Heather Eddington’s House on the Edge: blogging from the inside

Posted: February 7th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Heather Eddington: House on the Edge. First performance February 8, Jerwood DanceHouse, Dance East

photo: Chris Nash,  Design: Tom Partridge

photo: Chris Nash, Design: Tom Partridge

I have not been able to write about many performances so far this year as I have been working on a new production at Heather Eddington’s State of Flux in Ipswich. It is Heather’s House on the Edge, which has its first public outing this Friday, February 8 at Dance East’s Jerwood DanceHouse. In a recent telephone interview (it starts 49:33 into the broadcast) BBC Radio Suffolk’s Stephen Foster introduced me as the lead male dancer, which sounds rather grand; I am in fact the only male dancer and Ann Dickie, who plays my wife in House on the Edge, is the only female dancer. The third character is the actor, Pradeep Jey, who plays with great versatility both an envoy from the local council and nothing less than the sea itself.

Heather had asked me to add blogs on the creative process for her State of Flux site, where you can also see some photographs from a publicity shoot with Chris Nash and some of our own. Nearly all this material is copied from, or derives from that blog.

House on the Edge has its origin in the erosion of the Norfolk and Suffolk coastline that Heather knows well, and in particular the effects of erosion on the community of Happisburgh, What was once far from the edge of the cliffs is now closer to the edge, and what was once close to the edge is either in danger of falling or has already fallen into the sea. It is a very slow process where nothing appears to be changing until the invisible forces within the cliffs suddenly manifest. Heather’s narrative takes Happisburgh as a metaphor for living on the edge in a precarious balance between the physical (solid ground, security, responsibility, conventional wisdom) and the spiritual (the elements, the unknown, irresponsibility, intuition). Life is never either black or white, nor is this balance a matter of keeping to one side or the other. The elderly couple at the heart of House of the Edge — Edward, who has lived in the house all his married life and wants to stay and his wife Lucy who is torn between looking after her husband who has terminal cancer and accepting what the council calls managed retreat — are in a constant turmoil as to how to harness the elements that encroach on their precarious lives.

Much of House on the Edge is built up through the creative use of improvisation. The text by Anna Selby was sketched out during discussions and improvisation exercises last year. As a dancer, I had always preferred to be told what to do by a choreographer, but this new experience has been a revelation. My first improvisation was with Ann. It was a verbal improvisation in which her contribution was limited to one line, ‘We should leave’ and mine was limited to ‘We should stay’ and we had to continue until one of us conceded. I could not understand how this could possibly resolve, but it did. Since that first attempt, many of the qualities of our respective characters and of the relationship between us have been suggested through similar improvisations — some more successful than others — but each time there is something to learn. Verbal improvisation has led to physical improvisation to find external expressions of internal ideas. In the course of creating the work, some of these movement phrases have been reworked as set pieces and we go through an awkward phase of losing the spontaneity that improvisation gives until we find that spontaneity again in rehearsal and performance. Only recently did I realise that improvisation is at the heart of our entire social interaction; our goal in rehearsing is thus to return to this fundamental form of communication.

‘Here’s a poem. It is 18 lines long. Each line has between one and 10 words. Find a single movement or phrase for each line.’ This was my task one day, and I had the luxury of working in one of those beautiful studios at the Jerwood DanceHouse to complete it. A friend has cancer of the esophagus and thinking of her I found a phrase for the first line — ‘illness’ — quite quickly. ‘Eyes in the grass’ was another line I was able to translate, if rather literally. ‘Pouncing on you when you are relaxed’ was clear in my mind but I couldn’t find a way to do it physically. For ‘pushes you to a point of no return’, I had in mind something between a Martha Graham back release to the floor and an image of a sculpture by Ernst Neizvestny (from John Berger’s book, Art and Revolution). Others proved more difficult to approach: ‘us’ and ‘shapeshifting’ were two (‘bellyflop’ I didn’t attempt). By the time Heather came up to see how I was getting on, I had a repertoire to show her, though I was less than confident it would be of any use. She numbered each line and my corresponding movement phrase, making only one critical observation: I had to purge my phrases of anything from a previous choreography or style I had known. The Martha Graham release was out, but a little of Neisvestny left in. Then she said, ‘Put 1 and 3 together, then add on 6, then 4. ‘What have you got for ‘us’?’ I did the first thing that came into my head. ‘Great. Put it after 4. Repeat 1 from that position, then again kneeling. Add another 3, then a prolonged version of ‘shapeshifting’ into ‘moment of stillness’. She helped me find a way to ‘pounce’ and that was added on, followed by another ‘eyes in the grass’, ‘moment of stillness’ and ‘us’. Two variations of 1 (illness) rounded it off. While I had been working in the studio, Heather had been working in the theatre exploring material with Pradeep that she wanted to overlay on the Illness dance. The interaction between Edward and the Sea is a vital relationship in House on the Edge, and this weaving of the two characters became a key dramatic scene near the end of the piece. We ran the two together later in the afternoon.

Last Friday we ran the piece from beginning to end for the first time, in costume (by Sarah Beaton), working with the lighting and projections (by Magali Charrier with technical assistance from Ben at GaiaNova) and with various musical choices. Having worked on individual sections intensively for the past week (under the guidance of theatre director Laura Farnworth), it was difficult to maintain that intensity going through the junctions and intersections, but going from beginning to end with the occasional ‘where do I go now?’ gave us at least a physical and narrative arc on which we can work for the final week up to performance on February 8. We are beginning to inhabit the characters, to make them our own and that in turn informs our physical interactions. What remains is a process of further filling out of both character and movement, moulding all the elements together until they have a logic and arc — and a life — of their own.

Before starting the project I had not heard of Happisburgh and was not aware of this phenomenon of cliffs collapsing and houses falling into the sea. One of the first resources we dipped into was Richard Girling’s book, Sea Change: Britain’s coastal catastrophe, a good starting point. Last weekend I had a free day and decided to go to Happisburgh. Heather had already taken us to Dunwich to get a sense of the effects of coastal erosion, but most of mediaeval Dunwich is already well under the sea. Happisburgh is still a community of solid houses, a school, the Hill House Hotel, an operational lighthouse painted in bright bands of red and white, St. Mary’s Church and an Arts and Crafts era manor house. There is also a broad swathe of caravan park located between the village and the cliffs where at least one caravan stands perilously close to the edge. The cliffs are high and susceptible not only to the external battering of the sea but also to the internal buildup of groundwater. For now there are some sea defences in the form of rocks and wooden revetments, though the latter are in dire need of repair — or have they been abandoned? To counter the groundwater risk, drainage channels have been dug along the cliffs from which plastic tubes project at intervals to channel off the water. It is difficult to imagine the cliffs crumbling, but photographs and studies tell of the brutal reality. The edge of the coastline has been receding inexorably and unless human ingenuity and political will can together find a solution, this beautiful town may, like so much of the once-flourishing Dunwich, disappear under the sea. I fell in love with the place, as have many others before me, but I imagine it takes a certain stoic optimism and perseverance to live so close to a crumbling edge. Certainly my visit has given me images with which to work in preparing House on the Edge, and beyond that perhaps Heather’s work can draw more attention to the cause of preserving such beautiful towns and villages — and the lives and livelihoods of their residents — along the North Sea coast.


Dancing the Invisible

Posted: May 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Dancing the Invisible – Late Work at the Ivy Arts Centre, University of Surrey, with Jennifer Jackson, Susie Crow, Ann Dickie, Deborah Jones, Simon Rice

The stage at the Ivy Centre is bare, with seating arranged on three sides, and the two musicians and their array of electronic instruments taking up the fourth. Jennifer Jackson is the compere with words of welcome and orientation. Is this part of the performance? Simply and elegantly dressed, she looks as if she is about to cue the dancers to emerge from some dark edge of the performing space. But it is she who starts, initiating this dialogue into the transformative effect of ageing on dancers and its implications for choreographic practice. As Jackson writes in the program notes, “…opportunities for professional dance artists to sustain performance practice as they age, and for audiences to engage with repertoire that speaks to this experience, are still rare…” The trouble is that ballet dancers age so gracefully it is quite easy to forget this central focus of the research and to simply enjoy what Jackson and her colleagues perform. Perhaps this is the point. Watching Jackson’s introduction to the formal elements of the improvisation that will follow – the Signature section to Late work – it is immediately apparent that her classical ballet training is so deeply embodied in her that no advance in age can take it away. A fourth position of impeccable line and oppositional forces is a beautiful thing, and when Jackson finds this shape, in this intimate space, we are initiated into the essence of ballet without the historical context and trappings. That is another point worth remembering. Despite the years of accumulated training at the Royal Ballet, this loose collaborative of dancers will not be donning tights and tutus. As Jackson reminds us, “I am interested in…how dance might challenge the aesthetics of established dance performances.”

The musicians (Malcolm Atkins and Andrew Melvin) enter, playing spiritedly on melodicas, and Susie Crow follows them, like a small procession in a festive parade. Susie’s torso finds her own beautiful, subtle shapes, engaging the classical vocabulary in a fluid and understated way. Jackson and Crow are at ease in this performing space, filling it with their game of improvisation. Recognisable gestures – a raised arm pointing upwards, a framing of an angle with the hands – appear out of these shapes, as in a narrative. Late work is engagingly internal, addressing what is going on in the minds and bodies of the two dancers but there is also an external dimension, the mysterious domain of the dance that  transports us elsewhere. Behind their array of electronic equipment Melvin and Atkins are also intimately involved in what is happening, adding their own magic to that of the two dancers: four improvisers on a fluid theme.

The boots and shoes come off and are replaced by the ballet slipper. Aurora and the Queen, pale deconstructed eminences from the past, play before us. It is enough for Jackson to say “I am a princess” and for Crow to say, “I am a queen” for us to believe it and to enter into the play. A recorded voice reminds us that steps a dancer has learned are without meaning unless experienced within the context of a rhythmical whole. It is Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty choreographed by Samuel Becket. Jackson develops phrases from classical ballet: en dedans, en dehors. Taken apart, detached from a sequence, they nevertheless have a power of association. En arrière, backwards, into the past. Aurora has been here before. Jackson and Crow change roles, and Crow journeys through the body’s memory, bringing out courtly gestures, childlike longing, a trembling leg and arm. The two Auroras embrace, comfort each other, merge.

In the Pulse section, the music is off in all directions and the two dancers are sitting on chairs improvising a set of movements to different counts. This is the evidence, if any is needed, that the mind of an ageing dancer is not in decline. It is functioning at lightning memory speed until the game comes to a halt. This is where the men come in, or so it seems from the musical cue. But it is a section called Fragmentation, sung in disconnected syllables, with an accent on the second syllable. The movement vocabulary is fragmented too, breaking dance phrases into abstract fragments, what Crow calls ‘the merging of personal memory and disciplinary structures.’ In the Haiku section, brief phrases of movement and gesture suggest a poetic narrative, transferred from one dancer to the other. There is an element of contemplation here, eyes closed, a suggestion of an afternoon of a faun. It is this section that is perhaps the most tantalizing, because the relationship between the two dancers begins to acquire some context, a story that is about to find expression, a potential that is awaiting to find its form. The improvisation of movement and music fuses here most convincingly.

In the final section, Rhythm and Melody, Jackson and Crow are seated opposite each other. They begin with a basic port-de-bras and develop it in mirror image, sharing elements of the classical canon that are explored, extended and broken. Assemblé, développé, élancé are quoted though without relation to the seated movements. The two dancers slow down, as if lost in space, fingers searching, reaching across a divide in silence, watching each other, closing in, bending forward in a gentle but inevitable surrender to the pull of gravity.

Part 2, Dancing the Invisible, is set to the Bach’s cello suite no. 2 in D minor, played beautifully by Emily Burridge. The suite’s movements derive from the courtly dances of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet and Gigue. Jackson and Crow are joined by Ann Dickie, Deborah Jones and Simon Rice. The five dancers are seated in the audience. During the Prelude one dancer follows the weaving, courtly musical line across the stage to introduce another, until all five are on stage. The choreography is, like Late work, a collaborative venture with all the dancers, though here the improvisation has already happened and the choreography has by now acquired a set structure. The four women disperse once again to their seats leaving Simon Rice propping up the back wall at a rather desperate angle. Rice is the one male presence of the evening’s works, and he takes full advantage, playing the cock among the hens. Jackson chases him into the beginning of the Allemande, but once caught, Rice playfully makes her repeat movements as if in rehearsal. Rice then dances with Jones, commenting that the last time they danced together was 29 years ago at this very university in 1983. It is an anecdotal dance of old friends with a shared past. Crow expresses reticence in her solo, then Dickie and Jones join in a gestural conversation of searching hands and eyes. Dickie’s wrists and hands seem to begin a dance all by themselves, winding and interweaving, engaging her expressive arms and torso. Reminding us of the strains and stresses of a long stage career, the five dancers regroup in the centre to agonise and sympathise with their respective aches and pains. Jones is a shiatsu therapist, but this is not the moment. Each dancer has a signature movement that they express and develop in a final gigue-inspired game.

Dance is often described as ephemeral, but for the dancer it is anything but ephemeral. It is lodged in their muscles and the mind. Looking at these dancers, it is clear the dance has never left them, a vast resource that needed the gentle enticement of academic research for it to emerge into the light. And even if the dance doesn’t come out as a variation from Sleeping Beauty with full orchestra, the power of its associated elements is richly rewarding. The importance of age in this process is that it provides a greater reservoir of experience from which to bring these memories to the surface. Because all forms of memory are invisible, this is dancing the invisible, but the aspect we saw last night was manifestly visible. These are not older dancers strutting their stuff past their virtuosic prime – as some older dancers have been known to do – but offering us the rich territory of individual and shared dance experience.

Jackson herself affirms this in the final lines of her introduction in the printed program: “Does the dancing stop as the body ages? Clearly I think not…and it is a pleasure to share ways in which for us as ageing people the dance and music continue to provoke and promote life, well-being, communication and community.”

For more information on this research, please follow the website and blog:

www.surrey.ac.uk/dft/research/currentprojects/dancingtheinvisible

www.uniofsurreyblogs.org.uk/dancingtheinvisible

www.surrey.ac.uk/arts