The Chess Piece

Echo Echo dance company launch an assault on the Guildhall in Derry

When one thinks of chess, it conjures up images old men sitting on park benches playing multiple games, two grand masters jousting to get the upper hand or, for West End aficionados, a Tim Rice musical with music by one half of ABBA and Murray Head rapping about ‘One Night in Bangkok’.

Derry’s leading dance company, Echo Echo, has now taken the game and given it a fresh spin, with The ChessChess Piece premiering in the Guildhall in the heart of the city from June 23-26.

Rehearsals began at the start of this month and the production is due to ‘go live’ a mere 22 days later. Sounds like a rushed project? In fact, the idea has been gestating and evolving since as far back as 2008.

‘The original idea came from Steve Batts,' explains Sarah Young, development officer with Echo Echo, 'one of our founders and artistic directors here at the company. Steve was contemplating the correlation between sport and dance and during one of our brainstorming sessions he came up with the idea of chess. So we took it from there.’

The company originally envisaged setting the production in the grand surroundings of a National Trust estate, but finally settled on the equally glamorous Guildhall. 'Plans were originally afoot to stage the production in Dunluce Castle, to have it in a National Trust area and to have a real outdoor spectacle to wow the crowds,' adds Young. 'But as talks progressed between us and the event planners, it was considered logistically too difficult so the idea was shelved.

'We were then thinking about Guildhall Square here in Derry, but there’s building work going on round the square so we settled on having it in the Guildhall itself. We’ll have a huge chessboard set out on the floor and seating on either side, rising up so that the audience can look down at the performance as its going on, like a real-life chess game. Also we’ll have stilt walkers, clowns and many other fun things to bring a carnival atmosphere to proceedings.'

In the summer of 2009, Echo Echo dancer Ayesha Mailey was asked if she would take charge of the project. Only one problem arose: Mailey had no idea how to play the game itself. 'I had never played chess in my life before undertaking this production, and so had to learn the game from the ground up. Luckily, in the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry and also in the Pilots Row Centre, classes were underway. So I enrolled in them, learning and observing the game and the tactics in preparation for the production that lay ahead.'

Mailey developed her chess skills and began transferring them onto a larger scale for the dancers, or ‘pieces’ in the production. Echo Echo has always been an advocate of freedom of expression in their workshops and productions, but for The Chess Piece Mailey had to rein her performers' engrained sense of spontaneity due to the rigid, tactical nature of the chess game.

Guildhall, Derry'In terms of the choreography, we have taken the rules and the common scenarios and looked at the movement of particular pieces. There wAs one idea where we took a particular game and played it out but that’s since been abandoned. There will be set structures for the game itself, but within the game we do have interludes and episodes that will allow each of the characters to put their own particular talents on show and move differently every time.'

'The Chess Piece is one of three projects in the company’s ‘Into Contact’ programme,' says Young, 'a programme of arts and sports events to help create and develop cultural partnerships in Northern Ireland.'

Attendees of Echo Echo’s workshops and performers who regularly work with the group will be taking part in The Chess Piece. Performers of all different backgrounds, and indeed some of different nationalities, will be showing off their skills. Performers in the production will be an eclectic bunch. After it's run in Derry, can audiences across the country look forward to seeing this interesting production in a venue near them?

'It’s possible that we may do this in the future,' says Young, 'but we’re just concentrating on getting these first few performances past us and we’ll think about that at a later date.'

The Chess Piece has tickets on sale now from Prices are £8 for adults and £4 for children.

Paul McElwee