Transcript: Rosie Kay
My interview with the British choreographer and founder of Freedom in the Arts
This week on Lean Out, we turn our attention to freedom of expression in the arts world. My guest on the program is an acclaimed and controversial choreographer who says the UK’s creative industries are in crisis — experiencing a culture of widespread fear and intimidation. And she’s launched a new organization to address this.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
In this interview, we discuss an open letter from some cast members of Rosie Kay’s production of Romeo + Juliet. You can read that letter in full here.
TH: Rosie, welcome to Lean Out.
RK: It's fantastic to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
TH: It's very nice to have you on. I've been really looking forward to this conversation. You have recently launched a group called Freedom in the Arts to combat what you describe as an “intolerant activism,” that now poses “an existential threat to the arts.” Describe for us, from your vantage point, what have you been seeing in the UK arts scene?
RK: So, I come at this with my own personal experience. I was attempted, very nastily, to be cancelled. And then, through that process — with support from somebody that was working at the Arts Council England — this person that supported me then also got harassed and bullied out of her job. We were both invited to speak at the House of Lords. We coordinated together to make sure that we had two very different stories, but we had a very strong message. There were people in the House of Lords, including a former director of criminal prosecutions, who said, “Hang on, what's happening is illegal.” And we said, “We know. We know this. And it's happening to us, women in strong positions in their careers in the arts. If you can imagine what it's like for us, what's it like for other people?”
Following this talk at the House of Lords, Denise Fahmy and I thought, “Who else is going to help support artists but us?” It really was one of those moments: If not you, who?
This must be like seven or eight months ago. We've spent that time talking with artists. I deal with case studies all the time, but I decided to make it more formal and start interviewing artists and leaders in the arts from all sectors. To say, “We’re thinking of doing this. What do you think is going on?”And at the same time, building up an advisory board. What I found out really, it really shocked me. But in another way it didn't shock me because it happened to me. I could really empathize. And I could say to all these individuals who felt very lonely, “I know you think you've gone mad, and this has been really difficult. But actually there is a playbook here. That's happening.”
Because of the variety of sectors — so, that's music, classical music, dance, theatre, visual arts, ceramics, poetry, literature, museums and libraries. And then also, I've got a little fringe of filmmakers and people that work in commercial music business. We can say that actually [this issue spans] a range of topics. It could be anything that becomes your minefield. Then, the way you are treated, if you cross this invisible line — there seems to be a pattern with that. The hounding, the intimidation, the bullying. The calling to process, grievance procedures that have no system, no logic, no endpoint. The lack of care. The lack of care has been appalling.
Artists, we're not predisposed to be really tough fighters. We do tend to be very sensitive people. And this shocks us to our core. Because our lives, our work, our politics, our thought, our opinions, our livelihoods, our ability to make money — it's all tied together. So I do think that we're a particularly vulnerable group and that's why it's been really successful to attack the arts.
TH: I want to talk about the particular experience that you went through. But before we get to that, I want to ask a more philosophical question about the arts. The context for this is that in Canada right now, the arts have become, in some sectors, very dull and dogmatic. I'm hearing from artists about this, and it's certainly my feeling about it as well. You have said that the arts are not about navel gazing. That art is supposed to challenge. You, of course, have made controversial work throughout your career. In your view, what is art for? What is it supposed to do? What feelings is it meant to evoke?
RK: I think I'd always believed this, but I haven't really had it tested in practice: You cannot make art from a place of fear. It's an incredibly uncreative place. It's a contraction, physically, mentally, ideologically. Making art, it does demand on some level of freedom. An ability to test ideas. An ability to play, to mock, to dismantle taboos or constructs. I think that's absolutely necessary for the creation of art.
Now, what art actually does in society is something quite separate. You need the freedom of the artist to play and explore, to make a mess. We don't know if we're ever going to say something profound or not. If you do, you're like, “Yes! Bloody lucky.” But the more you try, the harder it is to achieve.
However, what the arts do to a society is they mirror back what's going on, and they do tend to be the canary in the coal mine. I've done a show that's based on research with the British military. So I've worked with soldiers, generals, officers, and secret service people, for quite a few years. I remember speaking to one secret service person and I said, “Why the arts? Why do artists get targeted?” This was before my cancellation. He said, “Well, you are a difficult lot. You're not as clear-cut as the political activists. You question, you think differently. You come at problems from strange angles.” And he said, “It is one of those things that we look at in authoritarian regimes. If they start to target the artists, we know there's big problems happening.” He said, “We're just not used to seeing this in the West. We haven't for at least a couple generations.”
TH: Let's move on now, to talk about what happened to you specifically. This is a famous incident in Britain, but listeners in Canada may not be aware. In August of 2021, ahead of a dance premiere, you hosted a bonding gathering at your house for your dancers. They hadn't had a lot of time together during Covid. And late that night, you started to discuss your next show, based on Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a novel about an aristocratic poet who was transformed from a man into a woman. The conversation ended up getting contentious, kicking off a dispute that culminated in you resigning from your own dance company. Walk us through exactly what was said during that discussion in your home.