DEA BIRKETT Where art cuts no ice

Dea Birkett sees a performance at Blackpool Pleasure Beach that would never get an Arts Council grant, but which moves the audience as much as any drama. So why isn’t it art?

I ’ve seen the most moving, skillful, radical show. The movement was astonishing, emotion- ally wrought, febrile. There was much playing with gender stereo- types; the women were very muscly, the men wearing tights and uttering feathers. The lead was black. Once, a performer tripped and the collective intake of breath was the loudest whisper I’ve ever heard. We all felt for him. This show is what performing art should be like, where we feel utterly involved. The audience clearly thought so. At the finale, they roared.

Hot Ice, the annual summer ice skating extravaganza at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, would never get a grant. Yet it’s an extraordinarily beautiful, lyrical art form and has more diverse audiences than any subsided show I’ve been to. It’s also staged in one of the most deprived areas of the country.

So why doesn’t Hot Ice count as art? Perhaps because of all those things – what it is, where it is and who goes to watch it. The very things we should be celebrating actually condemns Hot Ice to mere entertainment. It isn’t. It has everything a theatrical, physical performance should have and more. It’s spectacle with emotional depth. In the all-male piece about heartache and loss, I cried. This is art for audiences, not for the artist or for those who are in a position to judge what counts as art and what doesn’t.

This is also fundamentally about access - a much abused word in the arts. Being accessible doesn’t just mean putting on a relaxed performance once during the run or having a BSL-interpreted performance on the rst Wednesday of each month. Emotion is also an access issue. If the response required by a performance is so cerebral most of us cannot feel it, then that show becomes inaccessible in the most profound sense. It also becomes meaningless. The young woman sitting next to me at Hot Ice had paid £25 for her seat. She considered it a bargain. “I paid £20 to go to the theatre last week – hadn’t been before” she said. “It was rubbish. This is awesome”. Why doesn’t her voice count?

Going to a show shouldn’t be like sitting an exam, yet too often it feels as if it is. Some of us will have been to the theatre and dreaded the interval, as that’s when we’ll be required to join in a conversation about a production in which we have absolutely no idea what’s happening. I’ve been known to go home then, just to avoid this dis- comfort. If performance is so obscure it doesn’t speak directly to us, I don’t really see the point.

It’s not only ice skating that’s dis- missed as mere entertainment. My favourite show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe was Circus Abyssinia. Honest, open, emotional, accessible with entrancing dancing, tumbling and music – yet it didn’t win any of the awards. I fear the circus’s accessibility, like Hot Ice, is equated with a lack of artistry. Circus Abyssinia should have swept the board.

Hectoring from on high about art goes beyond performance. I once interviewed the director of a leading publishing house who had taken it over as a faltering business and turned it around. “How did you do that?” I asked. Her answer: “I stopped publishing books that we thought people ought to read and started publishing books they actually wanted to”. It was a highbrow publisher and remains so. It’s just a more successful one now.

This is what we need in the per- forming arts – to let audiences tell us rather than us tell them. We need to listen to that loud whisper that tells us we feel for the performers. Access means just that – being accessible, not unfathomable. Let’s make and celebrate art with that in mind.

Dea Birkett is ringmaster at Circus250 www.circus250.comand creative director at Kids in Museums



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