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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
We who are still here
Animated, Summer 1999. There are few systems for the nurture of the mature dancer; there are few teachers who have an interest in fostering dancers as they mature beyond the simple athleticism of youth; there are few critics who can restrain their contempt for those who, as they might put it, inflict themselves on their audience. Fergus Early on the issues of moving in a territory without signposts
1966, Stratford upon Avon
Leonide Massine, in his 70s, a redundant hairnet ensnaring his thinning black hair, hobbled painfully down the stairs. First he would do his barrework, his muscles and joints following the ingrained patterns of 45 years, since Maestro Cecchetti had first laid out for him Monday's adage, Tuesday's rond de jambe. What he did might look a parody of the technique of the young dancers of the day, but his body and his mind needed these shapes, these repeated forms, needed their energy and their pulse. Later, in rehearsal, he would sit thinking darkly beneath his low eyebrows until with a cry of sheer frustration he would leap out of his seat into a ferocious rendering of the Can Can dancer from Le Boutique Fantasque, his hands flapping at the wrist, his head thrown back and precisely inclined, his feet, which had seemed so arthritic, prancing like a young dressage pony. Then the moment passed. He subsided like a spent sexual organ and age sank over him like an old blanket. Painfully he regained his chair. We had seen it though, that handsome Russian youth, filled with an almost diabolic energy, visiting us from the past, 40 years earlier, of the famous, fashionable, audacious Ballets Russes. It was no illusion, Diaghilev's young actor-dancer lover had been there with us.

1979 The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
At first it seemed like blasphemy. 'Martha', the queen of anti-ballet, to appear at the Royal Opera House! But as the red curtains swept up and aside and Copeland's airy prairie music for Appalachian Spring sung out over the vast expanses of the old stage and as the chorus of young girls with their formal sweetness and the preacher with his terrifying stiff-legged sexuality started to make their choreographed magic, it was soon clear that here was a fine match - a truly classical choreographer taking a truly classical stage. On the same bill, Graham herself in Acrobats of God. There she was - long slit skirt of her figure-hugging dress, black hair flattened back with its bun pierced by crossed skewers, ludicrous up-sweeping Cleopatra like make up all just as it should be. Forward she came, down below the proscenium to a place where, like a true comedian, she could 'work' her public. Behind her slaved the dancers, now halted by a single gesture, now waved into ever more absurd efforts by her, 'Martha', God-choreographer in charge of her menagerie of acrobats. An eyebrow raised was all she needed to make us complicit in her callously mischievous schemes. We giggled, we roared. She had us, too, in the palm of her hand. Effortlessly she commanded her dancers. Effortlessly she commanded her audience.

1992 Queen Elizabeth Hall
The young dancers in their body tights scatter, group, run off, run on, do important things in obscure corners and trivial things centre stage. Their technique is almost balletic, with just that slight skewing, that awkward angularity that is the hallmark of the old wizard of modern dance, Merce Cunningham. The choreographic form is satisfyingly unsatisfying. Never predictable, never derived from elsewhere. The dancers are immensely skilful, with an ability to change direction, to divert energy flow with a suddenness that is astonishing. Still something lacks; some spark that I remembered from earlier times. Then, unexpectedly (of course), a tall old man in a purple all-in-one leotard hobbles onto the stage. Someone has left a clothes horse on stage. The old man, feet recoiling gingerly from the floor as if the stage were covered in shards of glass, reaches the clothes horse. Ah, no! It is a portable barre. He clutches the barre, executing some steps, nimbly, in almost sprightly fashion. He lets go the barre and his hands do something that look like a madly accelerated martial arts exercise. The Curly hair is grey, the face more knobbly than ever, the feet tortured with arthritis, but a ripple runs through us in the audience. This man is performing. The other dancers, none even half his age, are dancing, dancing wonderfully, but he, 'Merce', is performing.

1996 A London Rehearsal Room
A woman in her 80s, spine, ribs, hips out of alignment, her hair white, her face alert and strong, pushes herself from her feet to standing, using the arms of her chair. She gives one hand, then the other to each of the two men standing beside her. She takes three steps diagonally forward, then three on the other diagonal. The steps are not evenly, spaced on the pulse of the Schubert impromptu, but deliberately asymmetrical. She uses the support of the men without acknowledging them. Her body twists and the arms, unexpectedly long, extend wide, hands still held by the men, whilst her head turns in opposition. It is an effort too much and her body subsides over the back of one of the men, one arm hanging loosely down in front. On another beat of the music her shoulder seems to dislocate and the arm drops a further nine inches. It is a supreme gesture of fatigue that only this body, in this position could achieve. Later, the woman walks to the front of the stage, still supported by the two men, and lets go of their hands; as the piano climaxes, she lifts her hands up in a conscious re-creation of Isadora Duncan's gesture during her rendering of the Marseillaise. The moment is balanced on a knife edge of tension - can she stand alone? Will she fall? The meaning of this moment is focused through the precise physicality of its performer. No younger dancer could achieve the moment, for it could never contain this doubt and therefore this triumph. Jane Dudley, dancing after a recent hip replacement and a knee operation is showing us the power and danger of pure gesture and consummate performance.

Four performers, different times, different contexts. But what is shared is that excitement, that encounter with the richness of experience, that sense of the power of performance, not diminished but enhanced by age. It is undeniable that these dancers and many others of many different disciplines can continue to deliver a profound experience to audiences and one which the dancer with less experience of life, art, dance, cannot equal. But we who are still here are moving in a territory without signposts. There are few systems for the nurture of the mature dancer; there are few teachers who have an interest in fostering dancers as they mature beyond the simple athleticism of youth; there are few critics who can restrain their contempt for those who, as they might put it, inflict themselves on their audience after their sell-by dates; there are few choreographers or artistic directors who seriously look at the potential of this massive resource of artists who have actually lived enough to have something meaningfuI to say.

And what is it like to inhabit the dancing body as it matures and changes? Athletic virtuosity may no longer be the aim, but a body still needs suppleness and strength, a heart still needs exercise. When I mounted Tales from the Citadel with my company, Green Candle, I assembled a cast of mature performers whose age ranged from their 40s to their 80s. In the course of devising the piece, we became so interested in each others' idiosyncratic warm-ups and training regimes that we introduced a 'warm-up section' into the production where we all simultaneously practised our warm-up exercises together on stage.

From this experience and from talking to many other dancers still practising their art at an age which defies the (absurd) conventions of the dance world, I have come across a great variety of solutions to the problem of our continuing need for a physical discipline. Some, like Massine, carry on with what they have always done, a ballet barre still serving their needs long after the time when dancing the classical repertoire has ceased to be a reality. Steve Paxton claims his main training is to labour on his farm, doing everything, as he says, "like a Chinese peasant", using virtually no labour-saving devices. Others practice Yoga, T'ai Chi, Aikido and Capoeira. Personally, when not in rehearsal or performance, I run, swim, stretch and sometimes use a gym. I find it a problem that there are very few dance classes I would willingly attend. As younger dancers, we all submit to an incredible mixture of good and less good teachers, of styles and techniques that are at best approximate to and at worst in complete opposition to what we perceive as our needs. It is peculiarly a dancer's dilemma. In other disciplines it is different. The singer finds him or herself a teacher and works with that teacher on a one-to-one basis, sometimes for years, in rather the same way that most athletes do with their coaches. In dance, this kind of coaching is limited to the big ballet companies, if it is available at all, and by definition does not apply to the more mature dancer.

But then, I suppose we are mostly loners in our physical practice. Life brings so many more and different demands to us as we grow older - children, elderly relatives, mortgages, friends making messes of their lives, ourselves making messes of our lives - that we have to find ways to slot our physical training into the complex jigsaw that we live, and we know that this is not just a short burst for a few years, to catch some imagined peak of physical prowess, but an ongoing life process, inescapable, perhaps to the grave. My osteopath has told me that I must exercise every day of my life if l am not to succumb to serious injury. Our bodies are exercise junkies - once hooked they need their fix for ever more.

So it is no surprise if we devise our own, extremely personal regimes to fit our physical, emotional and practical needs. Our privilege is that we have such regimes at all. Research shows more and more conclusively that an essential factor in preserving health into late old age is regular exercise comprised of the sacred trinity of stamina, flexibility and strength. We can potentially lengthen both our artistic and our physical lives at one and the same time. Roll on the third millennium.

Fergus Early, Artistic Director, Green Candle Dance Company. Contact +44 (0)20 7359 8776.

Merce Cunningham, 50 years, by David Vaughn. Available in bookshops: ISBN 0893818631

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001