Echo Echo Dance on the Derry~Londonderry Walls

The contemporary dance theatre company use the historic City Walls as the backdrop for their latest production, Without

In January 2012, English choreographer and director, Rosemary Lee, visited Derry~Londonderry to discuss the possibility of a collaboration with Steve Batts and the Echo Echo Dance Theatre Company during the UK City of Culture 2013 year.

She approached the idea with an open mind. She wanted to see Derry for herself, and see what – if anything – she could bring to it. Lee is dead against artists who land in a place, impose their ideas, and then move on.  

'I wanted to produce something embedded in the city and its people. I wanted to be sure that local artists wanted to work with me,' she explains. Any work had to belong to the city, 'had to be the right thing to do for the city.'

Lee walked the historic City Walls. 'I was immediately struck by the topography,' she recalls. 'The city is placed by this huge and beautiful river. Not noisy, hardly used, old, and majestic.' She was struck, too, by the juxtapositions that exist in Derry~Londonderry: work and home, old and new, centre and suburb, urban and rural.

In a city of hills, of high points and banks, she felt both close and faraway from things, able to see everywhere all at once, but knowing it was further away than it seemed.  'It made me think of past, present, and future. I wanted to capture the architecture and the people, encompass the whole city.'

The result is the film Without, the record of a large-scale, mass participation dance performance, involving around 500 people – members of the Echo Echo ensemble, children from five local primary schools, adults, teenagers, pensioners. Young and old, trained and untrained, lithe and stiff, sure-footed and uncertain. Some took classes offered by Echo Echo. Others – curious – simply answered a general call that went out for volunteers.

Without is on display in the Echo Echo headquarters in Derry~Londonderry's Waterloo House, Magazine Street, until October 6. There, seven large screens are arranged in a horseshoe in the main dance studio. Seven films play simultaneously, one on each screen. The viewer stands within the horseshoe, surrounded by the screens, drawn to one or the other, switching between them, always unsure of what is happening elsewhere.

Each film begins with a scene from a location either on or just within the 400-year-old City Walls, shot from the top of the tower of St Columb’s Cathedral. It has the effect of a camera obscura, a mass observation experiment, benign and neutral surveillance.

Without

 

At first, the sites are empty. Then the performers enter the spaces, in wheelchairs, on bicycles, on skateboards, on tandems, on rollerblades, all dressed in white tops and black trousers. It is funny and mysterious. They glide into and through areas, flowing silent and easy, like water.

The screens white out, and then from those first points the camera moves to locations beyond the walls – to the bank leading down to the Bogside, to Guildhall Square, to the top of Carlisle Road, to the Craigavon Bridge, to the space in front of the West Bank Loyalists mural. And new groups of performers materialise, like they’ve been beamed down.  

Then the scenes shift again. The film moves like a gentle shockwave spreading out across the city.

There is a lot of pleasure and interest to be found in Without, firstly in the choreography. The performers, divided into groups and spread around the city, swoop and swirl, circle and stumble. There are couples ballroom dancing in a road outside Bishop’s Gate. A birthday boy is given the bumps overlooking the Bogside.

Figures lie prone by Fitzroy's. They crouch, reducing themselves to their smallest version. Or they stretch, touching the air above their heads. The dances tell no story other than the realities and possibilities of movement, the joy, effort and difficulty.

But if the dances have no meaning other than movement itself, there is a narrative in the movement of the film. Derry-Londonderry’s walls are defensive, designed to exclude and enclose, to keep out danger. Walls lend themselves to introspection. The intention here is to go beyond the walls, real or metaphorical, to take risks, to explore and occupy space, and in so doing to transform space.

The familiar and everyday is invaded and celebrated and altered by the alien, until the alien becomes the norm and those commonplaces become freshly seen. Recognition is replaced by reappraisal. The walls and streets of Derry-Londonderry, so often the stage for historical re-enactments, are here presented with a fresh story with an unknown ending.

The films are accompanied by a soundtrack of noises recorded during the performances, an urban symphony of engines and horns and sirens. One of the loveliest things about this is hearing the Match of the Day theme tune jangling from an ice cream van.

The reactions of passersby is another source of pleasure. Apart from one woman pushing a pram, who gives a shy wave to a child she recognises, no-one else seems to take a blind bit of notice, as if a flock of dancers wheeling around Bridge Street was par for the course.

'This was the most ambitious project I have attempted. It was incredibly challenging,' says Lee, who is visibly satisfied with the result. And so she should be. Without is a fascinating fusion of film and contemporary dance that will make you think and smile.

Without is on display at Echo Echo Dance Studio until October 6.