Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Flesh and Brick

Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis

Earthfall, the BAFTA-winning dance theatre company, will spend the next year exploring the choreography of body and building in House, an umbrella working title for a venture which will tour across Europe. New Welsh Review asked the company’s artistic directors, Jim Ennis and Jessica Cohen, to talk about the ways in which their radical methodology has evolved to meet the demands of a 21st-century audience.

Jim Ennis: For the last six years we have been researching ways of presenting our performances inside different structures. The idea of a house, its exterior and interior architecture and its different floors, became increasingly important to us. Maybe we would have one built inside a warehouse, or situated on a piece of wasteland? The point was this: to explore themes of displacement within these non-theatre locations using choreography, cameras, live music and personal memory, all ingredients from previous shows but used in new ways – partly owing to the distinctive environment, partly to the deployment of new technologies.We also looked at ideas of the family and the choreography of body and building; the implications of inviting a stranger into your house, how this affects your situation or provokes mistrust and suspicions; and the implications of being an outsider in an unfamiliar land. Even before the events of September 11th, we were concerned with the idea of the vulnerability of flesh and brick. In a broad sense, a house is safe, but it is also a place of danger and death. Outside the house, it works both ways too. As human beings, we have evolved to withstand a degree of punishment, but both body and building can still be all too easily destroyed.

Jessica Cohen: In the past, we have created performances with a very distinct narrative outline. When we began work on I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down in late 2001, we found we had pages of random notes, but certain themes kept emerging that took up these broader political concerns, for example, issues concerning asylum seekers, refugees and dispersed families. A sense of displacement was common to many of the images and stories that were coming up in rehearsals – it even affected the way we looked at our choreographic language as a whole. We took a new road and began to deconstruct what we have done previously. Each idea was given several different treatments. The way in which we layered and clustered images together reminded me of the impact of Chinese characters which when seen separately mean one thing, but juxtaposed mean something completely different.

Jim Ennis: I Can’t.... is initially touring theatre venues, so our designer Mike Brookes had to build a transportable structure that would adapt to a variety of indoor settings, but still give this impression of rooms within a house. There were six models we could construct depending on the venue size, but always the same three central performance levels: a performance space outside the house (achieved through live and pre-recorded film), a performance in the space where the audience actually sat, and a performance space inside the house revealed through cameras – and microphones – manipulated by the performers. This develops what we sketched out in aD, our previous work. We had a partial environment – namely, a suspended window and a table – and we focused on the relationship between father and son. In I Can’t... we had this flexible shell/house and we looked at a group of people brought together by chance, rather than by blood ties.

Jessica Cohen: The orchestration of the dancers – and the two musicians playing live in each performance – was hugely complex and a measure of how far we have come as a company. We have a long history of working with film – we even made a short feature film that won a BAFTA – but the technology is changing and we are changing with that, even allowing for the fact that the core of our work remains authenticity of movement within a given space. I Can’t... saw us using five cameras mixed with live film projections and pre-recorded film by Wyn Mason, in addition to subtitles, computer graphics, live music and personal memories drawn from the six-strong company. The use of new technologies means discovering new territories, for example, we have one street dancer in our company and one scratch DJ. We decided to include a section where we use both these skills, but we separate out the two ‘languages’ and reinvent the physical response of the dancer. Rather than rely on a set move she’s learned, we encouraged her to respond intuitively to the DJ scratching. That, in turn, became an impetus for the body’s movement.

Jim Ennis: We wanted to get away from a choreography that resembles a kind of loop of carefully detailed patterns. The movements sometimes get stopped halfway and something else was projected into the choreography, a kind of physical non sequitur. The lifts, the flights of bodies associated with our choreography are still there, but they are more fragmented. We let two points of view – or two techniques, like street dancing and scratching – collide, and waited to see what happened. And yet we still aim to create an experience which has a strong connection with the audience. It is never an easy experience, but it does offer provocation – and emotion. To me, the essence of what we do, regardless of the advances we make in terms of technology, is always this business of people moving through space, the music that works with that, and the relationships that develop out of this interaction.

Jessica Cohen: Nothing is ever just there for the sake of it, or for a gimmicky effect – whether it is a sound, an image, or a particular movement. I compare how we work with cameras now to what we did with lighting designers in the past – we used lights to focus people’s attention on particular details. In I Can’t... we took this one stage further – the camera filmed someone leaping into the house, it held a freeze-frame of that leaping action and we watched a body suspended in space for a period of time. The audience could note the expression in the performer’s eyes, the way his hair fell, whatever...

Jim Ennis: You see that move 85 times in rehearsal, so you know what it can achieve, but an audience just comes in for that one performance. What detail can you provide and how can you enhance it whilst still making sure it qualifies within the overall structure?

Jessica Cohen: The projects that will evolve from I Can’t... and inform the development of the House project will take all this on to a larger – possibly more majestic – scale, but we will maintain this sense of intimacy. I don’t think we can ever ignore the fact that the core of any production is a kind of sum total of personal experiences. I was in Israel early last year and the country was in upheaval over a wave of suicide bombings. Again, I was confronted by this notion of vulnerability, in addition to the whole problem of the misunderstandings that exist between different cultures and how these can be exploited and manipulated for different audiences. We reflect on this in I Can’t... in a scene called Mis-translation. An English-speaking person is seen translating a story told in Welsh by another performer; the English translation is a complete fabrication. How do the audience know this? We project subtitles with the accurate translation as the speakers delivered their monologues. It is a funny scene in delivery, but the subtext is far more complex and challenging.

Jim Ennis: That’s the key to our work, I suppose, although it is often achieved in intangible ways. I mean, we don’t try and coax gravitas out of a situation in rehearsal, but it is there all the same. It makes for a more profound connection with the audience; it is part of this quality of immediacy and intimacy we don’t want to lose – however much the logistics of performance, and the total scale, will grow.

Jessica Cohen: Those qualities evolve in our work. A production goes out on tour and it grows. With I Can’t... we found ourselves looking again at the narrative and how we could focus more closely on our central character, a man who has committed an unidentified terrible atrocity.

Jim Ennis: There is very much this feeling now that we enter his world of codifications and clandestine operations, but at the same time we discover his vulnerablity. He has lost his humanity and we want to explore that without resorting to dogma. When you start creating in a moment, rather than in a rehearsa studio, it does cause all kinds of interesting deflections from your original starting-point. We work with that on tour. We watched other characters come to the fore and create their own acts of defiance in the face of te atmosphere of oppression and violence surrounding them in the performance. We shall look at all this again in early April when we take the project to a specific location in Cardiff and recreate it. That will represent a new starting-point for us, but then I Can’t... is not restricted by any boundaries. It is in many ways an atmosphere rather than a narrative, or a piece of dance-theatre that you can quickly label and move on from. We intend this ‘performance on location’ to be one of many new manifestations of I Can’t... in the immediate future.

Jessica Cohen: A key consideration when we come to develop House will be ways of working with new partnerships. We have just received an Objective Two funding award from the Welsh European Funding Office. This has enabled us to start brainstorming with a number of other companies involved with new technologies. They are: KODE, a new media and software production company; Soundworks, a recording and post-production company for TV, film and digital media; and yourmindseye, a design and technology company working primarily in web and digital media products. The research we conduct over the next twelve months will feed into the development of House, but a priority will be harnessing these new networks with members of our established performance company. We have a team of regular collaborators, including Artstation – an art and technology company working through the visual arts – fine artists Mike Brookes and John Collingswood, performers Gerald Tyler – who used to be our technician out on the road – Cai Tomos, Dave McKenna, Terry Michael and Charlotte Grant , musicians Jon Wygens and Roger Mills, and Felix Ortola from The Pop Factory. The proposal on the table to our new partners is to connect our disparate visions and to create something new out of that connection. The potential is limitless.

Jim Ennis and Jessica Cohen were interviewed by Penny Simpson

I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down tours Wales and Europe throughout 2003. For further details on the tour visit: For information on Earthfall and the progress of House visit: www.

author:Penny Simpson

original source: New Welsh Review
28 February 2003


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