News: One thousand dancers in one Square, for one performance only...

Friday 20 July 2012

Germaine Cheng (right) at Big Dance Trafalgar Square, 14 July 2012. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Most of the dancers in the Trafalgar Square Big Street Dance last Saturday had been working for months on their own choreography, but there was also the chance for individuals who didn’t have time to make that long term commitment to learn the routine that Wayne McGregor made for schools to learn online and join in a mass unison section at the end of the performance.
Our contributor Germaine Cheng has been busy with her course at Rambert School but rose to our challenge to take part with just a week to spare..

A latecomer to a seemingly precariously balanced Big Dance equation, I find myself disarmingly unprepared with just five days on the clock.

Determined to know what I am in for (and to mildly reassure myself), I arrive in Trafalgar Square on Friday morning, taking in the sights and sounds of one of London’s most iconic landmarks. The sun is shining and the Square is abuzz with activity – tourist and avian alike. Positioning myself in front of Nelson’s Column, closing my eyes and opening my imagination, I recall snippets of Wayne McGregor’s Big Dance Schools Pledge, almost losing myself in frantic visualization until I am tapped on the shoulder and asked for directions to Big Ben.

The scene that unfolds before my eyes on Saturday is nothing like I envisioned. There is rain where I saw sun, thousands not just hundreds of people and dancers instead of ordinary folk. Tabards designed by Studio XO are dotted with a bright Olympic-coloured circle on the front and back, making the afternoon’s performers clearly identifiable. I slip mine on a little sheepishly at the foot of Nelson’s Column, fastening the velcro flaps as I am made acutely aware of the lack of a mirror.

This is worlds apart from most performances I have done. I’m usually sitting in front of a mirror lined with bare light bulbs, permeating the surrounding air with a generous spritz of hairspray; here there is no opportunity for such preening. The audience will have to look beyond my rain-soaked appearance (waterproof mascara is my only consolation). In addition, with less than a week to learn five minutes of McGregor’s choreography, I refer to the online video footage and diligently practise the Olympic-themed steps in my living room. I run, cycle, fence, and even reach up to claim a medal!

The rain miraculously clears up for the duration of the piece as McGregor puts his thousand-strong cast through their paces. Preferring not to use the microphone, he gathers groups in a close circle, much like he does with his own troupe of Random dancers, before sending them out to the Square’s four corners. McGregor expands on the ‘Everybody dancing’ aim of Big Dance and this gargantuan undertaking of Olympic proportions certainly reflects his passion to see everyone empowered not just to dance, but to choreograph. It is heartening to see each of the 30 groups take ownership of the movement material they have created, maintaining and proudly displaying their idiosyncratic qualities while cohering to the clear framework that McGregor has tailored.

Graceful lotus hands from Indian classical dance are juxtaposed with contemporary dance’s expansive travelling steps in Sapnay’s segment while students from Ravenstone Primary School impress with a pointed dynamisn in their athletic choreography. All this terpsichorean action is set to Scanner and Joel Cadbury’s electronic soundscape – an atmospheric swirl of strings and rhythmic beats, and is met with generous applause by an anonymous audience hidden under their umbrellas.

The sheer numbers of people in the heart of Trafalgar Square belittles its size – an effect that is magnified when we all begin dancing. Even when the ten dancers from McGregor’s company occupy the space, their presence and mastery manages to fill it. They perform a subtle version of typical McGregor fare – virtuosic leggy undulations meet rare moments of rest by the Square’s two fountains. I eagerly make my entrance, occupying a central spot just as the first of many raindrops is felt and McGregor brings the rehearsal to a halt with a call to suit up in our given clear plastic ponchos. I sulk in protest – I haven’t rehearsed!
Not even attempting to stretch or warm up, I find the absence of nerves rather unsettling. However I am comforted by the cheery smiles of members of Amici Dance Theatre who share a well-deserved snack of muffins and cappuccinos. They are an ineffably relaxed motley crew of able-bodied and disabled artists united by their love of dance; their sprightly wheelchair-bound performers impress as they zoom across the Square. While they take heart that Big Dance is an undoubtedly inclusive movement, they continually seek to break down the elitist barriers of dance with their stellar performances here as well as with their interactions with other participants.

I look up to the screens on either side of Trafalgar Square to watch films documenting Big Dance events in Beijing and Rio – the bread to London’s juicy patty in the Olympic sandwich. Red is synonymous with prosperity in Chinese culture and it features prominently in Big Dance Beijing, as do the monumental Olympic Stadium and Aquatics Centre. Countless performers clasp their hands in perfect unison as a sign of wishing London well. On the other side of the world, Brazilians are more spontaneous, seemingly bursting into joyful hip-shaking movement on every street corner. It is clear they can’t wait to get the Olympic party started in Rio!

The unrelenting rain prompts the first airing of the famed show business phrase: The show must go on! But as the first dancers from the North London hub of Sadler’s Wells position themselves centre stage, the dark clouds part like curtains at the theatre and the sun makes a long-awaited appearance. Young children cartwheel, adults engage in captivating duets and students from English National Ballet School exhibit a refined grace, all of which is captured and screened live, allowing audiences a bird’s eye view of the complex formations the performers are achieving with pin-point precision.

I make my second and last entrance into the Square, lifting my eyes to acknowledge spectators on the roof of the National Gallery. Raising my arms to make a horizontal line, I launch into the first move of the choreography. I find myself not even having to think about the sequence of the steps as I bounce basketballs and sprint in slow motion towards an imaginary finish line. My energy is boosted by the vast number of dancers, most of whom I can’t even see, and I can’t seem to wipe this smile off my face! This must be the biggest audience I will ever perform for, and the largest group of dancers I will be a part of. One thousand dancers in one Square for one performance only – an eclectic patchwork-style choreographic spectacle, lovingly fashioned by one tailor.

The making of Big Dance- interview with Jasmine Wilson, Creative Learning Diretor, Wayne McGregor|Random Dance

Watch the event on Channel 4oD until 20 August

Report: Germaine Cheng
Photos: Bettina Strenske

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