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Cultures of Complaint: A Report on “Teaching the Teachers” Meeting on Contemporary Dance Education in Turkey

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Gurur Ertem

Within its 6th edition, iDANS Festival organized the meeting “Alternative Pedagogies in Contemporary Dance Education”  as part of the series “Teaching the Teachers”. The session was short, yet it was efficient enough to bring into light the major approaches and questions (or the lack thereof) in contemporary dance education in Istanbul.

The event was planned as an informational yet informal meeting of the representatives of several influential educational programs in dance in Europe and local educators and representatives of local academic programs. iDANS chose to organize the event with a particular focus on the host institution, Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts, Department of Contemporary Dance. (Hereafter, referred to as MSUFA). The aim was to take the program as a case study to address its current problems with possible repercussions for the improvement of its program and mission, believing that the platform could be a generative point of entry for exchanges in know-how and possibility for collaborations between local and European education programs.

The participants consisted of Gabriel Smeets (Artistic Director of SNDO – School of New Dance Development); Eva-Maria Hoerster (Managing Director of Hochschulübergreifendes Zentrum Tanz Berlin/Universität der Künste Berlin); Mårten Spångberg (Former Director of the MA Program in Choreography), University of Dance and Circus Stockholm; Barbara Van Lindt (Managing Director of DasArts Master of Theatre); Steven De Belder (Coordination Research Cycle & Départs  Network, P.A.R.T.S.). Local participants of the session included the faculty members and graduate students/research assistants/lecturers of MSUFA such as Prof. Dr. Aydn Teker (the head of the Department of Contemporary Dance); Associate Prof. Dr. Tuğçe Ulugun Tuna, Dr. Bedirhan Dehmen, Ilkay Türkoğlu, Bahar Vidinlioğlu, Şebnem Yüksel, and Defne Erdur, Evren Erbatur. There were also participants from other local dance-related education programs as well as independent dance initiatives with educational programs such as Prof. Dr. Ayşin Candan (Yeditepe University, Theatre Department); Ass. Prof. Dr. Zeynep Gunsur (Kadir Has University, Theatre Deparment); Berna Kurt (Lecturer, Aydin University Faculty of Fine Arts); Dr. Ayrin Ersöz (Yildiz Technical University, Modern Dance Department) among others. Also present were the participants of the local version of the Critical Endeavor Turkey, a program designed to assist the professionalization and improvement of dance writing and journalism in Turkey. They were assigned to write evaluative reports (in Turkish) on the meeting. There were about 50 people present throughout the entire meeting, and it was moderated by Aydın Silier (iDANS, Executive and Artistic Director) and Bedirhan Dehmen (MSUFA Contemporary Dance Department, Instructor).

In the first part of the meeting, representatives of European schools were asked to introduce their school/program (its mission, general approach, strengths and weaknesses, etc.).

Each school/program had a unique approach to performing arts education. It showed us fortunately that despite Bologna Process dance education across Europe has not really been standardized in practice. It also showed us that there are ways to bypass it via various strategies.

DasArts is a residential Master of Theatre in the form of a training laboratory for international professionals in the performing arts The program is “a hybrid of education, production and research” and embraces under the umbrella term “theatre” text-based and physical theatre, dance, performance and all kinds of hybrid theatrical forms. The “students” are considered as resident artists and everyone who demands and pursues knowledge is considered a student. There is no fixed curriculum or set of mentors; rather, “it has a staff that invites mentors and advisors to host a programme that is flexible and tailor made.” Mentors are more like coaches or facilitators of each individual participant. They design collective block programs consisting of  various activities like workshops, lectures, field trips. The aim is to facilitate “collisions between ideological and artistic convictions” instead of repeating known theories or approches.

The SNDO, School for New Dance Development, is a full time four year professional education course that leads to the diploma Bachelor of Dance in Choreography. The school educates students to become choreographers/dance makers enabling them to contribute to the development of dance as an art form.  Here, too, an artistic research/laboratory format is deployed. As Gabriel Smeets explains, “a confirmation of existing forms and styles in dance is not the aim”.  Students decide on which subjects, topics and issues they want to research. The school sets up the conditions in which the creativity of every individual student can emerge, where reflection on the specific qualities of dance as an art form is developed.

P.A.R.T.S. is a training program in contemporary dance. It provides a thorough technical training to dancers/choreographers and helps them develop into independent and creative artists. The curriculum is divided in two cycles of two years, the basic “Training” cycle and the advanced “Research” cycle. In the basic cycle the students gain an insight into the technical foundation of contemporary dance and they are confronted with the specific PARTS approach, characterized by an emphasis on body awareness, theatre and musical training, and theoretical reflection.  In the extended cycle students have the opportunity to gain more in-depth knowledge and, especially, to apply it to their personal creative work. The ultimate goal is to reach the point where technical mastery and a distinct personality come together.

University of Dance and Circus MA Program in Choreography offers a platform to critically explore practical, structural and intellectual tools and principles, established by contemporary choreographic practices, and work for their expansion and development. The field engages students in processes to lay bare the ideological, ethic and operative framework within which choreography finds its expressions. The structure of the program is made up of various blocks varying from between 1-6 weeks, in which each block constitutes a different context. Each of these contexts is framed by a current and relevant subject, and consequently contextualized by workshops, lectures, seminars, training, research or production, bringing in expertise accordingly. Apart from the artistic direction, the staff consists of guest-teachers, providing an ever-changing, flexible structure.

One can see that despite fears that Bologna Process would standardize education in Europe each institution could find ways to assert its unique stance against a fixed model. Nevertheless, as diverse as these programs may be, what unites them is an approach that refrains from a “dance school” model embracing an outlook wherein students are treated as “kids” but as fellow artists in a research environment. They all gear towards the development of the entire person, not only the development of a certain function of the individual (i.e. the dancer). They avoid the reproduction of known material and technique, and mindless copying. Instead of offering fixed curricula and rigid structures, they propose “a dynamic experience of (sometimes chaotic) encounters” (Van Lindt). There is continuous exchange and dialogue between students and faculty. Another common denominator is their internationalism – both in terms of the student body and the mentors.

It is not to say, however, that any of these schools or all of them together comprise an ideal-type of art education or a model to be blindly followed. They all obviously have had their institutional weaknesses, tensions and conflicts. If one follows the trajectory of a given school, one can also find tensions between didactic traditions of established styles versus a labaratory, a research center format where independent thinking and experimentation is encouraged. As the representatives of European schools also noted, the intention of the meeting was not to find a school model to emulate in the local context, but rather to encourage a platform for mutual learning.

If the second part of the meeting allocated to MSUFA had not turned into a generalized “complaint” session the following part would consist of specific questions designed for specific persons such as the following: How can the dynamics between technique/craftsmanship be balanced with the encouragement of creativity/research in contemporary dance and performance pedagogy? What partnerships and alliances can an educational program form –locally, internationally- instead of fighting amongst each other for scarce resources? The final part of the meeting was to open the floor to a general discussion. However, things did not go as planned, but still, the entire meeting was successful in several regards: It revealed clearly that MSUFA Contemporary Dance Department was not passionate about the art it was professing. Neither did it defend a particular vision on dance, choreography, and dance education. Even if MSUFA has had particular visions, its representatives were unsuccessful in articulating it –despite many provocations by the participants who inquired about what MSUFA’s Dance Department understood from choreography (Spångberg and Smeets), what they thought about the future of their art form (Spångberg), how they evaluated the success of their department and how they thought they contributed to the well-being of the field in Turkey (Ertem, Candan) and what kind of persons they wanted to catapult into society at large. Because MSUFA staff was so obsessed by diplomas, academic positions, and the imposed bureaucratic rules in order to guarantee the official survival of the department, they unfortunately missed the potential of the session which could contribute to the pedagogical and international-collaborative prospects of the department.

Another important thing this meeting has shown is that the academic environment in dance education in Turkey is another enclave of the culture of complaint, and proved that continual whining makes not only the freedom of thought impossible but a focused discussion on substantial issues unsustainable. Complaint shields people of taking responsibility and renders them invincible against criticism and protects them from addressing the real issues at stake. The culture of complaint created in the meeting an arrogant atmosphere that looked as though its members had nothing to learn or discuss with their counterparts. Despondency and despotism feed off each other.

As usual main topics of complaint were scarce resources, lack of motivation (of students), Bologna process, bureaucratic restrictions, and the lack of a larger dance field in Turkey. The representatives of MSUFA and numerous other local educators waxed and waned about the lack of resources in Turkey for dance education, and stated that they felt as if they are from another planet, after hearing the discussions of European schools. This statement is totally dismissive of the fact that some of the guest contemporary dance schools have struggled for many years -and some of them continue to do so- to establish their vision and fight for recognition and for the spaces and venues of their own. Another teacher from MSUFA mentioned that the students had to commute for hours to the school and some even struggled to pay for that commute. This statement was also based on the fallacious assumption that students in Europe are afloat in affluence. Many dance students in Europe have secondary jobs to support their education and artistic ambitions. The head of the department of contemporary dance of the host institution brought up at the lack of motivation of students without questioning their own part in why students’ desires are extinguished once they enter the department.

The issue brought up about the lack of a larger field of dance and its economy in Turkey was a point well made, however, omitted certain facts. It would be fairer to say that the field of contemporary dance as an art form (in distinction to state ballet, or entertainment) is not yet fully developed. This could leave more room for each individual member of the not-yet-developed field to assume their own responsibility and figure out how they can contribute in a realistic and concrete manner in this developmental phase.

 …

What we’ve seen in this meeting is also a reflection of the statist, hiearchical and patriarchal state of education in Turkey . (This system is actually all pervasive and can be observed not only in education but also in politics, familty structures, etc) where the internalization of an educational system based on assumptions of inequality where didactisim and hierarchy prevail.

Jacques Rancière’s book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, published in 1981, (English version 1991) has been quoted many times in discussions on education (also in Turkey), but apparently, not many people who have quoted him have really understood his argument. Therefore, I would like to bring it up once more. In this book, Rancière argues that equality should be considered as starting point rather than a destination in education. Rather than requiring informed schoolmasters to guide students towards prescribed and alienating ends, Rancière argues that educators can channel the equal intelligence in all to facilitate their intellectual growth in virtually unlimited directions. For Ranciére such a pedagogical relationship relies on an economy of distances. Here, the role of the teacher is to close the distance between what he knows and the ignorance of the student. In this model, pedagogy is perceived as the objective and one directional transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student. Ironically, the teacher constantly reminds of this distance and strives to protect this distance. What is continually communicated to the student, therefore, is this (presumed) principle of inequality and lack of capacity. This pedagogical relationship is a process of stupidization.

 …

Despite its shortcomings, the heuristic value of the meeting shall not be underestimated. Given that the existing educational paradigms and structures are problematic, perhaps a follow up meeting can be organized that can grapple with the possibility of a performance studies approach in performing arts education in Turkey. This was an issue I wanted to arrive at if the dynamics of the meeting allowed[i].

Perhaps, in Spångberg’s words, it is high time to leave our “girlfriends” and dysfunctional relationships and self-destructive attachments (to diplomas, to comfortable armchairs, to the securities of civil servant-ship, and you name what else) and join forces towards a performance studies program in whatever format at whichever host.

Or, perhaps, we shall completely forget about dance education because obviously there is little if any correlation between artistic success and education.


[i] Richard Schechner’s departure point in founding a performance studies department –instead of a theater or a dance department- and his programmatic statement is best summarized in the following quote:

 “[…] Performing arts departments need to expand their areas of study so that the training of would-be professionals is only a part of what they do. The number of new actors, choreographers, dancers, directors, designers, costumers and techies should be reduced until the supply more nearly fits the demand. Training and production programs should be reorganized […] Instead of training unemployable workers, theater and dance departments should develop courses that show how performance is a key paradigm in many cultures, modern and ancient, non-Western and Euro-American. Performing Arts curricula need to be broadened to include courses in performance studies. What needs to be added is how performance is used in politics, medicine, religion, popular entertainments, and ordinary face-to-face interactions. The complex and various relationships among the players in the performance quadrilog –authors, performers, directors, and spectators- ought to be investigated using the methodological tools increasingly available from performance theorists, social scientists and semioticians. Courses in performance studies need to be made available not only within performing arts departments but to the university community at large. Performative thinking must be seen as a means of cultural analysis. Performance studies courses should be taught outside performing arts departments as part of core curricula. […]” (Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: The Broad Spectrum Approach, 1988)

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