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
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.
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.'
'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.'
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.
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.
'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.'
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.'
'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.