Interview: Jeanefer Jean-Charles - on dance at the Palace

Friday 2 August 2013 by Carmel Smith

Jeanefer Jean-Charles

Seventy five dancers from East London performed in the Queen’s Coronation Festival at Buckingham Palace in July. The routine was choreographed by Jeanefer Jean-Charles, who was asked to create a dance celebrating the Queen’s coronation, 60 years ago. Since working on the first Big Dance for Trafalgar Square in 2006, Jeanefer has specialized in working on large scale community events, including Tomorrow’s Men, which involved 100 young men in East London last year – and the London 2012 opening and closing ceremonies. She tells us more…

When did you start working on the dance for the Coronation Festival?
I had a meeting with the director of the event, Luc Mollinger, in January 2013.By April, when I had my first meeting with all five dance groups involved, the idea of the story of The Family Tree had come up. Sixty years ago, the Queen gave each Commonwealth country leader an acorn. These acorns must have grown into huge oaks by now! I loved this simple yet powerful concept and started from there – lets all go back to primary school and pretend to be trees! Well not quite, but a good starting point.

Who was involved and how were they recruited?
Seventy five dancers from five dance groups were involved: One Youth Dance, VP Entertainment and students from the University of East London, Kingston University and Middlesex University. The Coronation Festival organisers approached Big Dance, who in turn approached East London Dance to find a choreographer – that is how I got involved.

Were you pleased with the result on the day?
Pleased? I was delighted with the young people taking part. I have never seen such commitment. They clearly loved the process, which was touching, and they were so excited. It was well worth doing.

Were there any surprises?
As well as all the dancers, we had 20 Dhol drummers from Johnny Kalsi’s Dhol Foundation. Once we were in a large rehearsal space at Three Mills Studios I could already see that the dance was having an amazing impact. Then when we ran the dance on the stage at the Palace, I was further surprised at how extaordinary it looked. I was taken aback by the energy of the dancers and Dhol drummers in that piece.

What was your role in the Olympics last year?
I was involved in all four Olympic opening and closing ceremonies as a Mass Movement Coordinator. My role, within a team, was to help Danny Boyle, Bradley Hemmings, Jenny Sealy and Kim Gavin move thousands of volunteer performers one way, and then another at given times, whilst staying in character and understanding exactly what they were doing and when!

For example, the aerial view of the letters NHS on view in the opening ceremony – I learnt how to read charts created by the talented lead members of our team, helping every individual understand where they must be and when.

What are your stand out memories of this time last year?
In a similar way to the Coronation Festival, I was completely immersed in the project – only for the Olympics it was much longer. Starting with the mass auditions which took place In November and December 2011, like everyone else involved, I was working on it pretty much 24/7. Yet on the night, for me it was like seeing it for the first time. Standing in one of the entrances to the stadium, I will never forget the roars of appreciation of 80,000 people.

What got you involved in large scale community dance?
In 2006 I was asked to choreograph the Big Dance inTrafalgar Square by director Jacqueline Rose. There were 44 different groups, each performing a different dance style, and we broke the world record for the largest number of dance styles being performed at the same time to the same piece of music!

Since 1990 I have been flying the flag for making dance accessible to all. From 1990 to 2000 I ran the jazz dance company Bullies Ballerinas with Pearl Jordan, now a well being practitioner and life coach. We wanted people to understand that dance is not an elite subject: it is for everyone. Our message was that anyone can dance and have something to offer.

There were some wonderful highlights during that decade: for example, a tour of Southern Africa, but somehow we did not feel our work was quite respected as ‘art’ in the world of dance. We always felt we needed to prove ourselves to funding bodies and we could never understand why, whilst our audience could not get enough.

Big Dance changed all that. It gave me an opportunity to glamorize ‘community dance’, and for the first time I got some real appreciation and profile for working with the community. It’s all about working with people who would just love the opportunity to dance and have never done so before. It’s about giving them confidence, putting them on a large stage and giving them a high profile – that is what Big Dance does. It’s about celebrating peoples’ excitement and their enjoyment in a production . . . and the praise when they perform! In 2006 the BBC filmed the Trafalgar Square Big Dance live. At that time it was the largest TV audience ever for a dance production.

It’s quite a specialism working on such a large scale – how did you find out you could do it?
I just took a risk! I said yes to Big Dance while keeping my fingers crossed all the time! But I then squashed my doubts and just went for it. Once I got into it, I never looked back.

What’s next for you?
Well The Family Tree is being re-created for East London Dance’s 25th anniversary this September and… I can’t say right now, but watch this space for another exciting project this autumn!

New Adventures, with Summer Strallen and English National Ballet, in a collaboration with fashion designer Julian Macdonald also featured in the Coronation Festival.

Your Comments

  1. Alison Ray 8 August 2013

    Well done!

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