Rehearsals commence

As there are so many people involved, the rehearsals are held in the massive Manchester Arena. We are required to show up with confirmation we have had a negative COVID test within 48 hours. Not a problem for me. Have been so desperate for some form of human contact I also volunteer for the Office of National Statistics so already take a monthly test.

One had assumed the rehearsals would be in a room at the Manchester Arena. Nope—participants are arranged at a suitably socially distanced space around the floor of the actual arena. As this is the size of a football pitch, it provokes a sense of awe; an awareness of the sheer size of the event in which we are involved.

Experience of immersive theatre is that productions with a high level of audience participation are 90% (sometimes 100%) boredom, just waiting around for something to happen. That is not the case with Sea Change. On the contrary, there is a feeling there is no time to lose and everyone is aware we are working to a timetable.

Boris Charmatz is in the centre of the arena taking his team of dancers through a final rehearsal. He breaks off to tour the arena and introduce himself. He is an absolute charmer; gleefully greeting a participant named Edna with the news that that was the name of his first dance company and, on spotting me taking notes, proclaiming, “you write too!’’ as if I’m already considered a dancer. He makes sure we get updates on the condition of a dancer who has to leave due to a twisted ankle. By the time he has finished, Charmatz could motivate us to invade another country, let alone dance.

Safety is high on the agenda. Each day begins with a lengthy warm-up and closes with a cool-down. Officers patrol the arena reminding everyone masks are a requirement. The professional troupe had to go thorough quarantine on arrival but remain resolutely French—one refuses to accept so few people require a cigarette break. Charmatz describes how the dance would have looked if not for the pandemic. As this would have involved people being passed along a line of dancers, for once feel grateful for a crisis that has required a no-touching approach. He also claims Deansgate was chosen as the site for the dance as he is an admirer of a bike shop based on that street. He is French so this cannot be a joke.

My assumption that performers will hold static poses while the audience moves around them turns out to be wrong. Although the audience will be walking along the performance area, we will be very mobile. The arena is marked out in coloured squares corresponding to the colours assigned to each group of dancers. There are ten groups, each comprising 18 dancers. Each group is taught a sequence of ten one-minute-long dance movements. We are to be arranged in a line along Deansgate—Manchester’s main road—standing on our colour-coded spot, performing one of the dances then running to the next spot, prompting our colleague to move along, doing the second dance and so on.

The audience will move along the line of dancers and so be able to view a landscape which, although everyone is dressed the same and making similar gestures, is constantly moving and changing—like the sea. It sounds daunting and looks even more so when we see the professionals in action. But then, as Charmatz remarks more than once, we are now all members of a professional dance company.