Interview: She loves it and she loves it...

Tuesday 28 July 2015 by Donald Hutera

Faith Prendergast, Karl Fargerlund-Brekke & Dan Whiley in Sweetshop Revolution's 'I loved you and I loved you'. Photo: ©Danilo Moroni

Although she can sometimes come across as a mite scatty, never underestimate the powers and possibilities of Sally Marie, reports Donald Hutera… It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call her one of the most impassioned, generous and determined people in British dance. ‘I’m not interested in money or status,’ Marie avows, quickly adding, ‘I’m interested in making extraordinary work,’ and you believe her.

As a performer and movement artists she’s worked with the likes of Jasmin Vardimon, Marisa von Stockert, Rosie Kay (for Duckie at the Barbican), Rajni Shah, Frauke Requardt and Joumana Mourad, as well as such envelope-pushing companies as Deja Donne, Graeae and Ridiculusmus. But it’s been in creative collaborations with Sean Tuan John and, latterly, Luca Silvestrini’s Protein Dance that she made her mark, picking up a few National Dance Award nominations en route to her current calling as a choreographer and the director of the dance-theatre company Sweetshop Revolution.

Marie is on a roll these days. In 2014 she received a career leg-up via the New Adventures Choreography Award (NACA), a prize meant to enable her to fund a producer for twelve months. She also was one of two winners of the Choreography for Children Award bestowed by Sadler’s Wells, Company of Angels and The Place in partnership with Moko Dance. And that’s not all. She was the only one out of eight or so applicants in the last round of project funding at Arts Council England to get a green light. That project is a heady, ambitious three-hander entitled I loved you and I loved you, which previews as a work-in-progress at The Place this week (Thu 30 July) prior to its official premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival on 23 August.

In a time of increased budget cuts for the arts, as well as general financial precariousness, Marie is amply aware of how lucky she is to have received all these opportunities. But then, as she says, ‘Making work is all my love and all my life.’ It’s just this sort of all-consuming dedication that characterises her modus operandi and makes Marie such a – sometimes, admittedly, breathless – force.

First things first: the show she’s working on. Co-produced with Coreo Cymru and Chapter in association with Galeri, Caernarfon and National Theatre Wales and supported by both Arts Council England and Wales, I loved you and I loved you is the result of a three-tier competitive process of research and development. This full-length work is based on the life, loves and music of the composer Morfydd Owen. Prolific but now unfairly undersung, she was born in the Welsh Valleys in 1891 and died under somewhat mysterious circumstances a few weeks shy of her 27th birthday. In this pivotal role Marie has cast the tiny but titanic Faith Prendergast. Playing the two key and highly contrasting men in her life are Dan Whiley as Ernest Jones, Freud’s biographer and the first English-speaking psychoanalyst, and Karl Fargerlund-Brekke as Elliot Crawshay-Williams, a British writer, army officer and Liberal Party politician who was private secretary to both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. The goal of Marie and her creative partner, the pianist Brian Ellsbury, is to honour the complicated lives of these fascinating and often contradictory people in a manner that’s immediate, coherent and dramatically engaging. The pair happily waded through some 200 pieces of Owen’s music to select what will be played – and sung – in the finished piece.

Last week I dropped by the studio where Marie, Ellsbury and the dancers were working on the performance. Ranging from tough-tender to delightfully playful, the movement the latter have generated under Marie’s close guidance looked both mercurial and dynamic. Much of it is intentionally character-driven. ‘A big part of this work is learning about our characters,’ Prendergast remarked during a break, later describing her embodiment of Owen as being at least partly predicated on notions of entrapment, freedom and creative innovation. Whiley echoed her, saying, ‘It can go the point where you’re allowing the character to decide [how you dance].’ All in all the tantalising bits and pieces of I loved you… that I watched very well may, when assembled into their final order, coalesce into an absorbing and – to use a word Marie herself is fond of – magical experience.

'I Loved You..' in rehearsal

One of the remarkable things about the production, even before it’s out of the gate, is that Marie booked the initial 19-venue UK tour herself over a five-month period. ‘I knew I was receiving public money,’ she says, ‘and wanted to reach the people who were paying for this piece.’ But there’s more to it than personal accountability, not to mention the time siphoned away from the artistic and intellectual demands of making a new work. Despite the NACA, Marie was unable to find someone willing and able to commit to her notions of what Sweetshop Revolution can be. ‘There are plenty of people who can project manage,’ she explains, ‘or who have a number of artists on their books, but no one who could step up to the vision I have for the company.’ As an increasingly high-profile artist in the sector, and one with several projects on the go, Marie can legitimately claim an awareness of the bigger picture. ‘Every person I meet tells me they’re looking for a producer. But being a freelance producer is ridiculously impossible at the moment because of funding cuts. If we’re going to have 40% cuts, we have to shift how we work and get our thinking linked up. It’s about becoming more connected and understanding of each other.’

Another significant outlet for Marie’s apparently boundless energy, and one that chimes in with her philosophical outlook, is the formation of the Sweetshop Tigers. This potentially far-reaching apprenticeship scheme is just finding it feet. It’s currently non-monetised, although eventually she’d like that to change. Her motive for starting it was when a young dance graduate asked to join Sweetshop Revolution. From this sprang a realisation that many others, fresh from tutelage in major institutions, were being sent out into the professional dance world possibly sans a proper support system or sufficient opportunities.

‘As a director I work twice as many hours as a dancer,’ Marie states, ‘but being a dancer is at least twice as hard as being a director or a producer.’ For those just entering the profession it’s not just the fees required for training, she elaborates, and the attendant living costs that can be so draining. ‘Once you’re out in the real world you can lose morale, or stop doing class. The idea behind the Tigers is to create, in a focused and deliberate manner, a sense of community so that they’re all looking out for each other and not so lonely. It’s also a step up into the profession.’

So how does it work? Out of the 140 dancers who attended an audition several hours long Marie selected nine core Tigers (only one of whom is male), with five more ‘on the bench’ in case any of the first tier secure a job or for any reason have to drop out of the team. ‘The people I’ve chosen are great physically, working in a lot of different styles, and they can all work with text. They were the one I felt were immediately ready to be onstage.’ She then contacted dozens of choreographers asking who’d be interested in having young dancers come into the studio. The response was gratifying. ‘The Tigers is a really personal way of connecting recent graduates with choreographers,’ Marie says, explaining that the latter can witness and even try out various styles and working methods, while the choreographers are exposed to new talent they might not have known about otherwise.

There’s much more, of course, including plans to develop a strand of workshops and performances in hospitals; career development via photographs, CVs and further training; applying to trusts and foundations for individual support; sessions on performance and life coaching (something Marie is qualified to do); securing free gym membership ‘on the premise that having fourteen beautiful dancers knocking about’ is good for any fitness establishment’s business; the creation of a magazine based in part on time spent with choreographers; and, as a bonus for all of those who auditioned to be a Tiger but didn’t make the final cut, a ‘buddy’ system whereby each one will be paired with a professional dancer for quarterly meetings.

For the moment it’s the seemingly tireless Marie who’s been managing and moving all of this forward, although ideally more of the responsibility will gradually be taken on by the Tigers themselves. She’s still seeking free studio space on Sundays for meetings and such which, with continued good luck and hard graft, she might just get. Because, let’s face it, Sally Marie is a determined woman.

I loved you and I loved you previews at The Place on Thu 30 July before a short season as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at Zoo (23 – 31 August) before touring the UK until January 2016.
Full tour dates & venues:
www.sweetshoprevolution.com

Donald Hutera is a long-time free-lance writer (The Times, People Dancing and more), curator (GOlive, Chelsea Arts Collective), dramaturg and workshop leader (English National Ballet’s Dance is the Word). Find him on Twitter: @donaldhutera

Photos: Danilo Moroni

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