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Dance Place: Interview with choreographer Rosemary Lee

14 October 2011 | Tom Hunter

"There is no substitute for live performance, for sharing the ‘here’ and the ‘now’, physically, actively together." Rosemary Lee

Work Place is a programme of support for professional choreographers, organised and run by The Place, London's premier centre for contemporary dance, that provides a home for a community of artists, sustaining  them and developing their work. London Calling talked to Square Dances choreographer Rosemary Lee about her participation in the project.

London Calling: Can you tell us how you first became involved with the Work Place project, what it involves and what were the main areas you were looking to work on?
 
Rosemary Lee: Eddie Nixon, The Place’s Director of Theatre and Artist Development, kindly invited me to join the first group of Work Place artists. This is a landmark new scheme for independent UK dance professionals, in which a cohort of up to 12 artists at different stages of their career are consistently supported in every phase of their artistic development. I loved the idea of having a home base at The Place for a group of artists to meet and discuss their work and address different issues that come up for us.  It's a brave step to take on the role of organising and hosting a group of artists of such varied age and experience and I think the ideal and sentiment is excellent; to create a vibrant and supportive community of artists.  I hope to work on film and installation ideas and am looking forward to hearing how others work and learning from them.

LC: We were lucky enough to see a sneak peek of the Square Dances at the Dance Umbrella launch recently. What was the original concept behind staging these events and how much do you need to let an audience in on what to expect?

RL: The sneak preview you saw at the Dance Umbrella launch featured some of the third year students from London Contemporary Dance School who are involved in Square Dances.  They are performing in Queen Square and what you saw in the midst of the party was what we called ‘shrink wrapped solos’ or ‘miniatures’ of what will happen in Queen Square. We needed to condense the solos down somewhat to fit into the cramped conditions of a party. I wanted to give the guests a taste of the concentration of these performances and the unique quality of each performer at very close quarters.  

Square Dances took place over four squares in central London at the beginning of October, as part of Dance Umbrella: Woburn, Gordon, Brunswick and Queen Squares - and involved scores of performers.  Now, as part of Bloomsbury Festival, we are restaging the performance in Queen Square.

The original concept came about after Betsy Gregory, Artistic Director of Dance Umbrella, invited me to create a new work for the festival that was free and outdoors.  I felt the squares were perfect hosts for us; their scale and design seemed ideal for me and I loved rediscovering hidden, green secrets in the heart of the city.  I wanted to draw city dwellers' attention to these amazing spaces that we perhaps take for granted.  It's the squares that really inspired me to create the work.  I’m very interested in finding new contexts and audiences for my work and in responding to those contexts. I love the fact that passers-by might catch a glimpse of something they never expected to see.  This has constantly been the case throughout our on-site rehearsals and I’ve really enjoyed talking to these unexpected audiences.  London is such a diverse and complex city and these squares somehow give us a silent, green frame to capture the diversity and humanity that floods through it every day.

I think that balance of how much to prepare an audience is a delicate one.  I don't like giving too much away as it can lock the audience’s interpretation or give them assumptions that might not be met. So my tack is to try to make sure they feel comfortable and receptive, but I don't want them to know or expect what it will look or feel like.    
 
LC: One thing that especially interested us was the number of people recording the performers on their mobiles. On the one hand dance is perhaps the most ephemeral of the performing arts, but is there a danger in audiences focusing on recording the moment too much when perhaps they ought to be ‘in the moment’?

RL: Absolutely.  As we have rehearsed, people have quite shamelessly got very close to performers to photograph them. Everyone holds their mobiles out to film, yet no-one has ever asked me if it’s OK. Of course, this is the nature of working in public spaces and I like the challenge of staying open to whatever happens, but it's a difficult one. Although it’s flattering that people want to record the work, in another way it’s quite acquisitional, consumerist behaviour. Though I don't think of the work as something to capture and grab in this way, on the other hand, I do think of it as a gift I’m trying to give an audience for a few minutes of their day; a time to stop, absorb and hopefully engage in what they are perceiving. The filming feels as if people have forgotten that experience is first hand and recording is second hand. I’m a filmmaker myself so I love film, but these are live works to be seen as they happen; they just aren’t created for film and posterity in that way.  So yes, let’s celebrate the ephemeral and let it be just that - passing and fleeting - otherwise we’re in danger of thinking everything lasts forever, while in reality nothing does.

LC: On a more positive note, there seems to be an increasing number of companies incorporating new technologies into their performance, both in terms of creative process and final performance. Is this simply a nature reaction to our increasing technologised lives, or are we perhaps seeing an evolution in the way audiences might interact with dance performances in the future?

RL: Yes, I am sure there’s much more work to come that inventively uses new technologies for its creation, to reach new audiences and create new forms of interaction. What Square Dances reminds me is the power and nuance of live work performed at close quarters to a live audience.  There is no substitute for live performance, for sharing the ‘here’ and the ‘now’, physically, actively together.

LC: We love this quote from Twyla Tharp: “The more you challenge an audience the more challenging you can be,” but conversely there is often a sense that during difficult financial times audiences prefer ‘safer’ works, as it were. Does this affect you at all as a maker of work?

RL: No, I hope not.  I never saw my work as challenging until a colleague explained that to enter it fully you have to find a way to be open and embrace diversity and see people anew, non-judgementally, which may not feel safe or easy to many people.   I’m not sure I believe audiences want safer work at the moment though. Maybe venues become more risk averse.  I have a feeling we need to make work that challenges the mainstream much more. We may be living in difficult financial times, but these are also dangerous times. We are subtly becoming less tolerant of difference and of vulnerability and care less about sustaining the environment we share with other living things. I love making work that is free for the audience, hence my interest in making installations and public art. This commission is a wonderful opportunity to offer the work to others, regardless of your ability to pay for a ticket.

LC: Do you have any advice for newer audiences keen to see a contemporary dance production but who might not feel they’re well enough versed in the language of performance to appreciate a piece?

RL: Try to remember there’s nothing to get. It’s not necessarily about ‘understanding’ anything. Instead, just absorb it by watching and listening and don't worry about more than that to start with. That’s not to say don't ask questions of it, but don't let the concern that you haven't got it get in the way!  Its not about comprehension necessarily, it’s about engagement.
 
LC: And finally, can you let us know what you’ll be working on next?

RL: Hmmm… a solo, maybe?  Returning to performing myself perhaps before that gets way too scary a prospect to contemplate. Square Dances has been so all consuming that I’ve not had a chance to think that far.
 

Bloomsbury Festival, Saturday 22 October
Free outdoor event. Booking not required.
Bloomsbury, Queen Square WC1, 13.00 – 17.00 pm
For further info and map http://www.bloomsburyfestival.org.uk/event/id/172

Square Dances is commissioned and produced by Dance Umbrella in association with Rosemary Lee Projects and Artsadmin
Supported by The Place
Square Dances is supported by Bloomberg and funded by the National Lottery through Arts CouncilEngland
 
Photo: (C) Photo Hugo Glendinning, Courtesy The Place

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