Launch Day

Choreographed by Kristin Kelly-Abbott
Kelly-Abbott Dance Theatre
The Customs House, South Shields

Launch Day Credit: Tina Wotherspoon
Launch Day Credit: Tina Wotherspoon
Launch Day Credit: Tina Wotherspoon

Inspired by the paintings of Scottish-born artist Alexander Millar, Launch Day brings to life his hunched over, heads down, hands in pockets, cloth-capped “gadgies”, the shipyard men, at work and play. Each scene—some stand-alone, others flowing into each other—is accompanied, even stimulated by a large-scale projection of one of Millar’s works.

We see them at work—the backbreaking toil of the riveters, the boilermakers, the metalworkers, the pipefitters, the carpenters and all the other trades—and at play, in the pub, teasing the girls, at the match, two supporting the Magpies (Newcastle), two the Black Cats (Sunderland) and one the only NE team that’s doing well at the moment, non-league South Shields. That was popular!

Hasn’t something similar been done before? Didn’t Gillian Lynne do the same for L S Lowry in A Simple Man?

Actually, no. Lynne’s 1987 piece for Northern Ballet was about Lowry himself and the recreation on stage of some of the characters from his paintings was part of telling his story, not an end in itself. Here there is nothing about Millar the man; rather the focus is entirely on the work, recreating not just the visual but the atmosphere, the “feel” of the paintings, picturing for the audience what it meant to be one of the “gadgies”.

The stage is grey, dull and dark, the lighting dim. When projections appear on the back wall, they dominate, and minor touches of animation, even if just slowly zooming in or out, give them a life which unites them with the movement of the dancers to create a visually and emotionally powerful moving picture.

The music, too, makes a major contribution. There’s original music by Breifne Holohan, the sound of the Northumbrian Pipes, Mark Knopfler’s "What It Is", Lindisfarne’s "Fog on the Tyne" and, most tellingly, the Unthanks’ "Black Trade", their song about the shipyards.

The movement language is based entirely on the everyday, whether it’s hammering a rivet into a plate or throwing up after a drunken night, kicking a football in the street or messing about with traffic cones. Much use is made of a ladder, one of the basic tools of the shipyard worker, including at one stage a dancer holding it across his (or her, for it is difficult to tell, for they are all dressed exactly the same and move in the same way) shoulders and spinning across the stage. With the lighting low we suddenly had the shadow of a moving Angel of the North on the back wall!

The lives portrayed are hard, the hunched shoulders bearing witness to the tiredness of the men, but the mood is not all unremitting gloom and doom. There is a lot of humour there and looking back some hours later, it is interesting to remember how many times we laughed aloud.

There are five professional dancers (three men and two women) whose skill and athleticism are truly impressive and a community cast of eleven who are not simply extra bodies but they do play an important part.

Contemporary Dance is not a major part of the Customs House’s programming but the quality of what it does present is high and this is no exception. Behind me, as we left the theatre, I heard someone say, “well, I had no idea what to expect, but I really enjoyed that.”

‘Nuff said!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan