‘You see people diversifying the curriculum and teaching ‘African dance’,” says Pawlet Brookes incredulously. “What does that mean? Africa is a continent! We’re talking about a huge place.” If you want to know about the wealth of dance styles and choreographers coming out of Africa, Brookes is a good person to talk to. She is the founder of Let’s Dance International Frontiers (LDIF), an annual festival in Leicester that showcases dance from the African and African-Caribbean diaspora, and has been bringing some of the world’s most interesting dance artists to the Midlands for the last 11 years.
She has got an eye for talent. Brookes was the first person to bring African-American choreographer Kyle Abraham to the UK in 2015, and now he’s made a piece for the Royal Ballet. Brookes also gave a UK platform to Germaine Acogny from Senegal, who will be performing at Sadler’s Wells in London this summer. And she introduced us to Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus, who went on to create work for Phoenix Dance Theatre.
Brookes set up the LDIF festival in 2011, “because it wasn’t happening anywhere else”. “We were not seeing the range of techniques and different voices,” she says, with people assuming it would be folk dance rather than realising that there are artists developing rich contemporary dance cultures in Africa and the Caribbean – such as L’Antoinette Stines in Jamaica, who featured in the first festival.
This year, Brookes is bringing over Ballet Hispánico, the New York company led by Cuban Eduardo Vilaro. Founded 52 years ago, it’s the largest Latinx cultural organisation in the US but incredibly has never appeared on stage in England (they have performed in Scotland). Brookes knew she had to get them here. “The Latinx community is one of the fastest growing communities in the UK but they’re invisible,” she says, “so I’ve been finding out what’s going on.”
Elsewhere in the festival this year she has black British flamenco dancer Yinka Esi Graves; Maya Taylor, who choreographs for Solange Knowles and St Vincent; and choreographers Monique Jonas and Thomas Talawa Prestø, who are both making new pieces to the same score by composer Philip Herbert (who wrote Elegy in memory of Stephen Lawrence). There’s work from South Africa, Trinidad, and two dancers from Martinique inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase: “They’re Afrofuturism, where live art, punk and dance merge,” says Brookes.
It’s a unique festival, and some of the audience travel from outside the UK to see artists who rarely perform in Europe, but Brookes would love to have the resources to tour some of this work more widely. “For whatever reason, we’ve not attracted the bigger donors that sponsor other things,” she says. “I think traditionally it was because of the subject matter. But I think people are looking on the subject matter more favourably now.”
We may be seeing more faces of colour on stage and screen, but real diversity means it happening behind the scenes, too. When Brookes was coming up there weren’t many people of colour in leadership positions, and she’s never had a black teacher, she says. That is changing, although recruiting one person of colour to a board is not enough. “You say, right, I’m diversifying that board. But it’s difficult for one person who now has to navigate a new structure and systems to then become a solitary voice who might say something that people are not used to. We need to do it so it’s not tokenistic, from the top and the bottom. People are out there,” she says. “It’s about how we embrace them into the organisation so that they can contribute fully and be themselves.”
Brookes, born in Manchester, was always encouraged to follow her dream to work in the arts. Her dad was a professional cricketer for St Kitts and Nevis, who also played steel pan and tap-danced; her mum dabbled in ballroom. With five siblings including four boys, she was sent off to dance school “to stop me being a tomboy” and by the age of eight she was performing in theatres around Manchester. But when it came to considering dance as a career: “There weren’t that many opportunities for black female dancers in the late 70s,” she says, unless it was “tassels and G-strings”. Instead, she studied arts administration at Leicester Polytechnic which led to jobs including launching the Nia Centre in Manchester, artistic director at Leicester’s Peepul Centre and CEO at Rich Mix in London.
As well as LDIF, her company Serendipity now runs Leicester’s Black History Month, has written a Black Lives Matter framework for other organisations, and has won funding for a new black history archive and to train young archivists – diverse communities are underrepresented in the heritage sector – “so we can start to change the gaze”. Brookes is clearly a force of nature who makes things happen. “I would say that we trailblaze,” she says, matter of fact.
• Let’s Dance International Frontiers runs from 29 April-8 May.