Moving to attention

This weekend saw our final couple of rehearsals before we get on to the main stage on Wednesday. The piece really started to come together, partly because we were able to begin to play with some of the technical elements a bit more (ably and excellently supported by SW’s tech team), but also because the performers attention is increasingly shifting towards the ‘doing’ of the work, and away from a concentration on remembering it, or hitting technical marks. This is important for Forest as in this revisited version, as in the 1977 original, it hangs together around their shared connection to its atmospherics, rather than to musical, timing, or narrative cues. As I watch them, I can sense them feeling out for where one another are in the space, and the flow of their movement together – that strange, premonitory connection that dancers have, and that we feel connected to in watching them.

In his notes, Bob once again made reference to animals – elephants this time – and to how, regardless the size of the creature, its movements connect and relate to one another, foot to foot through spine, torso, knee, tail and so on. Part of this is because the animal’s movement ‘just is’. It doesn’t learn its movement, but does it in response to its environment: the shifts in the surface it’s on, the movements of the herd, the presence of a predator, and so on. Its attention is ‘out there’ in the world. Although dance is always learned or ‘put on’ the body somehow, as I watch the Forest performers, I find that I connect with them most as their attention goes outwards, through the movement. ‘Positions don’t mean anything’ Bob told them, ‘the dance is in the transitions’, in the doing.

Blog launch

At last we are ready to go live with this blog – to open a window onto the life of the studios where the preparations for two of the works that will be presented as part of the Sadler’s Wells Elixir Festival are underway. Choreographer Robert (Bob) Cohan is working with director Martin Welton on a new version of his classic work Forest to create Forest Revisited and Annie B Parson is working on The Road Awaits Us. For a fuller description of the details please see the Introduction and then please do revisit the blog as the works unfold. We hope that former members and friends of London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) who first performed Forest will be appearing in interviews on the blog and/or adding comments on the work as it unfolds. Similarly comments and thoughts about Annie B’s work are welcomed.

The Elixir Festival allows former dancers (like me) to have this new lease of life, and it is both an unexpected pleasure and a challenge. We move between the thicket of daily commitments that naturally accumulate when one stops dancing professionally, back into the single point of focus that is the studio – a place where the focus is very particular and may concern the flow of energy in a simple hand gesture – and yet a place that is connected to wider ideas and perspectives on the world.

And now it is time to leave for the studio and to enter that place – I hope that you enjoy this blog and watching the works develop.

Professor Christopher Bannerman
Head of ResCen Research Centre
Middlesex University
020 8411 5610
Beijing: +86 131-6168-4859

Audience expectations

In that moment of hush, just before the curtain goes up, or buzz of lighting faders engaging begins, what is it that you expect? Is it the same as when you were on your way to the theatre tonight? Or as when you bought your tickets? Or when you first heard about the show? What do you know of what you are about to see? Names? Reputations? Past memories? Nothing other than a place on the bill next to something else?

Maybe none of this concerns you, but it seems to be at the crux of our process at present, particularly as this performance rests so delicately on another, one that exists in memory. Much of this is Bob’s memory, of course, and the muscle memory of Anne, Chris, Ken, Linda, and Paul, but also the memory of audience past. With what sort of gravity does that past pull this present one way or another? That being said (and this has been Bob’s concern for a couple of weeks), we can’t rely on that memory of audience past. What if they – you! – know nothing of what we are presenting, revisiting, and remembering? What has been a fairly constant effort has been both a wish and a worry about turning our process inside out, to reveal how the older performers transmit knowledge to younger ones, not only anecdotaly, but in the return to particular ways of doing and feeling through movement.

Nothing Mystical

The work has been very quick, and Bob has put together quite a lot of material for the younger company than either he (and certainly I!) anticipated. The dancers have been excellent, nimble of thought and body, and attentive to Bob and to the older company members, who have led them into the work and its process. What has been interesting to observe is not only the cognitive challenge of the circuits of memory, transmission, learning and again memory that run between them, but also the depth of thinking ‘at the nerve ends’* that Bob has invited them to address. Bob watches the performers carefully, and his reading of their movement is acute, in terms of both their aesthetic and formal approaches to the choreography, and in his uncanny ability to pinpoint how to activate particular levels of awareness of their own movement in space. There’s nothing mystical in this essentially, but it is extraordinary, and the dancers have responded accordingly.

This is something Bob has spoken about from early on in the thinking of this project, but it is clear that his concern with the choreography is less with the steps, hold and so on (although clearly he has a fine sense of what he wants in that respect) than it is with the sensation of what one is doing in space. How does each dancer access a sense of not only what entails in the physics needed to suspend a leg, or shift down to come up into a leap, but also in the matter of how to distribute weight, thought, and attention such that (in his words) the sensation is ‘visible’. What does it take to make the shift from simply doing the moves to charging them with an energy ‘so that the audience can’t take their eyes off you’.** What I’ve found interesting, seated just behind Bob’s shoulder, is that, whilst there is something of a medium-size industry offering all kinds of solutions to this question of energetic attraction, employing all manner of mystical insights from psychoanalysis to shamanism, Bob’s directions are of the body itself, the only thing which, in the instant of performance, one could really profess to know in any case. His directions are subtle, and concerned with the transfer of weight, leading edge, the application of pressure in particular ways relative to the body’s own ordering against the floor and gravity.

*this is an expression borrowed slightly out of context from the American theatre scholar Herbert Blau

**Bob to Hannah

So it begins…

Or so it’s begun actually. We are three days in, and the piece is already taking shape. I’ve been watching hours of footage of Forest, from performances at the old Sadler’s Wells in (I think) 1990, to more recent productions by Phoenix Dance Company and the Place, alongside a made-for-TV version filmed by the BBC in the mid-70s. Perhaps appropriately for a work in which dancers skit across the stage and in which solos, duets, trios slide into one another, I’ve been having a hard time trying to single out motifs or passages that we might select. Bob has no such issues!

07/04/17 – Forest Revisited – Day 1

Friday 7 April was the first day of rehearsals for the Elixir Ensemble | NYDC production of Robert Cohan’s Forest, to be performed at Sadler’s Wells as part of the 2017 Elixir Festival on 23 and 24 June. Five former London Contemporary Dance Theatre dancers will work with five alumni from National Youth Dance Company to pass on knowledge and insight in a work directed by Martin Welton with Robert Cohan.


First day warmup & class, 07.04.17