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Animated Edition - Autumn 2004
If you go down to the beach today...
On a June day in 2004 over 2,000 people witnessed and 700 performers took part in an extraordinary and ambitious performance on a North Cornwall beach. Kevin Isaacs tells us about The Road To The Beach
Think about this for a moment.... You are offered a unique space in Britain in which to realise an artistic vision that will be nothing short of monumental in its scale. You would be working with an inspired and enthusiastic team of professional artists and would also involve and engage all sorts of people from the local community in a project that, if it came off, would have people talking for months, if not years. And to cap it all, it gives you the chance to work in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and make something that is totally individual, the absolute ultimate when it comes to site-specific, and the theme is something that you've held close to your heart for many a long year.

Sounds perfect? Well, it could be, but here's the rub: the venue? Well, it's a huge beach in Cornwall that's notoriously tidal. OK, so it's in summer, but we all know what that means in Britain - especially this year. And this monumental piece of work all has to be set up, has to be technically sound, performed, and the audience transported en masse through a magical world and then safely moved out of the performing space, all before the tide rushes in. This was the challenge that faced Motionhouse Dance Theatre's Artistic Director, Kevin Finnan, this summer. Fazed? Not for a second. Terrified? Well, yes, just a little bit. Do-able? You bet.

We're talking about The Road To The Beach, an 18-month collaboration between Motionhouse and The Works; Dance and Theatre Cornwall, the dance development agency for Cornwall, and Creative Partnerships Cornwall together with Watergate Bay's Extreme Academy. The climax of the year-long creative process was The Edge, a phenomenal large-scale site-specific production incorporating dance, visual installations, and extreme sports. Staged, if you can call it that, on the beach at Watergate Bay, near Newquay, in June 2004.

The Road To The Beach involved local schoolchildren and adult community groups, as well as local Cornish-based artists and sportspeople. In essence, then, it could be described as a community project, but this was no ordinary community project. Its sheer scale and audacity of ambition were testament to that. So how did it all come about?

The idea was first mooted back in November 2002, when Motionhouse were performing Volatile at The Hall For Cornwall in Truro. Relaxing over a beer after the show, Kevin Finnan and Anthony Waller, Director of The Works, got to talking about 'What if's...?' revealing the sort of ideas and dreams that they would individually love to achieve. Finnan had wanted to do a show on a beach for some time: exploring different spaces, and what it is that transforms them into performance spaces, is something that is at the heart of his work, both independently, and with Motionhouse. Waller felt that he had the perfect place: Watergate, right on the doorstep, and it would also enable him to realise a personal ambition; to bring together a large number of local people, artists and groups within a locally made and staged site-specific performance that could exploit the natural beauty and landscape of Cornwall. It was this shared ambition, and a passionate vision, that set the foundations for the Road To The Beach.

Three months later, furnished with more ideas of how it might all come together, Finnan returned to Cornwall with Louise Richards, Executive Director of Motionhouse, to meet again with Waller, who by now had begun to bring together a team of people whom he felt might be able to turn the vision into a reality. Amongst these were Creative Partnerships (Director, Lindsey Hall), an organisation new to Cornwall, and The Extreme Academy (Director, Henry Ashworth). It would very soon become evident that the delivery of the project would rely heavily on the organisational and management skills of The Works. The co-ordination in itself was to prove enormously complex, and the levels of planning and fund raising effort needed to make it happen in Cornwall would be testament to the skills and dedication both of The Works, and Creative Partnerships. The Road To The Beach was very much a partnership project in every sense.

Crucially, the new partners also had goals and ambitions that were closely aligned to those of Motionhouse and The Works. In the case of The Extreme Academy, it was that they wanted very much to open up the beach at Watergate Bay in a way that would make people look at it in a totally different way, and, of course, add elements of excitement and surprise. This was incredibly close to both Finnan's and Motionhouse's objectives, so the signs were good. At this point the parties began to really thrash ideas around, and sort out roles. It was this slicing up of responsibility that would ensure the success of the project. Motionhouse took the creative lead, with Kevin Finnan already starting to flesh out the vision he had based on the realities of the beach itself. The Works' role was to pull everything together locally on the ground, since it would be impossible for Motionhouse to be in Cornwall for the vital months of planning. In addition, The Works took responsibility for targeting key groups with whom they wished to work, and within this they pursued a number of individual strategies. For example, recruiting a large group of boys between the ages of 8 and 18 - a difficult group to target for a dance project, but one which was achieved with clear success resulting in a large group of over 80 boys taking part. Creative Partnerships, of course, were crucial for sourcing funding, whilst The Extreme Academy had invaluable knowledge about the beach itself - its personality, tides, weather patterns, and physical possibilities.

Finnan next started to talk to local performance artists and the school and community groups who would become part of the project, and, more importantly, bring something individual to it. This highlights a key reason why Motionhouse are able to deliver community projects that are far from ordinary: the company always play to the strengths of the individual, allowing each and every performer to bring his or her talents to the project, but then stretching and challenging them, introducing new vocabulary to them and placing their own dance vocabulary into a new context. It is something that runs through all of their work, whether it is working with a small group of under 7's from a local school, an integrated group of adults, or experienced dancers.

It is also central to Motionhouse's work that the company, without exception, will endeavour to maintain the same standards in performance as they do with all of their professional performances, regardless of who the group are.

With groups and artists recruited, and the hard work of developing the piece underway, a final performance date had to be decided, and once again this fell to The Extreme Academy, who considered both the tidal flows, and what other activities were going on at the bay throughout the summer.

The next stage happened in June 2003, when Finnan took one of the Motionhouse dancers down to Cornwall for an R & D week. Together they toured schools, and talked to the children about the beach, and what it meant to them. You might think that in a county like Cornwall, surrounded on three sides by the sea, and where nowhere is more than 25 miles from the coast, that the beach would play a huge part in local children's lives, but surprisingly, this was not so. Motionhouse came across children who had never visited the beach - it simply wasn't part of their lives at all. The project title - The Road To The Beach, was central to this concept. Finnan wanted to construct both an emotional and a physical link with the beach for those taking part. Many of the ideas that the children came up with at this stage; pirates, sandcastles, mermaids, actually became major scenes within the final performance of The Edge.

At the end of the R&D week, Finnan had some 14 or 15 scenes for the show, combining the children's responses with his own artistic response to the site, and the elemental aspects of the beach itself. As Finnan explains, "The vision that I had for the piece was in place well before the artists came into the project. I work very visually, but amazingly, the final show ended up almost exactly as I had envisaged it. Anthony Waller and his team at The Works, however, had the onerous task of pulling together all the elements to make it happen - and that included the funding"

With the glorious summer of 2003 receding, Motionhouse were once again in Cornwall for the first 'Inspiration week'. As well as running workshops in the participating schools, Motionhouse took their production of Volatile to two Creative Partnerships schools, to which pupils from several other schools were also bussed in to watch. This gave the children a unique opportunity to see physical dance theatre first hand, and also engage with the dancers themselves for the first time. By this stage everyone felt involved enough to begin to build their contribution, and Finnan now started to divide up his storyboard into workable chunks, working out which group might work on which scenes. There simply wasn't enough time to work on the whole piece with all of the groups together. In fact, the groups and individual scenes were never performed together until the final performance - even the one dress rehearsal was rained off - oh, the dismal summer weather!

Development work continued apace over the winter, and culminated in three more week-long creative residencies in Cornwall in March and April 2004, when the scenes really began to take shape. During this time the individual schools each worked on their sections while the Motionhouse company teamed up with C-Scape, a Cornwall-based dance group. Each of the five Motionhouse dancers took responsibility for four groups, with whom they worked closely, and each of them worked on specific dance sections.

In parallel to this, a team of visual artists brought together by Anthony Waller worked alongside local schools on the visual images - the props, costumes, installation pieces and so on, really building on the community involvement. The artists: Amanda Lorens, Tino Rawnsley, Billy Wynter, John Keys and Caroline Cleeve, were responsible for delivering all of the installations and leading the groups in the making processes.

In late May 2004, Motionhouse embarked on a final six week residency, building momentum in rehearsal, whilst at the same time the various parts of 'The Edge Company' - Motionhouse, C-Scape and the Cornwall-based performance artists, worked on the beach at Watergate. Gradually the jigsaw was coming together.

This major task, envisaged a year before, was almost there - against much of the received wisdom and with odds fairly heavily stacked against it. Some of the most spectacular elements of The Edge, such as the Digger Dance, which involved huge JCB's, had very little rehearsal - the dancers had only four or five sessions with the Diggers. Fundamentally, though, and remembering Motionhouse's policy of focusing on an individuals strengths, the JCB drivers knew their machines inside out, and what they were capable of. The fact that neither they nor the machines had ever danced before was immaterial. Using their respective strengths and talents, the whole could be truly amazing.

It wasn't until the final week that the entire company got together. And not until the first performance did the show actually get a complete run through. But the result on June 25th was nothing short of awesome. An audience of over 2,000 people were led across the beach during the course of the performance, in what must rank as one of the largest promenade pieces ever. Some 700 performers took part.

So what can we learn from the success of this project? Kevin Finnan is in no doubt that it worked for four main reasons:

  • the commitment and passion of the main partners involved in the project, and the complementary task sharing which worked to each of their strengths and individual objectives
  • the bay itself - the show could have been made for nowhere else. It was totally site specific, and used every aspect of the surrounding landscape - both real and perceived
  • the dedication and unerring spirit of the cast in their entirety. Playing to their strengths, making the show's site specific elements also very heavily 'performer specific'. As Finnan states "Basically, my vision for Watergate Bay was realized by a cast of performers, they just happened to be largely from the community, but the standards that were demanded, and achieved, were those that one would expect from a professional company. There were no compromises"
  • the enormous skill of the technical team, led by Motionhouse's Pete Herbert, in putting together some 15 scenes over two hours across the beach so that from the audiences perspective, amazing things just appeared and disappeared seamlessly as they moved through the performance. The technical audacity of making 150 human sized windmills appear from nowhere, and then be replaced at the next moment by grumpy heads buried in the sand, and the building of giant sandcastles, not to mention the incredible sight of the JCB finale, almost defies belief!

When you consider, too, that the initial budget planned for The Road To The Beach to succeed was a realistic £200,000, and the actual funding achieved was less than half of that - £90,000, the results are even more laudable. Funding is always a tough issue, but it is hoped that The Road To The Beach may have proved something for future projects.

Essentially, Motionhouse and The Works were able to pull then the project off because they had total belief in everyone involved. Site-specific community work, and delving deeply into the exploration of where to place work, is central to the company's vision. As Louise Richards says "Motionhouse is committed to communicating with its audiences in all senses. Everything we do has to connect with the audience - to talk to them. Its something we've done many times in the past, with projects like Seismic Shift and The Big House back in Leamington Spa, although never before on this scale. We knew that it had to be accessible, but also challenging to the different groups involved, both to fully engage and involve the performers, and to get that 'Wow factor' from the audience. Yes, it was scary, and there were times when we wondered whether or not we had bitten off more than we could chew, but ultimately it has been hugely satisfying, because absolutely everybody gave his or her all. It took us well beyond our comfort zone, yet we've proved that we can make community projects work on a very very large scale."

"There's a great potency to work that is specific to where its made and performed" says Kevin Finnan " We worked with large numbers of people from the local community and mixed local images with the views of outsiders to create an event which was unique. As a result, I think it allowed us to create something warm that related very directly to the audience."

For Finnan, it realised some personal dreams, and explored themes close to his heart: "The Road To The Beach and The Edge made me think about the nature of our existence from evolution though to where we are now. That's why the JCB machine dance at the end was significant - we've moved from birth to growth, to awareness of the body, and now to the spectre of the body augmented by machines. Watergate Bay with all its intrinsic geography, heritage and spirit, was the perfect place to take this journey. I can't wait to see where my next one will take me..."

Kevin Isaacs is Marketing Consultant for Motionhouse Dance Theatre. See www.motionhouse.co.uk for contacts and more information.

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Animated: Autumn 2004