Choreographing hope: One Dance UK meets Jacky Lansley

15 Mar 2018

Fergus Early, Maria Ghoumrassi, Ursula Early, Ingrid MacKinnon and Vincent Ebrahim in ‘About Us’








One Dance UK’s Marketing and Communications Assistant Charlotte Constable met tremendously successful choreographer Jacky Lansley to discuss her latest project.

You’re currently touring a new work, About Us. Tell us how you went about creating this work.

About Us began as a process of research and development in 2016, and it’s about telling stories. I brought together a group of very experienced performers from different backgrounds, which very much reflects my ongoing practice and my experience of working in different sectors such as film, performance art and theatre. There were seven artists – a very inter-generational and interdisciplinary group – two actors who have a fantastic empathy and ability to work physically; and five dance practitioners who are very experienced at using voice and can engage with emotional embodiment.

I invited these people to bring a story or experience to the studio. It was a very simple instruction: I asked them to choose something, which is either joyful, or distressing, or very mundane. So we had some very clear starting points, and it seemed to me that the varied collection of stories did reflect personal and political concerns. They were about identity, gender issues, home or homelessness, caring, age… so this group of people became a kind of microcosm of the world it seemed to me. We were a community.

Who else became a part of this community?

I also invited into this process the very experienced experimental composer, Sylvia Hallett. It was a delight, because we were reconnecting after many years; we did some very significant projects in the 80s together. In About Us, Sylvia recorded the performer’s oral story telling and used their voices as source material to create beautiful and extraordinary soundscapes.

I then worked on physical material in the studio one-to-one with each of the performance practitioners – Vincent Ebrahim, Fergus Early, Ingrid MacKinnon, Ursula Early, Esther Huss and, in this more recent phase of development, Jreena Green and Tim Taylor. I also asked the cinematographer Roswitha Chesher to film some of the material inside the studio and then we took it outside to various locations, developing the stories through the multiple languages of live action, film and soundscapes – which, within this form of interdisciplinary work, is all part of the choreographic landscape.

There is a form of epilogue in the piece – I talk about it on the soundtrack – where we also found ourselves drawn to the issue of endangered species, such as the elephant and giraffe. So there’s a kind of over-arching discussion about where we’re going as human beings; are we endangering ourselves also? It’s a very ambitious question, but I think a question that this piece, on some level, is looking at.

In a previous interview on About Us, you say you want to ‘choreograph hope’ – what does this mean?

I recently published a book called Choreographies: Tracing the Material of an Ephemeral Art Form, an investigation of what choreography can be. For me ‘choreography’ can be very expansive and quite hard to pin down. When it comes to choreographing hope, that can mean many things. I think we need hope, which is not a sentimental need. About Us seems to enable audiences to feel and in my experience if you don’t feel, everything becomes very repressed – and then you can’t think.

I really valued the opportunity to work with actors, who know how to emotionally inhabit, and I think I’ve been able to transfer that skill across to dance practitioners. Through something very distilled, like standing or walking, they’re not closing off from emotion – they’re revealing it. I work a lot with everyday movement and gesture, so hopefully the audiences recognises their own reality. At one moment in the project we actually teach the choreography to the audience, and then when they later see that moment on film, they all echo it. So there’s a wonderful, communal moment of audience participation in the piece, which is very simple but so effective. It’s suddenly like a huge chorus. We are not ducking difficult questions – we do confront the audience with some very dark statistics – but I think through the multiple languages of the work it conveys hope. I think hope and being able to feel are very important factors in the work.

Do you think having the audience in-the-round plays a part in conveying that emotion?

Although my work is primarily informed by live/ performance art and visual strategies, I do also work with theatrical strategies and it’s how you place and integrate those strategies, which will determine how the audience reads them. If you are front-on, however artistically rigorous the work may be, an audience can be lulled into seeing it only one way or having particular expectations.

With About Us, I really wanted to explore the notion of perspective further, so we’ve done it in traverse and in-the-round. In both the performers are sitting with the audience, so the boundaries are completely blurred between audience and performer. We have two very large screens, with the same imagery on both screens; the audience therefore experiences multiple perspectives of both the live and screen action. In the middle of the piece, we ask the audience to stand up and cross over to the other side. There’s a deliberate engagement with questions about how one looks – at what – and why in this totally visual age.

How do you see (your) interdisciplinary work developing in future?

About Us can work in any space. It needs certain conditions, but it could work in a huge variety of spaces including galleries, studios, theatres and other types of public spaces and it looks like there’s a lot of interest to tour the work more widely in 2019-2020. There’s been some discussion about creating an About Us exhibition before we tour again as an interim project. There is some wonderful film and recordings of conversations that weren’t used in this performance – which we would like to share with wider audiences. The process of gathering all these personal and political stories is creating a living archive – which, I think, is inherently interdisciplinary and ‘about us’ all.

About Us will be performed at Oxford House, London, on Wednesday 21 March. Book tickets on the Oxford House website.