The story, in fragments, of my dance life so far...
Hammond School Chester
In the 1970s ballet classes took place in two Victorian houses, 12 and 18 Liverpool Rd. From the top of the bus into town we could see the ballet barre, shadowy behind net curtains, in the window of Studio 12. Oh what a world that conjured for my friend, Vivien, and me! Aged thirteen, we both wanted to be ballet dancers.
The older boarders of the Hammond School slept in dorms at the top of the house. It always seemed a rarefied and enviable existence - ballet classes, enough ordinary education to get by, and the camaraderie of the shared bedrooms, hairbrushes, makeup, and willing exile from home in order to learn to dance.
The Hammond girls were the elite - long haired and pretty, they wore maroon cloaks with satin-lined hoods, and walked, head high, and feet invariably turned out.
We day-girls attended class after High School or on Saturdays, and were a motley crew in comparison. But the training was, nevertheless, wonderfully rigorous and the teachers, Heather Fish and Betty Hassall were non-compromising mistresses of the art of ballet and teaching. I can still see Miss Fish demonstrating for us in class - her gloriously high develope a la seconde, those exquisitely arched feet, and Mrs Hassall, imperious and elegant, her plumb-line back.
Somehow during those years I learnt how to reach into extension so the muscle felt alive, so I became aware of the interface of limbs with space – to fully inhabit my body.
I’ll always remember Betty Hassall’s words when presented with me wanting to become a dancer, with my difficult – well nigh impossible and far from lovely body. I did not have ‘star quality,’ she told my mother, my hips were ‘in-turned’ – impossible for ballet – but nevertheless ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way.’
There was no way – even with her kind words and my determination, that I’d ever make the ballet dancer I so wanted to be. Nevertheless, she was right.
Tricia Durdey - school production 1976
Liverpool with Irene Dilks
Irene Dilks was the most beautiful dancer – long limbed and light. I still see her body in black leotard, extended in a tilt against the white studio wall - that line from tips of fingers to toes, a strength and frailty, the serenity of her face. For two years from the age of sixteen I went every Wednesday to her classes – running from school across town to the railway station for the train to Liverpool and the bus journey out to IM Marsh College.
Irene, as a young PE teacher, had fallen in love with dance on seeing the Martha Graham Company in the late sixties. She packed up and left Liverpool to train in New York, returning some years later, after dancing with Charles Weidman, to join the first London Contemporary Dance Company. She taught Graham Technique as I’ve never been taught since. Despite mostly being ‘young and wobbly,’ to quote a visiting dancer, we learnt whole sections of repertoire from ballets such as Diversion of Angels, and Appalachian Spring. Those movement sequences are still in my muscle memory all these years later, the earthy, grounded second position and deep contractions of the torso, triplet steps that made me feel as if I flew across the space, those arcs, spirals, turns and falls.
Irene too believed in the will to dance. It had worked for her, and she knew it would work for me if I trained hard enough. She inspired many young dancers and teachers and went on to create Spiral Dance Company in Merseyside.
She died too young.
Irene Dilks - London Contemporary Dance Theatre
The early years of the BA in Performance Arts were the halcyon days. Though we students were too young to understand how lucky we were to be on a pioneering arts course in the late 70s, whenever we meet now there’s a sense of having shared a particular and special time. There was much freedom from bureaucracy in higher education in those days - the freedom to experiment, to work all night on a production if need be, or sometimes to opt out all together. Many of us were fortunate not to have to earn a living whilst training. For three years we could focus wholeheartedly on dance, music and theatre, surrounded by equally passionate teachers and students.
The dance studios looked out over the stunning grounds of Trent Park, once the Sassoon family house, past massive cedars, down to the lake and up to the grey obelisk rising between trees on the hill. There were woods all around, a magical overgrown Japanese Garden, and a long walk up the drive to Oakwood where the tube to London took only twenty minutes. Those were the days of theatre ticket subsidies, and the chance to stand in the Cottesloe Theatre for a matinee, 25p a ticket. Is that really how little we paid?
Above all Trent Park was where I leant about choreography - form, structure, musicality, theatricality – about what could, and couldn’t, be expressed through dance. Wendy Cook was the most insightful and encouraging teacher, and we had access to archives of pirated dance film – the best dance library in the country at the time. For three years and beyond, I became obsessed with making dances.
The Mansion - Trent Park
Beautiful and remote Dartington Hall, once a refuge for choreographer Kurt Jooss when he was exiled from Germany in 1933, hosted extraordinary dance festivals for a number of years in the seventies and early eighties. Dancers from all over Europe and USA gathered to share classes and performances over four intense days in April.
It was here I encountered an entirely new way of moving – choreography derived from the vernacular – walking, running, everyday gestures, the ease and flow and effortless rebound of ‘release technique’ and contact work. After the rigours of Graham Technique and ballet it was like entering a new world where every tiny movement became potential material for dance – everything allowed, anything possible – that is except narrative dance or anything overtly virtuosic! There was an odd taboo then amongst a particular sector of the dance world against making anything theatrical – no music, no costume, no set design. Movement was sufficient unto itself, costume – a vest, jogging trousers and trainers. For a while it was strangely liberating and the new way of moving - use of breath, relaxation, alignment of the spine, sense of flow - did wonders for my understanding of the body and movement.
My dance career has often been punctuated by encounters with other dancers and their work. It was at Dartington, and later in London, I saw performances by Dutch dancer and choreographer, Pauline de Groot, and was absolutely determined to go to Amsterdam to learn from her. So when my time at Trent Park was over I packed up and took the train and ship to the Netherlands.
Stadt Theater School - Opleiding Moderne Dans – Amsterdam
The modern dance department of the state theatre school was housed in an old thirties cinema on Da Costakade in Amsterdam, a Deco building where the attic studio looked over the canal, doors open to the sky. For a year I lived and worked in Amsterdam attending the school as a hospitante – visiting student – for twenty five guilders – around five pounds a month.
Oh what a year! I was training with some of the most innovative choreographers in Europe and USA, then cycling back exhausted at the end of a day to the house on Leliegracht, round the corner from Anne Frank’s hiding place, where I looked after the ten year old son of a French woman and Dutch man. Despite being slow to pick up spoken language I loved living in a family where Dutch, French and English were spoken in equal measure, and attending dance class taught in Dutch. In my first week I learnt numbers one to eight, and then followed words for fast, slow, spine, legs, arms, neck. There my grasp of Dutch language halted, except for trips to the shops and cafes – bread, biscuits, cheese, apple cake. Improvisation classes were the most difficult. I learnt a way of understanding the movement tasks by observing what was going on around me, both gesture and interactions between people. That way of seeing has helped me as a teacher ever since.
After a year I returned to England, full of idealism and buoyancy. I jokingly called myself a Missionary for Dance. I was ready to dance and choreograph and teach everything I had learnt in Holland, and I took the first job I could – dance lecturer as part of Liberal Studies in the FE College in Derby.
As far as teaching goes nothing has been as difficult since – even years teaching in acute psychiatric hospital. I was a mere three years older than the recalcitrant girls I tried to enthuse, who were essentially at college to learn how to cook, become hairdressers or nursery nurses – not dance. They had their own very particular brand of dance – basically steps in a little square to loud pop music, and a rest break every five minutes.
To maintain sanity I co-founded Bridges Dance Company.
Da Costakade 102, home of Theaterschool Amsterdam - 1980s
Bridges Dance Company –
days dancing with Sue Robinson, Corrine Ferraby, Gill Moore, Sally Templeman, Claire Glaskin and Vivien Ellis.
With the optimism and innocence of youth, and fuelled by our training at Trent Park, three of us created a company based in Nottingham. We called it Bridges – bridging the gap between dancers and the public – not for us the baffled audience wondering what was meant by all that running backwards in a vest and dungarees.
Over eight years we made and toured shows for primary schools, and small theatres and arts centres. I remember many early mornings crowding into Sue’s car, or travelling on buses that took an age to reach tiny Victorian schools in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfields, or further afield – theatres in Lincoln, Oxford, London, St Ives. We’d arrive desperately in need of coffee before mammoth sessions ironing costumes, washing floors with coca cola, and the long slow technical rehearsals with our shy and wonderfully loyal stage manager and lighting designer, John.
We were naive and unsophisticated. The Arts Council insisted we should be more innovative and funded us to commission choreography by Sue McLennan, Greg Nash, and Fergus Early. It was all an adventure – much laughter, frustration, irritation, fun. I’ll never forget the endless running and counting in Sue’s piece Free to go, three to go, one two three, the terrifying rehearsal with Greg and the calor gas lanterns he insisted were fine swung in arcs around our heads, and Fergus’ folk steps and gargoyle faces.
It was in the last year of Bridges that we were joined by Claire Glaskin who went on to become an international choreographer for opera.
I remember meeting Claire for the first time – Loughborough station – I’d just got off the train and there she was leaning from Sue’s car window waving and smiling as if I’d known her all my life.
A last meeting – the London Coliseum over thirty years later after ENO’s production of Jenufa, and Claire’s wonderfully witty and memorable choreography – seeing her disappear up the stairs on the way to the cast party, and longing to go after her because we hadn’t had nearly long enough to catch up.
I never saw her again. She was killed in a car accident only twenty days later, in March 2009.
Corinne Ferraby, Tricia Durdey, Sue Robinson - Three to go, three to go, one two three by Sue McLennan
For two years I danced solo accompanied by musician and composer, Janet Sherbourne. We called ourselves Dizzy Liaison and our duet was eccentric, warm, humorous and playful. It was such a new delightful experience creating music and dance together, and dancing with live music – the piano, Janet’s pure singing voice. Back on the road again this time in a battered Renault 4, often with Janet’s boys, seven year old Luke, and three year old Nathaniel, now jazz musicians themselves – London, Leicester, Cardiff, Chester, and dreams of going abroad that never quite happened.
Janet Sherbourne and Tricia Durdey - Photo: Lu Jeffery
A hot day in Derby and I was late for a weekend workshop with German choreographer Wolfgang Stange. I arrived flustered after a morning of classes, and reluctant to join an already established group. At the end of two days I was giddy with the pleasure of dancing.
We improvised solo and in groups with masks, fans, fabric, costume and exquisite music from folk to classical. From the outside Wolfgang watched and directed with a few words. There was effortlessness in participation, the sense of losing oneself willingly in a flow of movement.
Working with Wolfgang and Amici Dance Theatre changed my life and the way I perceived dance as well as taught it. For several years I travelled weekly or monthly to London for rehearsals, and performed in London, Glasgow, Berlin and Vienna with this extraordinary group. I learned to lose myself in dance and yet remain acutely aware of everything and everyone around me, a deep language that ran through movement and gesture, not of words at all. Above all, my narrow notion of the aesthetic of beauty was blown apart completely.
Beauty is something as dancers were are ever aware of, beauty of face and body, our lack of it, fatness, thinness, a kind of body fascism. Traute Faggioni – a teacher I worked with once in Florence was enchanted by the beauty of two young Italian girls who attended her class – they were indeed very lovely.
The beauty of the dancers in Amici, their openness, warmth and innocence, though of another kind, is more than equal.
Amici Dance Theatre Company
Deep in the woods
For over ten years, movement artist, Simon Whitehead has been running his Locator workshops in West Wales near the Preseli Hills. There people meet, and with Simon’s gentle intuitive leadership, walk, dance, write, and get lost in the sessile oak woods of Ty Canol.
We walk and lose ourselves in the pitch darkness of night, the sound of the owls and the movement of wind and water. We find stillness, a connection with leaf and tree, earth and stream. The abstract, the interior, the imagined, are all given form through the smallest dance. We watch, we move, we witness.
Returning we bring a sense of the woods with us.
Ty Canol Woods
The wonderful thing about dance is that it’s transient, vanished as soon as witnessed.
Over forty years I’ve made many dances, most of them forgotten even by me but for a gesture, a mood. There are photographs and videos, but they don’t give much away. What is vitally important in the making is gone a while later. I loved a piece I made in 2008 called Red. It was the first I made in many years and it toured to Japan and I was precious about it. Perhaps it made a mark. But it’s not important to me any longer. That was then. I like that about dance. The nowness.
Rehearsals with Tim Taylor
Dancing with Tim Taylor
letter to Tim before first performance of Inside Us, April 2012
You asked me to describe how our dance together started.
There was a performance workshop in St Albans three years ago. I decided to go. You came into the room. You put your coat on the piano. I noticed you because you were late, and then because I so enjoyed dancing with you that day. Afterwards we talked in the car park. We had so much shared history through our early training at Trent Park – though we’d missed each other by two years all those years ago. There was a sense of knowing. Then I sent you a card asking if you’d like to work together and you agreed.
Over the last three years we’ve danced in many spaces – studios, theatres, a Derbyshire reading room, the streets and squares of Islington, a beach in Cornwall. Sometimes other people have watched – but more often we’ve worked alone. We had no plan but to let the movement - the dance - emerge from stillness. Sometimes words came too.
August 2009 -
‘It’s curious being in the empty space - no music, nothing to hold onto. Where to put my feet and how to get from here to there? I know the sensation of stretching, rolling, reaching, and how much my body wants to know my strength by really pushing - against hard surfaces, the wall, the floor, the softer resistance and give of you. But here there is nothing – no definite place to start, no impulse. So I wait. We wait. Then in a breath it begins.’
Over months we began to take more risks – both physically and creatively. We became familiar with the weight, flow, tug and pull of each other dancing. At best – when an improvisation was really working – we seemed to merge in a shared world of imagination shaped by movement. The movement took its own form, had its own momentum.
But always there is more – sometimes it was as if we stopped short, aware of the barrier of limitation yet not knowing how to break through. It’s so easy to fall into familiar patterns. Working with our six guest artists really challenged this – made us think, move, feel along different pathways pushing through into a state of confusion. For a while – at what felt like the crucial moment - we were ‘at sea’, lost, with so many possible directions to take that nothing was clear.
And so ‘Inside Us’ emerged from this unconscious place – grounded always through our delight in the sensation of moving – together and apart. Structuring the performance came late, after hours and months of exploration. Although it was a process of deliberation, decision-making, and editing of our movement ‘episodes’ - it was still informed by a sense of ‘knowing.’ What do I mean in this context by ‘knowing’? I think there is a feeling for narrative – though our narrative might be fragmented.
There is a kind of internal music in the shifts and changes in energy and dynamic that gives coherence to the form. There is an inner journey, both personal and shared, embodied in movement.
And still we don’t know what it is we have made until that moment of performing, of being witnessed by an audience. Then there is completion. Then there is new beginning.
Performance of Inside Us - Conway Hall
The closer I get the less there is to write.
Every week this cold winter seven of us meet in the Parish Rooms to learn Flamenco from Jose Poyatos. He dances and I think of Seville oranges in February, such colour, such sharp sweetness.
The days I forget to dance.
My Pilates students are not dancers but nevertheless they sometimes move with such beauty it takes my breath away.
Meeting to dance with Jacky Lansley and Tim Taylor in Jacky’s Dance Research Studio in Shoreditch is like coming home.
I know I will dance into old age.
Working with Tim Taylor