by Neil Nisbet
September 2003. Since 1988 MotionHouse Dance Theatre have been growing in stature to become one of the UK's best known dance companies. Article19 talks to Kevin Finnan the company's creative director about their recent work "Volatile" and how to survive in the hostile dance world.
Article19: Tell us about Volatile your new work!
My major interest was the theme of communication really I was really struck that how in 2000+ we are living the age of communication. Everybody’s always talking about the speed of communication, what young can do with computers and mobile phones and Bluetooth and everything else, machines will all be talking and everything else. We have instant communication, video messaging with everybody all the time we’re all in touch.
[Also] certain things that I was going through in my life and various things my friends were going through that were difficult to deal with. In trying to communicate with people it was really hard and painful. I was struck by the contradiction that yes we are in the age of communication but when you have to say something meaningful to someone either in written form or by words it’s still no easier.
There might be more ways of doing it but actually communication is still the same fraught dangerous business it always has been. I just like that contradiction and that became the motivation to make the show.
Article19: Is new technology making communication colder between people?
Those elements are occurring but they are not the whole story. Cicely Berry had this great quote where she talks about how words are a form of violence that explodes from our lips. I really like the notion [that] a letter you write can be an explosion from within you. The need to communicate is really powerful. But you can’t control it once its left because you never know how it’s going to be received. When we were making the work we were looking at all these tenuous connections between a bunch of characters and the messages that get passed from one to another that get misunderstood.
Article19: How does the set design integrate with the work?
A major aspect of my work is that space gives meaning to our lives.
I think that we as creatures generate the space that we use around us by our movement and our intentions and the way we are. We’re all constantly negotiating space. So when it comes to choreography I’m really working to create a physical space that generates narratives and stories and themes. I’m really allowing the space to speak through the performers.
Because of who I am and where I live I’m always concerned with urbanisms and my spaces are always reflective of urbanisms. So for example “Volatile” is a minimalist set in some ways but it contains those elements that speak of the urban experience. It’s a structure that contains angles and corners and has some steps. It has interior space and exterior space so it speaks to us as an urbanism and that life that we lead. Then the choreography is evolved from being in that space.
Article19: Is there a risk element involved for the performers?
There is but we train very hard. Everybody goes on about pushing the boundaries, risk this risk that. I think we try to make our shows exciting by being really skilful at what we do. There are things that people do in the show that if it goes wrong it’s going to be very bad for them. One of the guys balances on his hands on the steel cage 15 feet up in the air so if he falls he’s going to be in trouble. We’re within a very narrow steel structure and we’re moving very fast and jumping and catching and if you miss you’re going to fly off or go [crashing] into a metal bar. But we haven’t done that to create risk we do it because that’s our world and we push physicality as much as we can in order to be exciting and stimulating.
Article19: Tell us about Volatile Satellites your mini performance programme.
It’s another part of the work. We’ve been very interested for “Volatile” and the last few shows in that we’ve been performing them on national tours but we also take exactly the same shows and do them in city centres in the afternoon. An hour of contemporary dance, no lights, no effects, start to finish and whoever is in the street is watching you. If you can do that and make it work then you’re doing something really exciting and interesting. The thing about the satellites is this idea of making performance for tiny little spaces. They are little structures, only a couple of feet across and yet the performers have to do a whole [show] within this space.
We want to keep doing them because it’s really easy to disappear into contemporary dance world. You make your show you go to the theatres that take dance and that’s it really. So we have the satellites that we can do very cheaply, they all come out of a van. All the time we’re trying to find ways of performing and performing and performing out in the street, in theatres, and special sites.
Next year we’re doing a massive site specific with all the extreme sports down on a beach in Cornwall. In and around that, at different times, we’ll be doing the satellites. It’s all about making sure that your work is actually in public, in the public domain.
Article19: How have things changed for you since you began in 1988?
We started in 1988 as a small contemporary company getting of the ground like everybody else. We’ve always gone our own way, [we have] never really been within the contemporary world. MotionHouse started off in London [just] to get ourselves established but then moved out very quickly and that has allowed us to have our own identity. We followed the path of starting of as a tiny little company then you grow and grow and grow until eventually you’re doing middle scale houses.
[Like everyone else] we are always struggling with money and then a few years ago we just changed our whole vision of what we were and what we were trying to do. We realised that what we actually wanted to do was have our work in the public domain for longer and the dance touring circuit doesn’t support that. So we’ve been in the process of creating works where we don’t need that circuit, that circuit isn’t a limit to us. We can go outside it and perform outdoors, we can perform in the summer and we can perform in the winter. So we have gone from a small project based company to a company that works most of the year round. Our dancers are usually on longer contracts than the Royal Ballet.
“Atomic” did 150 [performances], “Fearless” 135, “Volatile” 75, that is an enormous amount of performing. Then around that we have been doing projects that are out and about.
We went through a period of not being very popular with the Arts Council, we’ve always been very popular with the venues, and then we sort of “rock and rolled” it, we kept touring show to show to show, from venue to venue to venue. [Over that time] we’ve built this massive support so we always get lots of commissions for our shows and we always have big tours. Now of course we’re back in favour again [with the Arts Council].
Article19: Are things easier or harder now with the funding system and all of the politics involved?
We’ve got really secure funding now, we’re in a stable place and we’re really doing what we want to do. We’re really excited about where we are and how the work is going and the opportunities we’re getting, so we feel really positive about that. I think that the environment has been really harsh. Over the period that we grew was Thatcher’s era [former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher] and then into complete collapse and then into the upswing that’s been coming slowly. So we have grown in what was a time of decline into re-growth.
Now I think the environment is really interesting. For young companies starting out it is quite harsh, it’s hard to get going. But there are opportunities now which are very positive in terms of if you’re creative with how you think about work.
Article19: What advice would you give to dance students in training at young choreographers just starting out?
I think that everybody has to accept these days that a lot of people go to the gym and a lot of people do all sorts of action sports so I think your basic skill level has to be good. It’s very hard to get the time to grow into it. You have to be good when you start, you have to be ready. You have to make sure you are ready to go when you get your opportunity.
Essentially you always have to be true to what you want to do when you [create] your work and [make sure] you generate the work that you want to make. But when you do that you need to look around at how you can manipulate the environment to suit what you want to do. There’s a business maxim where if you realise that you can’t win the game then you don’t play, you change the game. You have to get into that mind set otherwise its not going to work.
Article19: Are established choreographer to set in their ways and reluctant to change with the time?
I think it’s a mix. If you get to a certain level where you are well funded then you can afford to be a little bit complacent and then you don’t have to change until life gives you a kick up the bum. If you are not in a secure position and you don’t change with the time then you die!
Article19: Do you think the more exciting work comes from the up and coming choreographers who have little or no money?
No, that’s another thing that I hear that was often a justification for why we shouldn’t fund the arts. If you look at Vim Vandekybuss who has money coming out of his ears, as far as I can see, the work is fantastic. It’s not about whether you have money or not, I thinks that’s a red herring, it’s about how you push on your work. In order for us to develop over the years we have continued to train and retrain with new skills and I’ve always continued my research in terms of theoretical research, reading and always looking at what other people are doing.
It’s a mixture of self-evaluation and what you do and being aware of what’s happening in the world. It’s like surfing; if you’re just facing the shore all the time then you don’t see the wave coming.