The Commonwealth and The British Empire

When I started working on Glory, the first issue that arose for me was the role of the ‘Commonwealth’.

Glory is part of the Commonwealth Culture Festival (a part of The Commonwealth Games) and a lot of the choreography is influenced by the history and potential future of the Commonwealth. It is impossible not to think about and question it.

Before I started investigating properly, my impressions of the Commonwealth were;

  •  White, western countries travelling to other places and dominating lands and people by force
  • Claiming to have ‘discovered’ them (despite there being indigenous people who had lived there for many years)
  • Stealing all of the resources they could find
  • Causing massive, long lasting damage to environments and societies
  • Leaving again, and taking no responsibility for the damage they caused
  • Celebrating the men who started these processes as heroic ‘discoverers’
  • Teaching children to this day about these men without criticism, whilst no-one mentions great leaders such as Ghandi

In my home town of Bristol, there is a statue and a new shopping centre named after John Cabot.

This irritates me.

As I began my research and gained a better understanding of the history and context of the commonwealth, my views were altered. I still hold the above views of the British Empire but there is a difference between the Empire and the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth was created at the decolonization of the British Empire, forming officially in 1949. The current 53 members are mostly old colonies of Britain, with a few exceptions. According to The London Declaration signed in 1949, the countries are united as “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”.

There is a commonwealth Charter, explaining the “values and aspirations” of the commonwealth countries. These include:

  1.               Democracy

2.               Human rights

  1.               International peace and security

  2.               Tolerance, respect and understanding

  3.               Freedom of Expression

  4.               Separation of Powers

  5.               Rule of Law

  6.               Good Governance

  7.               Sustainable Development

  8.               Protecting the Environment

  9.               Access to Health, Education, Food and Shelter

  10.               Gender Equality

  11.               Importance of Young People in the Commonwealth

  12.               Recognition of the Needs of Small States

  13.               Recognition of the Needs of Vulnerable States

  14.               The Role of Civil Society

This was all sounding a lot more promising than I had predicted. As well as being a collective, the Commonwealth aids development across  its members, from “helping countries with trade negotiations to encouraging women’s leadership, building the small business sector, supporting youth participation at all levels of society and providing experts to write laws”.

The Commonwealth Games now host disabled and non-disabled athletes, as opposed to holding separate games for disabled athletes as they once did. This integration happened first in 2002 at the Manchester Games, and the Glasgow Games now have “the biggest-ever number of Para-Sports medal events in Commonwealth Games history”.

It seems that the Commonwealth and Commonwealth Games have shifted massively in outlook since the days of the Empire. Despite this, it seems important not to let the uncomfortable history of the British Empire be forgotten. I still feel it is wrong to describe Cabot and Columbus and heroic adventurers and I still think Britain should do more to apologise to those countries it injured. However, the Commonwealth could be an opportunity to learn from the wrongs of the past and celebrate diversity, equality and our shared humanity.

For me, Glory is a dance piece about exactly that. It is performed by a group of diverse dancers with all movement and aesthetics valued equally. the mixture of individual movement and ensemble phrases speak to me of a shared experience of being alive as humans in this world. I am excited to see how audiences respond to the piece, and whether it resonates with their experience of the commonwealth.

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