The process of bringing a dance piece to life is a fascinating one. It begins with the seed of an idea, an inspiration, and is brought to life with discussions, collaboration, rehearsals, research, funding, practice, refinement, changes- so much goes on between the initial idea and the finished piece. As an audience member, all of this is behind-the-scenes. The performance simply bursts into existence, fully-formed in front of our eagerly waiting eyes. As dancers, we are privy to more of this process, involved heavily in the creation. This is one of my favourite parts of working as a dancer. I love getting in the studio with the choreographer and the cast every day, sharing ideas and inspiration, trying out all sorts of things just to see what sticks. Eventually we see the shape of the piece start to emerge from the mist. It can be really magical, starting out with just an idea, and ending up- somehow- with a completed piece.
So, how do you create a dance piece without stepping foot in the studio? How do you collaborate with dancers you’ve never even met? This has been the very unusual reality for National Youth Dance Company and Alesandra Seutin, who have been creating the piece Speak Volumes, due to premier on the Sadler’s Wells main stage this weekend. Whilst the cast look forward to performing for an in-person audience, for the majority of the creation of this work, they were collaborating remotely and all working individually from home during lockdown.
I managed to speak to Alesandra and some of the members of the National Youth Dance Company about this unique experience to shed some light on what it has been like.
“Working with this new NYDC cohort and having never met them in the flesh has been such a challenge”, says Alesandra. “When you work with dancers, creating an environment of trust and process takes a moment, and not being able to do it live was very strange at first. My vocabulary is not your average Contemporary, so transferring my approach has been the biggest challenge. I am lucky I have such a great team of artists who knows me well and can support in transferring my vision to the company. I have had to be very patient and go with the flow and trust in the process.”
This is a sentiment that’s echoed by the dancers. “My greatest challenge has perhaps been embodying the style of the dance, especially as we have primarily learnt the material online” says Harry Fayers, one of the company members. “It is unlike anything I have ever done before, with strong influences from house and traditional African dances. In comparison to my contemporary, ballet, Latin and ballroom training, they are polar opposites. However, I have been extremely grateful for being pushed out of my depth, as I have already grown so much as a dancer and continue to learn new things in every rehearsal.” Another company dancer, Maya Donne, agrees that it has been harder to adapt to Alesandra’s style with remote rehearsals. She describes feeling incompetent at Alesandra’s style for the first couple of residencies, and feeling worried about how she appeared to the other company members online. “I recently realised that the first couple of online residencies felt like all challenge, no reward”, she says, “but in the more recent NYDC residencies (and especially in person rehearsals!), I’ve experienced immense reward by being able to confidently perform a movement style which was foreign to my body 6 months ago.”
I am certain that many readers of this post will be able recall with painful vividity the struggles of taking class and practicing in our home spaces. I was curious if this had an effect on the content of the work itself. “We had to adapt a lot of elements of the work”, confirms Alesandra, although she noted that the plan was always to expand upon it once in a full-sized space.
“I must admit that rehearsing online was extremely difficult and tedious at times”, says Harry, who at 6’1’’, sometimes struggled to fit the choreography to the available space. “There were countless times in which I hit a wall, sofa, cabinet, laptop or accidentally punched the ceiling…”
However I also could not help but wonder if this way of working had thrown up any unexpected benefits? “I don’t think you can beat the live experience of making work, but the advantage for someone like me who works internationally was that I was able to be in Senegal at some point and still be with NYDC here in London” says Alesandra.
“I think that the freedom I sometimes felt in my sitting room could be channelled into my current dance practice in a studio, I used to hold back” describes Maya. “I gained a certain confidence from dancing in my own space as well. I love to film myself improvising and watch it back, appreciating how I move. The more internal practices such as improvisation classes with Winifred Burnet-Smith (the classes that help me access how I feel, how I love to move naturally) allowed me to bring a certain quality into the studio of being more internal as I move, even when there is so much activity externally.”
“Due to online rehearsals you become very exposed to the artistic team” notes Harry. “If you make a mistake or aren’t sure of the choreography, it is obvious to see. Hence, perhaps on a positive note, we were forced to develop a sense of independence and leadership. It was on us as a company to know the choreography and, so far, this has presented itself incredibly in our in person rehearsals.”
Transitioning back to the studio after months of working online has been an unusual process for dancers everywhere. There is joy and freedom at being back in the place we love, with space to move and adequate facilities, in some cases reunited with our colleagues and classmates. However it also becomes clear that our dancing and our bodies may have changed over the past 16 months, and with remaining restrictions and precautions, working in the studio might not feel the same as it used to. How did this transpire for Alesandra and the NYDC dancers? “Due to the confined spaces, my improvisation became far more gestural and less about travelling. Hence, when I got back into the studio, I found I had to try and break out of the habits I had developed online” describes Harry. “However,” he continues, “I believe my movement is now far more mature as, after more studio practice, my style now incorporates the more grounded and gestural influences I developed online, as well as my previous way of moving.”
“I noticed how at first it was a challenge to discover the authentic dynamic of the work based on my expectations, rather than done at their own pace whilst in their own space” admits Alesandra. However there is a flipside to this; “I will appreciate the studio and the energy of other dancers so much after the pandemic” explains Maya. “I will also take my own confidence and exploration that I discovered in my living room, and place this within a space, of other dancers, and be less inclined to compare myself.”
The dancers speak very highly of Alesandra’s work. “The collaborative research and depth to which we go to understand the intention behind every movement has been incredible” says Harry. “Previously, in other creative processes, the production of choreography has been prioritised over its intention. With Alesandra, the stimulus is fundamental in the choreographic process, so that the audience is able to understand and embody everything we are trying to portray.”
“Alesandra has been intense to work with and I’ve loved the process” says Maya. “The word ‘process’ encapsulates how non-linear my journey in the company has been, as it feels very much like a rich learning experience with fears to conquer as well as joys to experience.”
Harry and Maya also describe how some company members created poetry during the lockdown, which Alesandra embraced as part of the creative material informing the piece.
“The original work Word!, which was created for my company Vocab Dance, was based around the headlines around youth and violence, the stereotypes around teenagers originally and interpreted by adult dancers,” says Alesandra. “But of course now we have a diverse cast of young dancers from all parts of England, and therefore many common stories but also very different stories. The work has changed a lot, but we have kept some strong moments that still felt relevant.”
“Everybody’s own movement styles are incomparable, from hip hop and house to contemporary and ballet. Yet all of us are united in this one work, expressing our own voices through the improvisation tasks and choreography set by the artists” describes Harry. “They give us the ability to make the movement our own and express our individuality – I believe this to be the recipe of success for a beautiful piece.”
“If you come and watch our piece, you will be in awe of the power of youth and you will be inspired. It will be a rollercoaster of emotions and probably unforgettable” adds Maya.
Following is a poem written by Maya which features in the performance.
Enter our private sphere
Dive into our ocean
But surrender your barriers,
Let the waves pass right through you
Swimming through seas of emotional liquid
Now you can too.
Let us shift every cell inside your body
Let our vibrations hold your bones, awaken your mind and
See what you find
We embody the sound of screaming
We say so much,
Always chasing the noise but I’m ready for silence as you hear our bodies speak,
Swallow it whole and breathe
With me, with us
We breathe our way through it
We have filled our notebooks,
You should too.
We show you our faces
Brave by definition
Kind and fierce,
We’ve been chasing a narrative but we are
Trapped: A dark box with no holes to breathe
Followed by the gaze which penetrates every layer of my skin,
My instinct is to peel out of the grip
The suffocating grip
Of their laser eyes, unkind
Our pain is too surface to hide
So, I fold into myself
Unravelled by the warmth of my community
Their affectionate energy
We push against your assumptions with force
but your eyes continue
to rip away layers
that I thought I owned.
left raw and in search of healing
Unable to describe feeling.
Dug down to the core revealing
Tiny green lights holding a collective glow on the truth
The truth: redder than expected
Redder than accepted.
But it’s the truth.
We’ve faced it
Now so can you.
Speak Volumes is being performed at Sadler’s Wells on Saturday 24th July, and tickets can be booked HERE.
I would love to hear about your experiences practicing dance and maybe creating work during the pandemic- have you been rehearsing online? Tell me in the comments! I can’t wait to see Speak Volumes in its final form on stage- make sure to let me know in the comments or on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook if I’ll see you there as well!