Feature: If you go down to the park today, you're sure of a big surprise...
Visitors to Morden Hall Park in Merton this weekend may notice some surprising things taking place among the trees and meadow grasses. Land, a new site-specific project for 25 young dancers aged 11-24 and commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance in partnership with The National Trust and Candoco, will see the natural spaces of the park animated by moving bodies in a work that responds to both the wildlife and the architectural features of the park.
Dancers were recruited through Siobhan Davies Dance’s own Making Space network for young people, and from local schools and youth groups. Project participants have been working in the studio since March with three choreographers – Charlotte Spencer, Janine Harrington, and Vanessa Cook – and over the last five weeks have been working outdoors in the park itself.
“We were interested in giving them an experience where the making was about the place,” explains Associate Artist Janine Harrington. “Them in relation to the place and in relation to each other, as much as it is about the actual movement that we do.” Land’s movement material combines set phrases developed in the studio, responding to features of the park seen on maps such as treetops and roundabouts; and improvised sections where dancers trace parts of the environment with different surfaces of the body or tumble into the meadows.
“Something that started to happen on site in our breaks was the boys would just run,” continues Janine, “they’d just run and just tumble and just disappear in the grass, and have fun. And we noticed their response and that energy level, and we felt actually it was more honest than setting something and then asking them to replicate something we’d set in the studio. So now we have these wilder, tumbling disappearing sections which were their genuine responses to being here in this environment.”
Co-choreographer Vanessa Cook explains some of the particular challenges of working outdoors: “In a public space there’s no control over people coming into the space. That means that you’re being watched, that means you’re being ignored, or your space is being inhabited already.” Outdoor performances and rehearsals often mean a wide variety of people – and animals – in the park, and curious dogs have from time to time been an obstacle for the dancers. The British weather is another unpredictable factor – although rain has so far not stopped any rehearsals.
On the plus side, says Vanessa, “the sky is your ceiling. It’s amazing, there are these ever-changing cloud formations above you, there’s the leaves and the wind smushing you about. Feeling alive and weathered, this is an amazing thing – there’s little that beats being outdoors.”
Many of the young people involved came to the project through the Making Space initiative, which has been offering choreographic workshops at Siobhan Davies Dance for the last eighteen months. Lauren, a young dancer with Candoco, joined the project in March looking for a new dance experience:
“I’ve learned how to use more height energy, how to adapt from an inside environment to an outside environment. Using your environment, it changes the way you move so much, and I’ve enjoyed learning about different structures in dance.”
Others joined the project much more recently, after taking part in outreach workshops run by the group. “I joined because it was a new experience for me – working outside and with other people as well,” says Michael, a young dancer who came on board two weeks ago. “It felt very easy to slip in with everyone else, even though they were further into it than us, it seemed very easy to join in and feel involved,” he adds. “I’ve definitely enjoyed dancing outside and developing your body to different surroundings. It’s helpful to have that under your belt like you know you can do it when it comes up next time.”
Rehearsing in the park itself has been physically hard work for the young dancers as well, who are finding they use muscles that aren’t necessarily exercised in the studio or on the street. It’s clear they’re all enjoying being outdoors and in the waist-high grass, however. Working outdoors and without music has also inspired new approaches to choreography for many of the young people, who might not ordinarily think of making dance in response to natural features.
“Some sections are really intimate with the space,” says Janine. “The part that’s round the tree for example, we’re trying to find our way into this really solid form and integrate with it, but then spiral round it and tumble over each other.” Another section finds dancers lifting each other up in turn, as if trying to get up into the trees. “And then things just spontaneously happen outside,” adds Janine, “so we always had a vision that it would be about tumbling and quite wild.”
For some of the young dancers, this has been their first experience of working with disabled dancers; Vanessa feels the experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one. “There’s been a beautiful sense of working together. I think there have been some life changing shifts in individuals as they’ve worked in an integrated way with differences and for me, this is how powerful working together can be.” Watching the group rehearse together certainly brings out a genuine sense of unity within the group; movement passes from one dancer to another beneath the trees, and individual solos fuse into lovely choral moments.
Would the dancers recommend an outdoor project to other young people? Lauren definitely thinks so:
“I would say, be ready to get a bit muddy, a bit dirty and to put your hands in spider webs, but to take it in your stride and go for it! It’s really fun, it’s really enjoyable and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Land will be performed on Saturday 7 July at 1pm, 3pm and 4.30pm in Morden Hall Park, Merton, as part of Big Dance 2012.
Feature by Lise Smith