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Rosemary Lee

'Common Dance'

by David Mead

October 30, 2009 -- Borough Hall, Greenwich Dance Agency, London

Rosemary Lee has long been interested in making dance for an audience of much wider age and backgrounds than she used to see when she was younger.  Her large-scale works, usually site-specific, encourage audiences to see often familiar landmarks or spaces in new ways.  Greenwich’s Borough Hall is part of the Greenwich Dance Agency and so is used to hosting dance, but many of Ms. Lee’s previous venues are far from associated with the art form, including Fort Dunlop, a disused tire factory in Birmingham, The Royal Naval College Greenwich and a ruined abbey. 

Like Lee, I have always had an aversion to the term ‘community dance’, which tends to bring with it notions of second-best.  Non-paid does not have to, and should never, mean non-professional, at least in terms of attitude and approach.  “Common Dance” may have brought together 50 dancers aged 8 to 82, and the Finchley Children’s Music Group, whose singers range from 11 to 19, but I would be surprised if second-rate was a thought that occurred to anyone.

The title “Common Dance” comes from its depiction of the space as a common or village green on which people congregate, share activities and experiences, before dispersing again.  As Lee says correctly, many such public spaces in towns have been lost to development, and although they largely survive in rural areas, they are much less used.

It was impossible to escape a sense of autobiography in the choreography.  Lee hails originally from East Anglia, a part of England known for flat open spaces and huge skies, both of which were present in the work.  The dancers frequently flocked and scattered like starlings in autumn as they prepare to migrate.  Supported or carried by others, some even ‘flew’, arms often spread wide emphasising the space.

At times it almost seemed to be a lament for times past.  The voices of the choir were interwoven with the sonorous playing of English piper Andy Letcher, who occasionally wandered through the space, and an ambient soundscape that included British birdsong, church bells and the sound of the wind blowing through tall grass.  Some of the movement, and one section in particular, was full of patterns that had their roots in English folk dance, once a feature of all rural celebration, but that had somehow been subverted.

The performers brought their own special intensity to the piece.  They danced with a freedom and an innocence it was a pleasure to share.  Yet I cannot help feeling the choreography could have been more interesting.  Lee tended to go for a broad brush approach, too often swamping the stage with dancers.  It seemed as if she had decided that everyone had to be in every section; given the make-up of the cast an approach that would be understandable but unnecessary.  There was also a huge amount of repetition and symmetry, the latter probably inspired by the symmetry of the Hall.  One group frequently followed another with the same movement phrase.  The action, and the entrances and exits were relentless.  It cried out for a moment of peace, maybe only the sound of choir, to allow us to take breath and reflect.

There were some memorable moments, but these almost all came when there was that change of tone and some contrast.  They included all the dancers lining up and snaking around the stage like a giant centipede before breaking into smaller groups, and, best of all, a far too brief solo moment for one of the older male performers.  He moved smoothly, twisting and turning with an almost tai-chi like quality to the sound of two interwoven solo voices from the choir.  Unfortunately he was swamped by other dancers almost immediately.  When they left, he was still there, still moving.  But the spell had been broken.

Despite the choreographic issues, I will not forget “Common Dance” for a long time.  Lee and her performers really did manage to convey the mood and feelings they were looking for.  It was a pleasure to share what I feel sure was a very special experience for the dancers in particular.  It was a coming together not only of all the performers, but them with us, the audience.

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