Donald Hutera talks to Kevin Finnan, the artistic director of Motionhouse
Given that creative energy is never in short supply Motionhouse, it may come as no surprise that energy is the core subject of the latest touring show by this long-established, UK-based company. But the production, entitled Charge, is nevertheless bound to offer visual thrills and kinetic surprises aplenty as it uses dance, acrobatics, digital projection and a galvanising soundtrack to probe the sources that activate life in the human body.
I fired off a few questions to Motionhouse’s artistic director Kevin Finnan in advance of the imminent performances at Theatre Royal, Winchester Nov 10 and 11. Here are his answers in an exclusive interview for this website.
Donald Hutera: Charge is part of what the company is calling the Earth Trilogy that includes the shows Scattered and Broken. What prompted this trilogy in the first place?
Kevin Finnan: It wasn’t originally conceived as a trilogy. It started out as a single show, Scattered, which was about water. But Scattered opened up ways of engaging with the human condition, eliciting questions about the environment and a way of working that was really interesting to me. So I decided to make Broken, a show about our relationship with the earth that could develop all of these questions and explore this way of working. That show raised yet more questions and prompted me to make Charge, a show about energy. So it’s a trilogy that has revealed itself through doing.
DH: What forms of research did you and the company undertake in order to create Charge?
KF: To make a show about energy on the micro and macro scale you have to read widely on the subject to gain some small understanding, and search for ideas that will make the story visible. I did a large amount of academic research. I went to a stimulating event in Oxford run by the Tipping Point/Stories for Change teams. I eventually found – through Sophy Smith, my composer – the work of Dame Professor Frances Ashcroft at Oxford University. I got in touch and she graciously agreed to meet me, afterwards agreeing to help and becoming a partner in the project.
This developed into a series of meetings between my creative team with Frances and her team, during which we spent time discussing the workings of electricity and the human body. Imagine having a whole room of dedicated scientists and artists discussing electrical transmission in the human body. What a gift, and an invaluable resource! Later in the process Frances and some of her team traveled up to see our work in the rehearsal room, and to give feedback. To have access to such fantastic, cutting-edge thought is a thrill, and very humbling. It opens new ways of seeing the world. I can’t imagine I would be creating an ion channel onstage without Frances, as I’d never even heard of them!
I’ve also set a course with the dancers to expand the physical language we use. We recently collaborated on a work with No Fit State Circus called Block which brought fresh skills and impetus into the company, and we’re continuing to explore and expand the use and role of spectacle in our work. In the studio we’re constantly trying to challenge ourselves to move on, creating and stockpiling ideas. With Charge we also spent a lot of time exploring our relationship with the digital. This show crossed the Rubicon for us as it was a massive jump in terms of its complexity of ideas and delivery.
DH: More specifically, how did the work’s themes and ideas get translated into actions and images? I’m especially interested in how scientific principles become theatre.
KF: In a large-scale spectacle the narrative line is created before any movement, and images are developed to it within a strict timeline. With Charge I knew the themes, but had no firm idea of the form with which to tell them.
For all of our stage shows I try to be as open as possible. Through the research process I narrow things down to a series of themes and movement ideas to explore. This creates a series of mental pictures I wish to realise. The company is then encouraged to play and create with each other and the environment. What I do not do is come in with a narrative line as that makes devising very difficult for the dancers and collaborators. Things float and change and everyone’s quite lost for a long time. I have to trust that, in partnership with my fellow artists, I’ll be able to realise the work in the time available.
Ultimately I’m waiting for the work to reveal itself; the creation process is about continuing to explore until you recognise what you’re looking for.
As an example of this, two of the dancers in Charge had been improvising with an idea for a strop duet. When I saw that I played a certain type of music to it, knowing it would work as a thread throughout the show to explore the notion of fading memory as in dementia or Alzheimer’s – where essentially the mind goes dark as there’s no energy passing in that part of the brain. I saw that the spatial separation inherent in what the dancers created could express this narrative; it would be beautiful, sad and troubling. This is a good example of wanting to embody and make visual a scientific fact, and waiting for the right material to emerge.
An example on the other end of the scale is the work we did on the human heart. The heart beats to a rhythm; all the muscles must be activated at the right time to make the heart muscles open and close together. You can imagine the pulse as a single flash. When you have a heart attack, the rhythm of the spark is interrupted; it’s off-beat, with many points twinkling. This makes the heart go flaccid and unable to pump. The electric shock you see being given in TV programmes set in hospitals is not to restart the heart, but to stop it. The hope is that when it restarts naturally it will restart in rhythm. It’s a bit like restarting your computer. Delving even deeper, it’s the single transmission of electrical energy – the line of ions waiting to pass through the Ion channel – that makes all this possible.
We began by exploring ‘making hearts’ on our own and in groups, moving them and beating them. How would a heart attack make a physical score? Unity to chaos; it seemed quite simple, but in making it we found that chaos meant we completely lost the image of the heart and it just looked like formless, abstract dance. The solution was to keep enough form to recognise the heart, but introduce the breakdown of unity within that form. We then played with how we could make that moment of pulse tell the story in a different way – exploring momentary tableaux, and breaking down movement to a single flash to show the external story of a heart attack. But whose heart is it, and how could we visualise and embody the ion channel?
Our research around the idea of the single energy flow across the cell created so much material that I could just go on and on. Professor Ashcroft is so pleased with our work in this area that she’s asked for film of the show to use at conferences.
DH: This is fascinating stuff, Kevin. Could you mention a few other highlights of the show?
KF: Well, there’s a section where we journey from Galvani’s frogs through to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here we’re telling the story of our modern comprehension of the human body as an electrically-activated system. And how do we explore the idea of what a memory is – a mutating, complex physical structure that’s built and developed by the brain like the growing of a tree, but only accessed and animated by sparks of electrical energy? We began using silk to signify the tendrils of the mind, and then interacting with film to develop the energy flow. I love this section. But the company looks great throughout Charge, and really shows what they can do. I’m very proud of them.
DH: What, not incidentally, are some of the qualities and attributes that a performer must have to be a member of Motionhouse?
KF: They have to be daring, bold and committed to working together to realise something as an ensemble. The range of skills and what’s asked of them makes them a special group.
DH: Are you able to encapsulate a little of what you’ve learnt from making Charge?
KF: It was an extremely difficult show to make for a number of reasons. Basically we learned that if we all pull together we can do anything.
DH: Finally, what is Motionhouse’s place in both the UK and global, dance-based cultural ecology?
KF: We started out as dance-theatre and then, fed up with the restrictions of that, we became just Motionhouse. Others then began calling us dance-circus, so we’ve assumed that mantle too. We seem to have just wandered off on our own. I don’t see much that seems like us. All along I’ve simply pursued an interest between movement, imagery and spectacle, and then try to make work that’s emotionally engaging, thrilling to watch and driven by a roiling physical energy. I continue to be amazed at and proud of both the number of people who see us, and the reception they give us. It’s a huge relief that we’ve found a large and very passionate audience for our work.
Friday 10 & Saturday 11 November.
Theatre Royal Winchester