Life & Culture

So, what is Brexit Britain rejecting?

Since the UK voted to leave the EU, Josephine Burton has sought an artistic response to the decision


On the eve of the EU referendum, Josephine Burton stood on stage at London’s Rich Mix and declared: “I hope we wake up in a world which wants to welcome the world.”

The audience was there to hear Ukrainian “world-music quartet” DakhaBrakha, so she was in good company.

But we all know how the story ends, and Burton, who is artistic director and chief executive of international arts organisation Dash Arts, woke up the following day “with a depressing sense that [the UK] didn’t want to welcome the world” anymore.

But her response wasn’t to sink into despair, go on demonstrations or lobby MPs. Aside from applying for and getting an Irish passport (her maternal grandfather was born in Dublin), she channelled her shock and grief into art. The result has been EUTOPIA, a cross-arts exploration of what it means to be European. “I became fascinated by the question of: ‘What is this world that we are rejecting?’”

Her projects “always start with a question”, followed by the desire to “understand something better and go on to convey that understanding in creative and exciting ways.”

Since it was founded 15 years ago, Dash Arts has worked with over 9,000 international artists and participants and its productions have been seen by over 350,000 people worldwide. It has scooped up numerous awards along the way, including two Olivier awards in 2011 for Babel, a Sadler’s Wells’ dance performance exploring conflict and coexistence.

The company is renowned for its immersive Dash Cafés (its Russian-influenced Dacha Cafés proved a big hit at the Latitude Festival), where Josephine enjoys “breaking down the fourth wall” between the performers and the audience.

All productions share a common goal, she says, which is “to challenge the way we see the world and bridge divides across languages, cultures, national borders and art forms.” This bold vision has taken the 43-year old around the globe, discovering untapped talent. “I go into a project with an open mind and it’s often like a Pandora’s Box — a good Pandora’s Box. I open it and there is this amazing world to discover.” One such discovery was during a trip to Helsinki, where Josephine was introduced to Marouf Majidi, a Kurdish musician. “He had come to Finland as a refugee. When he first started playing with an ensemble, he told me he always felt ‘out of tune’ and like a soloist. But when he returned to Iran or Turkey some years later, again he felt ‘out of tune’. That conversation lived with me. What was the tune he found and what was the tune he left behind?”

As part of the EUTOPIA project she is now exploring these questions of belonging in Dido’s Bar, a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, with music composed by Majidi. Virgil’s work, in which Aeneas leaves the ruins of Troy to found a new city in the West, “has enormous parallels with Majidi’s story”, says Josephine, who last studied the poem when reading classics at Oxford. “We are retelling that story through the prism of contemporary migration to Europe.”

It was at Oxford that she first tried her hand at production, co-founding with trumpeter Jonathan Walton and singing in the pioneering crossover band Oi Va Voi. “I started the group after hearing some dub reggae music, which had a nigun [a Chasidic tune without words]. It was a revelation that Jewish music could feel so contemporary and cool.”

Her love of the arts meant that she “had no interest in the milk round” when it came to life after Oxford. Instead, a couple of years after graduating, she and Walton went on to launch YaD Arts, promoting cross-cultural dialogue from a Jewish starting point.

It was an encounter with world renowned director Tim Supple in 2004 which led to the creation of Dash Arts. “He approached me to ask if I would programme and produce elements of the Jewish Arts Festival. We got on well and decided to do it together, so Dash was born.”

Burton continued at the helm of YaD Arts until 2016, when it wound down after the absurdly comical play Lemony Snicket’s Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming. “Where could we go after ‘Latke’?” she laughs.

The eldest of four sisters, she grew up in Putney “in an arts-loving household”. Her mother, Corinne, was a Central Saint Martins alumnus, later becoming a visual artist. She died when Burton was 15. “My mother was a special artist and in her short life, did the thing that she loved.”

Her father is former High Court Judge Sir Michael Burton GBE, a veteran on the amateur dramatics scene, who is often called upon by family and friends to rewrite lyrics and sing at celebrations. “It’s his party trick”, says Burton. She feels immensely grateful to both her parents for tacitly “giving me permission to tread my own path.”

This is something she is keen to instil in her own three children, together with her husband Rabbi Jeremy Gordon of the Masorti flagship New London Synagogue (they live nearby in Swiss Cottage).

How compatible is a career in radical arts with the role of rabbi’s wife? “They aren’t actually too far away from each other. Jeremy often says: ‘My job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ I see that as my role as an artist. I don’t feel that these worlds are in conflict.”

Nor does she feel any pressure to fulfil the role of rabbi’s wife in a prescribed way. “I have met many extraordinary, inspiring professional partners of rabbis in the UK, so I don’t feel there is an expectation of me.”

Nonetheless, her Jewish identity is certainly woven into her work, which frequently delves into the themes of otherness — “a profoundly Jewish idea since we, as Jews, have been ‘othered’ for millennia” — and of the outsider. “I’m really interested in the role of the outsider who ends up being in a liminal space, an in-between space. That’s the privilege of being Jewish — you can be within and without.”

These ideas were memorably explored in Dash’s critically acclaimed A Midsummers Night Dream, directed by Supple. A cast of Indian actors performed the play in eight different languages. “When something was said in Tamil, some of the audience laughed and when something was said in Malayalam, other people laughed. There is something about having your voice heard.”

In 2018, Burton curated the daringly original gala night for Israel’s 70th at the Royal Albert Hall and she is currently working with Ukrainian musicians to tell the story of the Babi Yar Massacre, when nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in 1941.

“It’s a place of horror and also phenomenally contentious. For many reasons, it hasn’t been properly memorialised.”

As Brexit dawns she is “still processing” how she feels. “I felt enormous disappointment and sadness. I felt out of kilter with the country I live in and with friends and family who had voted Brexit.” Now she continues to explore what we left behind with EUTOPIA, and also says : “I’m quite interested in Englishness as we look to a United Kingdom which isn’t very united.”

While Covid and the subsequent restrictions have presented “emotional and financial” challenges, she is once again responding to adversity with huge creativity. She has taken the Dash Cafés online, attracting audiences from more than 20 countries, and via her new podcast, is continuing to challenge the way we see the world.

“I’m always driven by the desire to make great artistic work. The magic will happen if the work is extraordinary.”

The Dash Arts podcast is available on all major podcasting platforms.


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