Opening doors: Ashanti Harris on her new beginnings

by Linda Innes

Ashanti Harris started her new job as Lecturer in Contemporary Performance Practice in September 2020. Linda Innes caught up with her at the end of the first term to hear what it’s like to start a new job in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and what her hopes are for the future of her role.

Artist. Teacher. Dancer. Sculptor. Entrepreneur. Performance-maker. Researcher. Advocate.

Ashanti Harris can be described as all of the above and shows no signs of slowing down her multi-disciplined career – a sign that the conservatoire might just be the perfect place for her to work.

“I’m so excited to learn more about all the other disciplines at the conservatoire…there is so much happening here, I don’t think I’ve quite yet grasped what it’s like to be part of this massive and creative place,” Ashanti smiles as we chat over Zoom. “Of course, it will help when things are back to normal and I get to meet more people in person!”

Starting a new job amidst a global pandemic was never going to be an easy task but Ashanti is relishing the opportunity.

“I mean, it is strange. I haven’t met most of my team…I don’t even know how tall they are and we’ve been working together for 3 months,” she laughs.

“But working with the students has been amazing. Everyone is so eager to learn and perform. I feel very lucky – I have seen new, live performance every week this term.”

A career in the performing arts was not something Ashanti set out to achieve. Born in Guyana, Ashanti moved to Leeds and spent her teenage years attending the Northern School of Contemporary Dance on Saturdays “for fun”. These weekend classes instilled in her a love for dance.

“I took part in contemporary, jazz and Afro-Caribbean dance. It wasn’t until I moved to Glasgow in 2006 that I started to teach dance. There wasn’t anything like Afro-Caribbean on offer at the time in Glasgow so it was an enjoyable way to work alongside my studies.”

Ashanti was studying for a degree in Sculpture at The Glasgow School of Art and she soon noticed how her interest in sculpture and dance began to merge.

“My arts practice started to resemble dance. These two worlds which I had thought of as separate, suddenly combined and I moved into a new space as performer. I think it’s my background as a sculptor which helps to straddle genres across the performance arts.”

After graduating, Ashanti worked at Indepen-dance, an inclusive dance organisation which creates opportunities for disabled and non-disabled people and carers to express themselves through dance.

Ashanti Harris stands facing the camera

“Working there gave me so much insight into the dance industry in Scotland and it was during this time that I met Rhea Lewis and Mele Broomes. Together, we set up Project X, an organisation and artist collective which platforms dance of the African and Caribbean diaspora in Scotland.

“We recognised that this art form wasn’t being platformed anywhere – or at least not in a central way – and we wanted to change that and give artists opportunities for professional development and performance.”

Project X has worked with partners including National Theatre of Scotland, Imaginate, Tramway and Glasgow Life, and performed at festivals and events across Scotland. This performance-driven work balanced nicely with Ashanti’s passion for teaching, which saw her found the Glasgow Open Dance School (GODS).

“I love teaching and, with dance, I work under the belief that everyone is an expert in their own unique way of moving, so everybody has something they can teach someone else. With GODS, our goal was to create a self-sustaining art school, with everyone sharing their skills and leading a class. We did this for five years, and still do it occasionally. The skills sharing ethos was incredible and it really developed my teaching practice.

“The things I work on now with my students are things I learnt and progressed during my time with the open dance school.”

Ashanti’s new role, lecturer in Contemporary Performance Practice, sees her work with first year students as part of their sociological and ecological performance classes.

“It’s a very fast-paced environment. The students have already made four performances each this term. This first year is all about autobiographical performance, learning the absolute basics of their own performance practice and figuring out what makes their practice unique and individual.”

And how have students been responding to Ashanti’s classes?

“They have been amazing. So so good!” she exclaims. “In my other teaching roles I need to use certain approaches at first to make sure everyone is comfortable and confident enough to take part. But all that work isn’t needed with the Contemporary Performance Practice students – they are ready to work and try new things. It is so refreshing.”

There is certainly plenty of ‘new’ to try in 2020. RCS students are learning through a blend of digital and in-person teaching, with priority given to ensemble opportunities which, as Principal Sharkey has noted several times this year, are so critical to artistic development. For Ashanti, as an artist and teacher, there’s a lot to get her head around.

“Starting this post in September, I felt confident in my ability to deliver teaching online as I had been doing that since the start of lockdown. What I had to negotiate was how to teach performance in person and comply with all the necessary Covid guidance.

“Where people see social distancing as a challenge and an obstacle, I’ve been trying to work with students to see the opportunities it can bring … how can it used as a catalyst for performance, rather than a hindrance.

“I’ve been so impressed with how the students have responded to this current situation and used it in their experimental work. It will be interesting to see how this moment in time will impact on future performance-making.”

Ashanti joins the Contemporary Performance Practice team at an exciting time; the department has been at the forefront of leading contemporary digital performance. In June, it hosted Propel, a festival of digital performance with pieces devised and broadcast online at the height of lockdown, and in December, it hosted the inaugural Nexus conference, bringing together academics and performers of contemporary performance from across the world for stimulating and future-shaping conversations.

As someone new to a conservatoire environment, what are Ashanti’s first impressions and hopes for her role within RCS?

“I was always aware of Contemporary Performance Practice and would try to come to the Into the New Festival every year. It’s going to be a bit different this year being on the other side and helping to create it rather than just coming along and watching!” she laughs.

“Joining the conservatoire can seem daunting…from the outside, the building is a bit like a fortress! So I’m interested in how I can break this down and invite people in – both from outside and from inside RCS with all the other departments working here.

“My students are excited by the prospect of working with students from other disciplines and I really want to get involved in this too. Funnily enough, I met a Production student who I had worked with a few years ago as a dancer and it was so interesting hearing about what he’s been doing with Production. I want to play a part in opening doors.

“I don’t think anyone can comprehend how big RCS really is. When I finished getting my photos taken for this article with Robbie [Robert McFadzean, the RCS photographer], he was rushing off to go and photograph a huge drama piece [The Speculator]. As I left him, I walked past a group of dancers warming up and then, around the corner, a film crew were filming something along a dark corridor….there is always so much going on!”

Ashanti, like most people, is keen to look forward to 2021 and the opportunities a new year can bring. This year, she says, has been a ‘shock to the system’ with many artists feeling the world stop as opportunities disappeared suddenly from their future.

“It felt like there was so much work to do to make sure people were ok. Not just with the pandemic, but also with the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt there was a lot of care missing from the world, and those of us who wanted to support people, had a lot of work to do very quickly.

“It also felt like we were becoming used to not seeing people, not touching or hugging our loved ones or not experiencing things ‘live’ instead of through a screen, and that was scary. ”

“When things momentarily opened up again at the end of summer, I went to an exhibition with a friend and there was a moment of ‘liveness’ where we were together and experiencing something physically side by side. It was so powerful, and so moving. All my fears that this would be forgotten and replaced, disappeared.

“Seeing things in the now, those live moments of creativity – that’s what makes us human, that’s life.

“If this is so important to me, it’s important to many, and we will all be working hard to get live performance back as soon as possible.”

Ashanti Harris leans against a brick wall, staring at the camera

 

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