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Isaac Blake and Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros

United Kingdom: the Blake and Cisneros Collections

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Lavior – ‘Words’

Isaac Blake | Lavior – ‘Words’ | photography | United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland | 2010 | dan_00331 Rights held by: ADVaughn | Licensed by: ADVaughn | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 Interantional | Provided by: Isaac Blake – Private Archive

Overview

Examples of contemporary performing art works that celebrate Romani culture and heritage can be found in various countries. This collection examines the work of the contemporary Romani dance artists Isaac Blake and Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros, both of whom live in the UK. Blake is curator of the ‘Dance’ section of the RomArchive as well as director of the Romani Cultural and Arts Company, a charity based in Cardiff, Wales. Cisneros is a member of the editorial team for the ‘Dance’ section of the RomArchive and works at the Centre for Dance Research at Coventry University, England; she has her own production company – RosaSenCis Film Productions.

While this collection focuses on the work of Blake and Cisneros as UK-based dancers and choreographers, it briefly discusses other initiatives in the UK that use Romani dance and the other arts to educate both Roma and non-Roma alike, including the Roma Support Group and the Romany Theatre Company.

Roma Support Group

The UK has several organisations that seek to preserve Romani culture heritage, including some that promote Romani dance. The Roma Support Group (link), which is based in London, is such an organisation. For the past twenty years, the charity has been working closely with East European Romani refugees and migrants to improve the quality of life of Roma in the UK. As the organisation itself writes on its website:

Since 1998, we have been working with thousands of Roma families, offering them a variety of services, engaging the Roma community in all aspects of running and managing the organisation and promoting an understanding of Roma culture in the UK.1

The Roma Support Group promotes Romani culture throughout the UK. In the late 1990s it founded a music and dance ensemble called Romani Rad, which aims to use the arts to educate both Roma and non-Roma alike. In its own words:

Roma need to be heard on their own terms through self-representation and cultural contribution. Romani Rad, a music and dance ensemble, was formed by the RSG in 1999 and trained over 100 young Roma people.2

The group put Romani music firmly on the cultural map of the UK and created a platform for Roma and non-Roma to come together through song and dance. These cultural activities proved an effective tool to promote social inclusion and allowed those involved to serve as agents of change in their local communities. Romani Rad has enabled Romani musicians and dancers to train young Roma (between the ages of seven and twenty-five) to perform in hundreds of musical events across London and the UK:

The [Romani Rad] musicians played traditional Roma music from Eastern Europe, while the dancers showed off their colourful costumes and wooed the audiences with their foot tapping extravaganza. Their music and dancing has [sic] enough energy and power to light the streets and stages of Britain with a feast of colour, flair and originality.3

Among Romani communities and families, music and dance traditions are passed down from one generation to the next:

[The Roma Support Group] answered the need for the creation of a learning environment, motivating young Roma to acquire these [performing art] skills, and expanded it to include non-Roma people through Roma-led music classes, concerts and festivals. (Ryder et al. 2014)

By using culture as a channel for communication and combining it with social action, the Roma Support Group and Romani Rad have served as advocates for the community while at the same time advancing the Romani agenda.

The ability to make use of traditional ways of learning, dance and music in the modern context and environment not only gives Roma the opportunity to honour and preserve their traditional cultural heritage; it also promotes greater understanding of Romani culture among non-Roma. Dance is part of Roma’s intangible cultural heritage, which is at great risk of disappearing. Through the dance projects and festivals organised by groups such as the Roma Support Group, this risk is mitigated.

Romany Theatre Company

The Romany Theatre Company (external link) was founded by Dan Allum in 2002. Allum is a Romani Gypsy who taught himself to read and write, went back to school and became an award-winning writer for television, radio, the theatre and film. He has developed his own mode of working and his ‘out of the box’ life experience allows him to entertain, educate, engage and challenge audiences through the performing arts.

The Romany Theatre Company explains its main goal as follows:

We aim to create rich, powerful, and inspirational drama, be it for theatre, television or radio. Our work is rooted in the culture and experiences of Romany people and focuses strongly on their struggle for equality and challenges negative opinions of them and the lives that they lead.4

The company not only promotes Romani culture but is also committed to education. It provides several learning opportunities for Roma by running accredited learning programmes that help them develop as individuals and acquire life skills. Its hope is that by fostering a sense of pride in Romani heritage, the company can help break down barriers in society and pave the way for a better understanding between the Romani and non-Romani communities.

Romani Cultural and Arts Company

The Romani Cultural and Arts Company (link) was established in September 2009. Isaac Blake is the executive director of the company, which is based in Cardiff, Wales. The stated goal of the company is to work through the arts and to “take community development and educational projects onto Gypsy, Roma and Traveller sites’:

We are a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community development organisation at heart. We are led by Gypsies and Travellers, we are about Gypsies and Travellers, we are for Gypsies and Travellers. We believe that the community can be developed to become fully accepted participants in mainstream society while still retaining their distinct culture and heritage.5

The Romani Cultural and Arts Company is a leading institution in the UK promoting Gypsy, Romani and Traveller culture and history. It boosts understanding between the Romani and non-Romani communities through its various events, symposiums, festivals and training initiatives. Its director, Isaac Blake, a professional dancer, explains that the company uses the arts and culture ‘as a vehicle for advocacy and empowerment, amongst the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’. It also supports individuals to become ‘community champions’, encouraging them to serve as agents of change in their own communities and thereby make a difference not only for themselves but for society as a whole.

Isaac Blake – Dancer and Choreographer

Isaac Blake, a Romani Gypsy, is both the director of the Romani Cultural and Arts Company and a professional artist who has worked as a dancer and choreographer throughout the world. From 2000 to 2003, he studied dance theatre at the Laban Dance Centre, London (now called the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance). While at Laban, Blake worked with numerous artists and companies, including Adventures in Motion Pictures (AMP), DV8 and the Ballet Rambert.

Isaac Blake | Lavior – ‘Words’ | photography | United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland | June 17, 2010 | dan_00341 Rights held by: Isaac Blake | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 Interantional | Provided by: Isaac Blake – Private Archive

After graduating, he continued his studies in New York, US at the world-famous Martha Graham School. He went on to choreograph performances at the Wales Millennium Centre and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, where he teaches to this day.

Despite having danced with internationally renowned companies and studied at leading schools, Blake continues to honour his Romani background and has found a way to bring together the two worlds. His choreography reflects this approach and the Blake and Cisneros Collection includes photos from Lavior (Words) of 2010, which is a dark and menacing piece that uses contemporary dance and haunting music to explore the oppression of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers through the ages.6

Lavior involved three performers who examine the dual concepts of communal anonymity and the loss of language within the Romani culture. They included the dancer Michael Williams, who is a member of Earthfall, the Welsh dance and physical theatre company, and a former member of the National Youth Dance Wales Company. He has worked alongside the New-York based Jazz Exchange and the Nigerian-Welsh choreographer Henri Oguike. Williams also worked with Blake previously and shares Blake’s interest in the ‘dark places’ explored in Lavior. Philippa Reeves, who provided the vocals for Lavior, is a classically trained singer. She works across the UK and Europe in a wide range of musical styles, including performances with the ELAN physical theatre company and the US composer and choreographer Meredith Monk. Stacey Blythe, an accomplished and versatile musician and vocalist, provided the musical accompaniment. She plays piano, harpsichord and harp and has strong vocals in all styles. Blythe has played at venues across the world with the Welsh band Ffynnon and the Cardiff-based Theatr Iolo.

Lavior is one of the many dance pieces that Blake has choreographed. It is important to note that Blake serves as a role model for the community and is a Romani artist who takes pride in his background and upbringing, thereby demonstrating that there is no contradiction between being highly educated and accomplished and being a Rom. Through the arts and culture, in general, and dance, in particular, Blake is improving the lives of many, educating both Roma and non-Roma and expanding the definition of what it means to be a Rom in the modern world.

Rudolf Laban and the Laban School of Dance

Isaac Blake trained as a contemporary dancer and studied at what is today known as the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. The Faculty of Dance is currently located in London but was founded in Manchester as the Art of Movement Studio7 by the Austro-Hungarian dancer, choreographer and dance-movement theoretician Rudolf Laban. Laban is a pivotal figure in the world of dance and his philosophy and teachings have shaped contemporary dance. He is seen as a pioneer of modern dance in Europe and has had a global impact:

His work laid the foundations for Laban Movement Analysis, Labanotation (Kinetography Laban), other more specific developments in dance notation and the evolution of many varieties of Laban Movement Study. He is considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of dance. (Karina und Kant 2003)

Rudolf Laban’s teachings and the Laban School of Dance not only shaped Blake’s early dance career but was also important for the training and career of the dance artist and teacher Rosamaria Cisneros. Laban, the dancer, developed movement analysis, the Laban notation and dance notation, which formed a crucial part of Cisneros’s work towards her degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a member of staff at Coventry University’s Centre for Dance Research (UK), Cisneros still refers to Laban’s work and has attended several events and courses at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros – Dancer and Festival Curator

Rosamaria E. Kostic Cisneros (external link) is an artist, dancer, choreographer, dance historian and festival curator. She has lived and danced in different parts of the world and collaborated with many Flamenco greats and other leading figures in the field of dance. She has taught throughout Europe and the US and is a dance writer. Cisneros is involved in various EU-funded projects whose aim is to make education accessible to vulnerable social groups and ethnic minorities. She sits on the boards of several Romani and dance organisations. She is currently a member of staff at Coventry University’s Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE, link)) and a member of the editorial team of the ‘Dance’ section of the RomArchive.

Cisneros is inspired by interdisciplinary work as well as by collaborative projects and work modes. The combination of the practical and the theoretical underpins all her academic research interests, as does working with vulnerable groups and using the arts and education to engage communities and encourage involvement in projects that lead to a more inclusive society. Indeed, her guiding principle is bringing people together. Cultural heritage and digital technologies also inform her current approach.

As part of her work at C-DaRE, Cisneros co-organised two week-long festivals. Hosted by C-DaRE and the School of Art and Design of Coventry University the 2014 ¡ Flamenko Coventry ! festival was a five-day event with more than twenty-five activities ranging from workshops and talks to film screenings, exhibitions and a gala performance. The festival was aimed at bringing together art, design and dance students and offered the public the opportunity to attend events for free and local artists a chance to contribute. The students taking part in the festival were encouraged to create works that explored the history and cultural heritage of Roma. The festival took place from 3–7 November 2014 in Coventry, UK and was organised by Cisneros and Marcos Young from BBC Radio Oxford.

Cisneros also co-organised the five-day Romani Week festival in 2015, which was hosted by C-DaRE and School of Art and Design of Coventry University The festival comprised twenty-five activities, which, like those of the Flamenko Coventry festival, ranged from workshops and talks to film screenings, exhibitions and a gala performance. Also like Flamenko Coventry, the festival aimed at bringing together art, design and dance students and offered the public the opportunity to attend events for free. The students involved in the festival were encouraged to create works that explored themes related to the Romani community. The festival took place in May 2015 and was organised by Cisneros.

To sum up, both festivals used the arts, in general, and dance, in particular, as a springboard for bringing together Roma and non-Roma, learning about Romani history and culture and (co-)creating works that honour the Romani community.