It started when I moved back to Edinburgh in 2000 and began going to classes at Dancebase regularly. The classes I attend are the two professional ballet classes each week, and the Tap class for mature movers. Several years ago the “Golden” class for people over the age of sixty was initiated by Dancebase’s Artistic Director, Morag Deyes: Golden is taught by different teachers offering the chance to try a variety of dance styles. Our Golden class has been given several exciting performance opportunities, and on top of that BBC Alba made a series of programmes about dance in Scotland and chose Golden as one of the dance groups. During the series each group was highlighted, and the final programme ended with a performance given by all the groups at Tramway in Glasgow. Chris Wilson choreographed a “flashmob” for Golden which took place in the Museum of Scotland during the Science Festival. The class also performed at the Dancebase Christmas Show at the Queens Hall.
In 2013 the choreographers Robbie Synge and Lucy Boyes gave the Golden class a series of contemporary based dance classes. Lucy and Robbie wanted to make a dance piece using older dancers and thinking about the concept of memory. The idea of exploring the theme of memory through dance was intriguing. Five of us from the Golden class volunteered to take part in a two week residency in Dancebase in May 2013. For preparation we were each asked to think of a place with special or significant meaning for us, in or around Edinburgh.
On the first day of the residency we met in the studio feeling slightly self conscious and apprehensive about what was in store. Lucy and Robbie greeted us warmly and explained the structure of the residency carefully. Our first activity was to sit in a circle and tell each other about the memory places we had chosen and something about the reasons for making that choice. Robbie spoke first – and opened the gates for us. We all knew each other already from class, and Lucy and Robbie created a welcoming and non-threatening atmosphere so that deeply personal stories emerged which I found moving and surprising. Compared to some of the other participants I think I remained quite reserved, but the experience of sharing was very special and a bond of trust was firmly established.
We were asked to make up a series of movements to illustrate our memory place. I had had some experience of this kind of work during a previous residency with Cesc Gelabert, a choreographer from Barcelona, which helped greatly. I started with a fairly literal expression of my chosen place and tried to pick out certain details to make a clear framework for the dance. My place, George Square and Buccleuch Place, consisted of “hard” landscape – concrete slabs, buildings and steps. The other residency members all chose “soft” landscapes of sea, open spaces, streams and woodland. Lucy and Robbie helped us to subtly alter movements. By becoming less literal and more conceptual the movements became much more interesting choreographically. They also helped us to link our individual dances in such a way that the solos became a group piece. To do this we had to repeat and repeat sections until Lucy was satisfied with the visual results. Movements that we had created and possibly cherished were altered or discarded. And it was hard work. My piece involved a falling movement (indicating computer printout cards being dropped down a flight of stone steps) and ending flat on my back on the floor with my hands going “splat” on the ground on either side. We seemed to go over that bit so many times I ended up bruised and tired. The bond of trust was stretched, but we could all see that this process was necessary. In the final version my “splat” coincided with definitive movements performed by the others, including an action of breaking a stick. When it worked, it worked well.
Memories can take so many forms. Sometimes memories are bright and clear, sometimes vague and shadowy. We can have false memories that have been coloured by photographs and story telling. We shared many memories during the two weeks. One day we just danced to music doing exactly what we wanted. Someone began talking and we all produced different memories as we danced. The session ended with a totally uninhibited contact improvisation and a lot of laughter. It was utterly spontaneous and joyous. Another day Lucy and Robbie tried to reproduce that, but encouraged us to think of dark memories. To me that session felt more contrived, but there was a highly charged emotional atmosphere in the studio. Interestingly these memories remained private. No one spoke.
I found the way Lucy and Robbie worked fascinating. They were always considerate and careful, aware that they were working with older bodies. They used constant repetition and gave us some strange exercises to try. We moved chairs around randomly. We created “landscapes” out of the objects in the studio – barres, tables, chairs, books, shoes, coat hangers. We made up spoken phrases and movement phrases and then had to put these together in disconnected ways. We experimented with different rhythms and taught each other movements we had created. One day we had to make up sequences and show them to a partner who then had to dance the sequence backwards. Generally we did our best and tried not to complain. We had to write a sentence relating to our memory place and worked hard at one section of the piece involving movement and speaking. I think we all liked that part. Later it was completely discarded. This was unsettling, but I learned that it was important to trust Lucy and Robbie because they were watching the piece so could evaluate what worked and what didn’t. But I found the long pauses that were slotted into the piece very difficult. I could not see how a long wait with the dancers standing or sitting doing nothing could be interesting from an audience point of view. I did query that quite forcefully. But was equally forcefully told to accept the pauses.
Robbie filmed each of us alone in our memory places while the others worked in the studio. He then combined this with extracts from the studio to make a film that became an integral part of the piece. A strong element of my memory place was paving stones around the David Hume Tower that rocked and made a sound – almost a musical sound. I really enjoyed finding those again and bouncing around to make the sounds. Other parts of the place had altered considerably – but not the paving stones. I loved seeing the film and seeing the others in their memory places.
One participant was away on holiday during the second week. We created a little dance that was a memory of this person. Fun to work on a new memory rather than something from the distant past. At the end of the second week we showed the work to an audience at Dancebase in the studio where we had been working. We also performed the piece during the Heads Up Dancebase programme in the Fringe in August in their specially created theatre studio. Lucy and Robbie were invited to continue the residency for another two weeks in September. This was exciting, but also a big commitment for us all.
When the September residency began I felt a big change in the atmosphere. I suppose this was partly due to having the holiday person back again. Also one member could only take part in the afternoons because of a work commitment. I could appreciate this reason, but also found it annoying because of the dynamics of the group changing half way through each day. We were all also very aware that one member of the group had become very frail, another was having physical problems and obviously this imposed limitations. Lucy and Robbie discarded large parts of the previous work. Although it was nice to work on new pieces it also felt slightly unnerving to be without the familiar stuff. We still had the memory place landscape solos, but the long pauses and waits seemed to increase which I did not like.
One new section was a contact improvisation piece with myself and one other person. I learned so much from this. It was a completely new dance style for me and I loved learning how to stay more grounded and use weight changes to influence the movement. It was also quite scary as we had to learn to completely rely on each other to be in the correct position to catch each other and guide each other. The teaching given by Robbie and Lucy was incredibly valuable and helpful. When we performed this part we repeated it three times. First marking out the piece while talking, then doing it gently to the recording of our voices. Finally dancing the piece properly to music. This was to show memory at work. In another section we ask members of the audience to learn part of our landscape solos as a way of helping us to learn. I found it interesting to see the reaction of the audience. Those not chosen really enjoyed watching the learning process – partly, I suspect, because they were so relieved not to have been chosen. The selected people were generally pretty nervous and anxious, but delighted and almost elated to find it a fun experience and not as difficult as they had feared.
Lucy and Robbie were given funding by Creative Scotland to continue working on the Past Inside the Present and to perform it at various venues in Scotland. This exciting news was tinged by sadness because in the autumn one member of our group died. She is hugely missed. The residency took place at Lyra Theatre in Craigmiller, Edinburgh in February 2014. We ended up with only three dancers as the fourth was about to have a major operation. Technically this meant we were now professional dancers rather than volunteers. We were amused by this, but it also made us feel very responsible for doing well for Robbie and Lucy, and their reputation.
I think I enjoyed the last residency best of all. The three of us worked very well together and Lucy and Robbie managed to rework much of the material for three people rather than five. We were also given exciting new things to do. Best of all the long pauses vanished. I had expressed my dislike of the ending of the piece after the second residency. We had ended sitting in a circle in silence. I found this so reminiscent of an old peoples’ home. Lucy and Robbie were rather taken aback when I told them this. It hadn’t occurred to them, but they could see why I did not like it, and for version three we were given a fun dynamic beginning and ending for the piece.I much preferred the upbeat ending. For the last residency we were joined by a sound engineer and lighting engineer as well as a dramaturg. Each morning Lucy gave us an excellent class which was a perfect preparation for the day ahead. It felt like we were a real professional company.
We performed the finished piece in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Plockton and the experience was exciting, terrifying and stimulating all at once. There is a possibility that we will be asked to perform again in other places, but whatever happens this has been a wonderful experience and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity. Now each time I walk through Buccleuch Place and George Square I have another very special memory to add to those of the past.
Judy has always danced, always wanted to dance and always loved dancing. To get in touch email firstname.lastname@example.org