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Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Be nimble... Some reflections on accessibility
Fergus Early artistic director of Green Candle Dance Company, describes how his eclectic mix of form reaches new audiences
One day you're a working man
Full of pride
Then suddenly you're no-one
Shoved to one side

...sings Jack, the character I play in Jack Be Nimble, Green Candle Dance Company's latest show which this summer has been touring to older audiences in day centres and theatres in London and southern England.

It's almost as though
The light's gone out
And no-one can see you
You've got no clout

In a way, it's this song that carries the main thesis of the show. Jack is a candle-maker who is forced out of business by an unscrupulous landlord and, at the age of 70, persuades his daughter and her partner to join him in a mad enterprise to make a cabaret show for older people in residential homes. Jack's quest to accomplish something meaningful in the latter years of his life is one that is readily recognised and applauded by the older audiences the show plays to. It seems to me that invisibility, the feeling of being useless, is one of the gravest of the many oppressions faced by older people in our society.

And it is often here, looking at the specific oppressions faced by a particular group in society, that I choose to start investigation into what might be a suitable subject for a show for that group - this, for me, is often the point of access. Over the years, Green Candle has devised performances for a remarkable diversity of audiences in many different venues: older people in residential homes and day centres, young people in youth clubs, sick children in hospitals, children in schools, and many different audiences in theatres from the smallest to the main stage at Sadler's Wells. Each production has set itself the task of being accessible and relevant to its chosen audience and adaptable to the often wildly varied venues it will play in.

This quest for accessibility has resulted in some interesting hybrid forms. Almost by definition, our audiences are not, by and large, theatre or dance goers. Strict definitions of 'dance' or 'theatre' are meaningless to most of them, so we have evolved a mongrel form embracing dance, text and song that has become a defined style, identified with the company.

Similarly, the content of our productions is strongly influenced by the necessity to reach out to audiences and, as it were, grab them by the throat. Narrative is central to most of our shows, taking the role of a guide, a pathfinder to different and unfamiliar forms. I have always chosen to be intensely pragmatic in my use of media within performance. While seldom employing elaborate verbal constructions, I have never been shy of using words, spoken or recorded, where they are the most efficient or the most pungent medium for carrying forward the piece. I have also, over the years, developed a huge enjoyment in writing lyrics for songs. Jack Be Nimble contains quite a bit of dialogue and, in order to remove it from the risk of earnest naturalism, I wrote much of the speech in rhymed verse.

If I am truthful, the use of story is not purely a device to promote accessibility. I use story because I love story. My dance is almost always a part of theatre, and the age-old question of theatre - 'What happens next?' - continues to fascinate me. The mixture of media - dancing, acting, text, music, songs, visual arts - has always been common to much of the world's story telling: theatre forms with long and ancient traditions, from Kathakali to our own mumming plays have happily embraced these different forms of expression. As a young dancer and choreographer working with writer-director Peter Brinson and historian-choreographer Mary Skeaping in the Royal Ballet's Ballet for All company, I remember how our production The Twelfth Rose, a panoramic history of ballet, trumpeted the achievement of John Weaver in the early 18th century in producing the first 'ballet without words' - Mars and Venus. Today I wonder if this wasn't arguably a retrograde step, part of the compartmentalisation of our culture into discrete and sometimes mutually uncomprehending factions. Ironically, in this country we now start to talk with pride of new developments such as 'physical theatre' and 'dance with text' as if theatre had not always been a physically based form, rooted in performers' bodies, and dance had not always allowed itself fruitful relations with words.

One of the benefits that the divorce of dance and text, and, latterly dance and story may claim, is an extraordinary development in technique and virtuosity. In terms of accessibility, this may have been a mixed blessing: some developments certainly did arise from narrative needs, such as the use of pointe work in the Romantic era to convey the ethereal beings beloved by (male) poets, painters and choreographers. The whole of the Martha Graham 'technique' is, in my estimation, the poetic language developed by Graham to convey the psychological narratives of her theatrical work. This language contains technical innovation, it's true - specific discoveries in terms of weight, fall and recovery, new uses of the spine and so on, but the technique always struggled to find an application outside of Graham's own choreography and that of her (almost invariably inferior) imitators - so much so that only 40 years after its introduction to this country as the technique of modern dance, Graham technique has vanished from our stages and plays a very minor role in the curricula of most UK dance training institutions.

Ballet, on the other hand, and the hybrid Cunningham/Limon/Contact Improvisation/Release/Ballet that is the pidgin language of much contemporary Western dance, have spiralled off into dizzying flights of virtuosity, whether the limb-wrenching contortions of a late Macmillan pas de deux or the frenetic hyper-activity of much contemporary dance. My question here would be - is this form of virtuosity actually accessible, or is it obfuscating?

Virtuosity is fine and enjoyable, I think, if it is placed in a true emotional context. A crutch-splittingly high developpé, for instance, has dubious currency for me as a gesture of tender love, and six pirouettes do not hack it as a demonstration of fury, but either could serve very well as an expression of exuberant celebration. Indeed, I suspect that virtuosity and celebration are natural bedfellows and a circus-like display of tricks is a device understood and enjoyed by all.

In Jack Be Nimble, as in most of my work, I have chosen an extremely eclectic dance language. The show opens with an introductory dance that is also an engagement party for Jack's daughter, Becky and her husband-to-be, Bob. This scene is based around the rhyme Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick, which apparently derives from an old custom of couples jumping over a candle on their wedding or betrothal day. For Alberto Ramon, the composer, the rhyme dictated a 6/8 rhythm, and as this is probably the commonest rhythm of all in traditional English folk music, I chose to base the dance vocabulary around the 'foot-up', caper and hey of the English Morris dance. In the engagement duet I used mutual weight-bearing (leaning together) and counter-balance (supporting each other to fall apart) as an image of the mutual interdependence the couple were embarking upon. In the cabaret, I was able to indulge in tap, quaint acrobatics and music hall hat tricks - all dialects which our audiences could be expected to relate to, even if used sometimes unconventionally. In the dance which went along with the song I quote at the beginning of this article, expressing the frustration of an older person told to 'get out the frame' I used a more emotional dance language, underpinned with a slight jazziness suggested by the blues/reggae flavour of the accompanying music. These musical references, drawn upon by Ramon - a Colombian musician of mixed race - also set up points of contact for some of the many and diverse ethno-cultural groups who form a considerable part of our audiences in London and the South. I think the point is that I deliberately seek connections between our theatrical languages and audiences, whether it is because the language and vocabulary of the piece references something in the experience of audience members, or because of the accuracy of the emotional content in the production.

In many ways, this business of finding a true emotional journey for both the characters and the story, seems to me to be the key to a real, (not a superficial) accessibility. As choreographers, we will delight in playing with form, in clever invention and original expression, but unless we can place our work in a convincing and immediate emotional landscape, we are unlikely to reach out and touch audiences who come to the work for the first time.

Green Candle Dance Company can be contacted on 020 7793 7722 or by Email: info@greencandledance.com

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Animated: Summer 2004