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Rosemary Lee's Common Dance shared (with love)
Date posted: 17 July 2020
Since the 1970s, director, choreographer and performer Rosemary Lee has created projects that revolve around the idea of building relationships and bringing communities together. Here she reflects upon what led her to share Common Dance again in 2020.
Common Dance by Rosemary Lee.  Photo: Simon Weir

Common Dance was created for and performed in the Upper Hall in the Borough Hall- the former home of Greenwich Dance, as part of Dance Umbrella, London, 2009. Conceived and directed by choreographer Rosemary Lee, it involves an intergenerational cast of 50 performers and a choir of 50 children and young people - Finchley Music Group - performing the specially commissioned music of Terry Mann. 

Rosemary is currently sharing a film of Common Dance made with Roswitha Chesher on YouTube extended until August 3rd. The film is shot over several performances and created to give the viewer an experience of what it might have been like to be in the audience.

"So much can come and much can go, and yet abide the world.” line from There Came a Wind Like a Bugle by Emily Dickinson.

Recently I was invited to speak to some students and colleagues about my motivation in making Common Dance and in sharing it now, and also to try to address what these students were facing amidst all this uncertainty at the start of their careers.

I thought about how helpful it can be in times of turmoil to hold on to what matters to you, what gives you purpose, what you trust. That isn't as easy as it sounds. How frightening it might be to find your relationship to the heart of your practice has changed or you can’t find it despite how hard you are digging. That balance of how much to challenge yourself to re evaluate and how much to unquestioningly hold on tight to what you think you know seems a very present dilemma in these troubling times. Nevertheless trying to discover or rediscover and examine what you hold dear and metaphorically give it a quick polish, provides at least some clarity to help us navigate the unknown.

In reflecting on both what matters to me and on Common Dance, I found a favourite word repeating itself to me.  It is in the lyrics I collated for the choral work sung in Common Dance (composed by Terry Mann), and it's the opening of the hymn most likely to make me cry – Abide. “Abiding, we are abiding” they sing as the audience leaves the space.  Abiding suggests to me an enduring sense of being at home and literally can be used to mean an imperishable truth.

Common Dance, made in my fiftieth year, was a challenge to myself.  I have tried to throw down a gauntlet to myself every decade since I was thirty, usually it requires me to get back on stage as a performer in some capacity but on this occasion it was to return to large-scale ambitious group work after ten years break. Inspired by sitting in the Upper Hall in Greenwich Borough Hall ( the historic and atmospheric former home of Greenwich Dance)  at the invitation of Brendan Keaney, I found the great expanse of pale floor and the high ceiling and strong light reminding me of the sense on being on flat heathland or common land where all around you the land meets the sky.  I dreamt of gathering together 50 dancers of all ages to share and abide in this metaphorical common space.  I wanted to investigate what the commons and commonality might mean, and how possible it was to give each cast member a sense of abiding there.  What, if anything, did these 50 individuals share in common?

It is dangerous to suggest that any of us can ever possibly know if we share anything in common, all I can do is share with you my personal experience of investigating that notion. What I sensed we shared was our breath, our beating hearts, our differences, our aliveness, our mortality, how much we know what listening is and what it isn’t, what melting, evaporating, rising is, falling, touching supporting, cooperating, filling, emptying, abandonment, momentum, force, delicacy, tenderness, caring, holding on, letting go, giving, receiving… There was a common tacit knowing of these qualities. I saw and felt them in their bodies, in their interactions and in their presence individually and collectively.

I often say that dance is a state of mind but recently I have also been wondering if what I am really interested in is illustrating behavior. We are social creatures who are affected by those around us, we learn through proximity and proprioception. What the common dancers shared was not just a way of moving, it was a way of interacting together, being together, a kind of unspoken shared behavior.

So these thoughts abide with me, they help me feel a little less rudderless as I reflect on ways to approach and act on the enormous and seemingly insurmountable challenges we face.

All photographs: Common Dance by Rosemary Lee.  Photographer: Simon Weir