform and sometimes obscure their bodies and faces. 

The work is based on a score that performers can learn relatively quickly, so it can adapt to spaces of different scales requiring different numbers of performers. Due to budget constraints and the varying availability of her collaborators, Lucy developed this through a series of intensive research periods with Tom Page and Claricia Parinussa, with other artists coming in periodically to contribute. Then Lucy had two focused periods at BALTIC in the immediate run-up to the premiere when she introduced the other dance artists into the score through discussion and practicing it together in the space. The score requires deep, concentrated attention, listening to the body, the drumming, and the environment; cultivating a space for the artists to enter into this state required Lucy to carefully hold space for the group. She ensured they felt agency to move in and out of that state as they wished, both in the time when they were learning the score and in performance. Varied, changing needs required adaptive conditions around the work, including communication and practical care for the artists’ bodies, the dynamic within the group, and the time immediately before and after performing.

Spirit Compass encapsulates the concerns threading through Lucy’s practice over the previous decade or more. The nature of her practice – improvised, intensely focused and present with what meets her attention – makes her keenly observant of the immediate circumstances surrounding her work. She has developed sophisticated analysis around institutional structures, economics and ecologies, both within the arts and in society at large. Lucy speaks of her practice responding to the increasing complexity of our current time, and of dance as a means to navigate that complexity. She was therefore attentive and articulate to us throughout the process of creation and presentation about her need to create an ecology within the work that would support the emergence of deep engagement by performers and audience alike. 

This attention makes Spirit Compass a rich example for learning and developing best practices for commissioning and presenting dance in galleries: it addresses the practical conditions of the gallery, like the ambulatory, autonomous spectator, and also the dynamics of the organisations involved and of the relationships among her collaborators. These lessons aren’t all unique to this work, but they became particularly evident in the course of commissioning and presenting it, and in the CONTINUOUS Network we are still learning what they mean for our work in future.

Performance photograph of Spirit Compass at Turner Contemporary, Margate. Photo by Stuart Leech.
Spirit Compass at Turner Contemporary | Dance artists: Stephanie McMann, Isabella Oberländer, Claricia Parinussa, Rowdy SS, Lucy Suggate | Credit: Stuart Leech

Lessons

  1. The artist knows their own process, and that process will be fluid. Institutions must learn to hold and trust process, not just present the product.  

Lucy often says that she wishes for organisations to enter into a ‘state of dance,’ to take on the flexibility, adaptability and careful attention that a dancer constantly negotiates. Lucy’s process of creating Spirit Compass drew on this fluidity to support brave, practical decision-making that made the most of her resources. This was a challenge for the commissioners to hold at times – budgets, contracts and touring plans are not well suited to fluidity by their nature. Though Lucy is expert at managing uncertainty, we struggled to hold it with her.

Galleries are created to hold objects, however much the limits of that object state are constantly being pushed. Whenever a gallery commissions a work, there is an element of risk and the work will change in the time between conception and exhibition; but when the materials at play are human, that risk is amplified. The dance touring model normally manages this risk through a combination of ongoing relationship, i.e. an artist returns to a venue over and over and trust arises that way, and long timescales between creation and tour booking. In visual arts, it’s often one shot, and in Lucy’s case touring happened immediately after premiere. As the first performance is very much still a part of the process (indeed, every performance is), some time is needed to observe and adapt – we will build this into touring schedules in future. But above and beyond this practical adaptation, what we really needed was more trust between all involved, fostered through more dialogue. Hence:

  1. Dialogue with curators throughout the creation process supports the best conditions for presentation

Attending to the needs of performers and audience was core to Lucy’s approach, and she did all she could to ensure she could create a way of working that could flex to adapt to these. But that flexibility met its limits in the practical conditions of the different organisations hosting the work. Each presentation differed in the scale of the performance space, the technical capacity available, and the activity happening around the performance, which impacted who came and why. 

The curator’s role is partly to interface between the artist and their process and the context where the work will meet its audience. In the process of curating exhibitions, there is ongoing dialogue from the first studio visit to the private view and beyond, building trust and making it possible for the curator to be an advocate and a problem-solver when institutional and practical constraints begin to arrive. This kind of dialogue is not common in dance, especially in the UK – the commissioning process is normally more transactional, with money and prestige changing hands but rarely ongoing two-way creative dialogue. For dance artists and choreographers, this dialogue happens instead with their collaborators in the studio, and perhaps with their producers. While more ongoing curatorial conversation is not habitual, it’s certainly something dance artists and curators have told us they value. 

It’s worth recognising that curators normally invest this level of dialogue in a limited number of exhibition projects each year, and it can be a challenge to devote an equivalent level of intellectual and emotional capacity towards a much shorter public appearance. But it’s important to remember that this shorter duration of public encounter is not representative of the level of investment by artists, or the richness an audience can experience. Honouring both of these and ensuring the curator’s expertise about their gallery can support the best possible conditions for the work, takes time.  We certainly needed to make more of it.

  1. If you create the right conditions and you invite them clearly, the audience will stay, even if they aren’t expecting to

Spirit Compass was always performed in a dedicated space. Upon entry, gallery staff explained that the work was ongoing and that audience members were welcomed to find a space among the cushions, on beanbags, or on benches along the walls and to make themselves comfortable. They were welcomed to stay as long as they wanted, to change position if they wished. 

Many created little piles of cushions and snuggled up with friends and family. While we didn’t track ‘dwell time,’ we observed that many people stayed for hours, occasionally falling asleep or getting up and coming back. People of all ages – from young children to people the age of their grandparents – became absorbed in the sound, shifting light, and the intensity of the dancers’ performance. Visitors to the work at Nottingham Contemporary who were interviewed afterward frequently used words like ‘mediative,’ ‘ absorbing,’ ‘immersive,’ and even ‘emotional’ to describe their experience of the work, and remarked on how much they appreciated being in an environment that invited them to relax and attend to their own bodies while watching others move. Access aids like ear defenders and, at Tramway, subpacs further supported audience members to feel comfortable and welcome.

Of course, there were awkward moments too – when the space became too full and people who might have wanted to move felt unable to do so, for example. And there were people who went in and straight out again as people often do in a busy gallery. But in general, the response was of having experienced something special and memorable.

  1. Evaluation should be understood as part of the making process and should involve everyone – artist, audience, performers, producers, curators – on an ongoing basis

As mentioned above, a dance work is never really ‘finished’ – each performance is both a new, unique event and it draws on all of the experience built into the performers’ bodies through performances before. So information coming from each outing can be important. But it can also be unhelpful if delivered in a form or at a time that is complicated to integrate. 

Given Spirit Compass’s open quality, Lucy was attentive to how evaluation could both help and hinder her ongoing process. Unfortunately though in the rush towards premiere, we did not take enough time to consider together how the evaluation methods could really align with and further support the work’s ethos. Out of a need to satisfy our agreement with Arts Council England, we used a modified version of the Culture Counts Impact and Insight survey conducted onsite and via a link provided for completion afterwards. Lucy raised concern on seeing the results from the premiere about how the survey quantified ‘quality’ with terminology such as ‘rigour’ or ‘relevance’. This could imply that audience members should identify these qualities in the work for their experience to be valid. This goes against the grain of Lucy’s invitation to her audience. It is also not useful information for the ongoing development of the work. 

We had a number of conversations between Lucy and the CONTINUOUS team in the immediate aftermath of the tour to discuss our shared learning, but discovered only recently how valuable it would have been for those to more meaningfully involve Lucy’s collaborators and colleagues from the tour venues. Lucy welcomed personal investment from the artists she involved, and they offered it; their reflections on the experience, when discussed more recently, have been valuable for Lucy as she continues to reflect on the work from greater distance. Equally, we have been emphasising CONTINUOUS being a learning network for partners, and while we have discussed our learning amongst us, we all would benefit from a two-way reflection involving Lucy. We are all developing and refining new practices, and this is done best in dialogue.

  1. Presenting dance is not easy – it requires constant care. This care is repaid in capacity for transformation.

All of this adds up to the fact that to really host dance in galleries well, everyone needs to take responsibility for care throughout the process. That might seem obvious – galleries are built to care for artworks, it’s in the root of the word ‘curator.’ But the practice of caring for the bodies of dancers requires a particular attention that these institutions are not all well versed in. Whereas a relationship with a visual artist is mediated via an object, here the ‘object’ is often the artists themselves. So every aspect of the relationship is mediated through the bodies that will ultimately take space in the gallery. 

John McGrath, director of Manchester International Festival, recently said that individual professionals and arts organisations as a whole should be prepared to be changed by every artwork we come into contact with. This change comes through a full commitment on behalf of organisations to adapt to each work’s needs and to let the traces of that adaptation remain. Spirit Compass demanded this, and its mark is lasting – at BALTIC there is a new understanding of the need for the whole organisation to hold each dance work it supports, of the necessity to soften processes to respond and adapt. At Siobhan Davies Dance, we have a clearer appreciation of our role in translating the nuances of dance processes to the visual art context. The CONTINUOUS network as a whole has been marked, too, and we have refocused our aims to be much more explicit about artists and their processes being at the centre of our work. We are developing a new set of shared commitments around what care requires. 

McGrath went on to say that each work can transform our audiences, too. And we can facilitate this through full investment in what the work has to offer, so that we can consider from inside it how best to welcome audiences into that transformation. In busy galleries with full programmes this investment is a question of value – how to value the particular transformation audiences can experience through encountering dance, and therefore how to invest the capacity required to make this possible. Audiences who encountered Spirit Compass spoke of really experiencing their bodies: ‘I was having quite a bodily experience… That was a conscious decision to be fully in the work, with the work, rather than witnessing from the mind’s perspective,’ and of surprising feelings, ‘It was very emotional, it was really odd. I don’t normally feel like that around dance and things, I don’t know, it was cool.” In this time where our bodies feel less safe and where emotional overwhelm has become a semi-permanent state, Spirit Compass’s invitation to experience our bodies as critical, creative sites becomes ever more essential.

SUPPORTED BY

John Ellerman Foundation