Dancing with Ghosts

Dancing with Ghosts

I’m not going to lie, I had a completely different post planned for today. But then something happened this week that, the moment I found out about it, I knew I needed to write about.

No, not brexit.

On Monday this week, former Chilean Military Official Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez was found guilty for the torture and murder of singer-songwriter, artist and activist Victor Jara, no less than 43 years after the incident took place.

Jara spoke out for freedom from the fascist dictatorship of the right-wing party, who in the late 60s and early 70s were competing for power against Salvador Allende, Chile’s Marxist president of the time.

Jara took the role of the arts in society very seriously, saying; “an artist has to participate with the people; you can’t just drive by as if looking out the window of your car” (Compañero; 1974).

So influential were Jara’s songs, as well as his position of authority as a teacher and theatre practitioner at the University of Santiago, that when right-wing Dictator Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende on September 11th 1973, in a coup d’état that was backed by the US, Jara was taken by armed forces, tortured, and eventually killed.

Joan Jara and her daughters are now owed some $28m by Barrientos for the tragedy that he orchestrated. Barrientios’ lawyer says that they are hoping for an appeal. Joan will likely never see any compensation.

All very sad, I hear you say, but why is this relevant and why is it categorized under dance?

Well, because there are some several thousand dance students, and several thousand more ex-dance students up and down the country who- knowingly or not- have engaged in intense study of Victor Jara’s life and the sociopolitical contexts that surrounded his death.

Ghost Dances, originally performed by the Rambert Dance Company, was choreographed by Christopher Bruce in 1981 as tribute to those who were killed and suffered during this time of political oppression in Chile. With a steadfast position on GCSE and A Level dance syllabi and as a much loved and well respected piece that has been revived again, and again, and again, it is a shining example of an artwork that has been created and performed with its own political agenda.

Dance is a very visual art form that is often significantly more difficult to interpret than, say, books, theatre or film because it requires a bit more semiotic analysis (interpretation of signals, such as costume, light and movement) than other art forms, which might relay their message in a much more explicit manner. In light of this, the importance of choreography to offer support or protest against political circumstance is frequently underestimated.

Inspired by her husband’s views on using art to educate others in social and political awareness, Joan Jara, nee turner, a British dancer, returned to England and turned to Bruce for his help in “speaking in the name of all the people in Chile who cannot speak for themselves” (Companero, 1974).

In this act alone, and in the work that followed, Joan Jara and Christopher Bruce underlined the importance of using dance as a way of generating political awareness and representing marginalised groups, caught up in turmoil, who cannot speak out for themselves.

Because of this it is impossible to study a piece like Ghost Dances without acknowledging the social contexts that brought about its being. Even less conscientious students at the very least will have been made aware of the political uprising in Chile that inspired Bruce’s choreography.

Dance and Politics

What I like most about Ghost Dances is that rather than depicting, in dance form, an ideological overhaul of the political figures that dictated Chile, semiotic analysis of the dance reveals that the themes that Bruce is truly concerned with are the fundamental questions of existence: life, death and love. It would be easy, too easy almost, for Bruce to create a brash, ‘in your face’ work which bombards the audience with political ideology – instead Ghost Dances confronts the crucial questions of humanity and the ability of these issues to be multiplied to represent an infinite amount of individual experiences. These are the aspects with which absolutely any member of the audience will be able to connect.

According to Bruce; “Although it has a South American setting, it’s a universal story…It’s indirectly political, but it’s very much about humanity and just about how people get caught up, suffer and die” (Bruce; 1988). At the midpoint of Ghost Dances, the music, played in threes, is reminiscent of the western ‘Waltz’. This is accentuated by the neat, quick footwork of the couple dancing. The man takes the woman’s weight in lifts and holds, and guides her through turns. When her torso drops, he brings it back up. They never for a moment lose bodily contact. It is a tragic love story, lasting only three minutes before the man is carried away by the Ghost Dancers.

This dance has a powerful resonance to all those who know of their story, and personally it is impossible for me to watch that scene without envisaging Victor and Joan as the couple who inspired it. Truthfully, the dancing couple, and indeed all of the ‘Innocents’ in Ghost Dances, could be anybody; “they’re just people off the street” a microcosm of Chilean working class society.

I’m not, of course, saying that dance can alter political history. It can’t run a country or change the vote of the referendum (although personally I wish it could).

What it can do is speak to people on a fundamental level. It can be used as a form of protest, and as a way of representing an agenda. Social and political contexts add life and meaning to an art form that would otherwise be just pretty patterns on a stage.

Most importantly of all, as with Ghost Dances, dance can raise awareness to vast audiences of those crucial social injustices that might otherwise have been left unnoticed.

My thoughts go out to Joan Jara and her daughters. I hope that the continued respect and diligent study of Ghost Dances can provide condolence and comfort where long overdue sentences and false promises of compensation may not.

Maybe some of Bruce’s Ghosts can finally be laid to rest.



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