How do you craft performance for a paying audience when you can’t simply use technique to dazzle them?
How do you draw attention to the beauty in the ordinary, and make us marvel at the very variety contained within the human species?
I don’t know, but I know a woman who does.
Janice Parker is an independent dance artist and choreographer based in Edinburgh Scotland who has been creating dance pieces with a wide range of performers for many years– working with just about anyone who has a passion for movement and a desire to communicate. Trained dancers, learning disabled housemates, attendees at a day care facility for those experiencing alzhemiers… Janice doesn’t see the labels, but instead has an uncanny ability to see an individual’s own unique movement potential and then to construct a frame than enables an audience to see it too.
She’s currently constructing Glory for Tramway one, with collaborator Richard Layzell. In Glory, people “of all ages and abilities and from all walks of life, will collaborate to create a large-scale immersive dance event that celebrates the city’s rich Commonwealth community and Glasgow 2014… Glory is a celebration of who can dance and of what dance can be.”
It’s a big ask, and possibly her most ambitious piece to date. Hence weekend rehearsals with a group of 40, split into a morning group and an afternoon group to offer choice and flexibility – good job too, as the rehearsal space is smaller than their eventual performance space, perhaps too small to take them all simultaneously. The group will only fully meet in the few days before the performances themselves.
I say ‘a group’ – but you’d be hard pressed to find another that was less ‘group’ like. In the same way a net is simply a collection of holes held together by string, the Glory cast is a collection of individuals held together by Janice’s vision and belief in the results of this way of working.
I look around the room. Different ages, genders, race, faiths, some with disabilities, some not and some where you just don’t know. Some dancers, a couple of grandmothers and I just met a woman who is currently applying for asylum to remain in Glasgow. She could be sent away from the UK at any time and wonders if Janice could write to the Home Office to help. There is another using a chair – because of a hidden disability, she finds long periods of standing tiring. And another who had to bring her neighbour’s children with her to rehearsal as the neighbour’s been taken into hospital and they don’t know when she’ll be back.
The room is rich. Not in the ‘tickbox’ model of diversity where you count skin colour, crutches and pension books, but the real, lived experience of diversity where you wonder if these people would ever, ever meet each other, talk to each other, look at each other and actually really see each other if it weren’t for projects like this.
So how does Janice Parker work with such a group, or rather, such a collection of individuals? I’ve been watching her in rehearsals and one thing I’m surprised by is the rigour in the frame that she delivers.
Diversity here isn’t met by a wishy washy notion of ‘do what you can and that will be fine’. It’s found in the specific tasks she sets, which can then be translated by each in their own unique way. It’s found in the detailed one-to-one attention she somehow manages to give people, even with these numbers.
A simple movement frame – in pairs, one person lifts another and carries them forwards. It’s simple, but the dancers are exposed, made vulnerable. Attention is given to safe lifting, weight-bearing, to the responsibilities this creates on both parts. Sensitivity is shown in who lifts whom and how – but stereotypes aren’t played to. Variations are explored. Vicky, a wheelchair-user, carries another dancer in her arms, whilst a third moves them forwards in the chair.
There isn’t a discussion about it. It’s not problematized. No one goes – ‘oh well, we are going to do this bit now and some of you are going to find it difficult’. Instead, the content is introduced, and people are encouraged to find their own way through it, supported by Janice and her dance assistants. No one has to do everything, and a big deal isn’t made of anyone wanting to do something different – instead another movement option is offered and added to the choreography.
When I watch it in rehearsal I want to cry.
In watching the moments when they all move in synchrony, all I can do is see their differences and marvel that such a beautiful range exists in the world. It sounds pompous, but it isn’t, it’s profound. The numbers of people present amplify both the movement and its impact – and I’m only seeing half the performers in an old town hall. I can only imagine the effect in Tramway One, with sound, light and Richard Layzell’s stunning installation heightening the experience still further.
It’s going to be Glorious.