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Interview with choreographer Jacky Lansley: ‘About Us’ tour 2018

1 Feb 2018

Jacky Lansley. Image: Hugo Glendinning

Jacky Lansley is a choreographer, writer and performance artist who has been practising for four decades.

Jacky’s work combines visual and theatrical disciplines and is concerned with space and the site specific. She has a long-term special relationship with the Cornish coastal landscape, which has inspired many works.

During her long career she has, amongst others, collaborated with the artists Sally Potter and Rose English as part of their seminal Limited Dance Company and was a founder of UK’s major independent dance studios – X6 Dance Space and Chisenhale Dance Space. In 2002 she founded the Dance Research Studio, which has supported the making of more recent works including: Bird (2001); Holding Space (2004); View From the Shore & Anamule Dance (2007); Standing Stones (2008); The Life Class (film, 2008), Guests R&D (2010) and Guest Suites (2012). She is the co-author (with Fergus Early) of The Wise Body, published by Intellect Books in 2011. Her new book Choreographies was published by Intellect Books in September 2017.

Can you tell us a bit about your new work, About Us?

About Us is a mixed media performance work built around personal life experiences shared by the artists involved. The experiences are about home, homelessness, grief, joy, caring, the environment, cultural identity and gender. Our more recent R&D has taken this further to come to an imaging of the experience of endangered species – such as the glorious elephant and giraffe – as a way to investigate what it is to be human beings who are responsible for the devastating climate and habitat changes that endanger ourselves and the other animals we share our planet with.

About Us explores the extraordinary and the everyday. Any audience can recognise their own gestures and feelings in the movement and visual vocabulary. The repetition of the story ingredients through film, soundscapes and live performance becomes celebratory, insightful and intriguing, as large and small events are framed and made special. I try to also play mischievously with multiple perspectives – near, far, live, film, inside, outside – and draw the audience into an intimate world, which they are part of.

Through the work I draw on disciplines and strategies from dance, performance art, theatre and live art, which reflects my own interdisciplinary practice. I have always worked with collaborators and performers who, like myself, are drawn to crossing boundaries into other art forms, in the quest to find artistic languages and forms that can explore important and sometimes difficult world stories.

What made you decide to make this project?

I feel I have come to understand how the personal is political and how important it is to listen to each other’s stories. The title About Us emerged after the divisive outcome of the EU referendum, which seemed, in part, the result of a lack of story telling between different communities. The About Us project comes out of our previous R&D project Crossing Paths, which was about crossing boundaries; boundaries of gender and cultural and artistic boundaries. My recently published book, Choreographies: Tracing the Materials of an Ephemeral Art Form also informed this enquiry through the idea of meeting practice with research. The idea of practice as research is further explored on the About Us project, through working with our dramaturg, researcher and theorist, Ramsay Burt.

From being part of the X6 collective in the 80’s until now, I feel, I have continued to develop an understanding of my practice over time and the notion of the personal is political. My last work, Guest Suites, was made five years ago. Since then, I have built my practice through teaching and writing. My book came out of a sense that there was still a lack of context for experimental dance in Britain, despite decades of interesting work by some determined practitioners! I did not want to abandon the words ‘choreographer’ and ‘dance’ as it is where my roots are, but I felt that there was still no context for interdisciplinary, independent dance. This motivated me to write my book, which I hope will help to carve out a revived space for innovative dance practice in the UK.

After writing Choreographies I felt there was a need for me to make new work and I had just returned to the studio when Trump and Brexit happened! It seemed like the Brexit divide of young and old, north and south was about people not telling each other their stories. In response I wanted to try and create a work that challenged boundaries and addressed these political issues without simply illustrating or bemoaning them. I wanted to create art as political action. I wanted to choreograph hope.

How does your process work?

At the start of the development process in 2016 I invited each of the performing artists to bring a ‘story’ to the studio that was joyful, distressing or mundane. These stories were then explored through a range of physical and vocal disciplines to create live performance material, some of which was then filmed in different locations by the cinematographer Roswitha Chesher, while the oral telling of the stories was recorded by the project’s composer Sylvia Hallett to use as source material for diverse soundscapes.

In dance, there is a convention of leaving our ‘baggage’ at the door but for this project to work, I needed to invite the performers to bring it into the studio and to find narratives within the ‘mundane’. I then collected movements from people in the street and other public spaces to add to the familiar and collective aspects of the project, which support and frame the personal stories of the performers. This process of artistic, political and emotional layering has led us to research endangered species – such as the glorious elephant and giraffe – and to think how this relates to the idea of human beings as endangered. As a company we are finding it an exciting and profound challenge to make artistic forms that can express and explore these vital concerns and issues.

Who is involved with About Us?

Given its mixed media and interdisciplinary nature, the project includes experienced artists from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines. These are: Vincent Ebrahim, Ingrid Mackinnon, Ursula Early, Esther Huss, Tim Taylor, Jreena Green and Fergus Early. Collaborators also include: composer Sylvia Hallett, cinematographer Roswitha Chesher, lighting designer Nao Nagai as well researcher and theorist Ramsay Burt.

What other aspects are involved in the project?

There will also be an educational aspect to the tour including an interdisciplinary workshop with MA students at DMU and a public workshop on Tuesday 6 March 2018, 6pm – 9pm at Bluecoat, Liverpool. There will also be an open studio and talk on Sunday 25 February, 2pm-5pm as part of the Speaking Dancer Programme that is run for professional dancers at Dance Research Studio, London alongside the About Us tour, which offers an opportunity to spread the ethos and methodologies of Dance Research Studio.

The interdisciplinary training we offer at the Dance Research Studio is based around the concept of ‘the speaking dancer’. Within the west, certainly in the UK, we tend to make distinctions between the voice and the body, between dance and theatre. These distinctions can represent either a denial of the body, or a fierce emphasis on virtuosity, which denies expression. Many cultures find these separations absurd. An outstanding interdisciplinary and intergenerational company will explore these ideas in the performance work About Us that is about us all.

For further information on About Us, see the Dance Research Studio website.