A ballet about BP

On Wednesday 13th July, 2011, “WHITE SWAN” was successfully presented for the first time in Trafalgar Square, London, minutes before the start of the BP Summer Screen broadcast of Massenet’s opera ‘Cinderella’, live from the Royal Opera House. With the support of a talented team of activists and technicians, three ballet dancers staged their own ‘guerrilla ballet’ in the middle of the large crowd, drawing applause from the hundreds of seated audience members. To view the performance, click on the video icon opposite.

Despite a prominent security presence in and around the Square the dancers completed their performance, concluding with a depiction of the revival of the white swan Odette and the death of ‘BP’ villain Rothbart. We believe that the unusual performance medium may have contributed to the lack of aggressive security interventions, which made for a dignified and impressive performance that was well-received by the large crowd. It also meant that activists had time at the end of the performance in which to display banners as a backdrop to the dancers’ final bows.

The real success of the project, however, was in the active interest of the crowd and the UK and international media following the performance. Some 500 flyers explaining the performance and criticising BP’s sponsorship of UK art institutions were quickly distributed, and activists spent time explaining the performance to reporters and audience members on the ground.The performance also generated a significant amount of overwhelmingly positive press coverage, drawing attention to both the project itself, and to the work of White Swan, via their website. The Guardian also published a powerful piece – click here to read the Guardian review.

The group also has in mind several other venues where repeat performances of ‘WHITE SWAN’ would effectively communicate the dangers of BP’s business practices in the tar sands. The early success of ‘WHITE SWAN’ has been a real vindication of ballet-based activism – watch this space!

‘WHITE SWAN’ would once again like to thank APE for its generous support, as well as all those who contributed to the successful execution and reception of the first performance.



BP, working in partnership with Canadian company Husky Energy, has recently committed £1.6 billion to the Sunrise Project, a development project founded on the use and abuse of Alberta’s tar sands. The project will effectively constitute a desecration of a vast area of wilderness and stands to impact negatively on local First Nations communities: potentially spreading rare forms of cancer, poisoning wildlife and river systems and damaging the land. Moreover the Sunrise Project will exacerbate a global reliance on fossil fuels – a reliance widely acknowledged as problematic. Yet BP has consistently offset public criticism by minimising the visibility of its day to day operations behind a well-cultivated corporate image. A large part of this ‘social licence to operate’ comes from its sponsorship of large arts institutions and its provision of opportunities for public engagement with the arts.

The White Swan project highlights the distressing gulf between BP’s public image and its private practices. However, we also aim to harness the expressive power of dance for our message. The use of ballet in climate activism is uncommon, yet it is a sophisticated, effective and embodied means of communication. As such it fits perfectly with the ethos of direct action: to physically stand, sit, move or lie in order to create a voice. Having been inspired by the recent film ‘Black Swan’, we hope to show that Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ can tell all sorts of stories…

“We were ecstatic to receive APE funding. Although we had of course hoped our application would be successful, we had not expected to receive such a generous offer of funding. Once the initial excitement wore off, we realised that we would need to raise our game to match APE’s grant – this project better be as awesome as possible! Thanks to a higher-than-anticipated budget, we will be able to invest more time and money in the film of the project. We believe this will result in a higher quality film and render it more effective at spreading across social media. We are also investigating the possibility of using footage of our project in another longer film being done on oil industry sponsorship of the arts. In addition we will be able to improve on our costumes and lighting, both of which will contribute to an effective performance. We also hope to be able to perform our piece in a greater number of venues and events, to ensure the widest possible exposure to our a variety of audiences. Lastly, we will be able to fairly compensate our choreographer – hopefully inspiring her to be involved in more ballet-based activism in the future!”

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