Choreographer Rosemary Lee creates work in performance, film and installation – often working with large mixed-age casts of professional and non-professional dancers. She began making works with non-professional participant performers in the 1980s – notably with ‘Egg Dances’ (1988) which was performed in London dance venues by a cast of thirteen. While continuing to present staged performance works, she also began to create works in site-specific contexts. These included in rural settings such as the dance film works ‘boy’ (1995) and ‘greenman’(1997), both created with film-maker Peter Anderson. She also began to make performance works with very large casts (almost two hundred dancers in ‘Square Dances’) of mixed-age dancers for public spaces and sites. These works include ‘Haughmond Dances’ (1990) at Haughmond Abbey, Shrewsbury, ‘Stranded’ (1991) at the Festival Hall Ballroom, London, ‘Ascending Fields’ (1992) at Fort Dunlop Tyre Depot, Birmingham, ‘The Banquet Dances’ (1999) in The Banqueting Hall at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and more recently ‘Common Dances’ (2009) in the Greenwich Borough Hall. A shift to more public outdoor spaces came with ‘Square Dances’ (2011) in London squares and ‘Melt Down’ (2012) for (various) public spaces here and abroad. Her most recent large-scale participatory work ‘Under the Vaulted Sky’ (2014), a site-specific work with a cast of one hundred, was created for the city of Milton Keynes’s Cathedral of Trees – an arboretum planted on an ancient ley line and that mirrors the floor plan of Norwich Cathedral.
Her work in installation includes the interactive video piece ‘Remote Dancing’ (2004), the seven screen video installation ‘Without’ (2013) and most recently Liquid Gold is the Air (2015) a triptych video work created with Roswitha Chesher. ‘Remote Dancing’ – made in collaboration with Nic Sandiland – invites individual audience members into enclosed corridors where their movements interact with and seemingly inform those of an on screen dancing body. ‘Without’ is a multi-faceted portrait of the city of Derry/Londonderry and its people. Filmed from the city walls and involving four hundred local people, the work amalgamates Lee’s interest in film, installation, site-specificity and participation. Tending towards a sense of people existing in groups, rather than as individuals, the visual range of the video frame extends from a distant circling of tiny figures in a strangely quiet urban landscape, to close ups of faces filling the frame in their moving towards and passing by.
A pervading feeling in Lee’s work is a sense of community – of commonality and togetherness – of being and acting together – of human connection and warmth. Practically this is achieved by Lee through the scale of numbers in much of her work, by the range of participants she works with and by the setting. It’s also achieved through her workshop processes in preparation for performances when Lee and professional dancers chosen by Lee work closely with participants. Through this, participants develop skills in moving and in sensing that is simultaneously focused inwardly towards their own experiences of moving, and outwardly towards connection with the group. Lee’s work is a choreography of dancing bodies – but the dancing is pared down, simple without feeling simplified. There is a passing on of knowledge in the workshops – knowledge of dance that is not codified dance steps but is a bodily knowledge that seems to become particular to each participant and that is put to the use of the group choreography.
Lee has a concern towards care in her work and in her ways of working. In 2012 she created the double DVD ‘On Taking Care’ which explores the making of ‘Common Dance’ and the on-going themes and concerns in her work. In the same year she co-curated the symposium ‘On Taking Care’ (2012) at Queen Mary, University of London.
Rosanna: You have been working with participants since your earliest works in the 80s. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that you work with amateur dancers – rather than a general any body kind of participant. Can you tell us about what drew you to working with non-professionals?
Rosemary: It is interesting you use the word amateur, I had an aversion to that term until someone recently described it as meaning doing it “for the love of it” alone. Often the performers come because they have danced or dance when they can, but I also work with complete beginners. Several things drew me towards working with non professionals. As a child I was struck by what happened to groups of people – who would never normally exchange words – when they came together to make a pantomime. I witnessed class, income and educational divides become invisible as the common endeavour took over. I sensed then that this was very powerful and unusual. I think the work is exploring ways to express or illustrate humanity. That’s a bit of a statement on paper, but I mean it in a quiet way – just as sometimes when I look down the crowded tube train I marvel at the faces, bodies and experiences gathered there. I feel that performers of all ages and experiences help an audience member become aware of their own place within that group, they sense their own life in relation to the children and elders and hopefully sense the movement more because they could do it too. I don’t want to make work primarily for a theatre going dance literate audience, I want the work to brush with passers by and new audiences.
Rosanna: The term socially engaged art – referring to work made in collaboration with communities – is much used these days. While your work is highly social in its gathering of lots of people, I don’t think it’s made in response to particular communities. Rather that in its being made it forms temporary communities that exist for the purpose of manifesting an artwork that you have conceived. It can at times involve large groups performing similar – not quite unison – choreographed actions such as in ‘Common Dance’. Alongside the choreographic demand that participants ‘fit in’ to the group, you have an ongoing concern with care in your way of working with people – indicating a political and social imperative as driver. Your work has been very warmly received by both participants in the work and by audiences – often being hailed as deeply human and of evoking spiritual feelings. Can you talk around the nuances in your work of what might be perceived as conflicting drives – care for the individual and the necessity to ‘fit in’ to the group?
Rosemary: Thank you and what a thought provoking question. Yes it is really important to me to take care of the individual and to create an atmosphere of tolerance, acceptance and respect for everyone. The work and the process itself needs to create enough space for people to be themselves – but to also feel part of a common direction together. They have to be able to work co operatively and ego can’t be an obstacle. But difference hopefully is embraced and held within those unison moments that are somewhat tidal in structure and dynamic to allow for difference to be accommodated within a given task or image. I guess I might want a unified wash or rush of movement to have within it a vast array of subtle variety within the force of that shared dynamic. I try to celebrate every individual within every ensemble. Sometimes I think people come to experience the sense of a large ensemble where everyone is equally valued regardless of their experience.
Rosanna: Many of the sites that you have used in making work have been buildings that are associated with public gatherings such as with ‘Haughmond Dances’ (1990) at Haughmond Abbey, Shrewsbury, ‘Stranded’ (1991) at the Festival Hall Ballroom, London, ‘The Banquet Dances’ (1999) in The Banqueting Hall at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, ‘Common Dance’ (2009) in the Greenwich Borough Hall amongst others. (There’s also ‘Ascending Fields’ (1992) at Fort Dunlop Tyre Depot, Birmingham – where people gathered for a different kind of purpose: for work.) To what extent has a theme based or narrative drive informed the development and content of those works?
Rosemary: I must confess I never thought of the buildings I chose to work in as gathering spaces though you are right some certainly are. The buildings have an effect on me, I do research their history. ‘Haughmond Dances’, a very early work, had more literal reference to the monks that would have lived there. My research into St Augustine’s philosophical questioning – that I imagined the monks contemplating around the cloister – informed the choirs lyrics in the performance and the overall feel of the work. I think generally though it’s always quite a personal response to the site itself. The scale and architecture and how I see the space being inhabited by performers, what their relationship with the site would be – is always my starting point.
Rosanna: In what ways – if any – has the move away from buildings to more public spaces as sites for works such as with ‘Square Dances’ (2011) and ‘Melt Down’ (2012) shifted or influenced your approach to making?
Rosemary: I have become much more interested in the passer by as brief audience member. I am trying to make work that has a very light touch on its surroundings, fleeting, passing through with no trace. I am currently thinking about working on a piece that might take an hour to cross a landscape – but the work has no obvious beginning or end and no bow. I think of these works as animating the public spaces for a little while so that when they have passed through the space, their absence is noticed for a while and the surroundings are seen anew because the performers aren’t there.
Rosanna: Thank you!
Notes and sources:
Interview date 8th May 2017
Without (2013) was commissioned by the dance company Echo Echo in Northern Ireland and was a City of Culture project
Arts Admin at http://www.artsadmin.co.uk/projects/90-s-site-specific and https://www.artsadmin.co.uk/projects/melt-down
Centre for Research and Creation in the Performing Arts at http://www.rescen.net/Rosemary_Lee/r_lee.html#.WO89P2Pw-Tc
Finding common ground through dance at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfWEWwrGJqA
But is it Art? The artist and participatory practice – People Dancing International Event 2014 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itKTkKxu03w
On Taking Care: symposium. A ResCen symposium curated by Rosemary Lee in association with Martin Welton (Queen Mary University of London) 01 Dec 2012, London, UK
On Taking Care (2012) by Rosemary Lee DVD published by ResCen
Interview date 8th May 2017