Yesterday afternoon Sarah Wigglesworth’s beautiful dance space at Siobhan Davies Dance Studios was transformed into a gathering space for it’s local community becoming the embodiment of the Warwick Report’ s aspiration for the changing role of the arts spaces in the 21st Century. Tony Kushner the playwright once described the USA as the ‘melting pot that didn’t melt’. Here on this sunny early spring Saturday in south London there is no melting going on, more of a delicate threading and weaving. The room is full of older people from African Caribbean, Columbian, East African, Irish and White British Communities.
In an earlier post I quoted Rebecca Solnit describing how places ‘offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain connected and coherent’. But what happens if the places that provide the backdrop for our day to day lives are systematically erased and taken away from us? What happens then to the communal sense of who we are and who we could become?
Outside the dance studios the neighbourhoods around the Elephant and Castle are undergoing a massive transformation. The Guardian recently reported that while the Heygate area of the Elephant was home to 1,194 social rented flats at the time of its demolition, the new £1.2bn Elephant Park provides just 74 such homes among its 2,500 units. ‘Just launched…’ announces a property developer’s website: ‘an exclusive boutique development … in an historic location embodying over 800 years of history.’
‘Each of us is part of history’ says the older man from the day centre just around the corner. His words and the words of so many others, don’t fit into the new narrative. His voice and the voices of so many others are being written out of the script. ‘In some countries if you don’t have a name you don’t exist. You’re like a kite in the air’ he says.
Back in the dance studio the afternoon gently unfolds. There is a delicately structured anarchy to the proceedings. It is one of a series of gatherings that are weaving together fragments of movement and gesture, memories, song and stories from this part of London that is slowly being taken apart. “Almost every time I get up in the morning there is something changed” whispers one voice. It’s the culmination of months listening and notating; months of working alongside people in clubs, day centres and a nursing home; months of moving alongside people through change.
Towards the end of the afternoon a man steps into the centre of the floor and starts to sing in Gaelic:
A Naoimh Phádraig ghlórmhair ár nOileáin Iathghlais
Cuir gáire ar bhéal do pháistí ar ais
It could be difficult to describe: part wake, part ceili, part dance improvisation, part poetry sharing, part choral performance. It could be easy to describe: people coming together to make meaning out of a time of great uncertainty in their lives, people coming together to make art.
 O glorious Saint Patrick of our emerald isle
Put a smile on the mouths of your children again