Du Dance: Fallen

Intergenerational dance production recalls the experience of the First World War in Belfast and beyond

There aren’t too many projects in any art form that join together participants as young as nine with those as old as 90. Alternative Energies, the brainchild of Du Dance, Belfast’s ever-enterprising dance development agency, is one of them.

For Mags Byrne, DU Dance’s artistic director, the special buzz of the intergenerational approach she espouses so enthusiastically is ‘when you recognise and realise how much people have got to share together'.

‘That move from sitting at opposite sides of the room viewing each other warily, to being able to chat and feeling comfortable with each other, and creating with each other, that’s the biggest highlight, really.’

Mixing and matching the different generations is central to Fallen, the concluding performance in the three-year Alternative Energies series. Its subject is the First World War, its aim ‘an exploration of the human cost for those who went to war and those who remained at home'.

The idea of working on the Great War was not envisaged at the outset of the Alternative Energies project, but came from the older adults participating in it. A shock awaited them when workshopping actually started. ‘I think some of our older performers have been really surprised at how little our younger performers know about the First World War,’ explains Byrne. ‘One or two of them were even struggling to find the dates.’

Byrne, however, bridles at the notion of blaming the youngsters’ lack of historical awareness on schools, the usual target when society bewails the alleged ignorance and fecklessness of the contemporary teenager. ‘There’s so much pressure on schools, so many subjects and so much information,’ she says. ‘If some information is missed along the way, I don’t think we can criticise schools for that.

‘In general our community needs to provide an opportunity for people to learn these things, not just from books, but to make the learning alive. And that’s really what we’ve been trying to do by bringing older people together with younger people – bring that information alive and make it personal.’

So while the young people involved in Fallen unquestionably benefit from having their eyes opened, Byrne believes passionately in the necessity to tap the crucially important contribution that older adults can make to the future development of our society and communities.

‘It’s possible in this digital age, where so much communication and so much learning is done digitally, to imagine that older people don’t have very much to offer younger people,’ Byrne comments. ‘But this project is proof that that’s not the case. The experience, the knowledge, the reflections all that the older participants bring, is really valuable learning for young participants.’

What issues from the collaborative, cross-generational process of asking, telling, learning and absorbing is dance – the expression of the themes and ideas emerging about the Great War in the language of gesture and movement.

The end result is, Byrne stresses, very much shaped by the participants, not a team of professional choreographers. ‘The work in Fallen is devised, not pushed upon the participants. We make it together. The work itself doesn’t start to get made until people come into the room together.

‘Their ideas and their input is really how the work is made. What myself and the other choreographer, Tamara McLorg, are doing is framing that information, giving it some kind of context within a piece, and structuring. That often is hugely exciting.’

In seeking to comment on the First World War experience, Fallen does not, says Byrne, follow a particular historical or visual narrative. ‘What dance does best is by-pass the conscious mind, and try to work on a deeper level, a different part of the human being.

‘We’re trying to connect with people through the human cost, the human story. That involves working with the emotions that might have been around at that time, what it might have felt like to wave your son or husband or father away, then realise several months later than some of these young men are not coming home.

‘And some of them are coming home, but not in full body. some of them are coming home with everything intact, but so altered by the situation that they can’t talk about it. We’re looking at the human sense that would have surrounded that.

‘In Fallen you’re not going to see 70-odd people dressed in First World War clothes. What we’re trying to do is have a moment of reflection on that time, to give a feeling of that rather than actually directly represent something.’

Finding a suitable venue for a show as emotionally resonant as Fallen was, Byrne concedes, a major headache. ‘We looked for ages and ages, for a space that felt right and already has an atmosphere and a feeling about it, and in the end got very frustrated.

‘And then we looked at the Titanic Drawing Offices on the Queen’s Road, Belfast. Within seconds of walking in I knew it was right. It’s the only surviving building in the Titanic Quarter that was around at the time of the war. The offices haven’t been renovated, and some people would call it dingy. But you feel the history in the stone and the paint peeling off the walls. The spaces are incredibly powerful in their own right.’

It is there, in the faded grandeur of the Drawing Offices, beginning on the evening of Armistice Day, November 9 and ending on November 11 – the day the First World War ended – that DU Dance will give three performances of Fallen, to a live musical score conceived by violinist Ruby Colley. Tickets are free, and available directly from the company via telephone (028 9033 0956) or email (info@dudanceni.com).

‘It’s a promenade piece,’ explains Byrne. ‘There are two drawing offices, and we will start in one, then move with the audience to the second. At the end we’ll ask the audience to come and have tea with us. From beginning to end, including tea, it lasts about an hour.

‘Every project has something that drives and moves you,’ Byrne adds reflectively. ‘In Fallen, working inter-generationally, it’s wonderful watching people become more confident and more comfortable with each other, and watching both young and old being able to contribute and create together. Being listened to, being respected. There’s so few opportunities for that in our society now.’

Fallen runs in the Titanic Drawing Offices, Belfast, from November 9 – 11.