LondonDance.com, 1 April 2008
At the height of her contemporary dance career Lindsey Butcher ran off to join the circus. She trained in aerial, acrobatic and juggling skills with Ra-Ra Zoo Circus Theatre – but never quite left her dance background behind. She formed her own company Gravity and Levity in 2003 and is now touring with a new show Shift which includes pieces from contemporary dance choreographers Charlotte Vincent and Charles Linehan, alongside a new work by the co-creators of Stomp – Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas.
Lindsey’s work so far has been about pushing at boundaries and true to form, nothing stays still for long in Shift. Even the set made of steel and wood, sand and gravel moves – and the audiences are encouraged to as well. Catch it at the Linbury Studio from 21 – 23 April and meanwhile, find out more about it and about Lindsey here…
When did you interest in dance start?
I started dancing at a very young age at a local dance school in Barnsley, it was something I really enjoyed and looked forward to but as much for the social experience as the physical. The first performance I saw was the Alexander Roy Company who visited our local theatre. It was a magical experience; dressing up for the theatre, sitting in a darkened auditorium, the dancing, the lighting, the costumes, but I don’t think at that stage it was a revelatory, ‘this is what I’m destined to do thing.’ In my early teens we began having ‘modern’ lessons with Jean Cryne who had a passion for London Contemporary Dance Theatre. After she’d been to see the company perform she’d try to teach us something of what she’d seen. My curiosity was piqued! So from 1980 to ’84 I trained at London Contemporary Dance School and on leaving joined Extemporary Dance Theatre. With Extemporary we had the opportunity to work with a wonderfully varied array of choreographers one of whom was Sue Broadway, the then artistic director of Ra-Ra Zoo. She choreographed an aerial ballet on the company and at the end of our season invited me to run away and join the circus as they were looking for a dancer willing to learn circus skills and in particular aerial work. It was opportune timing. Emilyn Claid (then artistic director of Extemporary) had just left, the company’s future was uncertain and I felt ready for a new physical challenge and experience.
Did you know then that you wanted to somehow combine circus and contemporary dance? In Ra-Ra Zoo I picked up skills wherever I could. We had talented jugglers and acrobats in the company who were very generous about sharing their skills and just playing. It took a long time for me to recognize that I could actually combine the two things although I think subconsciously I was doing that anyway. My technical aerial/juggling/gymnastic base was pretty limited when I started out and so I’d try to find interesting movement transitions between the few ‘tricks’ that I knew.
It was much later that I began to consciously make those artistic decisions as a positive choice rather than as an excuse for lack of skills. I began freelancing with a number of cross art form companies (Gandini Juggling Project, Momentary Fusion and my own collaboration ‘Tango and Crash’ with acrobat Jeremy Robins) who were all trying to combine a dance aesthetic and choreographic approach with their skill base.
How do you define your work now – is it still primarily dance?
I’d say that my work is very much grounded in applying a dance aesthetic to aerial and suspension techniques; using the skills and techniques of one to inform, influence and progress the movement, expressive and spatial vocabulary of the other. If I had to define it then it’s aerial dance but I thing we have a tendency to get too hung up on labels and then feel bound by them.
How do you manage your roles as artistic director and performer with the company?
It’s a juggling act which some days I feel I have more proficiency at than others. I enjoy both roles but it’s a constant learning curve/hill how to balance one against the other. The pros of being artistic director; inviting interesting collaborations between choreographers, designers, composers, riggers and the commitment required to facilitate each of these can sometimes feel like it compromises my ability to do a proficient job as a performer. It’s hard to focus on the creative process in the studio when you know that there are practical problems to deal with regarding the set, tour, budget etc and there are just never enough hours in the day. However on a practical level (without wishing to sound dramatic) I’m approaching my mid-forties and whilst I’m still physically able to act as an inquisitive, useful body within the rehearsal space with the choreographer and other dancers whose work I admire and respect, I’ll continue to explore doing both.
Shift was originally conceived as a joint project between yourself and fine artist Michele Weaver and the set is integral to the performance. Could you tell us a bit about more about it?
Mish and I have worked together on several other projects and share similar interests for exploring and progressing aerial/dance/circus/design vocabulary, plus I have huge admiration for her work as a designer, choreographer and teacher. We began talking though ideas for Shift whilst working on Taking Flight back in 2005, looking to simplify the complex process of making and then touring aerial dance repertory. On Taking Flight wherever possible we sited the six different pieces in varying locations and facings inviting the audience to make choices about their proximity and physical relationship to the work. With Shift we proposed to offer the same shifts in perspective and viewing choice to the audience but also to make it a more intimate experience by siting all the pieces within the same cohesive environment. It was also intended that the set would have its own journey through the performance, whilst influencing and being influenced by the choreography, encouraging an organic co-existence between the pieces, whilst retaining the variety & versatility of a mixed programme. Phew, did I say simplify….! And so, Mish responded to the working title ‘Shifting Planes, Emerging Landscapes’ and the nature of aerial choreography, by seeking to move the set from a state of ground based solidity, through a measured outburst into the space and the air, to a point of disarray. With the design as a starting point, Charlotte, Charlie, Luke & Steve were then invited to respond to these initial proposals and add their highly individual choreographic/directorial voices and choices to the mix.
Why did you decide to have the audience move around rather than have them seated?
See above, although actually having just started the tour our audience seemed to be mostly content to stay where they were and not move. The show is presented in the round but will vary slightly from venue to venue and is intended to be an intimate viewing experience with the audience seated around the edges of the dance floor.
Last summer you appeared at Wembley Stadium twice (performing at the FA Cup final and at a Muse gig). What do these extra curricular activities bring to your work?
Being brutally honest, in the first instance, additional income, since Gravity & Levity currently only operates on a project basis but just as importantly it affords me a completely different aerial experience. With Gravity & Levity’s theatre productions my intention is to create a compelling intimacy with the audience. With the FA cup final and Muse gigs we were working on an altogether different scale. Both gigs were with The Dream Engine who specialise in creating aerial spectacle, mostly outdoors. Although both gigs took place at Wembley, only weeks apart, they couldn’t have been more different. At the FA cup final, the emphasis is of course on the game and anything additional to that is at best just trimming on the cake. The Muse gig was an altogether more theatrical experience where we very integrated into the performance – that was a blast, plus I now have the crew t-shirt, jacket, hat, bumper sticker …
How did you persuade the co-creators of Stomp, Luke Creswell and Steve McNicholas, to come on board?
One of the companies’ aims is to invite collaborations with choreographers, composers, directors with whom I’ve already established some practical working experience. Luke & Steve had invited me to act as aerial co-ordinator for their production Lost & found Orchestra which premiered at Brighton Festival in 2006. I was intrigued by their process and curious to see whether that could work with a group of non musicians and Mish’s set design so I asked them. They said yes and the rest is history.
What has been your scariest moment as an aerial dancer?
There’ve been a few – human error mostly, not rigging attaching gear correctly through complacency or being distracted. A good wake up call but nothing more serious thankfully. Working with a flying plank as my partner in this production continues to be a steep and painful learning curve. Being catapulted off the stadium roof to deliver the Commonwealth games baton, I believe I actually screamed in the rehearsal, but I think my scariest has to be abseiling from the penthouse suite of a twenty-something storey bank in Germany. I think it took me two days to let go of my line, let alone think about the choreography or inverting.
Do you have: a favourite book?
…errm, off the top of my head: A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry, The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – Jon McGregor, Hotel New Hampshire – John Irving, anything by A L Kennedy, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates, there are lots.
Music? Favourites vary enormously depending on what day of the week it is, what mood I’m in, what country I’m in – I tend to just put my ipod on shuffle and see what happens.
And film? Lots to choose from but long term favourites that I return to:The Straight Story, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Little Miss Sunshine.
If you’re career wasn’t in dance/movement, what might you have done?
Maybe something medical? After several experiences recently I’ve developed a huge amount of respect for the nursing profession although to be honest I’m not sure I’d have the stomach for it. A physiotherapist, or osteopath, or maybe a gardener? Yep, maybe a gardener but not today – it’s snowing.