In at the deep end for Olympics

Balbir Singh Dance Company in rehearsal at John Charles Aquatic Centre for their Synchronise project. Photo by Tim Smith
Balbir Singh Dance Company in rehearsal at John Charles Aquatic Centre for their Synchronise project. Photo by Tim Smith
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With just a year to go to the opening ceremony of London 2012, Sarah Freeman meets the sports enthusiasts and artists who are teaming up to create work inspired by the Olympic ideals.

A couple of years ago, Tessa Gordziejko was sitting on a pot of cash – £2.6m, to be precise.

Her task as creative director of a new organisation called Imove was to devise a programme of cultural events around the 2012 Olympics.

The project was set up as a nod to the ancient Greek games, which were as much about artistic expression as sporting excellence, and as word spread, sack-loads of pitches began to arrive by post and email.

Sifting through the bids took time, but with the successful applicants notified and the money handed out, in the four corners of the county cricketers have found a taste for poetry, cycling is being given the opera treatment and a group of dancers have literally been thrown in at the deep end.

The Synchronised Swimmer and the Dancer

Sometimes the best-laid plans can unravel in a moment. For Heba Abdel Gawad and Balbir Singh it was the day they decided to ask their cast of dancers to jump into the deep end.

“On paper, synchronised swimming and the Kathak Indian dancing Balbir specialises in have a lot in common,” says Heba, who competed in the pool at both the Athens and Sydney Games. “Both require a sense of rhythm and a real dedication to the rehearsal process and they are both a spectacle. Initially we thought that we would have a group of Kathak dancers performing in the pool. Unfortunately, they weren’t so keen on the deep water.

“I guess we might have been expecting a little too much. However, when we moved to the shallow end I looked round an suddenly they were all doing handstands.

“When synchronised swimming became an Olympic event a lot of people ridiculed the decision, but it’s really no different from something like rhythmic gymnastics and I hope something like this will show just how much hard work goes into a performance.”

For Egyptian-born Heba, who moved to Yorkshire after her competing career was over to study sports science, working with Balbir has been an eye-opener.

“In synchronised swimming, choreography is decided at least a year in advance and it never changes. Balbir has a completely different approach, I think the word they use is organic. For me the lack of structure was a little scary, but I’ve learnt to adapt. I still do some work as a synchronised swimming choreographer and it has changed the way I approach the routine, I think I am a lot more laid back and happy for things to develop in their own time.”

While there is still much work to do be done on the final piece – Balbir, who runs his own dance company based in Huddersfield is currently on the look out for instruments that can be played in the pool or ideally underwater – one thing has been decided. The show, which is due to be performed in a pool in Leeds next year, will be called Synchronise in recognition of the collaboration between art and sport.

“There is so much that these two disciplines can learn from each other technically, artistically and musically and when we started out we were determined that it should include as many people as possible,” says Balbir, who is also seeking input from GB’s Olympic synchronised swimming team. “We have set up a series of Aqua-Kathak sessions, which are the first classes of their kind in the UK and these groups will have the opportunity to take part in the final performance.

“Kathak has a natural affinity with the water both in terms of the moves and the story telling element which talks a lot of lakes, rivers and rain. This was never going to be an easy project, all of us involved are slightly out of our comfort zones, but you don’t produce challenging and exciting work without testing yourself.”

The Cricketer and the Poet

As a cricketer, Andrew McMillan wasn’t exactly blessed with natural talent. In fact he had just one season with an amateur club side before hanging up his whites. However, his disastrous performance at the crease didn’t dampen the poet’s love of the game and when he heard Yorkshire’s veteran players were looking for someone to chronicle their efforts in verse, Andrew thought he might just be the man for the job.

Fortunately, Graham Roberts, the brains behind Runs on the Board agreed, and last summer Andrew spent most of his weekends watching men of a certain age attempting to stay at the stumps at least until tea.

“When I was told the broad theme of the project was movement, I did have a moment of panic. Over 50s cricket is not known for its athleticism, but as soon as I’d watched my first game I knew it was going to be alright. Everything that’s beautiful about the game is about movement, whether it’s the bowler’s tiny flick of the wrist or the ball as it trickles over the boundary.”

Armed with notepads full of ideas, Barnsley-born Andrew, the son of fellow poet Ian, went back to his study and the result was more than 20 poems celebrating the sport and those who play it.

“For me it was about celebrating the beauty of ordinary people says Ian,” whose work, alongside photographs taken by Anton Want are part of a touring exhibition. “It not only left me with a deeper knowledge of cricket, but it definitely improved my writing. There was no point coming up with a series of abstract verses, I had to write in a way that would speak to the players. Eventually, I hit on the idea of comparing cricket to fishing, falconry and even pigeon fancying.”

The exhibition of poems and photographs, which have also been published in a book, first opened at Yorkshire County Cricket Ground before moving to the Civic in Barnsley and in August it will transfer to the East Coast to coincide with the Scarborough Cricket Festival.

“It has taken on something of a life of its own,” says Graham, who as part of the competition has also organised the Grey Fox Trophy for over 50s sides. Sadly his own team won’t be playing in the final at Headingley this September having just been knocked out. “There’s a dynamic stillness about cricket which both Andrew and Anton have captured and hopefully this is just the start. I’ve already been approached by two other venues which are keen to host the exhibition and it seems to have captured people’s imagination.

“We are now encouraging the public to contribute their own photographs and stories about the game and through that show the worlds of art and sport are not so far apart as people think.”

The Cyclist and the Composer

James Beale has always devoted a lot of time to cycling. A keen rider and seasoned triathlon competitor, two wheels has always been his thing. However, having successfully pitched an idea for an opera about cycling, he’s now barely got time for anything else.

“Originally it was going to tell the story of Lance Armstrong,” says James, whose is currently trying to work out how his cast of thousands can cycle backwards on the stage. “A man who dominated his sport and who came back from cancer to win the Tour de France six times seemed to embody the Olympic spirit, but then I discovered that we had our own cycling hero right on our doorstep.”

Step forward Lal White, the Scunthorpe steelworker who trained in between backbreaking shifts at his factory and went on to win an Olympic silver medal in the 1920 Antwerp Games. Sue Hollingworth, the musical director of Scunthorpe Co-operative Choir, had long wanted to stage a a celebration of White’s sporting efforts and having also sent in a pitch to the Imove project, she and James were introduced and the Cycle Opera was born.

“There’s a real tradition of cycling here, but there’s not a tradition of opera, so it will be interesting to see how those two come together,” says Sue, who won Gramophone Magazine’s Choir Master of the Year in 2010. “I guess that’s the challenge. However, if there was ever a story which embodied the spirit of the Olympics it’s Lal White’s.

“One of 14 children, there are tales of him and his brother riding to competitions on a tandem with their racing bikes on their back. More often than not, Lal would win and he’d cycle straight back to work. He also invented the first static training bike, which he fashioned from washing mangles. It’s such a great tale and while there are still some cyclists in Scunthorpe who knew him and were inspired to get on their bikes because of him, his story is in danger of being lost to younger generations.”

With a cast of 2,000, the opera, which will be staged in the town’s Glanford Park football ground, is the biggest project either has taken on to date.

“I’d like to say it’s all coming together seamlessly, but I’d be lying,” says James. “ Having said that, for all the stress, it’s a lot of fun. I’ll admit that cycling is not an obvious subject for opera, but the story of Lal White, told against the backdrop of the steel industry has great drama. People are often turned off by opera, but I hope that this project will prove that it has something to say to everyone and that it can be accessible.”

And if anyone knows how to make a cyclist ride backwards, answers please on a postcard to James.

The Sports Scientist and the Theatre Director

At Sheffield Hallam University, a group of sports scientists are involved in a top secret project to ensure Team GB athletes have the very best chance of gold at next year’s Olympics. They can’t reveal much about the details of their work, except to say it involves the fine tuning of technology and technique, but having teamed up with Huddersfield’s Chol Theatre, they hope they have found a way to attract public interest in what they do.

“Scientists are often not very good at engaging with the public, but it’s something I am really keen on,” says Dr David James. “Art and science are often seen to be polar opposites, but the gulf may not be as wide as people think. I saw a production Chol Theatre did on space on the cosmos and realised that if we were going to find a way of translating the work we do into something accessible then they were probably the company to do it.”

The collaboration has resulted in Extraordinary Moves, a project which through dance, street theatre and art explores just how far we would all go in the pursuit of sporting perfection, asks why doping is banned, but state of the art technology is perfectly acceptable and looks at perceptions of disability within the sporting arena.

The first event took place at Lawrence Batley Theatre last month, but that was merely the start of what will be a busy 12 months for the partnership which will culminate in the première of play, written by Kate O’Reilly at Sheffield Theatres next May.

“One of the main things we wanted to do was to challenge the idea of disability,” says Susan Burns, director of Chol Theatre. “As well as a series of debates, we are also working with the photographer Paul Floyd Blake and artist in residence Jason Minsky and all of their work will feed into the final play.”

As the clock ticks down to the opening ceremony, for David it’s also about showing that everyone is capable of great things.

“Art and science have a lot to learn from each other and in our own small way I hope this project will allow even more people to feel part of the Olympic Games.”

For more details about each of the projects visit