Can internationalism support growth in the dance sector?

By Grace Okereke

I am writing this just days after returning home from a week in New York attending the 75th Anniversary of ISPA’s (International Society for the Performing Arts) annual congress. I have been a member and a Fellow representing England for five years – which is two-years longer than normally supported – but my cohort of three England Fellows were adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, thus receiving
an extension. 

2024 is my last as a Fellow, which means that from 2025, I will need to fund my attendance to the international meets myself. Naturally, this has led me to reflect on the experience I have had, the opportunities I have been afforded and my direction post fellowship. As I ponder this, I also consider the benefits of working in the international arena, which leads me to a question I have asked myself repeatedly for years and that is, can adopting an international approach support the growth of the dance sector?

I have been focusing on working internationally for nearly 15 years, and my reason for doing so is simple – more opportunities. I felt the professional ceiling for myself in the UK and wanted more than I had experienced in my career till that point and more than I could see possible. I had a desire to educate myself and wanted to learn about the dance sector at large. I wanted to learn from other regions, about their arts policy, aesthetics, development strategies, funders, audiences and anything else I could discover. 

Armed with this information, I wanted to find a way to implement the best practice models that felt the most feasible in the UK. As time went on, I also realised that there could be a framework to touring productions that could support or supplement the financial model for companies. If done right, this framework could be self-sustainable, meaning writing fewer funding applications for me! As more time passed, I realised there was something else that I was gaining – solidarity – a shared commonality for both the work created by artists and the connections I made for myself. 

In the UK we currently use the term “Global Majority” as a collective way to refer to non-white communities (Black, Brown, Indigenous etc). It is used whether people are based in the UK or not. Like many catch-all phrases we go through periodically, it is a flawed term, but nonetheless, it does signify that most of the inhabitants of the globe are not white. For me, this means there is a vast number of people that could relate to the work made by Uprise Rebel artists. We all come from different places and our journeys may slightly differ, but we have relatable experiences, stories and references, and I want to help us feel more connected to each other and find our collective voice. On a personal note, I found a collective with my international peers. People who have similar goals, who have also experienced similar challenges as me, and who are making real efforts to be a conduit of change in their artform and their regions. 

Over the past few years, I have travelled to different regions and built strong or blossoming relationships with many people. As I think of the “outcomes” both tangible and intangible, I would say that the answer to the question I posed is yes. In fact, I would argue that we haven’t yet begun to really understand how we can truly work internationally, with more equity between the “poorer” and “richer” regions. With more ways to find connectivity, to celebrate our diversity, recognise our commonalities, without becoming homogenous in the process. 

If I had not taken this route, I may have walked away from the sector all together, meaning that there would be no one doing the work that we do at Uprise Rebel. And although small, we are mighty, constantly punching above our weight, as we pave the road towards change.

Grace Okereke is Founder and Executive Producer of Uprise Rebel and has been in the dance sector for over two decades. Her career has evolved from performer and teacher to manager, with the latter being the predominant role. She founded her own company, Uprise Rebel, which supports Black and Global Majority female choreographers and administrators, as well as developing inclusive audiences. The overarching aim is to challenge the structures and hierarchical archetype currently in place, and to set a new paradigm for the representative faces of the contemporary dance sector.  

Outside of her work with Uprise Rebel, she is an independent producer and has worked with organisations including FABRIC, Birmingham International Dance Festival, Horizon Showcase, Diverse City and One Dance UK. She holds a Fellowship with ISPA representing England.