Everything went quiet – what’s happening? Reflections on Cycle Stories

We’ve been quiet for a while, and it’s definitely time for an update. In short, after a hugely busy and fun summer season with Cycle Stories, I am hibernating.

The longer version is that I am currently in the hugely fortunate position of writing this from a small Spanish village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I have taken a little bit of time out to reflect, to watch and assimilate my thoughts. Perhaps most importantly I have taken time out to be less busy with dashing from meeting to meeting, and fill my time more with a physical engagement of daily living – chopping wood, making fires, walking 3 hours to market, receiving small exchanges of friendliness and warmth from these tiny remote communities, watching birds and sitting amongst the land as the seasons change. I watch and listen a lot more. I am unused to having so much space, and I find myself treading uncertain territory – navigating the unknown and watching empty space. I am hesitant to rush into new ideas – to try and grab them before they’ve had time to settle. However some things into the future are clear and exciting and I’m happy to have them as landmarks that reach out towards the horizon and provide a little bit of structure.     

tree         leaves

Date for your diaries: 17 January 2014
We are delighted to be invited back by our friends at Greenwich Dance to curate their first Supper Room night. We love this new series which allows us to work across art forms to produce an informal, interactive and exciting (we hope) experience. What to expect? – there will be the first screening of our film, Cycle Stories; live music from our sound artists; a world of hidden clues and little surprises to explore; a human clock; things to listen to; things to add to; we’ll eat delicious food prepared by our very own chef – yes we have a chef! and then we’ll clear the hall for dancing.

So exactly what have I been reflecting on in my hibernation mode?

Cycle Stories and Walking Stories – reflections of each other
Cycle Stories was like delving into the unknown. It was ambitious, bold and ventured dance into unfamiliar territory both in terms of the process through which it was created and the formats of presentation it proposed.

It was perhaps a slightly surprising undertaking for a choreographer to decide to make a multi-stranded hour length audio walk, Walking Stories; to decide to make it through a series of creative residencies in England and France linked together by bicycle; and to make a documentary film at the same time. I’d never worked in this format before, I’d never written a script, I’d never made a film and I’d never done any cycle touring. It was an extraordinary, and wonderful experience, a huge learning curve and involved many months of not much sleep and lots of clambering around a long sheet of paper with all the scripts blue tac-ed to it calling out time codes to the sound artists at 3am and cycling 3000km! I was incredibly fortunate to have been supported by an exceptionally skilled, dedicated and enthusiastic artistic team; a hugely patient and practical tour manager (also cook, bike fixer, and website maker) and an amazing management team who calmly picked up all the slack, writing the necessary emails, contracts, paying people, invoicing, keeping the books etc whilst I was clambering around the sacred scripts…

Cycling and walking
I was asked repeatedly through the project why we were cycling all this way. Was it a separate project? What did it have to do with Walking Stories? For me the connection was always clear, but this constant questioning made me re-evaluate the connection and the necessity for it.

We set out to create a digital recipe for a participatory performance where the audience become the creators, performers and spectators of the choreographic experience we designed for them: an hour length audio walk, for city parks and green spaces for a group of people to do together. I wanted to make a work that was deeply choreographic but hugely accessible and inclusive. I wanted to dismantle the edge between performance and audience space/ stage and life, to invite our audience into a physical and tactile experience of the work almost without them noticing. And I decided that in order to be able to do this well, we the creators of that walk also needed to take a journey together. A long one. To remain in the landscape and feel the work seeping into us, not just think about it in a ‘brainy’ way from the bubble of a studio. We took our walk for a cycle, and together the artistic team travelled between each creative residency by bicycle. We remained in the landscape, close to the ground. A little community – camping, eating, sleeping and working together. It sounds idyllic and in many ways it was, but it was also exhausting and the relationship between the travelling and the work we created didn’t perhaps connect together in the ways we anticipated at the outset.

Interestingly some of the collaborators working on the project didn’t feel the link and I think I start to understand why. Cycling between residencies, across France, camping and the physicality of that experience – its challenges, elations and discomforts had little in common with our mostly computerised experience of creating Walking Stories. Making Walking Stories was technical, theoretical, hypothetical, static. Meticulously crafting and designing an experience for others to take. Trying to imagine how unknown/variable groups of people MIGHT respond. It involved an imagined space, required a degree in psychology, accuracy and an eye for detail. It is very controlled, exact and known. But then when Walking Stories goes live, when we hand it over to an unknown, unpredictable audience, we simultaneously hand over our control. The individual experience is unpredictable, unexpected, unknown. It is this living Walking Stories (rather than the making of it) that mirrors our lived experience of Cycle Stories so fully. It was full of unknown, uncertainty, challenge, surprise and stretch. And sometimes that was unsettling.

When we were on the road, the exertion of cycling actually took up most of our time and energy and there was little remaining capacity to do more. Perhaps I had anticipated too much what this long journey might bring directly to the creativity of Walking Stories. The unsettling experience that it wasn’t bringing what I had hoped/expected was a good reminder that ‘creativity’ can’t be churned out on tap when requested, and is certainly not a linear entity. It is far messier and inter-related than that. Instead we gradually realised as we gathered the miles across France that this journey wasn’t so much about what Walking Stories would become (we were pretty clear already about what it was) but rather was the start of many new creative journeys that were yet to find their form. It was like the research and development, the fieldwork for the next things, still unknown.

If we look at the ‘Cycle Stories’ system more broadly, I think the correlation between the lived experience of Cycle Stories and the lived experience of Walking Stories have much in common. My logistical phase pre-trip was perhaps the equivalent of the computer driven experience of making Walking Stories for Tom and Tristan – I thought about all the components for a very long time, engineered them as precisely as I could so that the technology could withstand the possibilities of anything. I try to keep everyone together -not dissimilar from hand out headphones and mp3 players… instead I gave the artistic team bikes and jobs. We can replace walk with cycle; headphones with bikes; verbal communication with directive/prescriptive thinking.

The edge between our lives and this project became distinctly murky – the project was our life (and this didn’t come without it’s challenges). Is cycling across France not something of a holiday? Well, yes, it could be, but this felt exceptionally different from a holiday – something in my attention and focus; something about how every experience was framed within the context of the project and the journey that was unfolding; something about the responsibility that I held for ensuring that we arrived on time, with everyone together; the responsibility of it having been worthwhile. The edge between performance, performer, spectator, stage all get whirled up in Walking Stories. I don’t like boxes much, and Cycle Stories certainly dismantled the edges of many boxes which was both liberating and at times disorientating.

Walking Stories
I feel exceptionally satisfied by Walking Stories. It was a hugely complex piece of work to devise and the requirements of it were high – we wanted it to be accessible and appealing to a really broad range of people and for it to ‘do’ many things – to re-engage people with green spaces; to bring them into a closer relationship with themselves; to build community; to take them on a journey; to give space for listening and watching; to give space and opportunity for transformation; to allow excited and energetic people to run and equally allow others to be quiet and still; to encourage people to do things that perhaps they might not normally be comfortable doing, and then realise how lovely those activities are. We trusted that this chosen format could work, but it was fairly unknown and untested ground.

The feedback and responses we’ve received have been overwhelmingly positive. I find facilitating the walk endlessly fascinating and beautiful to witness. I watch people gradually sink into themselves, they leave refreshed, more present, more themselves. I love knowing that hundreds of people have clambered around inside this walk, each time making it their own.

Building and maintaining Community
Since the project finished I have noticed that all members of the core artistic team have been keen to put time and energy into ensuring that Walking Stories continues to tour next year. I have not asked for this, and certainly didn’t expect it, but this active engagement and energy demonstrates  the shared commitment that we all have to the project. I believe strongly that this arises from the feeling of togetherness and community that we built through the creation of Walking Stories. Walking Stories in this way is not ‘my’ work – it is co-owned and all of the contributors feel a sense of ownership towards the project because indeed they invested so much of themselves into its creation. When our audience finish Walking Stories they leave with a feeling of ownership of their experience and kinship with the others that they shared the walk with. Similarly the artists who lived and breathed Cycle Stories have a unique and shared experience. For all its intensity, it drew us closer together. The concrete outcomes of that can be seen in the programming of Walking Stories for 2014. The less concrete outcomes will continue to surface through the work and approach to work/life of the artistic team in the months and years to come – in how this experience perhaps changes Jennifer or David’s teaching methodologies; how it informs Tristan’s ways of making music; my thoughts about choreography and dance; our collective ideas about travel or time.

Film – finding a suitable framework
David McCormick has worked tirelessly and far beyond the call of duty on making a film for this project. A huge asset was his ninja like cycling ability to race ahead, whip out camera in time to capture us whizzing by, let us drift into the distance, then quickly pack up and race ahead again (good job he was the fittest of us all!) Not an easy job. He played a crucial role in quietly recording, listening, witnessing and questioning our process as it happened.

The challenge for us both when it came to crafting the film was to find a suitable structure that would both make the project clear for an audience unfamiliar with the project; and at the same time reflect the complexity and web like threads that wound around the project. I was keen that the film did not become a chronological archiving of the project and that it also drew its audience into a more tactile/physical experience of Cycle Stories – that the film would provide another medium for supporting our over-riding aims to increase connectivity to self, place and community. In the end we decided to write a script for the film – almost like a visual essay. I think it does a wonderful job in giving a flavour for the lived experience, a taste of the journey – its revelations and challenges and the narration manages to give a context to the over-arching and deeply interwoven ideas that the project as a whole, and Walking Stories in particular navigates. If nothing else it makes you want to get outside more – to take a long journey on a bicycle or a short one in the park. Seek out adventures to unknown destinations. They bring us to new and exciting places.

We are in the final throws of polishing and tweaking the film (or rather David and Tristan are!) and I contribute probably quite irritating notes/changes/demands every now and again. Our first screening is on 17 January as part of the Supper Room at Greenwich Dance. See you there. Oh, and if you ever have the chance to go and hibernate one winter – like really hibernate, then snap up the opportunity, I highly recommend it!

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