Mark Patterson in A Dance at Home
The dance started at 7.30pm. More than thirty expectant faces looked on as David played a brief introduction on the piano, stood up, walked slowly to the centre of his own living room and handed me a stack of travel books. “I love travel, and I hate coming home,” I told the silent audience.
Over the next forty minutes the five performers in this production, Jane, David, two of his students and myself, weaved a dance of the home that reflected on knitting, collecting, travelling, Walt Whitman, love of theatre, and concluded with a hi-energy mock-karate dance, set to the pounding beat of an LCD Soundsystem remix. Not for the first time, as I kicked and punched into the air while jigging like a wired disco monster, I asked myself how on earth I had become involved in this performance for Dance4’s Nottdance festival.
Get into the groove...
Before this, I hadn’t danced in public for years. If I moved rhythmically to music with another person it was in the kitchen with my young son. In fact, only a few months earlier I would have said I had a near blank when it came to ‘contemporary dance.’ If I thought of it at all, I thought of torsos writhing uselessly on soft mats, and that episode of The Fast Show’s Jazz Club when avant-garde jazz-dance troupe Thrusk cavorted madly across the stage. Contemporary dance was, in essence, a subject ripe for mockery.
Life changed when I got a phone call asking if I wanted to take part in a new project by Dance4 called the Commission Collective. Dance4, led by chief executive Paul Russ, was after a writer to join a team of doctors, nurses, head teachers and business people - not a single professional dancer among them - who would together commission and shape a new performance in private homes. It was called A Dance at Home and would be led by a professional choreographer to be selected by the Collective. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand what it was all about. But what the hell – I joined up, thinking it’s always wrong to turn down new opportunities, and promptly missed the first meeting.
Comprehension of the process began to emerge in subsequent meetings in various homes and Dance4’s studio. And there were many questions: did we want to perform in this dance ourselves? If so, in whose home? Should the performance celebrate home or suggest different ideas about home? These issues of interpretation were the subject of much debate, but ultimately became the responsibility of the choreographer, who we selected after a long interview process at David’s flat.
A look through my shorthand notes of that day reminds me what a long and tiring session it was. Several choreographers had been selected to be interviewed; some were there in person, some were interviewed via Skype:
Question: What happens if you dislike a room you’re working in?
Answer: Personally I wouldn’t want to make dishonest work. Some rooms make me want to smile. Others make me want to cry.
Question: Why are you interested in performing a dance in bedrooms?
Answer: Because they are the inner sanctum. It’s the most intimate place in the house. When you go to someone’s house, you don’t go in the bedroom much, do you?
Our favoured choreographer by a long stretch was Jane Mason who’d travelled up from Devon and had no desire to perform in bedrooms. Jane, it soon became clear, was absolutely central to the success of the entire project. However, this wasn’t down to her technical dance abilities since she was not here to perform herself; it was because her sensitivity and personal skills of empathy and intuition were essential to teasing out a professional performance from the personalities of the ten Collective members, each with a different idea about the meaning of home.
...boy you got to move
Jane started off by visiting everybody in their houses to find out what home meant to us. We were asked to select a single, meaningful object that represented our ideas about home. I found these visits to be intense but liberating as conversations forced me to think through my deeply conflicted feelings about home – it was a place to get away from, but represented safety and security for my son. One session with Jane lasted two hours, another three. They were a kind of therapy. My meaningful object was a battered paperback of Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveller. From this and conversations with the other Collective members, Jane somehow managed to conjure a series of performances in four homes.
Jane’s choreographic ability came through in her clear-eyed focus on transforming little moments into performance moments that segued gracefully with the next action. The action might seem inconsequential - picking up an object or turning the body to face one way or another - but during rehearsals, Jane would seize on those actions and encourage us to invest them with significance. “OK, let’s pause for a moment and think about how we can turn that into a thing,” she would say.
Meanwhile, I was gaining a new respect and understanding of dance as the unspoken language of the body; an expression of the abilities and limitations of the human form, alone in its own skin or with others. This chimed with my understanding of and respect for certain martial arts as disciplined philosophies of mind and body. As it happened, this was one of those little things mentioned to Jane in passing that she soon developed into a scarily big thing – a fully fledged mock-karate dance that at first I wasn’t sure I could perform in my own kitchen, never mind in front of an audience. But as 7.30pm came round on the big night, my nerves had evaporated and afterwards, an audience member said she’d seen a lot of contemporary dance but that our Dance at Home was the best thing she’d seen.
There were four performances in all, over three nights. Kathy gave a solo performance in her home; then there was ours; then two couples, Amanda and Richard, and Jim and Kate, performed in their homes on the third night. I missed Kathy’s, but I saw the last two and they were as different from each other as they were different from ours. Where my performance was about the ambiguity of home, here were two dances that subtly explored the desire to nest and stay put. I hope that Dance4 got what it was after. I hope Jane Mason was paid well for what must have been a stressful commission. And for joining in on that final cartoon karate dance.
On a personal level, I’ve found that the whole unusual process has given me an appreciation of contemporary dance and a new confidence in performing in public. I also have a burning desire to sign up for real karate classes.
Anybody interested in the next Commission Collective should contact Dance4’s Sarah Tutt at firstname.lastname@example.org.