Age on stage

4th March 2017 - Polly Crockett-Robertson

Thanks to Theatre Bristol, I was able to expand my knowledge and further my interest in questioning why dancers choose to stop dancing, and furthermore why dancers choose not to return to dance.

Stockholm’s Dansens Hus proudly presented a conference with performances focusing on the mature dancer’s body. The Theatre Bristol’s Independent Dancer’ Practitioner’s fund enabled me to watch, listen and learn.

Age on Stage International Meeting Point took place on the 4th March 2017. It is an annual occasion for seminars, sharing experience, latest scientific research, and performances, and this year the invited guests were researcher Sonia York-Pryce (talking about Ageism and the mature dancer), Sports scientist Patrick Rump (How to prolong dancers lives), films by Anders J Larsson and research material from LTU with professor Cecilla Ferm Almqvist and Ninnie Andersson. Performances included dancer Charlotta Olverholm.

Whilst 3rd Stage Dance Company has been evolving for nearly 10 years, and my subject of dancers who stop dancing is of a really familiar interest to me, this particular event felt like I was cutting my teeth on something new. Age on Stage held the promise of educating me about the older professional dancer.

Stockholm was freezing, wet, snowy, grey and fairly uninviting. Imagine my relief when early in the morning I met with Sonia York-Pryce; a welcoming familiar face with a warm and reassuring hug. She’s a well travelled researcher, who lives in Australia, but treats every country like home, and every person she meets like an old friend. She ushered me in to a warm cafe, bought me a bath of latte and we sat and chatted, putting the dance world to rights and looking at the highs and lows of what our countries have to offer and what the pitfalls seem to be for the mature dancer.

When she returned to the Danses Hus for a technical run, our conversation left my brain whirring. I mentally started to open all my thinking doors in preparation for the beginning of the conference.

I was the first audience member to arrive for the conference; an ideal time to look around and see how Stockholm valued its dance. House staff greeted me, offering coffee and cake, the walls proudly exhibited photographs and moving screen images of performances, and ensured me that dancers were held at the very highest importance in the art world of this fascinating city.

The audience members began to come through the doors. A wide range of adult ages (plus one or two children). I felt, as they began to congregate, that this was no ordinary audience. A strength in their individual looks and in their disposition made me feel like I was part of something unique, but also widespread. I knew this conference had sold out, and the performances we were going to see was starting it’s tour. I then understood that I was not just part of an audience, but part of an educational movement; these people were warriors of dance.

When I watch a professional performance, it matters to me that I see an elite and skilled mover, who also has intelligence and creativity. As I watched Charlotta Olverholm, in Part 1 of the evening, I realised I didn’t know her age. Seeing as I was watching an example of a professional dancer represent age on stage, did that matter? I decided not. Did it matter that her strength wowed me, her moving physique and her ability was packed with knowledge? Yes that mattered a lot.

Watching Charlotta and her dance partner initially kept prompting the questions in my head as to how important age was. This was partly encouraged by the fact that one of the first people I had a chance to talk to at the conference was clearly frustrated and fed up with age being the needy subject of conversation. Her annoyance hit me like a thunder clap. I guess if you’ve been shining a torch for dance for all ages for long enough, the irritation of people not catching on would start to surface. However, the title of the conference itself forces the issue and insists on us thinking about age of the bodies moving on the stage.

Charlotta and her dance partner Rafi Sady, represented a time of life where others choose to stop dancing. They were representing the art of not retiring and presenting dance with the same passion and artistry that they always have. Have they lost anything in their performance due to age? I don’t know. It’s the first time I have ever watched these artists perform. As an audience member, was I missing a certain satisfaction that I might get from younger performers? No. Was I inspired? Yes, by the choreography, the fluidity, the strength, the concentration, the skill, the artistry, the music and by watching two clearly experienced dancers.

Part 2 of the evening: the novelty of watching two full-on performers over a certain age seems to have worn off. There was a story and narrative I could follow. A witty, modern day, twisted fairy tale. Charlotta is wearing a catsuit. Yes, a catsuit!! (something I wouldn’t have considered wearing after the age of 35) And, incidentally, the bodies of these dancers are incredible and instantly pleasing to watch move. Charlotta smiles, teasing the audience with her facial expressions, and she lights up the room. ‘Age on Stage’ no longer becomes ‘a thing’. I am now watching a performance of two amazing artists who know how to capture their audience.

I felt like I was let off the hook. I now no longer need to worry anymore, about whether I should be picking apart the age issue. Within the first few minutes of this part of the evening I was taken in by their show, and their tale. The spirit of youth was as clear and as tangible as I would expect to see from a younger performer. Though actually there was something more delightful than that…..

I started to question whether my conclusion would be, that if we start to see more ‘age on stage’ will we forget that age is an issue at all? Because I did. Very quickly. Will we instead be influenced by the story and creation put in front of us? As good art is intended to do?

Part 3: this was the part that convinced me that a trained professional dancer who keeps dancing, remains a trained professional dancer. However, a trained dancer with life experience running through their spirit is different to a dancer who hasn’t the benefit of a few years of what life can throw at you. My understanding was enhanced by the nature of the choreography (Wendy Houstoun): exploring responses of someone who was fed up to the back teeth of life’s idle promises. But nevertheless, it was a good catalyst to enable me to see the dancer behind the movement. And I found it thought proving and touching.

Patrick Rump’s talk on how to prolong a dancer’s life put an interesting spin on the occasion. He was making it quite clear that the wish is to prolong a dancers life, no matter how old they are. He talked of the natural ability our bodies have to become stronger or weaker, depending on ‘how’ we work them. He spoke of the resistance that dancers seem to have of treating their bodies in a way that a sports person or athlete might. And he demanded that the dancers who he works with need to change their thinking, emotions and behaviour, in order to ensure that their bodies will survive the long haul. He talked of how well the body survives age. I was busy questioning my own dancing career shift and wondered what on earth I was doing slowing down – until he said that ‘of course, an injured body is injured, no matter what age you are’, and then I remembered why many of us aren’t dancing our way through our every day.

My attention was then transferred from the subject of the physical body to the more visceral and emotional territories. A film transported me in to the souls of moving bodies. A collection of dancers, filmed one at a time, in black and white, and in slow motion. The lighting was exquisite and the cinematography invited me to move with them. Whilst I didn’t actually move a muscle in my body, my mind was dancing with them and my eyes looked right in to theirs. I wanted to tell them that ‘I can dance like you’ and that ‘I feel the same’, but it remained a dream in my head, for the dancers were on screen.

Sonia York-Pryce’s explanation of what she has been discovering in her PhD almost made me feel that theatres and performance spaces were missing a treat, a gem, that as a nation we are missing out on some of the most important artists of our time…….the experienced ones. The ones whose souls have been tested, not just by dance but by life, adding dimensions that cannot be acted or taught but instead handed over, first hand from the dancer to the audience.

She has been spending time asking many dancers about their experiences of dancing through their mature years and formed a ‘pack of wolves’ for us: artists who work for themselves, for each other, watching out for each other and educating the young. They are the dancing animals who keep going, with a fire within that shows in their eyes. She has shown that a body does not run by a calendar. There is no expiry date that we work towards.

So, my plane journey home felt a little different to the one that brought me to Sweden. I felt as though I was wearing a type of armour that was going to protect me from an ever narrowing life. Whilst I adore and love seeing dancers of all ages performing I have never been particularly comfortable in the knowledge that as I grow older I become an outsider looking in. Being an audience member of this particular conference enabled me to feel that there is still just as much of a world of opportunities for us over 40s, as there was for me ten years ago. And that actually, when people of all ages are exposed to this, then maybe dance will start teaching us something many don’t know.

– Polly Crockett-Robertson

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