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Chapter 18, Jessica Lyall: Drops in the Ocean - The Strength of the Collective

Dancer with Danish Dance Theatre

Photo by Henrik Stenberg

For as long as I can remember, what fascinated me about dance was the potential to transform. We transform not only our bodies and our minds but our interpretation from role to role and our sense of self from job to job, city to city. Dance transforms between art, skill, and expression.

My journey began with ballet, but my interest deviated towards contemporary dance in the pursuit of understanding and discovering further possibilities and nuances, both physically and expressively. I also had a problem with the hierarchical nature of classical ballet and the toxic environment of competitiveness, egotism, and pressure it can create (although this can be true for all forms of institutionalized/professional art forms). Over the years, I’ve heard many dancers remark on the “self-indulgent” nature of our profession—a sentiment which caused me some concern. I understand, to a degree, the necessity for self-absorption, or rather (ego-driven) ambition, to progress in this career and master your craft. Despite being guilty of this myself at times (in my young and inexperienced years), I actually consider dance (and art, by extension) to be an offering. An offering of the self to the observer; an offering of perspective, of vision, of emotion, of skill. Ultimately, or hopefully, a humble contribution to society. However, I recognize the evidently and well-documented, indulgent, and divisive aspects of art in general—currently and historically—and I have come to doubt, reflect upon, and redefine my perception of art and my profession, time and time again.

From dancing full-time in Sydney (attempting to complete my high school education via long-distance learning and maintaining a “normal” teenage social life…) to my vocational training at Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in London (where I, fortunately, toured for several weeks with Rambert Company, graduated with a First Class Bachelor Degree and my RAD Solo Seal), followed by 6 years with the National Dance Company of Spain (dancing barefoot, in socks and en pointe, promoted to soloist aged 23—which I was never sure I deserved) and now in my 5th season with Danish Dance Theatre, I’ve had several professional existential crises along the way…

While loving and appreciating this wonderful and wild ride, I continually question the relevance and role of art in society. What I can generally reconcile with is that movement is moving. Moving the body connects people, connects a person to their own body, connects or conveys emotions through a release or a process. At least this is what I hope I have made a career out of and what drives me to continue.

In 2016 when living in Spain, a dear friend/colleague of mine and I traveled to Greece to volunteer in refugee camps. We managed to raise a significant amount of money (that we donated to the organizations and people that we worked with) in a short amount of time thanks to the generosity of friends and family in our network, and we went there with energy and hope to help in any way we could.

Photo by Jessica Lyall

The experience was mind-blowing, eye-opening, and heartbreaking. We began in Kos helping to stock and organize the warehouses and deliver supplies to the holding cells of those awaiting deportation. We were then recommended to travel to Leros, where we helped out in a camp for unaccompanied minors. We helped with cooking and cleaning and took part in and organized activities for the kids. When the word got around that we were professional dancers, we were encouraged to arrange dance and exercise classes. Now, this is something which I’ve often cringed at the thought of (and usually try to avoid), but seeing the positive shift in many of the children’s attitude and attention when they began moving, was quite remarkable. Soon after, we were advised to help out in Athens Piraeus Port, which was overflowing with stranded refugees due to border closures. The situation in Athens was quite overwhelming, and I was astounded by the amazing work done, day in and day out, by a few groups of local and international NGO workers and many volunteers. Elaboration on my experiences is for another time and space, but for the purpose of this story, one particular event etched itself in my mind.

It was cold and rainy, and the food service delivered by the army was very late, and most of the camp was lined up waiting for their evening meal. It was not uncommon for emotions to heighten tension in the queues for food and supplies, and fights often broke out. On this particular evening, tensions felt particularly high. My friend and I, in an attempt to distract ourselves from the cold and uncertainty, began dancing around. I definitely don’t mean any kind of recognizable dance form, just bouncing and bopping around, counting in the few Arabic numbers we’d managed to learn from the children in Leros. First, it was the children, hovering on the periphery of the queues, that joined us- uninhibited as most kids are—but soon after, the queue began to undulate with many people joining in on the dance, laughing at our very poor pronunciation of the few Arabic words we had learned. I apologize for how corny this sounds, but at that moment, I felt so inspired by the potential of movement, and in later reflections, the power of the collective.

This latter sentiment has stayed with me; I think it was something that I was slowly coming to realize and appreciate through my experiences dancing, but only recently articulated. To me, the power and potential of the collective, specifically in the context of professional/institutionalized dance, is the antidote to competitive hierarchy, “self-indulgence” and furthermore, the isolation caused by fears, criticism, and pressure (and hopefully also to misconduct, discrimination, and abuse in the workplace—something which has starkly been brought to light in recent years). I recognize and embrace my ambitions; however, attention to the collective has been far more enriching personally. Open communication, transparency, support, and teamwork inspire growth and “success” sustainably and productively, on an individual and collective level. When everyone feels valued and respected (and accountable), the group thrives and, in extension thereof, problems shared are problems halved.

Photo by Søren Meisner

Dancers generally have accepted some of the worst conditions of all the professional art forms and infamously always do what they are told. The infrastructure and ideals of this industry will hopefully transform when we direct our attention to our place in the collective success and well-being. And raise our voices to strengthen our collective voice. Beyond hard work and ability, success is circumstantial. I will not pretend to have any kind of authority to speak on the subject, wise men and women have spoken and written at length on the influences and factors that facilitate (and define) “success”; despite the blood, sweat, and tears it can take to make a career as a dancer, to pursue this art form requires certain circumstantial privileges. From a position of “privilege” can we insist upon empowerment, transparency, and transformation for the collective development and success?