Dance theatre smash COAL comes blazing into Belfast

After nearly 10 years of captivating audiences, Gary Clarke's choreographed commemoration of the 1980s miners' strike makes its Northern Ireland debut

Coal. One small word, but so many meanings. Not just a fuel, but also what fuels a community to work: their lives, livelihood, camaraderie and values. All of which lie at the heart of award-winning choreographer Gary Clarke's critically-acclaimed Coal.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the 1984-5 British miners' strike, Coal, originally presented with a cast of four in 2009, was expanded, six years on, into a dance theatre show featuring seven professional dancers, a cast of local community women and a live on stage brass quintet.

Three years later, the production is still going strong on tour, and arrives in Northern Ireland for the first time on March 21 at Belfast's MAC.

An attempt to capture a time in history all too easy forgotten, Coal is about keeping the memories of a mining industry alive. What shaped the fabric of society then – and now.

'The themes of Coal are universal', says Clarke. 'It's about class, politics and people, what's happening in the world today. We're once again having a huge movement among people and government, which I don't think we've had since the '80s and '90s. The government are again being very explicit about what they’re going to do, and the class divide is getting bigger.'

For the 38-year old Clarke, brought up in the very poor, working class, mining village of Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire, being a child of the '80s in one of the most deprived villages in Europe was central to his birth and growth as an artist – and the initiation of Coal.

'Back when we had prospects, shops, employment and so on, Grimethorpe was really exciting and colourful. But then the government closed down the coal mines and the whole village went into decline. Both that generation of miners and their children had to fight to survive. Amidst all that, I discovered art, movement and dance as a form of expression, a coping mechanism.'

COAL-132 Joe Armitage

It comes of no surprise then to learn that researching a piece reflecting those times was a heart-breaking process for Clarke and his company: things are still very raw for coal miners who worked in villages basically built for mining. 'There was a lot of crying,' he says. 'Having gone away and become an artist, I didn't realise how people were still clinging on to those times.'

Thus it was crucial to Clarke that the politics didn't override the people within the piece. That his story, the day in the life of a coal miner and what happened in 1984, could get ex-coal miners to come to a theatre, some for the first time, and connect with contemporary dance about their life and job.

'I didn't want it to be a 'hop, skip and jump' version of it all. I wanted it to be real, to truly encapsulate what these men would do eight hours a day, sometimes for forty years.'

And audiences, a lot of whom are working class people from mining villages, have been really stirred by Coal – essentially a 'very simple work', in Clarke's words, but one where we see people living and breathing together, and the decline of a community after a strike – the consequences of which are wrenching.

COAL support image Walking. credit Joe Armitage

Everything in the dance language of Coal stems from a series of natural gestures and everyday movement, Clarke having expanded, stretched and abstracted his research and choreography into 'recognisable' art. An example of this can be found in the second act, where the audience will see five 'miners' working at the coal face.

'To create that dance language, we observed and interrogated what miners did underground', Clarke explains. 'Once we understood their physicality, we framed it choreographically, so that even though the audience know they're dancers, they accept them as what I call 'animals of the earth'. It's really down and dirty.'

In a remarkable and surreal turn of events, the 80 minute, interval-free show (although I am told there will be the 'surprise' of a 'fake interval') will feature Steve Nallon reprising his voice of Margaret Thatcher from the classic satirical puppet show Spitting Image.

Having found out that Clarke was doing a piece about coal – word does travel, with the mining industry being as tight as it is – and that Thatcher was very much a part of the piece, Nallon contacted Clarke, told him about his famous voice and asked if he wanted to use it. For Clarke, their Skype conversation was akin to talking to 'royalty'.

'We got on really well', he laughs. 'I gave him lots of texts to recite, he spent a day recording them at his house, and then he sent the final recording for us to edit. Since then he’s become a real fan of the show.'

As Coal's arrival in Northern Ireland draws ever nearer, Clarke admits to being 'excited' and 'interested' about the reaction that the show may receive from audiences at the MAC. 

'You yourselves have had political uproar with government, classes, poverty and so on, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what people will take and make from it. The post-show discussion will be very interesting.'

Coal comes to the MAC, Belfast, on March 21 and 22. For more information and ticket booking visit https://themaclive.com/event/coal or contact the Box Office on 028 9023 5053.