Interview: Rosemary Lee Q&A

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Rosemary LeePhoto: Hugo Glendinning Rosemary Lee has been choreographing, performing and directing for over twenty years. She works in a variety of media, including installation and film and has also created several extraordinary large scale, site specific works with casts whose ages range from under ten to eighty plus.

Her latest work, Common Dance, has a cross generational cast of 50 and has been especially created for the Greenwich Borough Hall, as part of this year’s Dance Umbrella. We find out more…

Do remember the first thing that sparked your interest in dance?
Goodness. I am told I was in a carry-cot at my sister’s ballet classes when I was 18 months and I started dancing there. What sparked my interest in contemporary dance was when as a teenager I took a weekend course at the Place with Ross McKim and did a class in bare feet and suddenly had the feeling – this is it. I have found it. I think I was doing the foot warm-up or prances. This was 1974 and before that I had only done ballet, modern, tap and panto – all of which were a great start for me, actually.

Where did you study dance?
The Phyllis Adams School of Dance, in Lowestoft then the BA at Laban. Then I went to New York in 1982 and was fortunate enough to study with various wonderful teachers, including Ruth Currier, Cunningham, Lisa Kraus, Sara Pearson.

You have been making large-scale and/or site-specific work throughout most of your career. What made you decide to work in this area of dance?
Big Question. Lots of things contributed to this choice. Primarily I was interested in making dance for a wider audience than I saw attending dance when I was a young choreographer. I wanted to broaden the audience and include a wider range of ages and backgrounds. Working outside the theatre was one way of doing that. I am a visual choreographer, and working in different spaces created new ways for me to work visually but also I have a bit of a passion to inhabit different sites in very different ways, encouraging the audience to perceive and experience them afresh. As regards the large scale, I love the challenge of working on a piece with fifty dancers and then turning to a solo, for example. I am not a spectacle maker but I am interested in how to make large-scale work meaningful and intimate.

What is the thinking behind Common Dance?
Because Common Dance has been such a long time in the making in my mind, it has gone through many changes. Originally when I sat in the empty upper hall and felt its proportions I was reminded of a plain of land, a moor, or a common. (I’m an East Anglian so horizons and expanses are in my bones.) This space reminded me of a common and its history as a civic building where people have gathered for different purposes fed that connection. The common is where people shared space, met, grazed their livestock, it felt communally owned and used (whether or not in legal terms that was strictly correct). So sensing it as a place to gather and to roam and being aware that common ground has been eroded especially in urban settings (along with the right to gather) and is less valued now, I felt drawn to that idea as a foundation for exploring the piece.

Soon the idea of ‘commonality’ and what that might mean as well as ideas of folk dances and communal dance patterns began to occur. I am a believer in strong, diverse communities finding common ground where they can. For me, though it may sound naive, I do believe that dance has something to offer as an art form and a social form when finding something common to us as a species, if you like, that might just be able to cross quite big divides. I have found myself working with movement that seems to me to be known fundamentally almost unconsciously, swarming, flocking, scattering, opening, closing, flying, falling, planting. Then it struck me that these forms were in some senses natural forms of movement or patterning, ones we would observe in nature and in our bodies.

I struggle with labels or boxes and I know my work is sometimes called “community dance”, indeed I use that term myself when trying to describe what I do. However I also feel the term brings assumptions from different sections of the dance world that are not always helpful. In an ideal world I wouldn’t label any of my work differently whether it is for 50 dancers of all ages or three professionals. For me it is my next attempt at making something to share. Having said that, I think I have a need to create communities around a common endeavour and that’s what Common Dance is through its process. So it is a community dancing itself out for people. Watching groups of strangers come together to create something together that requires risk-taking, patience, trust, compromise, surrender and co-operation is profoundly humbling and affirming as it reminds me that humanity does have something to offer when I feel darkly about our collective failures (which is quite often these days). There are ways to move beyond the constraints of our daily lives, to move beyond the mediocre, the mundane, the media-led, the average, collectively as well as individually. It requires bravery from all of us to embark on such an enormous project with so little time. Travelling back from Greenwich late one night I spotted a quote that I think may have been one that Jeremy Deller selected for the tube, basically stating that being brave is about being free. That was reassuring.

Who/what are your influences and inspirations?
Heavens, I think it’s hard to know what has influenced you but I know who and what I admire and am inspired by. Rather endless I am afraid but here is a selection of them: poetry,lots of poets – Rilke, Donaghy for example; natural landscapes and wild places – coast lines and salt marshes, ancient English woodland, heathland; birds; whales; people who stand up against the tide; peaceful activists; naturalists and new nature writers such as Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane; the Arts and Crafts movement; music – all sorts, from Arvo Part, Riley, Bach, Bartok to Al Green, Sam Cook, Hungarian and English folk music; Graeme Miller’s theatre and installation work; Beckett; Improbable; the elephant that came through London streets; visual artists -early Renaissance Massacio, Piero della Francesca, Flemish masters Vermeer, and contemporary artists such as Cornelia Parker and Rachel Whiteread, Bill Viola and Anselm Keifer; dance artists – Doris Humphries, Kei Takei, Meredith Monk, Jonathan Burrows, Sue MacLennan, Siobhan Davies, Bock and Vincenzi, Simon Whitehead and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, for example.

You have commissioned a soundtrack from composer Terry Mann and you have written some of the libretto for this. Can you tell us a bit about the thinking behind this?
Terry Mann and I have not worked together before. We were brought together by the sudden death of a mutual friend, the poet Michael Donaghy. Michael had been about to embark on a collaboration with Terry when he died and my last conversation with Michael was about this. I met with Terry and felt that our mutual interests in folk music, choral work, classical music seemed to me too good to pass up. When the opportunity to create a work where I could use a choir without disturbing the work visually I thought of Terry.

The Finchley Music Group are a choir of young people who I have admired for many years. Their beautiful sound is really unique and Terry was inspired to write a score for those young voices. I asked if we could create something that incorporated a wandering English Piper and ambient sounds including birdsong of British rare birds. Last year I spent a good part of writing and compiling the lyrics, talking to the RSPB and meeting with Terry. I wanted to create a libretto that used various poets’ words from many cultures but that shared some common expression. The words trace, if you like, 24 hours from dawn to night or a life from birth to death. I have used words from the oral poetry of the Inuit and Pueblo to the wonderful work of W S Graham, R M Rilke, John Clare and Wendell Berry. The poets I approached were so generous and seemed excited by the project and I am immensely grateful to them.

What’s your favourite film/music/book?
I love Nature Cure by Richard Mabey, I have recently enjoyed the poetry of Kathleen Jamie.
My all-time favourite film is Wim Wenders Wings of Desire and films by Tarkovsky and the Cohen brothers.
In the theatre, I loved The New Electric Ballroom and The Walworth Farce plays by Enda Walsh, The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Adam Rapp’s Nocturne and the recent productions of A Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard at the Old Vic to name a few. For music, Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel is an all-time favourite.

If your life’s work wasn’t dance, what else would you have liked it to have been?
Visual artist, film maker, actress, singer, midwife, therapist for children, paramedic.

After Common Dance, what’s next for you?
Rest? I haven’t had a day off from Common Dance for some time and I wake up in the middle of the night singing lines from the piece. It fills my every waking hour and I love it so I think I will suffer an immense anticlimax. I hope to be able to carry on with a project called Weather Dances working with Nic Sandiland which is an interactive video installation and I would like to make a solo for myself after a gap of ten years just to see if I can cope – it may not be for public consumption. I would also like to work again with long-term colleague and close friend Simon Whitehead.

Rosemary Lee 'Common Dance' 29 Oct-1 Nov, gDA. Photo: Hugo Glendinning Common Dance
Greenwich Dance Agency, Borough Hall, Royal Hill, Greenwich SE10 8RE
Thu 29, Fri 30 October, 7.45pm. Sat 31 October 2009

Common Dance is co-commissioned and presented by Dance Umbrella & Greenwich Dance Agency in association with Arts Admin.

21 October 2009

A DVDOn Taking Care – which includes a full recording of Common Dances , with footage from rehearsals and interviews exploring the project is available from Arts Admin at £15

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