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SICK HEART RIVER Banff 2000


As a choreographer my language is movement, and the text is (most often) the body. I place myself comfortably on the post side of modern; mixed with my female gender my working methods tend towards the 'inside-out' perspective.

Therefore flying from inner-city London to the Canadian rockies to workshop with nine actors on the themes and ideas of Buchan's novel Sick Heart River (not just a play text but a novel of dense prose) was a juicy challenge.

Luke Dixon and I have a history of working together on, what I feel is best described as, 'visionary adventures' always sharpened with a bit of sex, grit and humour. We've done: middle-aged-man-in-underpants being filmed using super 8 on roofs in London’s Soho; Dickensian waltzing magic in Victorian train station at Christmastime; and we just can't stop ourselves doing things with tango, so epic journey novels in the Rockies sounded like the thing to do.

In my own work I have tended to create using key images: the spiral, desert, duality (as in Beauty and the Beast), the maze, lifeforms. Having been introduced to Chaos Theory by my long-term collaborator the composer Daniel Biro my knowing that such universal dynamic images are indeed reflected in Nature's workings, are supported by scientific truth even, gives confidence to my performance-makers intuition that: through simplicity comes complexity (the epic in the everyday); through improvisation (a fertile chaos) patterns emerge.

So Luke and I, with a working relationship based in such a soup, pre-planned morning workshops around a series of broad-based themes that draw on our varied past works: Desert, Maze, Transformations, The Foot, Journeys, The Grid, Animals and so on... thinking that this work would remain mostly separate to the afternoon exploration of the novel with the actors.

Reassuringly perhaps, things are never so tidy. Firstly, what was remarkable for me (us) Londoners was the awesome environment we found ourselves in on arrival at Banff. We were in the setting of Buchan's novel it seemed surrounded by snow-daubed mountains, silence, high blue skies, and knowing that beyond us this vastness continued for uninterrupted miles North towards the arctic circle. We all were affected by this land.

Boundaries start crumbling, definitions blur, rules get broken. All of us (performers/directors) had read Buchan's novel; a story of one dying man's journey into the Canadian semi-arctic wilds in a heroic (and therefore possibly self-redeeming) search of another lost man, and of course ultimately himself. As the performers started to explore themselves in the workshops so too a journey started for each. On the first day a contact improvisation session became a long sustained ritual group action. The work on animals (each performer had to conjure a real - or imagined - animal that would expect in the terrain of the novel) was compelling... and combined into work on the grid, using gestures of 'pain/exhaustion' was creating powerful performance work.... that we soon realised could create important parts of a future performance text.

We tried to stick to our original plan, and work on the novel in the afternoons. Working from a novel into text was something I was particularly interested in as a choreographer. It is completely foreign territory for me! To select, order and refine words/sentences/characters - whilst maintaining a narrative - is something which is mostly fragmented or non-existent in postmodern dance/dancetheatre work. But what I found was that despite there being literally so many words in a book... just as with dance, you can locate the central vein of the text, feel your way along its path, and bring to the fore the key words/images from within it. So with the performers we selected our favourite/key passages and played with those in a variety of ways: unspoken but with dramatic movement-based scenes; spoken repetitively with abstract movement "journeys"; delivered offstage over a mic. We discussed having them projected (still an idea for the future), reworked into a TV interview.... for me this was all fascinating. The potential for the delivery of textual narrative was equally diverse and manipulable as with dance material.

So, as the 2 weeks sped by our morning workshops were becoming sites for the exploration of the novel; and the exploration of the novel became a workshop. Inversion! One of my favourite explications of Chaos Theory is 'order and Chaos are the Masks of the same face'... and I was enjoying rubbing along with the surprises that creates.

We agreed to close the project with an open-to-the-public showing of the work we had been doing. As we assembled parts of the work that had been emerging... we were reminded again of part of the 'reason' for this project: to explore international collaboration - i.e. how different are we Brits/Europeans from the Canadians??? both as performers and audience. Earlier in the year I had discovered Leonard Cohen's CD The Future (having grown up listening to his gorgeous maudlin music since a teenager through my brother's bedroom wall), and was particularly struck by the simple truth of this line in the track Anthem; 'there's a crack, a crack, in everything, that's how the light gets in'. (Get the album - inspiring, not depressing). So, I brought this track on a recording with me to Canada kind of to see what the Canadians thought of this artist of theirs... and knowing that Cohen really wasn't like the usual dance music (we tend to use everything by minimalist composers: Reich, Glass, Gavin Bryars), but he is about journeys, facing the wall/the dark. I like the simplicity/depth of his music, and he is modern Canada, whilst we were working with a novel based in the founding years in the middle of ancient rock formations. His track provided a juxtaposition to the final section of our performance;... couples tangoing - meetings, partings, moments of intimacy and connection in the vast landscape that we find ourselves in.

I'm looking forward to going back to Banff to carry on realising that you can choreograph with words to Cohen.


For more information on The Banff Centre and Theatre Calgary see our links page.


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