Crossing Borders, Human Stories

F17CF4DB-A880-419D-9783-5776F81B0D5F_1_201_a

The Performance Ensemble, September 2019. Photo: Mike Pinches

Theatre of Dreams

For many years I have worked at Leeds Playhouse, on its flagship creative engagement programme called Heydays, designed specifically for older participants. It happens every Wednesday, when the elders of Leeds descend, mob handed, on the theatre, and proceed to take it over for the day, with art classes, creative writing, drama, singing and dance.

Often, my classes in creative writing used to take place in a downstairs space. We would finish on the dot of noon, and, always waiting outside the door, patient and polite, was a man called Alan Lyddiard.  It turned out that he was a theatre director and was running the drama session that followed on immediately from mine. Week after week this happened. We were friendly but reserved. There was work to do, and as I retreated, he would advance.

Then I went to see a theatre piece that he had directed, called ‘Dancehall of Dreams’, in which a non-professional cast sang and spoke and danced the personal stories of their lives. It was moving and compelling. My interest was piqued. Soon after, Alan picked up an anthology of writing that I had produced with my Heydays writers, called ‘Being Human’. Ordinary lives reflected in words – everyday people, writing exceptional things. “You are doing the same work as me,” he pronounced, and our friendship began.

Year on year, our paths continued to cross. He would disappear, to pursue his international theatre connections, and then re-appear for the summer term, to bring some of his maverick magic back to the Playhouse. A loose-layered company began to form, called the Performance Ensemble. The productions became more polished and frequent.

Alan had run a company of actors in Newcastle upon Tyne, from 1992 to 2005, called Northern Stage. He believed in the East European method of working: a close knit community of players forging ever closer links of trust and expertise. Now he was bringing this ethos to Leeds, and, as an older artist himself, his current passion was to champion the voice and presence of the older performer.

Art with the Experience of Age

To be in the Performance Ensemble, you had to be over 60. Not necessarily a professional actor – but someone with something to say, and the commitment with which to say it well. Art with the experience of age – this was his heartfelt manifesto. I remembered a theatre I had worked in, years ago, in the heart of the Hungarian countryside, where a group of people lived, worked, played together, to make theatre of great honesty and power.

I had been looking for that kind of experience ever since – but had found only the fractured freelance world of the western market economy, ubiquitous, not just in the world of commerce, but in the theatre world too. Everything for profit –  and everything contingent on Arts Council funding, or private sponsorship: keeping the performers themselves permanently disconnected from each other, and insecure in themselves. How can good art be made, when cash itself is king? I admired Alan for swimming against the tide. And I felt myself, increasingly, swimming that way too.

Paying Attention, Staying Curious

One morning, in summer 2019, the phone rang. It was Alan. I had done some work for him the previous year, for a production called ‘Bus Ride’, which celebrated the journeys of older performers – in life, and on busses too – and this was the opening salvo for a five year project, leading up to a city-wide arts extravaganza in 2023. He had been given some funding to proceed. He wanted new people to join the Ensemble, and he wanted me to be one of them. Was I interested? I was.

There is a remarkable nineteenth century artist called Hokusai. He is famous world wide for his print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a magnificent rendering of the sea in movement. But he was much more prodigious and diverse in his talent than this one – startlingly beautiful – image might suggest. He worked at his art from youth to old age (he died several months after he turned ninety), and his art continued to deepen and evolve, year on year, decade after decade.

At the beginning, his interest was in people, and he drew them with a fierce and tender honesty: focussing his attention on working people’s lives, for he came from humble origins, and he never forgot his roots. The tumbling array of portraits flowed from his pen as freely as ink – and are thought to be the origin of the modern day Japanese Manga comic books.

But, as time went by, Hokusai turned more and more towards the natural world. The immutable power of sky and sea, and the prevailing grandeur of Mount Fuji, consumed him in his later years.

His art became ever more sophisticated, ever more lively, the older he became. It was as if the spirit of life itself – the animus that drives the universe – were channelling itself through his tireless hand and brush. I love Hokusai’s paintings very much. But more than that, I am inspired by his philosophy.

Roger Keyes, an art historian and curator of Japanese art, has devoted much time and effort into archiving Hokusai’s great body of work. He has written poetically about it, too, in a striking piece called ‘Hokusai Says’. This poem is like a call to attention to all those who are growing older, and who – like me – sometimes falter and lose heart. Here are the opening lines:

“Hokusai says look carefully.

He says pay attention, notice.

He says keep looking, stay curious.

He says there is no end to seeing.

He says look forward to getting old.

He says keep changing,

you just get more who you really are.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Love, feel, let life take you by the hand

Let life live through you.”

(Hokusai says/Roger Keyes)

F8E60E4F-0A1F-4A91-8404-3C0F1E87B7B0_1_201_a

David Hamilton rehearses with the Performance Ensemble, February 2020.

One Week in September

So, one strange, intense week in September 2019, a wraggle taggle group of men and women came together in a large warehouse-style room, where loose wires hung from the ceiling, and old tiles hung loose and abandoned, and started to form a theatre group. No mean task.

Whilst some of us worked professionally, as writers, dancers, musicians or choreographers, most of the people present were none of those things. They may never have done a dance class, never sung a note, except in the bath, never written creatively since they left school to start their long and varied lives of work. Each of us came carrying legacies of  injury or illness: this was a group of older players, and there were certainly wounds and scars, both physical, and of the mind and heart, engraved upon us all.

Two people walked with sticks – a third came through the door bearing a huge boot on one leg, to protect a recently broken ankle. We were not the usual crowd, to be found on Day One of rehearsals. But still, we set to work. In a full-on schedule of dance, movement, speech and song, we started to gather material for a final day’s sharing with people from the theatre industry. The raw material was us. No playscript, or list of prescribed criteria. But real lives, re-examined in the context of a theatre space. Art with the experience of age.

Breathless Whirl of Movement and Music

With customary lack of restraint or self preservation, I threw myself into the process, right from the start. It was all or nothing, as far as I was concerned. I chose all. We took a dance class every morning – and it was the first time I had danced like this for a long, long time. The exhilaration it sparked was immediate. It threw me back to dance college days, thirty years before: the breathless whirl of movement and music, exhorting the spirit – and the body – to climb higher and higher.

The Performance Ensemble successfully completed its inaugural week. Nobody fell over. Nobody died. Everybody became increasingly animated, confident and committed, as the project progressed. There is now a regular company, increased funding, and rehearsals are in full flow for a new and bigger production. Hope over adversity. Tenacity. And the courage to have a dream.

Slow Walking into the Future

Every morning, during company class, director Alan Lyddiard leads something called Slow Walking. Meditative and solemn, silent and composed, the walking prepares each participant for work . It builds confidence and calm and determination. “This is me. I am here. I am fine.”

We sit on a long row of chairs, eyes closed, hands folded over our thighs, head held high, body in balance. The music begins. Slowly, our eyes open. We stand, one by one, walk forwards, pause, look back to where we started. We turn, step back towards the chair – to safety and to stillness. But no. We can’t go back. No one can go back, because time takes us ever onwards.

So we turn again to the future, and continue to travel forward. One arm lifts. We watch it, with a kind of dispassionate curiosity, then we let it fall. Why? Who knows? Not everything happens for a reason. The music stops. Silence. Whispered words echo around the room. “I wish” and “I remember”. And so it begins.

Searching for Profound Harmony

In the 1930s, a remarkable and reclusive woman called Nan Shepherd started walking through the Cairngorms, close to where she lived. Unlike the ego driven male mountaineers, she had no wish to dominate or conquer the landscape: she merely wished to live in it, and to learn the secrets of nature and the wild living world. She wrote notes about her experiences, which, years after her death, were published, in a beautiful book called ‘The Living Mountain’.

The transcendent feelings she describes, of being at one with her surroundings – and with herself – come close to evoking the sense of communion that Slow Walking, at its best, can provide. She writes: “It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony, deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.   (The Living Mountain, page 106/Nan Shepherd/Canongate).

Crossing the Borders of our Imagination

1890EDDE-4533-4BAF-85D5-66546FDB2D74

The Performance Ensemble rises again on February 21st, 2020, with a performance in Leeds, England, called ‘Crossing’. Here is some of the production’s content – and here, too, our manifesto. If you are able to join us – as audience member, or potential future participant, you would be very welcome indeed.

‘Crossing’: a work in progress

A man crosses the mountains from Afghanistan to Pakistan. He leaves behind everything he loves in order to be free. “Take a last look at your country…” A woman travels from Hong Kong to England: her whole life becomes the food she cooks and sells in her take away cafe in Leeds. A boy steals a toy car from the local shop. Consumed by guilt, he goes back the next day, and returns it to the shelf. An English girl falls in love with a Hungarian boy. There is a wall between them – the Berlin Wall. When the wall falls, their love is finished. Difficult births. Divorce. Heartbreak. Death. New beginnings. Always another chance. Many languages, countries, cultures: and in the middle of it all – ordinary people, with extraordinary tales to tell. These are the moments of our lives: moments of meaning and change. Come with us, in Crossing, across the border, to explore in music, dance, words and silence, what it means to be human in our  troubled contemporary world.

The Performance Ensemble: Towards a Manifesto

We are a company of older performers. Some of us are writers, dancers, musicians, actors; others are teachers, scientists, social workers, probation officers. We bring to this work a wide range of skills and expertise, and lives that are full of meaning and intent. We aim to share these rich lives with our audiences, through dance, song, and the spoken word. Everyone has a story to tell – and here are some of ours. The Ensemble collaborates closely together, through weekly classes and intensive rehearsals, to create multi-layered performances, based on the authentic, lived experiences of each individual member. All are equal, and equally valued. It is our aim and ambition to work together long into the future, building trust and confidence: making a community of players, in which everyone has a respected and honoured place. Our current project, ‘Bus Pass’, is a series of different performances, culminating in an epic outdoor happening, featuring one thousand older performers, as part of the Leeds 2023 celebrations. Whilst there is a core group of committed ensemble members, we constantly spread our net more widely, too, both in and around the communities of Leeds, to include as many older people as possible in the projects we are building. We also invite international artists to join us in our work. All of us – older or not – remain full of vibrant energy, reflection and insight. Full of generous ambition, full of hope.

You can book tickets here:

Visit our website here:

Some of the material in this blog has been taken from a manuscript in progress for my new book about the body: ‘Wild Goose Flying’. Watch this space for more extracts.

The information about ‘Crossing’ at the end is included in the programme notes for the performance.

 

 

 

Ordinary people, extraordinary lives

“I AM HERE. This is me. And I am fine.” Theatre director Alan Lyddiard offers up this mantra as a way of explaining the ethos of his work. With his company, the Performance Ensemble – inspired by the example of Yukio Ninagawa’s Saitama Gold Theatre in Japan – he explores the lives of older people in intricate, loving detail. Bringing to the stage their stories, songs, dances and desires, is his great, unfolding project . These may be professional performers, or not. He blurs the distinction between the two. What matters to him is the integrity of the story being told. And with each production, he moves a little closer to the heart, to the soul, of the people he is working with – and the audience he is speaking to. On Sunday, September 16th, the latest phase in this work will be performed at the Queens Hotel, Leeds. Called ‘Bus Ride’, it is a kaleidoscope of experiences lived – and bus rides taken! – by a diverse range of older people, living in and around Leeds, in the north of England. The piece will abound in humour and sadness: in the fullness of life as it lived, beyond the age of 55/60.

One of those stories will be my own. And here is the written version in full… If you can, come to the performance on Sunday, or look at the website http://theperformanceensemble.com  for details of future adventures.

Tickets available here: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/bus-ride/

 

BEFORE I could walk – or even talk much – my mother would sit me on a blanket in the back garden, and put a little book in my hands. ‘Progress and Poverty’ it was called. A Victorian treatise on social conditions and political economy by Henry George. I couldn’t read a word, of course, but that was beside the point. I loved the book itself: small enough to fit my hands – the gentle turning of the pages was an act of contemplation; the holding of the book, an entry into another world, far away from the noisy squabbling family I belonged to. When my mother came to gather me up, book, blanket and baby, some time later, I was always in the exact place she had left me, perfectly still, utterly content. Like the Buddha under the Bodhi tree. I have been searching for that stillness ever since.

*****

When I was 29, I got very sick with glandular fever. Pale and weak, I started yoga, as a physical rehabilitation. Slowly my strength returned, and I began to take dance classes at Brixton Recreation Centre. Never one to take any exercise, I suddenly fell in love, hook, line and sinker, with contemporary dance. I left my work as a journalist and trained full-time at the Laban Centre in London. Everything speeded up. Even in my dreams I was moving – fast.

Into this maelstrom walked a tall, elegant Greek man called Andreas Demetriou, who was known then – and still is – as the T’ai Chi guru of South London. Like the child on the blanket, with that little book in her hands, I was drawn to this man and the movements that he made, without having a clue what they signified, or how to do them. Peaceful, calm, contemplative: T’ai Chi was everything that my dance training lacked. Gradually, the world slowed down, into an elegant twenty minute sequence. From the opening movement, “The Rising Sun”, to its inward-focussed conclusion,*“Carry Tiger, Return to theMountain”, I learned to rehearse my whole life in miniature. Each of the three parts represented, in allegorical movement, the three stages of life: Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age and Death. And when the sequence finished, the whole cycle began all over again – **“No Beginning, No End”. Finally I learned to control my body, in a flow of energy and power. T’ai Chi means peace and vitality. Stillness in movement. My troubled and chaotic young adult self had – in endless flow – come to rest.

*****

Death came late to stalk me, after a childhood and adolescence where all the adults around me stayed healthy and robust. It was my own generation who learned about loss, on an epic scale. This was the eighties. And AIDs came knocking at our door. By the time I was 35, I had watched three young men die an agonising death. Fear stalked the corridors of our lives. Stigma followed our every footstep. Cure, or at least containment, was still a long way in the future. A whole generation of young gay men believed they would never grow old. And many of them never did.

When I met Tim, the man who would become my husband, I believed that he, at least would never leave me. He was six foot five, physically strong, mentally stable. Yet, by the time he was 37, he had contracted a rare and incurable cancer. Our daughter was not yet two. Our life together had just begun. Ten years later, at 47, Tim was dead.

One day, when the cancer was already very advanced, and my mind was tearing itself into shreds at the thought of what was to come, I took a book from the shelf and began to read. It was ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, by buddhist monk Sogyal Rinpoche. The book had been there for years and I had never even opened it. Perhaps I had never felt the need, until this moment. The words inside were simple, calm and lucid. Life is transient. Everything passes. Learn to let go, to breathe in, to breathe out, and be still – and everything will be alright.

T’ai Chi, my faithful friend in movement, was still beside me. But I needed something else as well. I had to learn to stop moving: to train the mad and frightened monkey in my mind to settle down, and to make my peace with death. I began to meditate, haltingly, inexpertly, and without companion or guide. And as the days and weeks and years went by, I continued to do so, as frequently as I could. I still do. The worst still happened. Tim died. Then my mother, my beloved aunt and father. Friends grew ill and left me. I had periods of ill health and sorrow myself. But somehow I managed just to sit down, here and now; to breathe; to be still. No book, no movement to hold me. Just the earth beneath, the sky above, and the space, passing around and between us all. Keeping us separate, holding us together. Forever.

Carry Tiger, Return to Mountain means bringing your own aggressive energy (the tiger) into stillness (the mountain).

** No Beginning, No End, also known as Waving Arms Like Clouds,is a short repetitive sequence of gentle arm movements, which recurs several times in the T’ai Chi Long Form: a sign of its perceived importance. It refers to Taoism, on which T’ai Chi is founded, and honours the importance of nature, and of the necessity for human beings to be as transparent as possible within nature – like the passing clouds – to allow the flow of life and energy to be unimpeded.