An Interview with Ilse Ghekiere
BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT
Ilse Ghekiere is a dancer and academic who is at the forefront of addressing sexism in dance in Belgium. Last year, through a government grant, she interviewed 30 contemporary dancers about how their gender had affected their careers. Her report coincided with #metoo and created a swell of activism and support in Belgium. Here, she relates her working process and outcomes, as well as how the movement has evolved.
How did you get involved in raising awareness about harassment and discrimination in dance?
At the end of 2016, I started working on a grant aimed for artists in transition in their careers. I had been dancing as a performer for more than 10 years, but I also had done my masters in art history and had started one year of a PhD, but then went back to dancing. The grant was a way of applying my skills to something I was interested in researching, which was sexism. I was especially interested in researching this notion in a confined context: the Belgian dance scene. At the time, I thought the outcome would be much more of an artistic project, but it became about activism and community building.
My interest in sexism came from realizing that my entire dance career and later also some of my experiences at university were colored by my gender. I know, that sounds dramatic, but once I started reevaluating several projects that I had done, I was shocked about how unaware I had been regarding certain ideas of ‘representing femininity.’ I started to think about the ideas that had been projected onto me. I was also slightly confused about who am I then onstage outside of representation. It was before #metoo, so I didn’t include anything about myself personally in the grant, but yes, I have experienced several instances of sexual harassment, abuse of power, and abusive psychological, physical and sexual situations. Even if I then already felt that a situation was ‘wrong,’ it was as if I did not have the language to name it. I was still young, and building a career is about taking all the opportunities offered. Also, I just couldn’t afford to complain.
What was your working process for the grant?
There were three things I intended to do. One of them was literary research. For a year and a half, I only read female authors on the topic of gender, both fiction and nonfiction. I was really committed to a reading practice. The second thing I wanted to do was interview and listen to my community and colleagues. And the third thing I wanted to do was think about physical practices that would link to that research. The research and material I collected became the center of all the work I’m now doing.
I ended up interviewing 30 women. I just asked people who wanted to talk and who would be interested. Not everyone I asked replied. I tried to get dancers who hadn’t all worked for the same choreographers. I was also looking for different kinds of dancers from different networks, even within the contemporary dance world. I started each conversation with the question: “Have you felt in your career that you have been treated differently because you are female-identifying?” Almost everyone would go through their career, starting from their education and their first job. Before #metoo, there wasn’t a way of talking about this stuff. We were still figuring it out. To analyze your career from a gender perspective was something I don’t think anyone who I spoke to had ever done – at least not with such focus. It felt strangely luxurious.
Most of the people I interviewed were in their late 20s and early 30s. The oldest person was maybe in her early 40s. This could be seen as the typical age of working dancers. I wanted to find people who could evaluate and reflect on at least a couple of professional experiences, plus it’s also just the age group I know best.
Since publishing your article that summarizes and evaluates your research, what kinds of response have you received?
The article came out around the same time as the only other #metoo case in Belgium. It was like the dance scene came out collectively while staying away from the victim/predator rhetoric. There might have been negative reactions, but it got so much attention. I felt so supported by my colleagues. Immediately, the cultural minister took up the issue. I heard that certain things in the article were laughed away, or people said, “This is a prudish generation; now we cannot fall in love with our dancers anymore.” But no one said that to my face.
One year later, I don’t think anyone would dare to question the article anymore, but there’s still a transition going on. Disbelievers still say things like, “I didn’t experience anything like this so it must not be happening or it must be an exaggeration.”
How did the Engagement Arts website come about?
After the first publication of my research, some colleagues felt like we had to do something. I already had been part of a learning trajectory that was linked to the possibility of another grant. The deadline for the subsidies came just after my article was published. The idea was to launch an anti-sexism campaign, but if you want to be effective you need to mobilize other people. What does it mean to start a movement? How do we start to talk to the government and institutions? How do we work on community building? Engagement Arts was a way of saying there is a movement.
After the article, we first started a Facebook page, an idea borrowed from Scandinavia, to collect testimonials in the #metoo sprit. This ended up being really hard in the Brussels dance scene, so we started open meetings every week for dancers who are female-identifying. We would come together to share experiences and think about activist tools. From those meetings as well as the stories that were shared, the conclusion was to start a website.
It was apparent no one knew what to do when sexual harassment or discrimination happened in a work context. We started researching what someone can do when that happens and presented it online in a very accessible way.
What response and engagement have you received?
What I’ve found through my research is that it’s important to create a sense of urgency, while also inviting people to share and take responsibility. On a community level, I think we managed to create a strong network that is supported by a group of very engaged female-identifying artists. Several institutions have also committed to change. The conversation has definitely created new alliances with theaters, magazines, unions, academics, etc.
At this point, there are four of us who are the core and do most of the work. Beyond us, there are maybe 20 people who regularly engage. Then there are maybe 100 people who come to the meetings and show up. And then there are maybe 500 people who share our articles and open letters online. It’s important that meetings are free and open to anyone. There is no set hierarchy, which creates the possibility to grow organically. This doesn’t mean that everything always goes smoothly. Working on solidarity is real work. Especially because competition and individualism are so much ingrained in the field, to me, the work often feels like a deep process of “undoing.” It’s about trying things out, seeing if they work, if they don’t, trying something else. If someone wants to be part of the movement but doesn’t have much time, we have tried to figure out ways they can still be a part. It is simple: If you want the community to change, you need the community to be there.
Sometimes it is hard, because hierarchies are unavoidable and not all information always gets well-distributed. We are still learning and we learn as we go along. I have definitely failed at times myself to decentralize my involvement and position, but I really try to incorporate the feedback I get to the best of my abilities.
From your perspective, do you see willingness to discuss and acknowledge sexism in dance improving?
Yes, on some levels. On the level of politics, they are rethinking a whole action plan on sexism in the cultural field. This is partially because of #metoo. On a mentality level, the first #metoo wave was very difficult, in Flanders especially, because we are not used to talking about gender, race or basically any type of discrimination. There is not a strong culture of political correctness like in the United States. Suddenly, people were forced to think about problems they didn’t see as problematic. Currently in the performing arts, there is a very interesting discussion growing about ‘polarization’ and that is partly thanks to the very new discussions around #metoo and decolonization.
The open letter about Jan Fabre was very effective because it explainedhat power abuse can be. In a way, it might have even been ‘didactic’ to a broader audience. From all the media I’ve followed, no one dished the dancers. Of course, there were questions about this approach and the media backlash, but I felt there was finally a real conversation about what kinds of power a choreographer has and what professional and social inequalities look like. People were forced to think about #metoo related to a very specific case that went into details without being unnecessarily sensational.
How has your activism affected your own dance practice?
Sometimes my colleagues will laugh and say, “Ilse, your dance career is over now! You can forget it.” I think in one way, that is true. I haven’t been onstage for almost a year and I know that certain big companies or choreographers won’t want to work with me anymore. But in another way, I’m so happy I decided to pursue this trajectory. I’m very convinced I still want to be busy with dance, but I want to be engaged with dance differently. For the past month, I’ve been employed by the union. It is exciting to work in a different context and be for once paid ‘normally.’ Even if I don’t know where it will lead me, I am inspired by this work and that is the most important.
How would you like to expand your work in the future?
I’m definitely going to keep building community and seeing how we can relate to institutions and the structural aspect of sexism. I’m thinking of applying for another grant that creates a lecture performance. I want to keep doing this journalistic research but also am starting to think about teaching. I want to bring academia together with an artistic and activist practice and ask: How do I perform this content in new contexts?
Any other thoughts?
One of the things that is very different in the Belgium context in comparison to the States is that we have such a strong funding body. The tools we’ve been able to develop are because of funding and the presence of unions. There is still an underlying idea here that socialism (what is public) is something to fight for. In the case of Engagement Arts, this has made it easier to build a movement and get close to institutions and the government. I was amazed that I wrote an article and suddenly the issue was in parliament. It makes this great cycle: They fund art and then it comes back to them. Dancers were heard because we dared to speak up – a hopeful moment for democracy? I know this might be very different in other communities (especially if there is no funding body). We can learn and exchange from other communities, but there’s still the social context you have to be aware of and deal with.
In the Belgium dance scene, sexism is somehow part of the canon. There is a certain way of representing gender which was never questioned. Sexist imagery is part of the 80s wave of the big choreographers’ work. There are enormous blind spots when it comes to harmful images and practices, and a lot is currently defended in the name of art. Addressing sexism is therefore sensitive because it’s thanks to those choreographers that we have such a strong dance scene in Belgium. This creates a strange dynamic. In a way you could say that it is “thanks to the old generation” that dance gets funding and that I even got my grant. Even if it is not only a generational conflict, I cannot deny that it is also a generational conflict. It’s very interesting to start to criticize the people who are synonymous with well-funded contemporary dance and the canon. In that sense, we need to make sure that criticizing our field doesn’t put dance itself in danger. Contemporary dance remains a ‘difficult’ art discipline and this discussion should not become about the relevance of it. Dance is needed and needs support. There is no question about that. I believe these conflicts and discussions will eventually enrich a much broader understanding of dance and choreography.
Ilse Ghekiere, Photo by Geraldine Heaney
Engagement Arts website: http://engagementarts.be/en
Ilse’s initial research article: https://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/wetoo-what-dancers-talk-about-when-they-talk-about-sexism
Article on terminology/triangle: https://blog.kunsten.be/sexism-sexual-harassment-and-abuse-of-power-in-the-arts-a-suggestion-towards-understanding-8e75be15d050
Article on canon: http://www.corpusweb.net/breathing-into-the-canon.html
Jan Fabre open letter: https://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/open-letter-metoo-and-troubleynjan-fabre
Petra Van Brabandt opinion: https://www.rektoverso.be/artikel/jan-fabres-old-and-new-clothes