‘Anniversary’ Work in Progress

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The Anniversary Company of Performers

‘Anniversary’ is a new multi-media dance and theatre performance created by older artists, including performers from a ‘various and wide’ life experience. It involves true stories, original live music, dance and video imagery to be performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse (Leeds, United Kingdom) next year produced by The Performance Ensemble in co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse.

On July 4th 2015 the company performed the first ‘Work in Progress’ of the piece to an appreciate audience of a few hundred people – part of the process of developing new work and funded by The Baring Foundation’s LateStyle Project. The Baring Foundation has pioneered support for a wide range of programmes supporting older people to enjoy and take part in the arts  This latest programme,  funded professional artists (all of whom are over 70) to bring their original and exceptional artistic craft and insights to the theme of “Age”.  We choose the choreographer Royston Maldoom to take on this role.

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Royston Maldoom

Review of ANNIVERSARY Work in Progress

THE OPENING SET for ‘Anniversary’ is curiously unpromising: a broken-down sofa, with its back drawn defiantly to the audience; old crates scattered randomly across the floor; tatty clothes abandoned on a metal rack… Already the metaphor is in place – something, or someone, has been chucked on society’s rubbish heap. For what we see is not a place of prestige. An air of abandonment prevails. Then, out they come crawling, from behind the detritus, like alley cats, into the open space. Dancers. Stealthy, defiant. Vibrant. Full of mischief. And the mayhem begins.

This is a company of ten performers. Five long-term professionals, five total newcomers with zero experience or training – except the two-week intensive rehearsals they have been through with director Alan Lyddiard and choreographer Royston Maldoom. The one thing everyone has in common here is their age. For this is a piece about being older – in your sixties, seventies, eighties. In other words, on the human scrapheap, right? Wrong. So very, very wrong.

From their first audacious appearance amongs the rags and tatters in the studio corner, to their final triumphant flop, in a heap of tangled bodies, onto the old sofa, which has now been turned to face and embrace us, centre stage, these performers hold us in a spell of virtuosity and celebration. They mesmerise, with their rich presence, their wisdom, their humour, their LIVES.

‘Anniversary’ is not so much a story, more a series of loosely interconnected scenes, in movement, original music (by Chris Benstead), and words, all evoking the complex, multi-layered experience of getting older. It would have been so easy to go for the sympathy vote. To have the audience say, ‘Bless them for having the nerve.’ Not for one second does that happen in this piece. This is a piece of art, powerful in its own right.

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It’s sometimes rueful – a group of women mournfully examine their bingo wings, their spreading girths, their wrinkles and eyebags, in front of an imaginary mirror. Sometimes there is defiance – a man walks slowly, with his walking stick, to centre front, looking vulnerable, alone, only to be joined from behind by a chorus of stick-thumping, loud-chanting dancers, turning loneliness into sudden, anarchic, joyful solidarity. Elsewhere, tenderness surfaces – two people sit close, gazing into each other’s eyes, a hand placed to their partner’s face in exquisite understatement. And often, it is thrillingly dynamic, beautifully strong – the whole company moving in ensemble dances that are brimful of energy, chutzpah and hope.

The choreographer, director and composer have done a fine job here of melding their considerable respective talents to create a jewel of physical theatre. But more than that: they have fostered a palpable sense of connection, of integration – between professional and non-professional dancers; between the performers and the audience. This is something increasingly rare in a contemporary culture that is often elitist, youth- and celebrity-obsessed, a culture somehow disconnected from our everyday lives – our memories and our dreams.

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‘Anniversary’ is aspirational in the best sense of the word. It certainly tells some sanguine truths about the world it depicts – that of the elder, the “senior citizen” (how hateful is that term!) – but it also shows the sheer glory of the human spirit: raging, raging and DANCING against the dying of the light.

Written by BARNEY BARDSLEY

(Barney Bardsley is a freelance writer and dancer)

barefootbarney.wordpress.com

From Others That Saw It

A profound, inspiring, integrated and very humorous piece!! Very well done all.

Enjoyable performance, good to have the post performance talk. Well done everybody!!

 Not too sure when I was given a ticket but found the whole thing amazing. Well done to everyone.

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 Thank you – you brought a tear to my eye and you saw it as well. Beautiful music and choreography, lovely vocals and competition. I loved it all. Can’t wait to see more next year. Tell ACE to come and see it tonight!!

 Totally riveting – such variety, smoothness, exploration of themes – music, movement, character, humour – great! Onwards to the next venture!

It was just wonderful. Gives me hope for the future!

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 From the outset it was a captivating and very moving piece of theatre. I was entranced and unaware of the fact that the performers were in the older age group. I appreciated the variety of the movements as the more voting sections were interspersed with humour. The music brought it all together into a whole performance that was inspirational. I came to see a friend – one of the ‘community’ dancers and left feeling that I had seen a quality work.

 A fantastic, emotional and inspirational performance.

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Tamara Mclorg

 I came to the performance because I have a friend performing, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I found it very expressive and moving. I was mesmerised and felt the performance really flowed. I liked the variety – the mix of sadness at times and optimism. As a person coming up to retirement age myself I find it optimistic to know that these projects exist for older people so that we can enjoy a fulfilling and creative retirement. It is never too late to learn, start something new and be creative and active.

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 A truly moving and thought-provoking performance! Beautifully presented with some personal touches. There’s so much stigma around community art, but this piece proves how valuable it can be. My only reservation is that you have to Abe older to get involved – I’d love to, but am 30 years too young!

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Alex Elliott, Villmore James & Namron

 It was brilliant to see artistic expression at this level and it is always ageless and universal.

What a fantastic performance. I could have watched it all afternoon. A brilliant example of the importance of art in the community. Life-affirming and inspiring. Looking forward to seeing how it develops. So many possibilities!

 A feasts of talent. Makes me proud to be ‘old’. Well done all. Good luck with the funding.

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Christopher Bensted

 Loved your comments about ‘not just being a memory bank’, ‘the potential within’, ‘looking forward to developing…’ Was inspired by the movement, energy and being in the moment, avoiding the cue from the armchair to just sit. Broom and radio in the kitchen here I come!

 This has inspired me to explore what I can do in the future to keep feeding my soul (I sing with a choir and am on my way to listen to our sister choir ECHO at Leeds College of Music. I want to stretch my boundaries and really come out of my comfort zone. Too long being timid! Thank you!! For a bright future!

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Royston Maldoom, Sally Owen & Alex Elliott

 It was very inspiring and heart warming. Thank you! Congratulations on combining dance and age! Hum’s appearance on stage was very touching and made me cry! You were ALL fabulous! I truly hope you will carry on to inspire future audiences. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

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 Wonderful, inspiring performance. Very moving! Brought more than one tear to my eye!

 You guys have made me rethink ageing and how I look at ‘older’ people. You were all graceful and inspiring, thank you so much for a wonderful show.

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 Congratulations. I’ve been working with the Calder valley performance ensemble on what turned out to be a beautiful nostalgic piece – however, what I’ll take – mainly- from your powerful work is to focus on the ‘now and next’ and start the art from there. ‘Two roots of the same tree’.

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 Inspirational. I came to see Namron perform as he taught my children’s father, Brian Claxton-Payne. I love to dance and still perform when I can and was blown away by the depth of the piece, the humour and technique. The professionals definitely still have it and the community performers definitely brought it. Keep dancing all of you. PS – jazz saxophone, lovely touch.

Namron and Pat White Heydays Members

 It was inspiring to see everyone dance together. I like the way fun was integrated into loss in all it’s many ways. I loved the salsa bit. Thanks for a great evening and I hope to see more!

 Fantastic show, we need you to show us younger people what ‘true community’ is about. Very poignant moments but so much energy. Doesn’t matter how old you get, life is always in a state of constant flux. Blessings.

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Royston Maldoom

 A fabulous experience, want to see how it grows and realises it’s potential. Thank you.

 I thought that the performance was inspiring – the woman on her own when the couples dance…breaking out themes… Look forward to watching older people dance without having to think about being old.

 Lovely, would have liked to see a bit more.

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Royston Maldoom & Villmore James

 Well done. Keep it up!

 Congratulations on a beautiful and moving performance. Please keep me in touch with future activities. If you are thinking of touring this, please come to Corby.

 I work as an older person’s physio in Dewsbury and meet people in hospital with a passion for dancing. Do you know if there are any similar groups in Dewsbury?

 Love the performance, full of heart. Please keep in touch -the family Halifax.

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Sally Owen & Alex Elliott

 

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When Community Theatre Is Just Theatre

Yukio Ninagawa

World famous, 71-year-old Japanese theatre director, Yukio Ninagawa announced in 2006 that he was setting up a year-long acting project for non theatre professional people aged 55 and over. Called the Saitama Gold Theatre it ran at Saitama Arts Centre, where Ninagawa was artistic director.

The company was formed out of Ninagawa’s desire to search for a new form of theatre based on the histories of older people. It drew applications from 1,273 hopefuls from all over Japan.  After auditioning 1,116 people face-to-face, Ninagawa finally chose 19 men and 27 women with an average age of 66.9. The company met Monday to Friday every week to undergo intensive lessons from some of Japan’s leading theatre specialists. After the year was up, Ninagawa was so excited about the prospects of the company, he continued to work with them creating  a production every year.

Seven years later in May 2013 The Saitama Gold Theatre performed at the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris.
The great thing for me to learn about the company was that it had started off as a gathering of amateurs who got into drama as a “second life.” Yet, under Ninagawa direction and training programme, the quality of their performances became very high. After six years a Japanese producer living in Paris suggested that Ninagawa put on a production in France.
Interviewed by the Japanese press Ninagawa said:

“Without a doubt, this is one of the world’s unique troupes, with seniors performing on a continuous basis. It’s three times as tiring as a normal performance to direct people with more experience than me, but putting together a production with non-actors is interesting in a different kind of way from a professional play. The joy of being seen by others makes a person healthier. Some of the performers were bedridden, but now they can commute to the rehearsal hall on foot. I wanted to create a new performing art by refining physical expression according to accumulated age.” 

Saitama Gold Theatre

One of the leading actress Etsuko Shigemoto of Saitama Gold Theatre spoke about her experience of performing in Paris, saying she forget that she was 87 years old.

“I have weak hearing and poor sight. I have problems all over my body,” she said. “But I am still young in spirit. I have already reached the afternoon of my life, but it’s wonderful to spend my last days with the company”

“Drama makes me vigorous. I am too busy to get senile. I still feel as if I was 20 years old and now my dream is to become a good actor,” said another member of the company, actor Kiyoshi Takahashi, 85.

Ninagawa has spoken lovingly about the members of Saitama Gold Theatre. I was particularly interested in an interview with him on Performing Arts Website, Japan where he analysed the quality of perfomance by one of the group:

“There is an elderly member named Mr. Toyama, and watching him perform I see qualities that no ordinary professional actor can match. In his voice, his gestures, the way he speaks and his timing  he has a completely different quality of acting that no professional actor could begin to approach. Seeing that has made me realize the value of this programme”

When I was at Northern Stage we presented The Ninagawa’s Company with a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1996 and we had the opportunity to meet with him and discuss his work . He was a guiding inspiration in the creation of  The Northern Stage Ensemble.  Years later his work with older people, and more importantly what he learnt from creating Saitama Gold Theate, has been another of the inspirations that has guided me to create a new company, The Performance Ensemble.

The Performance Ensemble

We started out developing The Performance Ensemble in London. We ran a two week workshop based at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in August 2012. We gathered a group of professional performers, all of them over 60 years old, to come together and explore some different ways of working. We wanted to hear their stories. It was unusual for them as professional performers, with a wealth of professional experience in theatre, television and film, to play themselves and not pretend to be somebody else. Through working with them to present themselves on stage we created a beautiful, endearing and piece of ‘work in progress’.

Fife Performance Ensemble

A year later in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, we created a two month project, “Dancing Days”, with amateur and community based performers based on their own stories from the dance halls of Fife. These performers had less inhibitions in talking about themselves and telling their stories through performance. Most of them attended a weekly afternoon tea dance. They enjoyed dancing. We worked with them to let their stories emerge from within the structure of the tea dance, that they were already familiar with, and where they felt comfortable. Others joined in from various amateur theatre groups. Slowly we created an ensemble of performers who felt comfortable with a performance style that was not like that of professional performers, but one that felt completely authentic.

The common ground between professional and community/amateur performer, in both projects, was that they presented themselves completely, sincerely and with an openness and vulnerability that I have found rare in theatre today.

The Calder Valley Performance Ensemble

Mytholmroyd

Our next step is to work with a mixture of professional and community-based/amateur performers. We are making a new piece with people from the  community in Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. After performances at Mytholmroyd Community Centre at the end of June, we will transfer the work into the professional setting of West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, this July. We will work with other local community/amateur performers as well as professional performers.  We will see what progress we make.

The most important lesson I have learnt so far in this process it that we can learn equally from the professional and the community/amateur performers and they learn from each other. This process is not a well intentioned community project, rather, it is the way we have chosen to make our piece of theatre.

We expect it to be good enough to be performed in front of a paying audience who, in turn, are expecting quality theatre. They will be moved and entertained by a company of performers, all of whom will be over 60, from many different experiences and skills. They are a theatre ensemble of equals, creating contemporary theatre of substance.

Or at least that is the plan!

 

 

 

Who Can Help the Arts Flourish In the Age Of Austerity?

Photo from Entelechy Arts

No Boundaries

So the ‘established cultural leaders’ are meeting in York and Bristol this month to discuss the Role of Culture in 21st Century at the conference No Boundaries

That sound great. They have some fantastic eloquent and wise speakers and the list of delegates is impressive. They are also giving away giving free tickets for young artists which is perfect.

Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, will be there. She is one of the great motivating speaker for the arts and I have been inspired by her many times over the years.

In the video below she discusses how well she feels the arts and culture sector is represented when education policy is set, important ideas.

I won’t be at the conference but, if I could have been there, I would be expressing a few thoughts and ideas close to my heart. It will, however, be all livestreamed and online free for the whole event, with all the speakers – so we can all still join in.

I believe the arts are not integrated into society in England (I say England because it is an Art Council England funded project). The arts have not been embraced by millions of people in this country because they are not thought to be important in their lives.  Central governments and local authorities across England have also not taken the arts seriously as a contributor to people’s wellbeing and to recognise the real benefits that they can gain from an involvement in the arts and creativity.

I believe that the arts are still bound up by a class system that, unbelievably, still exists in our country. They are regarded by some people, as something ‘posh people do’, even today, despite the ‘audience development programmes’ and the ‘Creative People, Creative Places’ schemes.

I am beginning to believe that this opinion is cultivated by the establishment because it justifies their own sense of superiority and their belief in their own inherent civilised behaviour. “The people on ‘Benefit Street’ don’t need the arts”, they say “they need to get off their arses and get themselves into some jobs”. I know that is a bit of a cliche, but I was told that cliches are cliches because they are often true.

There is, however, an extraordinary growth in the community arts movement in England. Participation in the arts is increasing year by year as expressed, for example, in the DCMS paper ‘Taking Part’ published in March 2012.

People who participate in the arts go and see other arts projects.

So let us work harder in getting more people involved in professional participation arts projects. Let us invest more in Community Theatre. Let us not turn our noses up at Amateur Theatre, but rather advocate the benefits of community/amateur arts and recognise their true worth.

Francois Matarosso writes brilliantly about his experience at The West Bromich Operatic Society in his article Producing ‘The Producers‘, for example

One of the areas that is expanding rapidly is the work arts organisations are doing with the elderly.

Apparently engagement by adults aged 65-74 and 75 plus has increased significantly since 2005/06 – from 71 per cent to 75 per cent for 65-74 year olds and from 58 per cent to 63 per cent for aged 75 and over. (‘Taking Part’)

Look at the pioneering work of companies like Entelechy Arts, for example.

In an introduction to a report by the Baring Foundation, ‘Ageing Artfully: Older People and Professional Participatory Arts in the UK’,  Dame Joan Bakewell talks of the work that the Baring Foundation has been supporting.

“In 2009 the Baring Foundation launched a new fund for arts organisations in the UK working in a participative way with older people. This mapping study primarily looks at the kind of work that could be supported by this fund.

The report begins with the broad context of our ageing society, the discrimination and disadvantage faced by older people and at the voluntary sector organisations that serve them.

The Baring Foundation sets out in this major report a picture of the situation that exists across all art forms – dance, music, drama, painting – as a way of engaging and invigorating the older generation. In so doing it draws attention to work done abroad, in America and in Ireland, and the research that shows the benefits of the arts to us all.

I have always believed that arts need no other justification than their own intrinsic value, their capacity to lift the spirit and give us experiences of transcendental and inspirational power. And that remains true. But there are adjacent benefits that hold particular force in the lives of the elderly. This report makes the case that participation in the arts increases our personal sense of wellbeing, often in some cases actual physical improvement. Stiff limbs and muscles brought into renewed use in dance, help keep people mobile and improve our sense of balance, an important consideration when falls are such a risk among the old. There is evidence from America that participation by those suffering from dementia offers positive benefits. There are case histories closer to home that demonstrate how the arts bring communities and generations closer together, help relieve the isolation so many old people suffer, and bring new friendships into their lives.

This report sets the agenda for how we can move forward. Its range and detail describe not only how the old in the UK already enjoy the arts, and of how arts institutions reach out to this growing constituency, but also draws attention to the many opportunities that await us in the future. Its vision is of an ageing population able to enjoy the riches and pleasures of our abundant cultural life. I commend its thoroughness and the concept of public good that informs its pages.”

Joan Bakewell

Old Dogs New Tricks

(c) David Wardle

I  believe the future for the arts is not always with the young – sometimes good ideas come from the old.

The elderly still have so much to contribute. My own work at “The Performance Ensemble”, developing a professional theatre company with performers over the age of 60 – working in the space between ‘professional, community and amateur arts practise’ – creating contemporary performance – is a case in point.

We are bringing together artists of great experience and talent to make work that is new and visceral. We start our work in the heart of communities, working with local people, as was seen in our recent production, “Dancing Days.

Older performers are so often forgotten and yet they have much more to offer. Old dogs can teach us new tricks. People in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and upwards are still capable of creating great artistic works that can speak to audiences of all ages.

When we first set off to create a company we devised a work in progress, only inviting a few people to see the work . One of our visitors, a Relationship Manager fro ACE, wrote to us:

“Congratulations on the showing on Friday, which was of such high quality – there was a tangible sense that something rather special was coming into being. I particularly enjoyed the quality of presence which all the performers had, imbued with the generosity and solid grounding of experience. I found the energy of the ensemble profoundly affecting, and think there are all sorts of audiences out there who would too. The showing gave a strong indication of the potential of this initiative, and I will be interested to see which of the various paths possible for its future development you choose to take.”

So please, conference of “No Boundaries” don’t think that the future of the arts in the 21st Century can only be devised by the young and emerging artists of tomorrow. Don’t forget the older artists of yesterday, still full of energy, still with lots to say, still with lots of opinions, still able to teach us something and still with exciting visions for the future.