I’m having a fascinating and disturbing time reading Barbara Ehrehreich’s Dancing in the Streets – A History of Collective Joy. I’ve come through feasting, masking and dancing for Dionysus, through the clampdown on carnival by the Puritan and religious elite, and now a look at the extraordinary correlation between the level of depression/suicide amongst the people of colonised nations across the centuries, compared with the level of the restriction in all forms of rights for local ecstatic expression through dance and carnival. I recommend it as a highly readable alternative and disturbing history of our world.
I have plenty of hours to read more because I am doing a rather long train journey as I type this from Cardigan Bay in West Wales to Stowmarket in Suffolk, a 12 hour Sunday journey including a lovely coach ride to the sunny resort of Ingatestone, where so many of us from East Anglia “choose” to spend time mid-train journey on a Sunday afternoon. Note to self – I must ask one day why trains have been diverted onto coaches there for the last 6 years…I was told they managed to change the whole railway line in one night from London to Bristol at the time of Brunel …so this is clearly one heck of an engineering project to last 6 years in the 21st Century.
But why Cardigan Bay, why Collective Joy – and what’s the connection. Very simple. Yesterday I picked up from Exeter Airport two extraordinary teachers, dancer Paul Oertel and international choreographer Nancy Spanier, who come to the UK each year to offer two weeklong courses to emerging creative theatre makers. And I drove them to an idyllic retreat, with studio space, accommodation for our 12 participants, on an organic farm near Cardigan. They are now all settled. I have left them the car and returned to work by train.
But why Collective Joy – thank you for bearing with me. Last night the local village was having a May dance, and they’d heard we were all arriving at the retreat. They sent word to the farmer that we would be most welcome to come down and join them. I headed down after communal supper and washing up with three colleagues – a dancer in her 60s with a lifetime of performance and theatre experience, one of London’s most celebrated alternative cabaret hosts and composer, and a visual artist and actress rich in exploring the world of womanhood and art. A motley team of 4 looking for a beer, maybe a dance, and an experience.
What we witnessed was Collective Joy. The community wouldn’t describe it as such, but there were so many resonances linking last night’s May dance with historical, and often lost, ritual and carnival. The whole community, including us strangers, were welcome – farmers and artists, business men and mothers, toddlers and emerging teenage flowers, ancients and moderns. All gathered in the communal hall to be together, to share food and wine, to share stories, and to share music and dance.
We arrived during a break in the communal dance in time to watch a special moment – one young dancer and choreographer, originally trained with the Royal Ballet and now returned to the area, offered a free dance piece, weaving her body on the floor around a beautifully played Welsh Harp – itself being given a free-jazz-improve workout unfamiliar to me, and I suspect most of the audience. She played with the harp whilst her partner improvised. She played with the space, and I imagined the flow of river water passing through the strings and through the village. She was watched with rapt attention around the room – save the odd toddler wandering across to find something very important. The attention and respect would be worthy of a work in progress at The Place. And when she came to a quiet rest, draped around the harp, she was greeted with enthusiastic welcoming applause for adding another aspect to the ritual of communal celebration. We felt honoured to be invited to be there, and witness.
And then the fiddler, the caller, and the flautist struck up, and in minutes 16 young and old were paired off and weaving through each other in a series of dances which mystify me by their complexity, but delight and bring together generations with shared moves and counting. At one point the caller suggested, when describing a particular complex weave, “its in your DNA…just remember it”.
Culturally we have, for so much of our lives, lost the opportunity for Joy. We have been taken over by work. We don’t know our neighbours. We pay large sums of money to observe “art” and little time or money in creating it for ourselves. And worst of all we repeatedly vote for, allow, or accept the reduction in support for joyful dance and music which together give release and opportunity to all young people, in school or out of school, as an antidote to exams and study.
The book talks of Melancholia (the old name for Depression). It suggests “the Medieval peasant created festivities as an escape from work, the Puritan and those involved in the Industrial Revolution embraced work as an escape from terror religious damnation and to ensure control”.
We can turn the tide. We must turn the tide. We need to care for, and dance with, our neighbour. We need to take pleasure in community, and remember we really do retain an ability to take breaks from work. And we need to work together to have meaningful creative community leisure – and not just allow young and old to be isolated behind a keyboard or a tv show. Mindlessly alone and in danger of melancholia.
I honour and celebrate every village community preparing for celebrations in the forthcoming slew of bank holidays. I cheer the massive Conference on “A New Old” in Dublin last week which brought experts from around the world to explore trans-generational theatre and arts. And I hope every theatre and arts organisation across the land will work with communities to encourage Dancing in the Streets, dancing in the aisles, and Collective Joy with its power to make our hearts sing.
And thank you to everyone in Abercych Village Hall for making us so welcome.