Last week (11th – 13th January) we had an emotional roller-coaster of a few days working at Kents Cavern in Torquay, developing ideas for a new dance promenade piece for caves and underground spaces called Beneath Our Feet.
Having spent 8 days working at Pavilion Dance South West at the end of the summer 2016 developing initial movement material, this was our first opportunity to use this movement on-site. We had an ambitious amount to fit in to our limited research time (we could only access the caves out-of-hours, so from 4-9pm each day) as we spent time working with the movement material in this wonderful site, learning more about the history of Kents Cavern from the team who work there, also testing out costume and design elements with Kate McStraw, and music ideas with composer Max Perryment and performer Lou Vilstrup that also integrated writer Anna Selby’s initial text. On our final day on-site we also held a short sharing of work-in-progress for an invited audience, worked with Josh Thompson from Wigglyline Productions making a film of our ideas so far and invited photographer Pari Naderi to capture images of the early stages of the work.
Many of us have felt an emotional, physical impact of spending 5 hours at a time underground – and this is no time at all compared to the working day of a miner or a quarryman, or the expeditions of the cavers with whom I’ve spoken for example. Some of the creative team have woken in the middle of the night feeling that they were still underground, for me I have felt like I’ve been carrying a weight, like everything has been closing in on me (that might also be the creative process, particularly when we were working so intensively over 3 days!).
I realised quickly when we arrived at 4pm last Wednesday that we weren’t going to cover as much movement material as I had hoped, so we focused on 3 sections which at the moment I call ‘Water finding its way’, ‘Disappearing’ and ‘Discovery’, as well as an ‘Orientation’ section for the very beginning, the threshold of the cave, using some initial text from writer Anna. I knew we would have a relatively small (15-20 people) and friendly test audience for our sharing on the Friday, so I wanted to take the opportunity to try out some things that I thought could be quite challenging for an audience (particularly an audience unfamiliar with contemporary dance work), but that might be conducive to them accessing their own emotional experience of the site and being drawn in to the world of the work e.g.
- using very low light (adding in candlelight, shell fires (which are unique to Kents Cavern and you can see at the top of the page here) and torches) and blackout,
- also leading a group around a part of the cave which I find really intriguing, where the audience are forced into proximity with the performers because the space gets much smaller but where the structure of the cave allows us the illusion of appearing from and disappearing into the rock.
So I have come away from our first 3 days on-site and our first experience bringing an audience with us into the cave completely re-thinking the structure of the piece and the way in which I would realise my ideas in terms of how we would manage the audience, how we would develop and light the movement content and how we would integrate text for example. I wanted to share just a few of the thoughts I had during/after our time on-site, integrated with some of the feedback we received following our sharing on the Friday afternoon. This is not an exhaustive list of our discoveries, but covers some of the main points:
- Simple things that work most responsively to the cave, perhaps (hopefully) drawing the audience’s attention to the cave space in a new way, are the most effective. It is even more effective where these movements also connect imaginatively with the 'story of the cave', which I'll talk more about below.
- The dancers don’t always have to move. They can be still or move very simply (in one section we only lit Kirsty as she climbed from one rock to another, and her shadow seemed like a giant climbing over the ceiling), and this can have a huge impact
- Larger, more expansive movements work better in darkly lit scenes, because the nuances of a detailed phrase can be harder to make out. This doesn’t mean we can’t explore more detail, but this would have to be positioned and lit in a very specific way, and the audience would probably have to have the opportunity to encounter it in their own time (so there might be sections of the final work where the audience are given time to explore a particular part of the cave for themselves, to find solo or duet moments performed by the dancers within areas of the cave that can only accommodate a few people at a time, before being called back together by our singer-guide played by Lou)
- I need to suspend or highlight moments where I definitely want the audience to see something particular about the movement in the context of the cave e.g. when we were filming a particular lift towards the beginning of the piece when Kirsty was almost close enough to touch the roof of the cave, we repeated it so many times that the dancers were able to time the lift to keep Kirsty up there for long enough for us to really take in the texture and colour of the ceiling
- Floor-bound movement material is not out of the question, but more suitable to particular places with a particular focus/directed lighting
- I realised more clearly that the dancers’ ‘characters’ were not part of the same world as the audience, or even Lou, who will ultimately act as a guide for the audience throughout the work. They are of the cave – they are already inside when the audience enter and they are left behind when the audience leave. They respond to each thematic idea throughout the work, embodying what those different themes might look like (e.g. disappearing/reappearing as I mentioned before, also discovery and disorientation for example). However I also realised during the R&D that the dancers can support Lou in her role as a guide for the audience. I’ve been trying really hard to create something that feels different to The Imagination Museum in this new work, taking away any story-telling from the dancers so they occupy a more abstract world, but now I realise that this doesn’t mean they can’t call the audience on and around the cave (we already have an echoing song from Anna - ‘come, take care, leave your fear up there’) and in fact they can be more deliberate and more assertive in how they interact with the audience if we need the audience to be in a particular place at a particular time (as long as it’s in keeping with the atmosphere, or the story being told at that time).
Overall, I want Beneath Our Feet to be about the experience of being underground and about what this tells us about what it means to be human. For example, in seeing chains of interconnected dancers/miners toiling to draw earth out of the ground (and maybe the audience become that interconnected chain for a moment at some point in the piece as they have to join hands to find their way through a more darkly lit passageway), we might recognise the human effort that has shaped the world beneath our feet, as well as the astonishing loss of life that has occurred as a result of the driving forward of industry - “loss after loss after loss” as described by the group of miners Anna and I interviewed in Bournemouth last September. Standing in blackout with a group of strangers, we might be able to tune in to ourselves more clearly, we might feel a sense of connection as a group, or experience a sense of uncertainty. We may recognise the fear of disappearing altogether as we watch a dancer being drawn into the darkness ahead of us and be given time to observe the extraordinary beauty of the natural world we share in another chamber of the cave, without dancers and without music for a minute, maybe feeling water dripping onto our skin and noticing that the change in temperature means we can see our breath in the air ahead of us.
I hope that by the end of the work the audience have learnt something new about the space, and/or about themselves.
In order to allow this to happen, audience members at our sharing told us that they need more opportunities to connect the movement of the piece with the story that we want to tell about the cave (and with the idea of the underground more broadly) than we had time to integrate into the sharing last week. I have talked about needing some kind of overall structure to tie all of the ideas together in previous blog posts, but I saw much more clearly on-site that the overall premise of the piece could be a guide (our singer Lou) leading a group of intrepid explorers on an expedition underground. Along the way, the memories of (this and other) caves would dance before them, and there could also be a lot more scope than I had originally thought for the dancers to share in speaking or singing Anna’s text where that made sense for the particular story being told.
Each ‘memory’, story, section, episode or different perspective could relate to a different ‘thread of curiosity’ about the underground (also relating to the themes I’ve talked about in a previous blog) as it was described by one of the members of our sharing audience. So for example these might include:
- The story of how the cave was created (by water or by hand)
- The story of a caver entering an underground space for the first time, unseen by so many other eyes
- A story of time collapsing as we crossed over into another world (drawing on tales of mythology or stories of ghosts underground)
- An unexplained disappearance
- Observing the rites of the first occupants, especially at Kents Cavern where there is an exceptionally long history of human occupation
These episodes wouldn’t all have to hang together in a linear, chronological way, and they wouldn’t have to represent a complete historical account in the manner of one of the cave tours already offered on-site. In fact I would expect them to be a lot more impressionistic, suggestive rather than prescriptive, relying on the audience’s imagination to make connections. Choreographically, the sections could loop back, repeat or overlap, divert, disappear, but the recurring act of Lou (re-)appearing to sing her chorus as the group is drawn deeper into the cave would be sufficient to draw us all back together and maybe to reflect on what we had just seen/were about to see, guided by Lou.
We will be working with different Dancing in Caves partners as the project develops and will have scope, as we have done with The Imagination Museum, to add in more specific detail relating to each site, and to add in or edit out sections to create something that feels most appropriate in each space. So Beneath Our Feet will never be the same for different venues, because it will be important to allow each underground site to dictate its own structure.
Other notes on responding to the specific site
- Although I was concerned about variation in the work after our sharing of work in progress at Pavilion Dance South West last summer, no-one commented on lack of variation in the work at Kents Cavern. I think having the capacity to shift in space between sections, and the inherent variety within the site itself are really useful in ensuring the work does not fall into a particular rhythm, but this is certainly something I will keep my eye on as we move forward.
- Several of the members of our sharing audience said that they would have liked an opportunity to actually engage with the texture of the walls, the feeling of water dripping on their skin, to have time to experience the space for themselves. I would like to allow time for people to encounter the space in this way, we just need to think more about how we might introduce this as a possibility, perhaps from their very first entrance into the space, when the dancers could hand them their own lanterns or torches and guide them to take a closer look at the world into which they’ve entered. In this way the work becomes about the audience’s own process of discovery from the very beginning, or the ‘orientation’ section as we have been calling it.
- I want to make more of unique opportunities within the cave space for dancers to emerge from/engage with the structure of the cave, so they are seen to be with/of the cave rather than ‘in it’, and several audience members also picked up on this after the sharing. I absolutely don’t want this performance to feel like it could have happened anywhere else, and especially not in a theatre. We ran out of time last week to fully explore the capacity of the site in terms of its unique places for the dancers to appear from and disappear into for example, but where we were able to, the work seemed much more satisfying or cohesive, because the different elements were seen to be well-integrated. Having spent three days working at Kents Cavern, I am now more fully aware of the alternative spaces where we could introduce movement in that environment, and I would need to make myself aware of these opportunities when undertaking any future site visits to our other partners, prioritising the parts of the site or particular perspectives on the site that visitors don’t usually see.
- Audience members at our sharing had a really strong response to the opening ‘orientation’ section, when our singer Lou invited the audience into the cave for the first time, speaking first, and then singing. They engaged with and remembered the text she delivered much more than I thought they would; they were able to listen to her and pick up on the detail of what she was saying, largely, I imagine, because she was the only focus at that point. I’d like to make the most of the intimacy of this relationship that Lou can establish when speaking on her own with the audience at the beginning, and create more opportunities for this throughout the work.
- As a returning figure, Lou’s role will be crucial in managing the audience, and particularly managing moments in the work when we might give the audience space to explore the cave in their own time and then need to call them back together. She is like a beacon, a light shining the way.
- As a company we’ve found singing together (we’ve tried some early call and response ideas, but Max and Lou have plans for a greater range of ideas to try with everyone singing) really useful in connecting as a group, and feeling like we were creating a welcoming atmosphere for the audience in which we were all ‘in it together’ at the beginning of the sharing
For our research time on-site at Kent’s Cavern, designer Kate McStraw began exploring possibilities for modifying boiler suits, which would be a very practical ‘base garment’ for this piece. Using spray bleach, Kate gave the black suits texture and colour that responded to the texture of the cave walls. We started talking about ways in which we would differentiate the suits so that the group of performers were connected visually but so that we could open ourselves up to more than just the industrial story of the underground associated with a boiler suit. We talked about tailoring each suit differently – Kate had already removed the collars to give a more tailored look, but we could differentiate sleeve and trouser length, we could introduce different colours, different textures, different layers (some of which could perhaps only be revealed as the dancers moved or with a different kind of light on them in a particular section of the work and a particular place in the cave), and add pockets/carabiner clips for torches where necessary.
We also spoke about the fact that it would be good for the dancers to have dark costumes at some points to aid lighting effects and to make it more possible for them to disappear (this is much easier to do in a cave than in a theatre!), but then it would be interesting for their costumes to be light by the end of the piece – maybe a costume change, or a layer under the initial dark suits for example? There is more work to do determining when to use the dark, and when the lighter tones for best effect, and when might we want the dancers to appear camouflaged, and when more strikingly different to their surroundings.
Managing the audience
The structure of the cave space, the particular stories about the underground that we want to tell and our management of the audience (e.g. how much we direct their gaze, balanced with how much freedom we give them) are inextricably linked in determining the best overall structure for each version of Beneath Our Feet that we will make.
After our sharing I’m thinking more about how I can help to draw our audiences into our world and give them a clearer insight into the starting point behind each section, but I also don’t want to lose the sense of challenging them – so sometimes we will make sure that they know exactly where to stand, but sometimes we’ll move through and around them, appear from somewhere unexpected, or leave them on their own. As I’ve said in previous blog posts the sensation of ‘disorientation’ is really important to the audience’s experience of going underground, and I don’t want their enjoyment of the piece to be completely contingent on them knowing exactly what’s going on all of the time.
Bearing this approach in mind, we have already started, and will need to continue giving a great deal of thought to how to ‘brief’ the audience appropriately before they see the piece (maybe before they even meet Lou at the entrance, although I’d like to minimise the amount of information we need to give to them before the performance starts if possible), to make sure they feel free to engage with the work because they understand what they need to do if they react unexpectedly (e.g. suddenly feel they need to leave – we will probably resolve this by giving all audience members a small torch that they can point upwards if they want someone to direct them to an exit).
As well as considering how we might prepare the audience appropriately at the beginning of the work, there are more strategies that we can use to facilitate their experience throughout the piece so they don’t feel like they’re being pushed and pulled around, but so that we are clear with them about their options. Some audience members who came to our sharing described being in two minds about whether they should move when the dancers made contact with them or gave them a lantern for example, and this uncertainty seemed to interfere with their engagement with the work/to distract them momentarily. We can certainly be clearer in showing the audience what we would like them to do, where to stand, when to move, through clarifying use of contact, perhaps through use of light (e.g. candles/lanterns placed in a particular arrangement to indicate where the audience need to stand) and introducing more text throughout for both Lou and the dancers. One relatively straightforward way we could manage this would also be to have a more limited audience capacity for each performance, so we’re not trying to accommodate too many people at once.These kinds of thoughts have also led on to us starting to consider different versions of the work for different audiences i.e. a ‘darker’ version (or a version with the potential to tackle potentially much darker source material as well as to sustain moments of blackout for longer for example) and a ‘lighter’ version for a younger or family audience.
The most significant thing I've taken away from our R&D at Kents Cavern in terms of learning about light is that we can have more light in the space and still create a sensation of darkness, or create an impression of someone disappearing for example through how we direct/position light and choreograph ‘on’ and ‘off’ moments for all the light sources. This is crucial because it will help the audience feel able to move more freely around the site without our guidance, without feeling that they might bump into something, which will mean they make different choices about where they stand, how they get there and how quickly they move for example. (Even if you think you’re spatially aware, which I do, it doesn’t stop you walking into the cave wall, even with the lights up, if you’re just standing in the wrong place – it happened to me at least twice while working at Kents Cavern, largely because I was starting to get over-confident by the third day!)
In advance of the R&D I had described to Kate that I wanted to primarily use candlelight, shell fires from Kents Cavern and some small torches, without using any of the lighting already rigged in the cave because I thought this would create more atmosphere and perhaps a sense of nostalgia, memory and/or travelling back in time. I thought it would also give us more control over the level of light and certainly present the audience with a different experience of the site than they might have if attending a cave tour on any other day.
I have come away knowing that there are particular places where I would use candlelight, but during our filming with Wigglyline Productions on the Friday of the R&D, I was able to see more of the potential of also introducing light from the rig, along with other more specifically positioned lights, which would not have to be large, heavy pieces of kit, but could be relatively discreetly tucked out of the way and cast light/shade exactly where we wanted it.
Kents Cavern is an extraordinary site, and we’ve been incredibly privileged to have been given access to research ideas there, and to receive support from the expert team whose passion for sharing the story of the site is inspiring. My thanks to all the Kents Cavern staff, to my collaborators who worked so hard over our three days together (full creative team details here), to everyone who came to the sharing (there was only one person that came who I didn’t have a chance to speak to, so if that person is you please do contact me so I can find out who you are and how you found out about the project!) and to the National Lottery through Arts Council England, Pavilion Dance South West and South East Dance in partnership with the Jerwood Charitable Foundation who all supported the R&D stage of this project. Watch this space for images from Pari Naderi, film from Wigglyline Productions and to find out how you can support us in the development of the full work.