2nd November 2023

Why We Need PRO GATI

By Sabra Khan, Executive Director of Sampad

I have worked in dance for over 25 years – as someone who loves to dance in my kitchen or at a party, I did not have a natural trajectory to working in dance but after a few years with a theatre company and the BBC, I landed some great opportunities to work with what was Birmingham’s main black dance company, Kokuma Dance Theatre and with Nahid Siddiqui & Company.  Since then, I have continued to work with dance in a freelance capacity and now as part of my role at Sampad – which is a cross art form organisation – it stays close to my heart. Last year, we were delighted to secure funds from Dance Hub Birmingham for Sampad’s PRO GATI programme. We identified a need in the sector to support dancers to develop their skills and experience and a need to bring dancers together for focussed discussions. 

Our Dance Labs – now completed – focussed on two particular areas, exploring the use of the dance in health settings and with vulnerable groups, so that South Asian dancers would be able to take advantage of opportunities that are made available through the social prescribing agenda and secondly and separately, to explore how new creative technologies might be part of their own creative practice.

Alongside these dance lab programmes, post pandemic we wanted to create a safer space for discussion and debate. 

Many of the South Asian dancers we work with are freelance – they often teach in isolation or with one or two collaborators running their own dance companies or groups; they make work which is project funded and so there can be long gaps between making and touring work. Post pandemic, the discussion space that we wished to create as part of PRO GATI felt important – it strikes me that the issues freelance dancers face now are not necessarily completely different to those facing the generation I first worked with 25 years ago. Including – how to make a living from dance, how to maintain long careers in dance, how to take advantage of (and afford to be part of) training opportunities, how to make time to be part of the local dance ecology amongst many other issues – and all of this alongside making your own work and pushing the boundaries of your creativity.

Our PRO GATI Long Tables are an opportunity to bring these individuals together – in person. This feels important – we want to create a space where dancers can network and connect with each other, with us and with other agencies that may be in the room. The subjects we have chosen feel pertinent to now and it is absolutely crucial that dancers are part of these conversations.  Our first Round Table took place as part of the SHOUT Festival of Queer Art & Culture – So how does gender matter in South Asian dance?  Due to the train strike it was moved online. Provocateurs included Dr Royona Mitra, Professor of Dance & Performance Cultures, Brunel University London, Jai Patel, Artistic Director of Jai Patel Company and Chitra Sundaram MBE, independent dancer.  The comments we received after the event showed that it had been a valuable discussion leaving participants with much to think about.  One dancer fed back “It was definitely a good start in opening up this conversation, finally. I have [been] doing queer based work in South Asian dance ..since…2009 and nobody wanted to talk about it then….Thank you once again for starting this debate and being open to discuss queer issues in the South Asian dance world.” and from Dr Royona Mitra, “I particularly valued listening to and unlearning from the many dance artists who spoke with so much integrity, honesty and vulnerability of their own lived realities. I am thankful to have been a part of this moment….as we move forward with these urgent conversations.”

The Arts Council’s Let’s Create strategy and the pressing concerns that we all have around the climate emergency led us to thinking about how South Asian dance can respond to issues for communities and for climate action. We were excited to facilitate a discussion on How does and can South Asian dance respond to critical climate and social issues today? We invited Balbir Singh and Sima Gonsai in the room to be the protagonists for this table, chaired by Cultural Consultant Lara Ratnaraja.

In November, we firmly put our tongue in our cheek and ask Who needs Dance Producers? Should dancers put time and energy into finding and working with a producer – and what gains they might they get from this? Or should they upskill themselves? Or are they and do they have to do both?  We have brought Paul Russ from the region’s dance development agency FABRIC into chair this – and have asked producer Sarah Shead, Aakash Odedra who will talk about his own journey from independent artist, producer-artist relationship to establishing his own company which is an ACE National Portfolio Organisation and Divya Ravi, independent self producing dance artist. The discussions will be open, the protaganists will put forward their thoughts in order to trigger debate – it is an opportunity to share ideas, to listen to each other and be part of a collegiate space. 

Longer term, perhaps, like our Dance Labs, these will also lead to the creation of partnerships, collaborations or artistic work. 

To book onto our final PRO GATI roundtable, happening on 7th November – click here