Monday, 25 May 2015

A New Inspiration (Part 1 of 2): A Contemporary Dance Performance

I wanted to talk today about always keeping an open mind and allowing yourself new experiences. Before I continue, permit me a paragraph or two to tell you a little episode from my school days.

Back sometime around ’94

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I can’t exactly remember now (and please excuse a bit of hazy stitching together here, I think I remember well what I am about to recall but to any friends that happen to read this and remember it differently, sorry if I get some details wrong! I’m just aiming to get a principle across…) we had an opportunity at school to choose an extra sports subjects to practice. It is common (traditional) to practice football and rugby at most schools, and depending on the type of school and what facilities they had, you could maybe do cricket, basketball, netball, athletics and others too. Normally, you are told what you are going to do; you follow the teacher’s guidance and the National Curriculum. However, this year we had a new teacher and he had a few ideas. One of the many funny memories I have from this period of time is when this new sports (or rather, Physical Education, as it was properly called) teacher gave an assembly and explained he would be offering our year a choice of something like five different activities and we would all vote in a ballot on which sport we wanted, with the most popular choice being selected. When it came to the ballot we all received the paper and were surprised to see one of the possible choices… in a moment of inspired bravery this teacher had put down, ‘Dance’. So, here we were, a close knit year (I hope friends reading this agree!), not tear-aways by any stretch of the imagination but none-the-less we had a devious streak, and exposed to new ideas our minds immediately starting plotting on ways to subvert this crazy notion. A friend took it upon himself to act as a kind of year group diplomat and visit all the different-yet-connected friendship groups within our year and persuade them to vote a certain way on the ballot. I remember being amused at his efforts and was struck by how when a fourteen year old finds an interesting endeavor they can really get stuck into the task; had there been a GCSE in Ambassadorial Studies I’m sure he would have been an A+ pupil and working for the government by now. Anyway, the time came to hand in our slips and we all duly voted and handed them over. I had no idea if my friend’s plan had been successful or not but I for one went along with it and cast my vote as was suggested. A few days later when it was assembly time and we were due to find out what our designated sport would be we all shuffled into our seats as normal and waited for the teacher to arrive. Soon enough, our young, energetic, motivated and ‘new ideas’ man arrived but was looking rather glum with a hint of menace about his features. It got to his turn to speak and obviously disappointed, informed the assembled students that he was very upset we had not taken the options seriously and that there had been some skullduggery going on as an overwhelming ninety five percent plus of votes had been cast for ‘Dance’ when he knew damn well that not that many people would have picked it… and how dare we spoil the opportunity for those who really did want to take dance and how selfish we were for making fun of the opportunity we had and as a result of us not taking it seriously NO ONE would be doing dance or any other extra subject for that matter… You can imagine. We found it hilarious. As an adult I’m sure the teacher thought we were specifically ridiculing dance because of schoolboy level humour such as associated connotations of it not being a manly thing to do and other totally ridiculous yet reinforced stereotypes that we all somehow collectively understood (on a superficial level). However, as a young teenager, I remember it more as just being a way to get one over on the teachers and trying to be smartarses. I feel bad for repeating this story as if it represents this teacher in a silly way; I don’t have anything against him and remember getting on with him fine, but there is a reason I wanted to share that story with you. It will make sense soon enough.

courtesy of Darren Bell.

Back to the present for a bit

I write a fair bit in my local pub. I’ve talked about this before so won’t expand on the reasons but suffice to say I enjoy being around people in the evening hours even though I sit by myself in a corner with my face buried in my laptop. One of the people I see maybe once or twice a week is a young woman named Michaela and as with most regulars I do the friendly chit chat hello, how are you, how’s your week been, type conversation when I arrive. Sometimes I chat to people if particular things have been going on and it is this young woman who inspired me to write this post. Just in case you are reading this without the experience of what it is to be a ‘local’ or a ‘regular’ in a local drinking establishment - and again, I don’t want to repeat myself as I’ve talked about pubs before but to quickly explain to some of my non-British friends and readers – there is a strange but very traditional practice whereby you get to know other ‘locals’ or ‘regulars’ in your local pub, sometimes to a quite personal degree, without ever seeing them or interacting with them in any other walk of life. You may well only ever see them in the pub. And if you do happen to see them on the outside, say for instance buying a paper in the newsagent, or walking their dogs, etc. then there is no need for any formalities at all other than a brief nod of the head, or, ‘alright’… possibly a ‘what you up to today’ or ‘been anywhere nice’ if the situation is such that you are not passing by quickly, but for sure, you don’t go into deep conversations like you do when you are leaning against the bar, pint in hand. Such it is with Michaela, I consider her a friend and someone I enjoy speaking to and catching up with but I never see her outside of the pub. However, in the pub, we talk about her studies, her holidays and other such personal information and importantly for today, her work. Michaela is a dancer who has started her own dance company and is also involved with other dance companies.

Follow her Facebook page here:

One evening earlier in the year I was asking her how her dance projects were going and she explained she had a performance coming up soon and was practicing hard. I was interested in seeing it and asked her for details and a few months later I went to the theatre to watch the performance and it was one of the most moving and emotional experiences I have ever had. This is what I would like to talk to you about.

A New Inspiration

I went to the theatre with no expectations, as I knew nothing about contemporary dance or hip-hop dance, which is her specialism. From my time working in an art and design university I have experience of many different artistic forms of expression and I have attended many performances and installations that can sometimes include styles of dance. However, it was the first time specifically attending a dance only event. I also did not read the materials concerning the performance, as much the same with going to the cinema or reading a new book, I do not like to know what I am going to see. That may sound odd but I get more enjoyment from the surprise. I always avoid watching film trailers, or reviews and so on and although there was information on the website about the performance I didn’t read it.

courtesy of Ren Brocklehurst.

And in fact, it’s not really the subject matter of the play that I want to talk about here. As much as it was fantastic (and I hope you get to see it yourself in one form or another some day) I am really interested in trying to convey the emotional impact it had on me and yes, that of course includes the plot but I talk about storylines and plots and writing all the time, and instead, I want to convince you of the physical nature of the emotional response as well as the mental stimulation. It wouldn’t be much of a new inspiration otherwise would it! For your reference here is the summary from their website with a preview clip:

201 Dance Company was founded in 2014 by dancer and choreographer Andrea Walker. It is known for its emotionally charged, Contemporary Hip Hop work. 

London based, 201 first found success in New York City, with a series of successfull performances of short works at the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, New York Symphony Space and The Broadway Dance Center. The company is currently developing its first full-length show: "If You Leave".

Can you stay true to yourself, when everything suggests you change? 
201’s raw, contemporary hip-hop movement returns in If You Leave: a story of two people's broken encounter. 

After acclaimed performances in New York and sold out London performance at The Place and The Blue Elephant Theatre, 201 Dance Company returns with If You Leave. Touching on themes of addiction, obsession, and the true meaning of commitment, choreographer Andrea Walker directs a cast of seven dancers in a fast-paced, intimate performance exploring the relationship of two young men. 

“Superb … a piece that is at once raw, skillful and intoxicating.” - LGBTQ Magazine 

"Infectious... an intense urban fairytale of addiction and obsession" - ResReview

The theatre was very small and the seating intimate. There were maybe up to ten rows and they were benches rather than individual chairs and were covered in dozens and dozens of soft cushions and rugs. As it would turn out I sat at the back bench in the middle where the aisle ended and I’m very glad I did, I’ll get to that in a minute. There was the usual chatter as everyone filed in and got comfortable and as I was on my own I took the few minutes to look around the stage and guess what may occur. There wasn’t much to take in, as the entire stage, backdrop and wings were blacked out.

courtesy of Darren Bell.

Then, as people were still chatting, the house lights went down, we all hushed and I settled comfortably in my seat. It started very quickly, within a few seconds the dancers ran on to the stage and the performance began… and it was a whirlwind! I was totally blown away by the impact and how hot blooded and forceful the dancing was. The power and the physicality were incredible and this is what I want to convey to you. Whether the impact was increased due to the small intimate nature of the theatre and we were so close to the action I can’t say as I have no other experience to compare it with, but you could feel the heat of their bodies, the sweat and determination. Their faces were an absolute picture of focus and passion. You understood the storyline immediately and it is hard to describe this because there was no dialogue the entire duration of the performance. You understood it all through their interaction and self expression; without seeing a performance like this you may find that hard to comprehend but it is true. The performance lasted an hour and I feel I understood what was happening, and why, all the way through it. That is quite an achievement I think, and especially as I was someone who hadn’t seen this sort of thing before, it shows the talent of the choreography and ability of the director and dancers.

courtesy of Darren Bell.

So, here I am just minutes in and already blown away. The energy emanating from the dancers is taking my breath away with a mixture of awe and respect. There is something to be said about seeing people performing with a high level of athleticism (no one in this group would be shy in the summer, all of them had less fat combined than in one of my hip’s handles…) and of course being dancers, it wasn’t just fitness but incredible flexibility and movement. By now, I am already starting to feel a genuine sense of emotional response towards the individual characters and their situations… and it doesn’t let up.

The hour was non-stop. The amount of choreography involved was astonishing and whether it was all seven on stage in frantic, frenetic (but controlled) movement covering the entire area of the stage, or it was just one or two characters in a more sedate but sensual episode, the intricacy and involvement was first class.

courtesy of Ren Brocklehurst.

Then there was a brief pause and blackout as the scene changed (just seconds, they were very quick the whole way through) we applauded and as the lights came back on there was Michaela standing in the middle of the stage on her own. She was soon joined by another woman and this is where the emotion got the better of me.

The pace of the performance changed to a slower dramatic more direct dancer to dancer exchange. I don’t want to give the storyline away so I’ll just say that it was intimate. The music also changed to a soft female voice singing a ballad with a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. On a personal level, it reminded me of some of the music I used to listen to in the mid nineties and I think that, combined with the emotional nature of the performance moved me to tears.

courtesy of Ren Brocklehurst.

Now I don’t say that lightly, as first of all, I’m not in the habit of embarrassing myself on my own blog! Also, the scene wasn’t sad, it was actually an upbeat and positive moment, but that’s not the reason. I felt a really deep connection with the effort these people were putting in to the performance, I somehow felt like I was the characters (both at the same time), I understood them… and if you ask any writer, novice or professional, that is what we are striving for. To have the reader connect on an innate psychological level with the characters we are presenting. I read authors comments online where they are so pleased when they receive a letter or an email from a reader who tells them how their characters moved them, or how they connected with them, how they felt it could be them. And here I was feeling that exact response but without a word of text or a word of dialogue. It was all through movement and it affected me more than I can explain. From then onwards, I was a mess. Every scene I had to brace myself and hold back a ridiculous amount of weeping. I don’t know where it came from! It brought back another school memory.

Possibly misremembered school memory number 2

At around 15 we went on a school excursion to watch Les Miserable. I can’t remember why but we did. I have to sound very uncultured and unappreciative now but I cannot remember a damn thing from that night. Honestly, I remember getting in there and being traumatized by how far up in the Gods we were and how acute the angle of our seats were - if you have ever been on a helicopter ride, you’ll know what I mean; remember that take off moment where the whole thing rises but the front leans forward and down so you are practically staring at the floor? That was sort of the angle of our seats - but the actual play? Nope, can’t remember a thing. There is a vague memory of trying to look at women through the binoculars but please, I was 15… However, come the end of the play and as we were all shuffling out holding on to the rails for dear life, I remember seeing one of our teachers crying her eyes out, she couldn’t hold it back and despite knowing crying in front of her students would only bring her weeks of taunts, she bawled liked anyone’s business. I’m blaming being an immature 15 year old here but I cannot recall a single minute of the play, and I can’t recall being moved in anyway either. Yet here was my teacher in fits. I couldn’t understand it. Fast-forward twenty years (I imagine this teacher was probably around somewhere around the mid 30s at the time thinking about it) and here I am discreetly wiping away tears! How we change! This is where my choice of seating helped me out. There were very low level lights at the sides of the benches and had I picked one of the end seats I would have been helpless to hide my leaking eyes from others, but being in the very middle at the back, I was probably in the darkest section and I think I just about got away with it.

Anyway, the point is, I was moved more than I could have possibly anticipated and not only did I enjoy the performance for what it was, I enjoyed the sensation of having my eyes opened, my horizons widened and my life enhanced by new experiences.

So why an inspiration?

Being someone who wants to be a writer I am always alert for potential ‘stuff’ I can use in my work. I say stuff because it could be anything, a newspaper article that generates an idea, a song that moves me, a movie that makes me think, a conversation in a pub… and so on. I feel I have always been open to new experiences (excuse my Les Mis story) and have travelled to lots of cities to experience new cultures, I have gone to talks (one of my favourites was by Howard Marks), plays, discussion groups, and so on and so on. I’ve pushed myself to see things as unless you put effort into making the most of what’s around you, you would miss out, but that was my first dance specific performance and all of a sudden I am aware of the potential of an art form hitherto unknown to me. What have I been missing! That’s the message of this blog. Whatever you do and wherever you are, try something new and keep yourself open to interesting new opportunities. I’m writing this from London and it’s a constant source of shame that I do not do more in my home city; there is a silly amount of things to do if you look.

I feel that as well as having a great time and seeing someone I know in a different light (we all have our talents don’t we, do you support your friends as much as you should, or could, be attending things they do? You should!) and being absolutely certain beyond doubt that she and the other dancers have great careers ahead of them; I have another source of artistic expression to use. I have another art form to incorporate into my art form. I am able to use their energy for my work and that is a priceless advantage that I very possibly would have missed out on had it not been for Michaela.

How many other things are out there we could all learn from?

Bringing Back Memories

courtesy of Codi Choi.

This is where the memory of my friend’s old school curriculum intervention came back to me. Now I’m not saying that I feel guilty… but there is a little bit of me that hopes the world didn’t miss out on a potential Rudolf Nureyev due to not having been exposed to the wonders of a six week’s program of dance sessions at school. Our school experiences can be character forming and potentially defining in the shaping of our futures and I suppose the reason for this blog is to say that ALL our experiences shape us and whether it be at 13, 33, 53 or 83 there is the potential to be moved and our way of thinking, our way of being, changed by new experiences. So I do understand why my old teacher tried to put dance in front of us, and I do understand why my old teacher cried at the end of the play…

I would never have seen this performance but for the good old local and meeting Michaela and at the age of 35 I now have the pleasure of having another option when looking for entertainment… but what’s more, I now have a new source of inspiration. I can use this art form to influence my thinking and whether that takes the form of a new character I can now create that is a dancer, or perhaps, use a dance performance as a setting in a story... but more important than that, is the new knowledge I have gained by which I can use dance to modify the rhythm of the language I use itself. What I mean by that is not to be so constricted by rules. It is hard sometimes to free yourself from the regulations you are so used to. If you are classically trained in an art form to suddenly allow yourself to break the rules you have been so obligated to can be difficult. There are many instances in the past of writers forming sentences to the rhythm of a beat, to music, or patterns of sounds and so on; not going so far as to move into poetry, still using the prose form, but allowing the shaping of the sentence to be just as important as the meaning the words convey. When watching a contemporary dance performance you are struck by how a movement can be dictated by (or reactive to) an emotion without sticking to a specific 'move' or 'technique' that we are familiar with. That freedom may be challenging to others (me) as we do not recognise it and we are therefore pushed to understand it; but the art form itself is the most important thing, not how well an audience receives it (after all, every audience is made up of individuals, and those individuals change every time, some will get it, some won't, that goes for everything) and that is why we strive to better ourselves, because we want to create a better art work, not because we want someone to recognise it as being the same as something else. 

... well, whatever it maybe, I am enormously grateful for having had the good fortune of having another well of beauty to draw from and if I can find a way, when the time is right, to use the experience of seeing that freedom of expression transform my writing then I will be very happy.

Have a great week,


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