Rehearsals intensify

This is a follow-up to David Cunningham's article A Dancer Dances: taking part in ‘Sea Change’.

Have always been sceptical about the value of the Manchester International Festival (MIF) and continue to ponder why other people have no such reservations and show their enthusiasm by booking for Sea Change long before the event is scheduled to take place. Finally realise the answer is obvious: because it is there. Mancunians, unlike, say, Londoners, do not have the privilege of taking culture or entertainment for granted but must grab an opportunity while they can. So, when a chance to try something new appears, the response is not "why should I?", but rather "where do I get tickets?". Hopefully, theatre producers will take the hint and realise Manchester offers an audience desperate for entertainment.

The rehearsals for Sea Change prove it is a small world. A woman on my team works in a different branch of the same shady Government agency as me while another is a drama teacher with tremendous voice projection. A colleague from the British Theatre Guide is dancing in another team. We avoid complimenting each other on the accuracy of our dancing in the movement to simulate sex.

During the initial rehearsals, we are spilt into smaller teams but return to the full complement when re-grouping at the weekend. The rehearsals become more demanding—they are longer, require us to run the circuit more frequently and noisier. This last point is surprisingly significant—more people creates higher noise levels which adds a degree of distraction. The countdown that starts the dance becomes even more nerve-racking as one occasionally struggles to pick out the point at which to start.

Fortunately, when we move onto the site on Deansgate, this issue is resolved. A simple system is devised whereby the dancers queue in the order in which they will take to the dance floor, so working out the point at which to join the dance and start the countdown becomes easier.

Must sympathise with the MIF organisers trying to set up a community project while observing COVID safety requirements. This does not, however, make the ceaseless precautions easy to endure. On Deansgate (which is in the open air let’s not forget), once a dancer has completed a circuit, they must put on a mask and return to the top to start over. Masks are provided if necessary and discarded after this single use.

The endless safety and security checks at Sea Change are examples of things that spoil my enjoyment of theatre. This is, therefore, a worrying sign of the future. The current government is muttering about ’personal responsibility’ replacing compulsion when it comes to COVID, but places of culture and entertainment cannot operate in that manner. Insurance requirements or simply concern about the possibility of being identified as the source of an outbreak may mean the safety protocols become the norm. Besides, the pandemic has been a wonderful way of damping down expectations and justifying running down public services (will we ever again see a doctor in person?). Already there are signs of trying to devise a sequel and an intimidating mood of fear is hanging over us—posters warning of lungworm in dogs are worded in a manner that recalls the COVID crisis.

The weekend rehearsals are the longest so far and Sunday the most physically demanding. We run three full circuits of the line: about one third of what we’ll have to complete during the actual event. This is not compulsory; it is emphasised no-one need feel compelled to complete all of the circuits as the professional trainers are available to make up the numbers if need be, but it would be a shame not to go the distance. The next day, go for a haircut (want to look my best for the big day) and am so tired fall asleep in the chair.

Choreographer Boris Charmatz leads one of the warm-ups. His approach is heavily influenced by classical ballet. This confirms my feeling that in order to go beyond the norms of a genre, you must first have a deep understanding of the basics. It also puts me at a disadvantage as the moves are based on balance and my sense of balance is rotten.

Refinements continue to the last minute. A substitute movement is introduced requiring dancers to pretend to lift a crocodile by the tail and, Tex Avery style, slam it down onto the floor. In a moment of method actor madness, I almost respond to advice on how to position my hands with the comment that is not the best way to pick up a crocodile.

Olivier Renouf’s soundtrack to the dance is played. Advance publicity promises ’a tunnel of sound’. At the Arena, the soundtrack flows from speaker to speaker, so the effect is a sound in the distance, getting closer, passing by and moving away.