Abingdon Dance Project

Posted: June 12th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Abingdon Dance Project

ICONS, Amey Theatre, Abingdon School, April 29

Abingdon School is where I spent some very enjoyable years in the late 60s, playing lots of sport, having a good social life and studying, though not always in that order. I also had the opportunity to perform in the school play, which was presented once a year in the town’s Abbey Theatre along with students from the local girls’ school, St. Helen’s. Today aspiring thespians have at their disposal the fully equipped, 470-seat Amey theatre that was built on the site of the school’s music rooms where I tried in vain to learn the piano. In addition, an impressive sports complex on Waste Court field incorporates a stunning dance studio that has a ballet barre and mirrors along one wall and floor to ceiling windows along another. I am not sure if the architects of this studio had in mind the development of dance at Abingdon School, but the idea has nevertheless come to fruition in the Abingdon Dance Project under the guidance of Jeremy Taylor, Head of Drama at the school since 1997. In his first years he established his ambition with productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Sweeney Todd, which went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000. The role of Anthony in Sweeney Todd was played by Matthew Hawksworth, who graduated in 2000 and went on to study at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. When Jeremy and his colleague Alison Quick wanted some movement choreographed for their 2005 production of Pericles, they offered Matthew the opportunity, which proved fruitful. In the winter of 2009, when Jeremy and Matthew were working on a school production of West Side Story, they realized how much natural dance ability the students had, at which point the Abingdon Dance Project was conceived. Now in its third year, this is only the second public performance as Jeremy was on sabbatical in 2011. Jeremy continues to direct the school’s regular theatre productions at the Amey Theatre. Mike Bartlett, another Abingdon graduate, came to see the first amateur production of his National Theatre début play, Earthquakes in London at the Amey Theatre in 2010, which took the standard of the annual senior production to a new level, and a production of Cabaret followed in 2011. Both productions were choreographed by Matthew. This year’s ADP performance is the first to have a themed program. Matthew eventually came up with icons: who are our icons and why? How has their work in music, dance, politics, history and literature affected us? Icons became a thread throughout the creative process as well as the title of the show. Matthew was also keen to bring in other professional practitioners so that the students would have access to a range of dance and physical theatre styles. Jeremy had met Sachiko Kimura while on sabbatical at the Actor’s Centre in London and subsequently invited her and her production company, Flying Eye, to perform at Abingdon. Matthew loved her style of work, so they met to discuss collaborating on the present ADP show. Matthew also invited some professional colleagues from London to learn with, and inspire the students.

The school might be well advised to make an inventory of its classroom wastepaper bins, as there are a number used in the opening piece, Sweet Dreams are made of this, choreographed by Matthew. From this first moment on stage, the students from Abingdon and St. Helen’s project a sense of confidence, a vibrant energy and a generous dose of swing. Among the girls, only a handful has any knowledge of ballet, and among the boys, only one; so the transformation of this group into a cohesive dance ensemble is a remarkable achievement.

There is a total of six works on the program, and in between each one is a projection of a dance clip, selected at the last minute and with great ingenuity by stage manager, Rory Fraser-Mackenzie. By means of these clips, the audience is introduced to works by such dance icons as Pina Bausch, Gene Kelly, Patrick Swayze, and Michael Jackson.

For the second work, Matthew has choreographed the theme music to the film Schindler’s List. On the stage is Schindler’s battered suitcase out of which Clara Moschetta pulls a long list of names. She dances a poignant solo as a young woman grateful for the gift of life that Schindler had granted her by saving her grandparents, whose names are on the list. After this, the other dancers gather around the suitcase, as if at a memorial for Schindler. There is a reverence in their movement and a sense of unity. As the dancers leave the stage, they each place a stone of the suitcase, which has become Schindler’s grave.

For the third work, David McMullan, a colleague of Matthew’s, has staged Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, based on original choreography by Stephen Mear and Matthew Bourne. Clearly the dancers are having a good time and it is all they can do to stop their voices joining in the exuberance and fun of the music and dance.

The fourth work underlines an important aspect of the Abingdon Dance Project. It is a solo devised and performed by Othman Mirzan to Jay Z and Kanye West’s Paris/Goldigger/Touch The Sky. In the first three works, we see the students performing what others have created on them or re-created for them, but here Othman has the opportunity, the confidence and the courage to perform his own hip hop-inspired dance. I don’t know if he created it in front of a mirror, but there is a suggestion the mirror is still there. If he can just focus out into the audience, making a gift of what he has created, he will find a new power within that will stand him in good stead whatever he chooses to do after leaving school.

I had watched the first rehearsal of Sachiko Kimura’s work, Our Path, a couple of months before. It was a workshop situation in which she sought to discover the individual qualities of each dancer through verbal interaction, the use of movement phrases, and silent, spatial explorations. In this way Sachiko collected material for the dance from the dancers themselves. By the time this material has been transformed into a theatre work, all the students appear to have made the theatre their natural environment. Each student has chosen someone they respect – a personal icon – with a corresponding quote. One girl, for whom Marilyn Monroe was an icon, chooses, ‘Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.’ Other icons include Oscar Wilde, Clint Eastwood, Stephen Fry, Charlotte Bronte, and Elizabeth 1. At one point the students all reach in a circle as if they are coming together with a common aspiration. Sachiko has managed to imbue in this work a stillness in which each character is brought into focus in turn, and then merges back into the group. By the end we see eight individuals who have the confidence to express in their bodies what they feel in their heads.

The final romp is choreographed by Matthew and, as in any finale, provides everyone the chance to let go. To the song Born This Way by Lady Gaga, the feeling is that of a West End musical. Matthew’s colleagues are dancing as well and it is interesting to compare them with the students. The enthusiasm and energy are the same, but the difference lies in how that enthusiasm and energy are projected. Through the experience of the professionals, each intention spreads throughout the body, past the tips of the fingers, through the floor and out the eyes. Each dancer makes every movement his or her own, assimilates it, owns it and then uses every pore and muscle to express it. It is the emotional body that dances.

Under Jeremy Taylor’s guidance, judiciously juggling exam schedules with dance rehearsals, academic studies with choreography, and Matthew’s expertise in crafting a show with one rehearsal a week, the ADP is a stunning success, offering students from both schools a unique opportunity to develop the three ‘C’s to complement the three ‘R’s: character, confidence and comportment. At the heart of Abingdon School’s philosophy is the desire to inspire achievement through challenge and opportunity; each boy is encouraged to make the most of their talent and to give something back. Through the ADP they have achieved this in ways they had perhaps never imagined.