Feature: Sarah Shorten

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Stacked Wonky Dance Co. Newcomer duo, Stacked Wonky, received plenty of press attention last autumn for their work 401 Pieces because of its unusual setting in a contemporary furniture shop. But the publicity wasn’t calculated. Co-artistic director, Sarah Shorten, came late to dance from a career in the social sector. For her, the shop was simply a way of bringing dance “to the punters”.

Stacked Wonky was formed three years ago when Shorten met Monika Scheel in a dance class at an adult education college. Catherine Hale talked to her about their work and their unusual route to success.

In 401 Pieces I felt I, as the audience, was part of the choreography. I was moving among the furniture to create my own viewpoints. Has this idea of the active spectator been a recurring feature of your work?
Yes. For *Sleepwalk*, the first piece we were invited to make for the Undercroft at Camden Roundhouse we were so inexperienced we didn’t even realise it was a “site specific” venture. But we immediately thought of making a dance piece that would engage audience, give them choices and the opportunity to be up close and have a personal experience of the performance.
Our next work, while still at adult education college, was a dance for camera. I improvised solo snippets derived from a study of a street behaviour. I was dressed as an ordinary person with a microphone hidden on my body and the camera crew hid themselves in various locations, inside shops. The public didn’t know anything about it.

And how did this unwitting audience react to you?
Oh it was fantastic. For example, at one moment during filming it started to rain, and I started to run, and because I was running lots of people started running and there was suddenly this mini whirlwind! Then the next thing we did, At 4 A.M., for The Crypt at St Pancras Church and The Bargehouse (Oxo Tower Wharf) was a duet for me and Davide Terlingo based on the sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s writing about a love affair so intense that for six months he never saw the sun.
In some ways it was a lead up to 401 Pieces. We considered who the audience were, whether we were engaging with them directly or only with each other. And whether they would stumble across our world or we would lead them into it. But it was dissimilar in that we worked in what I would call an architectural empty space. So the space was demarcated by our bodies. We set the environment, rather than in 401 Pieces where Purves & Purves, the furniture shop, was the environment.

401 Pieces was the first time I’d seen a site specific work where I hadn’t been irritated at having move around to see the dance. Choosing which sofa to sit on was fun and the proximity with the performers wasn’t uncomfortable. Was it planned that way? Stacked Wonky '401 Pieces'Photo Step Haiselden
We wanted to create an intimate and familiar setting but also establish a gap between audience and performer so that audience would feel the space was theirs and take possession of it. That’s why we introduced the idea of the ocean liner and the preservation of its objects. It was a device for setting the work in another time. I’m fascinated by people’s relationship with objects. But I felt we also needed another world in which performers could operate, instead of that determined by the objects in the shop.

How did you achieve that period feel in a contemporary furniture shop?
For our research we took the dancers to a grand hotel in London built and designed in same period as the Titanic and we all had tea there and had little tasks to do. We went to the Titanic exhibition twice. We researched the codes of etiquette of that time and used them to form a “glue” between the performers that was different from modern urban life in London. We also went to Debenham’s and worked for a whole afternoon on one floor, without anyone knowing. It was an exercise for the performers in how to operate in proximity to people and how much movement you have to make before someone notices you’re performing.

Yes, because you evoked a different time dimension, we felt like we were in a parallel world to you. That gave us the freedom to move around and between you. Sometimes it made me feel like a voyeur.
That’s exactly what we were after. A sense verging on the voyeuristic. The performance was less about presenting the intimacy of a relationship and more about creating an insecurity about whether this was supposed to be seen. It raises more questions about viewing act.

*Your work was not “about” a furniture shop in any sense. But did you ever feel pressure from the shop that in return for a free “set” you had to be part of their sales strategy? !! *
It’s odd that one. Going into it I was very aware that our artistic vision would need to be acceptable to them. So for example we weren’t going to do an anti-consumerist piece. At one point I was anxious that the piece might be considered solely as quite a smart move by both us and the shop. But that was never in our heads. We did have to present our request to Purves & Purves in terms of drawing the public into the shop. But as soon as they said yes they left the artistic direction entirely up to Stacked Wonky.

In its three years Stacked Wonky has never asked for a penny from the Arts Council. Apart from your partnership with Purves & Purves, how did you raise the £15,000 budget for 401 Pieces?
We had commercial sponsorship from an insolvency practitioner, raised funds through ticket sales, received a lot of in-kind support from Purves & Purves and also New Partners funding from Arts & Business.

How did you get the commercial sponsorship?
Well our first fundraising effort was for Resolution! in 2002 . When I realised it was going to cost quite a lot I went to the head of the legal firm where I worked as a night secretary to pay for my dance training. I said I needed some money for my dance company. He asked me how much I wanted, and that was that! He met our costs and has been fantastic support. He then invited partners in the firm to chip in and many employees now come to see our work regularly.

Would you have advice for other emerging dance artists on approaching businesses for funding?
If you have a way in, ie you know somebody personally, then just go for it. Unsolicited letter writing is not helpful initially. Think about people you know, or who they know. And if you think about the amount of money that’s floating around in business world, it’s OK to ask for a few thousand. Also Arts & Business were fantastic because they showed me you need to be fluent in the language of business, not just expect a company to understand your dance ideas. Arts & Business can help you write proposals, do your homework and target the right people.

And finally, what’s next for Stacked Wonky? Stacked Wonky '401 Pieces'
We want to world towards a big project, probably on a cruise ship. It’s a way of getting away from the worn out feel of London and it would be a huge challenge. To take contemporary dance to those who aren’t looking for it, within a floating world. The opportunities for site-specific performance on a ship, given their legacy of entertainment provision, are amazing. We’re just doing the audience evaluation for 401 Pieces and at least 50% were first time dance goers, which for me is fantastic. It’s what we want. But next time I want to do something where people are already going about their ordinary business, not a dedicated performance like we did in the shop. I think if you want to take dance into a challenging environment, a cruise ship is the place to go.

Feature published 2004

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