On Friday evening I went to see the Israeli Batsheva dance ensemble at the Lowry Theatre in Salford. Knowing that there had been some trouble at their performances in Edinburgh, I felt a bit apprehensive, but was determined not to be put off by such things, however hateful they were. Everyone in the audience had been notified by the theatre's management that there might be protests, and we were asked to arrive in good time and submit to security searches. Right enough, there were somewhere between 30 and 40 people standing in a wide semi-circle in front of the entrance to the theatre, carrying banners unreadable in the dark and the rain, and shouting 'We don't care how well you dance,...', repeated again and again.
There were also plenty of police officers around, good-humouredly bored and wet (it was raining - Salford shares Manchester's delightful weather). As we passed by the protestors, a leaflet was pressed on us. On its cover was a picture of a dancer holding a machine-gun, and it was full of charges of apartheid and oppression. It talked of the dancers' complicity in Israel's crimes on account of accepting government support; it quoted Ken Loach, Emma Thompson, Mark Rylance and Miriam Margolyes praising boycotts against Israel; and you would never have known from it that anyone in the world had ever attempted harm against Israel or tried to kill any of its citizens. Nor would you have known that even dancers in Israel might need to be defended by force of arms.
I have to admit that running the gauntlet to get into the theatre proved remarkably undramatic; indeed the gauntlet itself was a pretty worn-out and seedy fingerless glove. But, I thought, something bad is bound to happen during the performance; I must brace myself to respond appropriately. And right enough, midway through the first half of the production, a few people stood up and one of them began to shout, 'We're sorry for the interruption to your evening, but art doesn't excuse...' and at once several other members of the audience loudly shouted 'SHUT UP!' as security staff moved towards the interrupters. During the interruption the dancers stood perfectly grave and motionless on the stage, and seeing this the whole audience broke into enthusiastic clapping, while the interrupters were escorted from the theatre by security. So I never got to hear what it is that art doesn't excuse. And my self-bracing was entirely redundant: Batsheva didn't need any intervention from big brave me to save the evening, I'm glad to say; they could do it by themselves, with the appreciative help of a very friendly audience indeed.
The demonstrators were still present and shouting outside the theatre during the interval, but by the end of the show they'd disappeared - it really was a very wet evening. The cops were still there, though, and still good humoured. As far as I could see, the main effect of the protest was to draw the audience together a bit more, and make them feel protective towards, and enthusiastic about, the dancers. I couldn't stay for the question-and-answer session afterwards, so I don't know if anything else happened there; but otherwise it really was a damp squib of a protest. It was the sort of thing that allows you the luxury of feeling proud to be British and tolerant of dissent, however misguided and indeed odious. Of course that feeling was helped along by the presence of a considerable number of police officers, all clearly determined to ensure that no one got threatened, let alone hurt. And they didn't: perhaps the speed and efficacy of the responses at Edinburgh had to some degree undermined the motivation of the kind of people who want to shout about their hatred for Israel. Or maybe they just make them tougher in Edinburgh than they do in Salford. In fact I was tempted towards feeling quite sorry for the protestors, locked in their bubble of self-righteous hatred, with no one at all to admire their bravery at taking on a bunch of young dancers on a wet night in November. But I quickly threw off that temptation.
And what about the dancing itself, I hear you ask?
It was fantastic! (Eve Garrard)