Sunday, 14 April 2013

Reflections from time with Full House Theatre Company (UK) and Aracaladanza (Spain)

In preparation for my Dancing in Museums project, I spent some time with UK-based Full House Theatre Company (directors Harriet Hardie and Ben Miles) at the end of 2012 and with Spanish company Aracaladanza (choreographer: Enrique Cabrera) at the end of January 2013. I am extremely grateful to both companies for being so welcoming - it was invaluable for me to spend time observing Full House's rehearsals for Rapunzel and Aracaladanza's rehearsals for Constelaciones.

Here are a few of the main observations I made during my time with these companies:

Full House Theatre Company
Rapunzel, Full House Theatre Company
What really impressed me during my time with Full House was the attention they gave to establishing and then maintaining the group dynamic between performers Grace, Sue, Ewan and Ben. Also, I joined them for the first time during an R&D period before they went into full-time rehearsal, a time for them to explore ideas without focusing on product. It was clear to me that although their take on Rapunzel was very entertaining, charming and funny, a story shared between a group of rabbits and another group of women from the local WI, they approached it with as much rigour and commitment as any other devising process. It seems obvious to say this, but I think it's important to remember that although the content may be different when creating work for young people, they will immediately see through something if it doesn't have integrity. This has become very apparent during our R&D for Dancing in Museums, during which the children with whom we've worked have had a never-ending flow of questions for us about what we're doing and why.

A few other observations from my time with Full House:

Music and use of voice
Listening to the company working with musical director Christopher Ash, I became acutely aware of the impact rhythm, tone, pace, volume and quality of voice can have on the quality and atmosphere of a story. e.g. the suspension of a cadence can open out a sound, and therefore highlight a specific moment - this is similar to how I might use suspension within a movement phrase, and it is important to give attention to vocal choices in the same way.

Knowing when to set things in rehearsal, and, once something had been set, knowing how to keep it fresh
There are alway ways to continuing challenging yourself (as a choreographer, as a dancer) to move beyond what you think you know/how you would usually respond and to try to achieve something unexpected and different. It is important to continue trying new things, even as material begins to take shape, and in the Dancing in Museums project we will have the opportunity to allow the choreography to shift in response to the input of the live audience.

Direct link with the audience
In Full House's version of Rapunzel, the rabbits communicate directly with the audience; they break down the 4th wall between audience and stage immediately by entering through the auditorium; they throw objects out into the audience and encourage them to throw them back so they can play a game together; they talk them through the story and show them that it's alright to be scared, happy or sad; they make friends with them; they conspire with them; they respond to their suggestions. I've also seen this device used since then to great effect by Kneehigh, in their production of Midnight's Pumpkin, and we've begun developing it for Dancing in Museums, as you can see in our workshop video at (from about 3.45). Our narrator-characters will act as guides for the audience, and will develop a rapport with them, also adopting different characteristics i.e. one will tell the children what not to do, and the other will invite them to do exactly the opposite. They will carry the story throughout the whole piece, although they may do so in different ways e.g. through live or recorded delivery of text, or by giving instructions on pieces of paper.

High energy sections are important in sustaining the audience's attention, although range of dynamic is also important.

Simple things are very often most effective. For example, I noticed that with only small costume 'signals' the performers, who were sharing many roles, could completely change their character.

Constelaciones; Aracaladanza
Enrique believes very strongly that his work should not be patronising: he does not need to 'explain' everything to his younger audience, and (similarly to Full House) he approaches a new production with the same rigour he would employ when making a work for any audience.

During the time I spent researching my Dancing in Museums project in March 2013, it became apparent to me that I could positively impact on the children's engagement with the world of the work through interactive performance elements and pre-/post-show workshop opportunities. However, for Enrique this workshop activity is completely separate to the performance experience; he doesn't feel that he needs to offer this kind of opportunity because the work should speak for itself. It's a sentiment that I understand, and I'm eager to challenge the focus of my target audience and their engagement with abstract as well as descriptive starting points. But I've also seen the way in which children's responses can develop if they are encouraged to feel physically and imaginatively involved in the performance, and I think it's possible to do this without it feeling separate from the rest of the piece. It's important to be mindful of this balance between effectively guiding an audience in how to watch something and allowing them the space and time to see what they want to see.

Some things I noted when observing company rehearsals: 

Play with the unexpected (concealing/revealing): Enrique works a lot with scale, and his choreographic work with props of different sizes is often associated with an element of surprise, which comes about through an interplay of concealing/revealing and the construction of illusions. So, for example, small objects appear from inside larger objects (and there are more and more of them until you can't believe so many small things could be packed into the larger object), or when even larger objects are introduced onto the stage, the dancers' bodies disappear completely, and they are caught up in the movement of the large balls of wool or pieces of fabric.

All of the props also function as elements of the set, 'setting' different scenes inspired by different paintings in the case of Constelaciones (based on the work of Joan Miro). None of those set-elements are static - they can all be manipulated as part of the choreography. And there's a sense of intrigue at the introduction of each new object, because of the way it is unveiled. It's pertinent to remember this sense of something special, precious, mesmerising, magical as we introduce each new museum artefact in the Dancing in Museums piece.

Strong visual images: Enrique's use of props contributes to the creation of strong visual images, and all of the elements of the production come together with equal importance to create those images i.e. music, movement, design, including costume are all given equal time and attention in the rehearsal process, and all of the elements are connected, either by colour, shape, material, texture for example. Enrique uses the elements to 'show the way' from one section of the piece to the next. So large pods of black fabric filled with coloured scarves relate back to the small bean-bag pebbles that created a long bridge across the stage in the previous section. I enjoyed this sense of accumulation and cross-referencing and think there'll be lots of ways to connect sections together in the Dancing in Museums piece.

Rhythmic clarity: Enrique's work is very musical, and the quality of a particular section is conveyed strongly through the music and specifically its rhythm (as well as the rhythm of the movement). In the section of the work that the company were rehearsing when I was with them, not a single count of music was unaccounted for, and partly this is because this was the finale, and required a sensation of escalation, building energy. However, this was also generally the case throughout the movement vocabulary I saw - Enrique doesn't leave a single moment to chance; the work is highly polished, very efficient in its delivery and every detail is very specifically matched to the music. This means that Enrique is able to make changes in rhythm or quality of movement very deliberately, and this can serve the same purpose as his use of different sizes of objects and illusion i.e. it can help him to play with the audience's expectations, as well as contributing to characterisation e.g. a sudden shift in rhythm and focus conveys the dancer's mischievousness or playfulness

There is much for me to learn from the precision of Enrique's work, and his methods of rehearsing that work. However, stylistically I find myself also drawn to things that are less calculated or controlled, as well as those more tightly choreographed sections. My work tends to work towards and away from the music more than Enrique's, and Max (MBKG friend and composer) creates sound-scapes that are sometimes very broad and atmospheric, sometimes with a driving pulse or a particular rhythm. I saw through observation of Aracaladanza that there is a place in our Dancing in Museums piece for rhythmic precision and regularity, possibly as part of a returning chorus (the 'narrator sections') which signals the resolution of one idea and moves on to the next, also perhaps accumulating parts of each idea as the piece goes on. The audience could join in with parts of this chorus, guided by the narrators, and the chorus could also be marked by a returning song. This reminds me of what Nikki Smedley says about the importance of rhyme, rhythm and repetition when working with children and young people in her recent TED talk:

However, our March R&D has also shown that there's scope for more rhythmic irregularity in our museums piece or a different kind of rhythm to Enrique's work (and by that I don't mean that it won't be clear, just that the movement won't always be governed by a regular pulse), and perhaps improvisation alongside set material. I'm reminded that in my blog post from the 9th March I noted that the young people with whom I was working engaged with "objects that they perceived to be ‘weird, slimy, crooked, jagged, distorted’" more than those that were 'beautiful' or perfectly formed. There's a great capacity for strange-ness in the museum environment, and I think that doesn't necessarily come across through order and unison.

Different elements of our Dancing in Museum piece, or different stimulus artefacts will require different kinds of rhythm, different kinds of movement - there is a need for contrast throughout the whole piece. As we discovered during our March R&D it can be challenging to draw the audience's focus back towards something very quiet and detailed after they have been energised by something more raucous and playful; but it can be done, and this is significant in terms of maintaining the audience's interest/focus over a long period of time.  

Physicality: Enrique's movement vocabulary is energetic and full-bodied. His dancers often work in response to the shape or behaviour of one of the props, or create movement that corresponds closely with the music. I was aware that I create movement in a very different way to Enrique, but I was inspired by the physicality of his dancers. I was also inspired by their use of focus. Through plenty of looking out towards the audience, the dancers signal to the young people watching that this is for them, that they are part of the game, part of the joke, or that this is their shared secret.

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