The People's Procession Limbers Up in Derry~Londonderry
Choreographer Sian Thomas looks forward to The Return of Colmcille, the UK City of Culture's most spectacular event
On June 7 and 8, 2013, St Colmcille, the patron saint of Derry~Londonderry, will make a highly publicised return to his beloved city. He's been away a long time, around 1,500 years to be precise.
Over the centuries, seismic changes have taken place in the walled city and along the River Foyle, whose bridges and quaysides will form the centrepiece of The Return of Colmcille, a dazzling combination of street theatre, outdoor performance and spectacular celebration.
With no less a vision than that of writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, as its driving force, it was clear from the start that this would be no mere pageant, no modest historical re-enactiment. His is an imagination that recognises no limits, brooks no refusals in creative terms, as witnessed by his extraordinary collaboration with director, Danny Boyle, on the London 2012 Opening Ceremony.
The organisers of the UK City of Culture 2013 have teamed Cottrell Boyce with Walk the Plank, the Salford-based company, which specialises in meticulously crafted outdoor events and performance, whether in tiny village squares or on vast international stages.
Walk the Plank prides itself on creating one-off, bespoke extravaganzas, which involve and connect with audiences at grass roots level. In the process they engender a sense of place, a feeling of pride and a genuine shared experience. They employ experienced practitioners from all over the world to head up each segment of the creative team, then put out the call to local people to join in and play their part.
Such is the case with The People's Procession – one of several productions within The Return of Colmcille – which will leave the Waterside on the evening of Saturday, June 8, cross the Peace Bridge and gather together a cavalcade of floats as it makes its way to Queens Quay.
Its role is to bring to life some of the landmark events in the city's rich history, all of which Colmcille would have missed during his absence. Hundreds of people have already signed up to take part, but its creator is keen that many more will join the throng and celebrate the homecoming of this iconic saint.
'Colmcille is a colossal figure, a monastic superhero and his love for Derry is well documented in poetry and literature,' explains Cottrell Boyce. 'Coming back to his home town, he’ll want to hear all the stories he’s missed over the last 1,500 years – from the shirt factories to the Undertones, from Dopey Dick to the U-boat surrender on the Foyle. The city is going to be completely transformed for two days, and we want everyone to come along and take part.'
There could be few individuals better qualified to shape the choreographic element of The People's Procession than Sian Thomas, whose personal specialism is percussive dance. Thomas has been dancing since she was eight, when she began tap lessons. She had no formal training, but instead learned her art in the best way possible.
'My parents were in a travelling theatre company, and I was taught by the troupe of dancers,' she explains. 'The company was called Friends Roadshow, and was very much part of that early fringe theatre movement that spawned companies like Welfare State, Incubus and Footsbarn.
'We travelled around Europe in a double-decker bus, and, in between, lived in a big house in London. My mother was a puppeteer and my step-dad was an acrobat. My sister and I thought that our way of life was the norm, though looking back I suppose you could say that we lived on the edge of 1960s and 70s society.'
After running the Hat Festival in Winchester for eight years, Thomas turned her back on arts programming and returned to what she calls 'the family business' of outdoor performance. In the meantime, her family have moved on, too.
For a few years, her mother ran the Hood Fair, a small, seminal arts festival in Devon before moving back to her roots as a fiddle player, performing folk gigs in venues big and small. Thomas' other stepfather was a pyrotechnician with Walk the Plank, which brings her involvement with the company full circle.
'Walk the Plank has staged several events in Northern Ireland, so they know the territory well,' Thomas adds. 'They've done the Halloween and New Year's Eve parties in Derry, as well as Land of Giants in Belfast last year. I first worked with them last summer on Sparkle Fly, a big event for the Cultural Olympiad.
'What they have put together for The Return of Colmcille is absolutely amazing. I think people will be knocked out by what they are going to see. The People's Procession will tell a load of stories about Colmcille's Derry that he would have no idea about, such as the Flight of the Earls, Amelia Earhart's solo flight across the Atlantic, during which she landed near Derry, the music scene led by the Undertones...
'The floats are spectacular. A huge tallship has been built for the Flight of the Earls. There's a massive, lifelike whale, an incredible spinning plane for Amelia, and we are hoping that all the Undertones will be playing on their float.'
With co-choreographer, Jeanefer Jean Charles, Thomas has been charged with shaping the gallery of moving pictures which will constitute The People's Procession. 'Jeanefer and I have forged a great working partnership, which is really important when you are delivering something on this scale. There are 11 sections to the procession, each told in a quirky and distinctive way.
'The starting point was Frank's story. He's so generous and egalitarian in the way he works. He has that local connection, and he feels strongly about making work for local people. We began our task by studying the drawings and designs, which we found very inspiring. Then we tuned into Jim Sutherland's atmospheric music and the choreographic ideas started to flow from there.
'Almost all the participants are amateurs. There are local dance groups, circus performers, gymnasts and a group of young people who do free running and parcour, whose energy and expertise have really impressed me. We now have hundreds of people on board, but there is plenty of room for more and we would encourage anyone interested to come forward. It certainly isn't too late to join in.'
From a personal point of view, Thomas is experiencing a real buzz from working in Derry~Londonderry, a city she much admires for the way in which culture and the arts have prevailed in spite of the difficult years of the Troubles. Now aged 47, she vividly recalls living in London when the Troubles were at their height.
'I was very much aware of what was happening in Northern Ireland. To me what was going on was a civil war on our own doorstep, not just a little fight. I come from a Welsh background and I recognise that deep-rooted Celtic respect for culture, which is carried over from one generation to the next.
'The People's Procession has been conceived as a big outdoor celebratory performance. There's no sense of people getting dressed up in a way that represents a political bias. It's deliberately not called a parade or a pageant. The very word "parade" has a different connotation in Northern Ireland.'
As Thomas and her colleagues enter the last few weeks of preparations, she is in no doubt about what element of The People's Procession really fires her up. 'The Undertones,' she asserts.
'I first got into punk music when I was about 12 and I went to see The Clash. I was a rural punk, living in the depths of Devon. In that community, being part of the punk movement marked you out as different somehow. Listening to 'Teenage Kicks' brings it all back to me, that special time in my life, those important teenage years. The energy it generates is brilliant, so nostalgic. It's magic to be working with that.'
The People's Procession will begin at 9pm on Saturday, June 8. The final chapter will unfold at 10:30pm, when strange sounds will be heard echoing along the Foyle and Colmcille’s nemesis, the Lough Ness Monster, is sighted. The people will stand together to defend their saint as an epic pyrotechnic showdown unfolds along the quays.