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The Dancer’s Forest.
From ‘dirty dancing’ toward environmental responsibility
By Adam Benjamin
The UK has been turning a blind eye to the catastrophic destruction of its wildflower meadows. Since the 1930s, we have foxtrotted and tango’ed, jitterbugged and mambo’ed, twisted, popped, pogo’ed and twerked as 97 per cent of this wonderful habitat has been torn form the countryside.
Chris Packman. (2020)
Our house is on fire
Greta Thunberg (2019)
During the pandemic many of us moved our activities outdoors; to city parks and gardens, to the countryside, to moorlands and shores lines, in fact to whatever local outdoor space we were able to inhabit, it was a revelation to be practicing under trees and breathing fresh air. Of course, there are dance artists in the UK who have been pioneering this kind of connectivity to the natural world long before the current crisis; dancers like Rosemary Lee, Helen Poyner, Simon Whitehead, Miranda Tufnell and Charlotte Spencer. These and many other, mostly female voices have been quietly leading the way toward a more ecological practice.
As dancers and dance companies we often measure our success by our touring and our national, international and even global reach. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have been supported by the British Council in our careers will have travelled the world working with people in countries we never dreamed of visiting. The impact on cultural exchange, on education and in many instances, of turning around individual lives can’t be over-estimated; it is just unfortunate that there is another side to this measure of success that is consistently under-estimated, that is until the Arts Council’s 2018/19 Environmental Report which identified Dance as a significant polluter (8%) of the entertainment industry in the UK, a figure that doesn’t include the airmiles notched up by British Council supported travel.
In the past I have offset my own carbon footprint through supporting organisations who work with communities and reforestation projects around the world. Today there is a growing weight of opinion that merely offsetting our carbon footprint is actually just ‘off-setting’ or shifting the problem; that it allows us to carry on our polluting habits without doing what we really need to do, which is to reconsider and reconfigure our behaviours.
Blue sky thinking
While the skies have been bluer and nature has most definitely benefited during our periods of lockdown, I have been struck with the urgent need to do something, to contribute to positive change. Even when we are unable to move together, we need movements that will bring us together. Vitally we need to provide the younger generation something to lift the spirits, something that will not only make a difference to the environment, but that will offer resistance and resilience in the face of the pandemic and alleviate the shadow it has cast over mental health and hope. I’ve been thinking about how even socially distanced dancers might engage in more local, tangible activities in a way that will make sense of our practice as well as help safeguard the long-term future of the planet. This reflection gave birth to the idea of the Dancer’s Forest, to ‘seed’ pockets of forest in our own regions; mini forests that act as carbon sinks and that offer not only spaces for wildlife, but also space for dancers and other artists to work out of doors.
If we can be certain of one thing in this uncertain world, it is that the current pandemic will not be the last, and that changes in our behaviours, personal and cultural will need to be high on our agenda in the years ahead. It is not a new idea, but we must begin to ‘think globally and dance locally’. For myself this means a shift away from international work, certainly that which involves long haul air travel, to a deeper connection with my own locality. For all of us it implies we consider our use of lights, means of travel and modes of touring.
Looking at my own region in the South West, I became aware of a rewilding project just 30 minutes from where I live. Derek Gow is a farmer who has dedicated his 150 acres of farmland to rewilding, re-introducing native species such as beaver and white stork and allowing the land to recover and reforest. On a cold December morning at the end of 2020, I drove to visit him at Rewilding Coombeshead where we talked at length about his work as an environmental consultant and my work as a dance artist interested in diversity.
It is easy to forget that in the not too distant past every village green across the breadth of the country had a dedicated outdoor dance space before they were erased, along with the hedgerows and wilderness of pre-industrial Britain. Easy to forget that diversity in dancing bodies represents a movement inseparable from ecology; that the principle of diversity is essential to our own survival on planet Earth.
Our conversation turned to the possibility of purchasing more land around Coombeshead that could be reforested and that might also contain a space for dance. This pilot project would be part of a wider initiative to secure sites elsewhere in the UK, each new location placing in trust an area of land to rewild (or preserve) that would harbour a low impact performance space. In effect dancers become the ‘custodians’ of each local wilderness, the land itself being held in perpetuity for future generations to enjoy. Outside of the UK issues of stewardship, ownership and custodial rights will need to be pursued in partnership with indigenous peoples, but here in the UK we might move forward, aware of historical claims to land purchased and in partnership with local conservationist and environmental groups.
Although on its own this movement might seem insufficient in the face of the global climate crisis, once the model is established there is no reason that there should not be Musician’s Forests, Actor’s Forests, Poet’s Forests, Grandparent’s Forests; in essence an ever-growing network of ‘people owned’ spaces, providing wilderness stepping-stones and contributing to natural corridors across (and beyond) the UK.
How it works
Rewilding Coombeshead, already has accommodation and teaching spaces, and can provide a site for dissemination of information about management and rewilding for groups acquiring land and who want to develop their skills and knowledge. Joining the Dancer’s Forest project involves a small individual commitment; as little as £1.50 per month putting it within range of the youngest of dancers. It’s a recognition of the fact that we all pollute, whether it is driving to the studio, lighting a piece of work or merely using a computer.
Dance companies in rehearsal or on tour might look to Julie’s Bicycle or Green Arts for guidance about off-setting, but The Dancer’s Forest is aimed principally at individual dancers and dance students who want to make a change, who want to start now and who recognise that it is not enough to dance as ‘guests’ in nature, but that our dance footprint must make a bolder claim. We can no longer be satisfied with dances about climate change, or dances about deforestation we have to be the change or be accused by later generations of dancing while Rome (and a whole lot more) burns.
Borrowing one of Green Arts suggestions, larger dance projects can nominate a ‘Green Champion’ to collects contributions and also help think about how to monitor, manage and report on environmental impact; individual dance artists and students simply pledge £1.50 per month from their income, each of us becoming in this way, our own Green Champion.
The Dancer’s Forest project offers the dance community a meaningful way of repairing and preserving the land we live on, by re-establishing an environmentally responsible connection between dance, the land and the air we breathe.
You can become part of this movement which is now being supported by The Community Dance Foundation by making a donation to the first Dancer’s Forest at Coombeshead in Devon. £1.50 per month or an annual donation of £18.00 – more if you feel you can afford it! You don't need to be a professional dancer - we are all dancer's in our own way!
You can donate here: https://gofund.me/96046681
We need to raise £20 000 to purchase our first 2 acres of land while we seek further sites across the UK and help dancers and interested groups internationally to seed similar forests in their own countries.
If you would like to be part of the guiding collective for The Dancer’s Forest or if you know of land close to you that you think might fit the bill for a future site, please get in touch.
Like all good things, this will grow if you spread the word, so please talk to your friends, colleagues and students about the Dancer’s Forest.
 I use the term forest with regard its etymology foretis – referring to outdoor wilderness space, not simply woodland.
 Benjamin, A. J. (2010). Cabbages and Kings in S. Carter, & J. O'Shea (Eds.), The Routledge Dance Studies Reader (2nd ed., pp. 111-121). Routledge.