WinGuide editor Donald Hutera speaks to Yolande Yorke-Edgell, head of Yorke Dance Project, and YDP associate director and fellow choreographer Stephen Pelton about the company’s ambitious new project Dancing Sacred, to be presented at Winchester Cathedral on May 3.
Donald Hutera: What prompted the idea of staging dance – with live music, no less – in churches and cathedrals?
Stephen Pelton: The idea for the Dancing Sacred tour grew out of Yolande’s work with Robert Cohan on his Canciones Del Alma (Songs of the Soul), a solo from 1978 which she performed in our Figure Ground tour and also at Bob’s 90th birthday performances at The Place. The texts of the songs for this piece are poems by the 16th century mystic, St John of the Cross. The feeling of Canciones is so evocative of cathedrals and sacred spaces that it seemed to call out to be performed in a church setting. Coincidentally, I was working on Lauda Adrianna, a new full-length work, set to ten of Gavin Bryars’ laude – his re-imaginings of 12th century Italian religious songs, which premiered last June in a de-consecrated church in Glasgow as part of the Cottier Chamber Project. We then started talking about how powerful it would be to perform these works together in churches and cathedrals, and before we knew it we were on our way.
As you can see, music and dance are the key elements that inspired this project. The music for Lauda will be performed live by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble. There’s also a gospel choir involved. And we asked Bob to make a new work with this tour in mind, and also to revive his 1959 narrative work Hunter of Angels, made when he was in New York dancing with Martha Graham.
DH: What kind of audience do you think Dancing Sacred will attract?
Yolande Yorke-Edgell: The performance of Dancing Sacred at Winchester Cathedral is a preview of what we hope to be doing over the next two years: presenting dance and music in cathedrals and churches as a support for Inspirit, a programme of work that we’ll tour to UK theatres from autumn 2016.
It’s our hope that Dancing Sacred will attract regular church-goers who may not be accustomed to watching dance, but who’ll be drawn to see a programme at their local church. It might offer them a new experience of how art and spirituality meet. It’s our further hope that these new audiences will be so compelled by what they’ve seen that they’ll seek us out again when we perform other programmes at theatrical venues nearby.
With this in mind, we’d love to connect with a new audience at Winchester Cathedral in order for them to come and see us there when we perform at Theatre Royal Winchester next year.
Additionally, wherever we go, we want to involve local communities in what we do. In Winchester we’re working with Totton College to create a curtain-raiser and, as Stephen mentioned, a gospel choir from Winchester University who’ll sing live. In the long term, when we tour Dancing Sacred beyond Winchester, we’ll work with local choirs who’ll learn the three songs we’re using in the performance. We can also we can create-curtain raisers with youth dance groups from the area.
DH: Are there already other performances in the offing?
SP: We performed a first draft of Dancing Sacred at our annual company Christmas event in December at the Rambert studios, but Winchester is the first go for the programme in an actual cathedral setting. Thus far it’s the only one we have scheduled, but with the right kind of funding we hope it’ll be a programme we can continue to tour in the UK and abroad for many years.
DH: Are there any special artistic or technical challenges when it comes to staging dance-based work in such a hallowed setting?
SP: We’re about to find out! Lighting options are quite limited, depending upon the space and time of day of the performance, as most churches have a lot of ambient light. And stage sizes will vary considerably.
DH: Lastly, are there for either of you any creative watchwords to keep in mind when making dance that might be deemed ‘spiritual’?
YYE: Although none of the works in Dancing Sacred are traditionally religious they have taken inspiration from religious stories or themes which, in turn, make them spiritual. Also, the spirituality of each dance is personal to each choreographer. With my work I’m not trying to be literal, but rather take the essence of a song or piece of music and create something an audience can connect with in a spiritual way. I hope people will be moved by what they see and hear. We want them to connect with us.
SP: I’m not afraid of the word ‘spiritual,’ and would like to think that there’s always a place for matters of the spirit in my work. With Lauda Adrianna the music already dwells so specifically on religious themes and imagery that I felt I needed to be very careful not to overindulge ‘spirituality’ in the movement content. My goal was to approach the making of the piece as a way of asking questions about spirit, devotion and faith, but not necessarily answering them. Hopefully a space is created in which to contemplate these questions.
Below are factual details about each of the works in Dancing Sacred along with further information about content and tone.
Hunter of Angels (1959) by Robert Cohan (11 min, two men, music by Bruno Maderna) is a stark and dramatic work in which two male dancers representing the Biblical brothers Jacob and Esau dance around, with and on a ten foot ladder. The mood is intense as they battle each other over their birthright and claim to supremacy.
Lacrymosa (2016) by Robert Cohan (11 min, two dancers, music by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky) is a duet inspired by the relationship between Jesus and Mary.
Canciones del Alma (1978) by Robert Cohan (15min, solo, music by Geoffrey Burgon) was originally created for Canadian dancer Susan MacPherson in 1978. The music is a setting of three poems by 16th century mystic, St John of the Cross. The shape of Burgon’s songs closely follows that of the poems.
Out of Bounds ( 2016) by Yolande Yorke-Edgell (11 mins, quartet set to three gospel songs sung live by The S.O.N.G, Sounds of New Gospel). This quartet focuses on an individual whose personal quest is to break through what restricts her path in life. Taking inspiration from the possibility that “Down to the river to pray” was composed by an African-American slave, the three movements are a journey of removing the binds that can tie us emotionally and physically.
Lauda Adrianna (2015/16) by Stephen Pelton (complete work 45 min, excerpts for Dancing Sacred 20 min; five dancers and five musicians; music by Gavin Bryars, performed live by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble) is a solemn and meditative work danced to re-settings of 12th century religious songs, which, in Gavin’s new versions, hover somewhere between early and contemporary music. Similarly, the dance itself hovers over the question of what it is that devotional music offers a contemporary listener, outside the context of a specific religious practice, when facing the mysteries of life, death and faith…
To book tickets for Dancing Sacred please visit: http://www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk/events/yorke-dance-project-presents-dancing-sacred/
And for more details on Yorke Dance Project, visit here: