Lead Editor’s note: We will be publishing excerpts from Q18: dis/sustain/ability, guest edited by Bronwyn Preece, in order to make the content accessible to blind readers with audio screen readers. We’ll also be including audio descriptions of the Quarterly’s original layout designed by Stephanie Plenner, audio described ky Katie Murphy. Please stay tuned for future posts and share widely. In this chapter, Ray Jacobs discusses the process of creating “Four Solos in the Wild.”
Four Solos in the Wild By Ray Jacobs
I am in a familiar situation — a circle of twelve talented learning-disabled dancers from Arty Party — partaking of the ritual known as warming up. Each performer takes their turn to lead, taking their moment in the spotlight and passing it on to the next performer… Each performer has a distinct movement language honed through a lifetime of dance and movement based projects, or simply their own indomitable style.
Mervyn (Performers’ names used with permission) begins, with movements and gestures that have power, gravitas and yet they still hold qualities of softness. Graham, who has an incredible graceful sense of wingspan within his arms, beguiles us with his bird-like movement. Erika brings weaves a lightness of moving with contagious joy and laughter to match. Andrew, all angles and emotion, falls into the drama of dancing, daring us to be part of that drama. Dean adds his twisting, repetitive and darkly comedic movements of subterfuge.
My name is Ray Jacobs, director of performance projects for Arty Party, a learning- disability arts organisation based in Shropshire, England. Four Solos in the Wild, is a touring exhibition of dance solos filmed in ancient wild woods. This is the story of how the project evolved from a moment’s desire, into — two years later — learning-disabled performers sharing their work with the public at the Tate Modern Museum in London. I speak as an observer, a facilitator, a director and a learner in this unfolding process.
The warm-up sparked the initial spark. During it, I had a growing hunger for this movement to be shared within a landscape that meets the performers incredible qualities and Tycanol Woods came to mind. I wondered what if the performers were to respond to, be taken up by, and place their movements within the magical Tycanol Woods?
Months later, seven learning disabled performers and a team of artists arrived at Pentre Ifan Centre in the Woods. After hastily unpacking sleeping bags and choosing bunk beds, we began a ritual of filling water bottles, donning walking boots, cagoules (waterproof jackets), and gathering for adventure. Support, patience, openness and laughter replaced habitual urgency.
The movement solo, especially when created by the performer, is an intensely artistic and personal statement. This, I felt, would be the right channel for the performers to create and have agency over their own work. We would be creating an installation of four film screens, showing each solo continually looped, surrounded by a forest of images of the performers captured by dance photographer Chris Nash.
Movement facilitator, Simon Whitehead, led us through the atmospheric Tycanol Woods, where, like a many-legged creature finding its pace after a long time immobile, we found a rhythm and a pace that suited everyone. We splashed, splattered, crunched, and slid. There are members of the company who find uneven surfaces challenging, but the group met squelchy mud, slippery rocks and glorious cushions of moss, with creativity, cooperation and laughter. The excitement and group impetus gave energy and verve to everyone. Playfulness is a strong, committed member of the group.
During the walk we stopped at a glade opening, deeply moss covered rocks and oaks in the foreground, an island of oaks on the horizon. The instructions were to walk towards the horizon and find a place to be, within the landscape. Once the first person arrived and settled, the next person was to follow and find their own place in relation to both the landscape and the other performer, and so on. Half the group witnessed the forming of this landscape portrait. The act of walking into an opening, being in a chosen place, alive to the environment, felt like a statement of sovereignty over our bodies, yet at the same time we were supported by each other and the landscape. We returned, one at a time, leaving no physical trace of the group but inhabiting it with memories.
Tycanol Woods is an ancient dark oak woodland, rich in moss, fern and lichen. Towards the hostel is a more recent, lighter part of the woods, with a mixture of beech, oak, sycamore and holly, ideal for bonfires and days when we don’t want to walk quite so far. Gathering the performers around an old fire pit, amongst a group of large beech trees, Simon gave the performers a task in pairs: one person leads, listening, seeing, touching the environment as they walk through the woods. The other follows. The leader is looking for a place that resounds, feels right, invites. Once the right place is found, the leader becomes dancer, spends time connecting with this place and then with eyes closed begins to move. When the dance comes to an end, eye contact is made between the mover and witness and the roles are reversed. Solos are created.
As a group we visit each solo. Graham Busby has chosen some long forgotten dens made of branches. He hides and scurries between the old dens like a hermit crab. His witness, Wren, aids the shell building, covering Graham’s body with leaves and branches. Erika Juniper dances around the base of a big beech tree, a dance of fingers sensing and listening, a powerful connection and longing.
Back in the studio the work was recalled in writing and drawing, and re-enacted, each performer was allocated a mentor who supported this recording process. These tasks of listening, moving and witnessing, and performance immersion within landscape, were all contributing to building the personal stories, the structure and the flavors of each performer’s solo.
Whitehead shares memories of the retreat:
Slowly, Tycanol entered us, and the dancers became quietly attuned the place and each other…
Real time seemed to drop away and a process of composition, song and observation took us through the falling afternoon light for hours. It was both ‘real’ and sublime.
I remember a talk by disability activist Petra Kuppers, at a conference in Ilfracombe, during which she stated that there was a strong need in disability performance to present ‘depth, heft and presence.’ This phrase has become an inner mantra and was one of the beacons moving this work forward.
Dance, historically, has been a bastion of the body perfect. An art form based on perfection is like a road ignoring all contours and cutting through the landscape with no regard and ultimately a heavy cost. Inclusive dance, on the other hand, is open to meanderings, diversions, the beauty of curves, twists, and setbacks.
Facilitating disabled performers to make their own work or collaborating with disabled people is not a separate field, or something adjunct to the mainstream but at the very heart of being human.
Returning to the Woods two weeks later, we had the task of honing the solos, creating music and costume and filming all four solos in five days. The performers were joined by Welsh composers and musicians Ceri and Elsa, supported by mentors, and followed by film makers.
The musicians had researched traditional music composed in the region. Morning movement sessions, led by inclusive dance artist Rachel Liggitt, forged an incredible link between performers and musicians. The musicians learned to respond to the dancers and the dancers, breathing in the notes of harp and fiddle, breathed out beautiful, moving dance.
“It felt so good being out in the woods by the tree, spending time with it.” – Erika, performer.
Erika’s solo was woven together with the song a Cantref that the musicians had unearthed. The song is a message from a yearning lover sung to a bird who would relay the message to her heart’s desire. Erika’s dance of whispering, tender strokes and circling the tree sparked our imagination… Erika, in a flowing purple gown, performs the solo with incredible concentration and presence. The musician’s voices add atmosphere to this scene in the heart of the woods. When Erika reaches out to touch the tree and the haunting Welsh voices begin, it is deeply moving. Performers, camera crew, mentors, and support artists are mesmerized and applaud every take.
“I’m feeling really good today, we did the filming, it was really wicked.” – Erika
Whilst given the space to find their own creativity, the performers were provided with rigorous direction, feedback, mentoring and critique, enabling them to work to the highest professional standard. I remember as a performer in an inclusive touring dance company, during a physically and emotional gruelling devising process, the disabled dancers stated critically that they did not receive the wrath and demands of the director as much as the non-disabled dancers. Arty Party’s process aimed not to recapitulate inequality.
One of the ground rules we had been given was to ‘be here and now’… amongst the calls of ravens, rush of streams and flight of the air. Andrew Kelly, one of the performers, initially struggled with this: falling into dramas of ‘another world’: being chased, dodging bullets, breaking down doors. I suggested a simple score of calling out loud the things we feel and the things we see right here: the edge of a leaf, the roughness of lichen, the call of a raven, a distant aeroplane, the snap of a branch underfoot. Opening the door to the present also invites all the things we are avoiding.
Andrew’s dance Letting Go was the last piece to be filmed, on dappled ground under the canopy of a sinuous oak: harpist, fiddle player, film crew and Andrew in spring sunshine, making sense of it all. During an interview, Andrew put his solo into words:
Breaking out from the cage of branches is finding my freedom.
Touching the sapling gently, I remember my Mother’s love.
I break and throw the branches, I feel raw with anger about my mother’s death.
Letting go of the branch is just that, letting go of it all and starting anew.
During the post-production process the films were edited exactly as they were performed, using shots from different camera angles to bring out the best.
Community dance pioneer, Cecilia Macfarlane, once shared during a lecture at Coventry University, that “Every project has a storm, it might happen at any time but I assure you it will.” The storm happened three weeks after getting back from filming, when we all found out that Dean Warburton and his mother had been killed in a car crash on the way to the workshop.
The remainder of this workshop and others during the following weeks were amongst the most emotionally challenging myself and my colleagues had ever facilitated. Performers and teachers shared so much grief, attempts at running a class regularly breaking down, with the whole group sharing memories and in tears. Attending Dean’s funeral with group members really brought it home. Three weeks before, we were in beautiful woods exploring the idea of burying each other amongst branches, moss and birdsong, with the usual funny, soft, expressive Dean, and here we were at his funeral, Dean’s larger than life body in a wooden coffin being carried gently by his family.
The Four Solos in the Wild opening was to be a celebration of the exhibition and a wake for the life of Dean. It was only upon setting up the four screens, each showing a looped solo, that we realized how beautifully they worked together as a quartet. Many people working at the theatre entered the space and were mesmerized by this quartet of solos – actions, gestures and stories full of presence and connection. Arty Party has a membership of one hundred, many of whom were present. The opening was a beautiful, wild, red carpet event.
The exhibition toured seven UK venues. At each opening the performers spoke to the public about the project and their solos, each time growing in confidence. When the exhibition was shown locally, it was a chance for the learning-disabled performers to share their work with support workers, family and friends. To hear how people were moved by the presence, qualities of movement, sense of inner story, was music to our ears. The performers grew visibly in stature through the process of sharing their work and the positive public response.
We are currently preparing for the project finale, a sharing of the filmed solos at the Tate Modern Cinema, organised by learning-disability film festival Oska Bright. Presenters have been Skyping with the performers on a regular basis. The performers will be invited to talk about their work in front of an audience of learning-disabled people, film festival programmers and curators. From the ancient woods of Tycanol to the South Bank in London, it will be a fitting finale to quite an adventure…
Ray Jacobs is a UK based artist who uses the mediums of image, film and movement to highlight the beauty, power and presence in the narratives that surround us. Ray works as a director and facilitator, creating imaginative and powerful works with a wide variety of companies, performers and participatory groups in particular collaborating with disabled artists. He states, “I aim in my work to create movement and image which steps quietly into the human heart”.
His recent multi award-winning short films include The Sea Reminds Me and Bastion. He is currently developing a new film based project with Arty Party based on the writings of Canadian Sci Fi author Jeff Vandermeer.