It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m sitting in a rehearsal room in the West Yorkshire Playhouse watching a new piece of theatre take shape. I’ve been there all of five minutes and already I have tears in my eyes.
It’s difficult to explain exactly why I am so moved but I’m convinced that when audiences get to see Anniversary, which opens at the Playhouse next week, they will be too. Combining dance, live music and storytelling, Anniversary has been developed and will be performed by a company of older people – five world-class professional contemporary dancers and five community performers, all of them aged between 50 and 90.
A co-production with Performance Ensemble, a professional company of older artists founded by Alan Lyddiard the former artistic director of Northern Stage, who is directing the piece, Anniversary challenges preconceptions about ageing in a subtle and imaginative way. The narrative sees the ensemble working towards creating a piece of contemporary dance and in the process sharing significant dates, memories and stories from their own lives.
Anniversary began its journey two years ago. In 2014 Lyddiard worked with Heydays, the Playhouse’s long-established community initiative for older people which brings together three hundred over-55s each week to take part in creative projects, to make a performance piece inspired by the lives of its cast. That was followed by the production Dancehall of Dreams, performed at the Playhouse on the Quarry stage by a cast of a hundred older people from Heydays and across the Calder Valley. Then, after securing funding, work was able to begin on developing Anniversary.
“I was really determined to make it happen,” says Lyddiard. “The best thing is finally being in the rehearsal room with everyone and I’m loving it – every day I come into work and feel joyful.”
Lyddiard has collaborated with some of the professional dancers and choreographers before and many of them have known each other for several decades. “So what you are seeing is years of understanding,” he says. “And that is essentially what the piece is about – it’s about relationships. Some of the relationships are two years old and some are much longer. It means the piece is very rich because there is so much connection. And that makes for great theatre.”
Lyddiard has long been an advocate of ensemble working and breaking down the barriers between professional, amateur and community practice to create professional work with, and at the heart of, communities. Anniversary has been a perfect example of the rewards it can bring. “We have had a shared experience and the resulting piece is multifaceted,” he says. “There is a layer of performance, a layer of dance and a layer of creating a piece in a theatre space. Gradually you can see the piece emerge. From nothing you create something very special. The performers are not pretending to be anyone else – they are telling their own stories. It’s come from them and it’s written by and made by them. Not a single word has come from me, it is their stories. It is the truth, it’s life. They are amazing people and I hope that some of the passion and the emotional content will come across. It is about valuing older people.”
There is something profoundly affecting about seeing older bodies dancing. Movement is more considered – though not necessarily slower judging by some of the sequences I saw in rehearsal – and it has a grace and beauty all of its own. Years of life experience bring a weight and complexity to the way in which the cast express themselves physically. It is uplifting yet at the same time it communicates the not always comfortable notion of the relentlessness of the ageing process. This adds an extra layer of poignancy and while the company are dancing you can see the care they are taking with each other.
“We help one another,” says Namron, one of the professional dancers taking part who was a leading member of London Contemporary Dance Company for 18 years. “I am in my seventies now. Some of us don’t move as easily as we used to and some are hard of hearing so it’s amazing how we work together – we help one another. It’s been a really rewarding experience working with a group of non-dancers and for the dancers, some of us haven’t seen each other for years, so that’s been really enjoyable too.”
Originally from Jamaica, Namron won a scholarship to Rambert Ballet School in 1962 and was the first black dancer to join a professional contemporary dance company in Britain. He was a founder member of the teaching staff at Northern School of Contemporary Dance and worked as Phoenix Dance Company’s rehearsal director, so he has a long association with Leeds.
“When Alan approached me, I jumped at the opportunity to come back to Yorkshire because I have so many friends here,” he says. “And I have been coming to perform at the Playhouse since the 1970s with London Contemporary Dance Theatre.” He has, he says, thoroughly enjoyed being involved in developing Anniversary. “All those stories we have been sharing with one another – it’s a really nice way of working together. It has just been wonderful.”
This sentiment is shared by Pat White, a retired primary schoolteacher in her sixties and one of the five community performers, all members of Heydays, taking part.
“It has been an amazing experience,” she says. “I had never danced before, but because the professional dancers have all been choreographers and teachers it has been like having a master-class every day. I am learning new things all the time and I’m not self-conscious about how I look. It is a lovely liberating feeling. Everything you see has grown out of the stories we have told each other – there have been secrets and confessions and other little stories we have shared. I think that people get more interesting as they get older because they have experienced more.
“We have heard some lovely stories and there has been such a nice atmosphere while we have been working together, it has been so trusting and so friendly.” She hopes the piece will encourage people to reassess their attitudes towards ageing.
“Dancing is beautiful, it doesn’t matter what the body is like – if it’s not a young body, it can still be really beautiful and tender,” she says.
“There is so much emotion in there. And I want audiences to see that older people’s stories are worthwhile.”
Nicky Taylor, the Playhouse’s community development manager, has been supporting the project right from the start.
“My role is to help the participants to get the best out of the experience and to connect it with the work we do here with older people day in day out,” she explains. “It is very much part of our ethos to value the stories that older people have to share. And we want to attract all kinds of people, of all ages, to see this show. It is about what it means to be human and it explores that in such a delicate way and with great respect for individual experiences.
“I hope that the piece takes people out of their comfort zone for a little while and makes them think, but it is all done with such warmth and love. And we want to make sure that this is not something that disappears – there are real aspirations to build on this work.”
Lyddiard agrees. “My ambition for this is to tour in the UK in 2017 and around the world in 2018. I think it can grow.”
Anniversary is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, September 14-17. There will be a dementia-friendly performance and a BSL signed performance during the run, and a post-show discussion after the performance on September 16. wyp.org.uk