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Lords Diary: Baroness Bull

Baroness Bull

Baroness Bull

4 min read

Every year, regular as clockwork, February sees me back in Switzerland, at the Prix de Lausanne

This year the Prix celebrated its 50th anniversary and the glittering roll call of ballet careers it has launched. I was one of the dancers to win a coveted Prix, in 1980, but these days I attend as host for the competition’s final and as a board member of the underpinning foundation. The Prix has always been future facing, offering scholarships and apprenticeships with the world’s best ballet schools and companies in place of the more usual trophies or cash. In 2000, it implemented an innovative health policy to ensure all candidates are able to withstand the physical pressures of the competition and to raise awareness of the problems of disordered eating. While ballet’s aesthetic requires a degree of leanness, ballet’s culture cannot ignore the immediate and long-term risks of achieving this through unhealthy practices. The Prix has long played an important role in opening eyes and changing minds.

Of course, not everyone who makes the finals takes home a prize. I was reminded of this hearing Elizabeth Day discussing her book, How to Fail, on Radio 4. As dancers build up from the ABC of basic knee bends to the thrilling lexicon of the ballet repertoire, they discover early on that there’s no success without risk, and risk always comes with the possibility of failure. This is more than a philosophical musing: it’s a neurological truth.

Be like a dancer. Make failure your friend

Our brains learn new movements by first getting them wrong; every wobble and stumble the visible manifestation of the brain working out the most direct way to send instructions to the muscles. It tries over and over until it finds the most efficient pathway, at which point a newly created network of neurons and synapses locks it in for good. While risk is fundamental to all new discovery, research shows that societies that emphasise high performance can create a fear of failure that prevents us taking risks. But failure is a key driver of evolution: it shapes our brains, it’s our primary teacher and it leads to valuable innovations that will ensure mankind (and the economy) thrive. Be like a dancer. Make failure your friend.

A second annual event came around in February: the Gulbenkian Civic Arts Award. This £150,000 award celebrates cultural organisations across the United Kingdom that are rethinking their relationships with the communities they serve, using the transformational power of art to co-create new approaches to individual, local, and societal challenges. The winners will be announced in March, and the panel I chaired had the unenviable task of whittling down the 10 shortlisted organisations, each one remarkable in its reimagining of its purpose and the purpose of art, often among communities whose voices are the least heard. In these difficult times it was inspiring to be reminded of the resilience of our arts organisations, the creativity inherent in individuals and in communities, and the ways in which interactions through art can enhance lives.

The only downside to chairing the panel was that I was unable to join fellow peers and MPs in Westminster Hall to hear from President Volodymyr Zelensky. Among the many consequences of the war in Ukraine is the destruction of its cultural heritage. As of 8 February, Unesco has verified damage to 238 sites, including museums, monuments, libraries and places of historic, artistic or religious importance. Ukraine puts the figure much higher. Collections of art have been destroyed by fire, ransacked, looted and removed, all part of a campaign to wipe out not just objects and artefacts, but history and cultural identity. Art might seem a poor defence against missiles and their terrible impact on lives and livelihoods, but Ukraine’s artists, at home and abroad, are continuing to capture testimony, challenge false narrative, promote truth and sustain national identity through their art. It’s not tanks and aircraft, but it’s a powerful act of resistance in this awful war.

Baroness Bull is a Crossbench peer

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