At the start of the development process for BSDC’s The Strategists I had very little knowledge of rugby. Although I have previously watched a few matches, I had no real idea of what was happening on the pitch, apart from the obvious aim of scoring a try, how to identify a tackle and a scrum. The opportunity to combine dance with a sport that is very popular worldwide, and learn all about what happens on the pitch really excited me to get into the studio.
Rehearsals began being introduced to Jon Beney, an ex rugby player, who after suffered a head injury whilst playing for Hull Kingston Rovers, had his careers cut short. He later went on to train at Northern School of Contemporary Dance. One of the first things I remember Jon telling us was how he found the similarities between rugby, and most sport, uncanny. He described a dance rehearsal like training sessions, and a dance performance like a match, and as the piece developed this became more apparent.
Our initial rehearsals began with basic rugby drills that Jon taught us from his years of training. For example, ‘the line of defence’ in which we began standing next to each other in a line, we then jog/ran forwards and back attempting to maintain the straight line at all times, no matter the speed. Jon mentioned that this would be something taught in training from a young age to help players develop a awareness of their team as a whole, and to improve them moving as one to keep their line of defense strong. The aim was to prevent any obvious holes for the attackers to break through.
We then went on to learn other defensive moves and their technicality, like the tackle; below the hips but higher than the knees, but often with the pace of a match can differ and even result in a penalty if made too low or high. Attaching steps then took their shape: the hand off, side step, and spin off. With these movements as well as the tackle, a simple movement sequence emerged to practice these steps. As dancers we automatically used our bodies to make the movement more fluid and aesthetic. By this point, we were aware that any rugby movement we learnt could be embodied in two ways. 1) As a rugby player (pedestrian) or 2) as a dancer (abstracted)- which clearly became a theme of experiment throughout the creation period, and in the finished piece allowed rugby and dance to relate and enjoy the piece.
From the first rehearsal onwards my knowledge of rugby only grew, enabling us to be correctly informed for the development of the piece. Collaborating with Jon gave the dancers and I the correct knowledge to execute technicalities that could only have been done with a high level of experience in rugby. So Jon was a vital element of the learning process for us.
Our knowledge expanded as we went on to learn the formation of a ‘Scrum’ and how the whole team is placed on the field (rugby union formations), the name of the players positions, a ‘Line Out’ where the ball is thrown onto pitch and a certain player is lifted in order to attempt to receive the ball for their team, ‘dummy runner’ where a player pretends to pass the ball to confuse the opponents, and words like overlap, recycle, reset and gather. Jon then explained very important rules of the game, for example you can only pass the ball backwards while advancing forwards, while on the other hand you could kick the ball forwards. A few names of the kicks are; box kick, kick for touch, grubber kick and up & under.
With a whole new pocket of information, movement, rules and specifics of the rugby game choreographic tasks began emerged. The ball was the primary starting point. Exploring its journey in a straight line, waved line, a free journey, and also emulating the balls trajectory during a sequence of kicks. As dancers we became secondary to the ball, which is when the ball found its own rhythm and also later its own life. The balls journey was collaborated with the complex rhythm that is involved in the Indian dance, Kathak. Experimenting with the descending rhythm of 8 created a journey and for me showed the different elements of what could be seen in a rugby game. I felt moments of calm and suspense, but as the numbers lessened, urgency and speed, while the need for executing the movements seamlessly. I also saw elements of this during the duet between Abi & Roisin, during the Turka.
Abi & Roisin’s duet was a section that was hugely inspired by Indian Gods and Hindu Mythology. I remember in rehearsal as Abi and Neesha, telling us many stories from Hindu Mythology, and being in ore of the strength of the mythical beings and how their strength seemed very similar to that of rugby players on the pitch. From this inspiration arose a comparison to the players of a rugby team, and their role on the pitch. The Hindu gods similarly use their power to win, as players would to score a try. This was a fascinating way of interpreting a strategic sport in relation to a cultural story. It incorporated the mesmerizing dance of Kathak, along with its rhythms and the Hindu Mythical stories. For me this was a part of the piece that highlighted the combination of other cultures from different parts of the world and how sport integrates this notion too.
Discovering other ways of looking at the players, different teams and what happened on the pitch continued and eventually materialized into ‘Jon Beney’s Animal Dream Team’. The players on the pitch became animals, which were specifically chosen in relation to their characteristics and their job on the field. For example ‘The Wingers’ became cheetahs because they need to be the fastest player on the pitch to run down the sides and the rest of the team draw the players in. Here immerged a whole section that animalised the player’s roles and finally showed them in action to celebrate their strengths.
To bring context to the audience during these sections, the singers, Georgie and Nel, gave narration- as well as others during the piece. The narration scattered during the piece gave huge context, which enabled those of any age to gage the narrative as well as give those with no rugby knowledge something to learn while watching. Making the whole piece inclusive to all- an integral part of the performance. What brought to life what we had done in the studio as dancers and what Balbir had creatively structured, was the moment when Jesse Bannister and his musicians joined us – improvising their skills around the movement we had created, finding what worked through play. It brought to life what we were doing, created mood. What I loved so much was that it was our bodies working with the music and even sometimes leading, rather than being restricted to what was happening musically. I love live music and the talent of the musicians is phenomenal, giving another string to the bow of reasons why the piece has something in it for everyone.
Along the way, as well as meeting musicians, vocalists and Jon, and being guided and overseen by Balbir, we were introduced to Julia Lee. Julia was one of the first female qualified Rugby League referee in Great Britain and New Zealand. She informed us of the vocabulary that a referee would use on the pitch. Mainly consistent of arm movements, Julia described all of the refereeing movement as sharp, direct and authoritative. She identified body language and posture as a necessity during her role. Direct body language and a tall standing posture are both important to portray a confident and direct role, while being under pressure and make quick decisions during a fast paced game. Julia mentioned that the direct arm movements of a referee are as much for the spectators as players. So the spectators can see what is happening on the pitch and in case a player didn’t clearly here the decision vocalized. The knowledge from Julia informed us for the ‘Referee section’ of the piece. We displayed the attacking moves of a hand off, side step, and spin off, showed them first correctly and then in a way that was against the rules, resulting in the referee blowing the whistle. The correct arm movement and result was instructed and the movement sequence continued.
After creating lots of material and collaborating with so many fantastic people and subjects to help movement emerge, we had lots of scope as to what the piece could be. The structure of the piece like a coach organizing a team for the perfect play, changed a few times until the final day- here was when it felt right. The fluidity of going from one section to the next was a necessity here so that it gelled well. Every aspect of the production including us as the dancers, the musician and Balbir helped to pull the whole thing together. Balbir like the coach molding the structure of every piece to make it word- made the performance the success that it was.
During the final elements of structure we were experimenting with the ending section, ‘Perfect play’. Showing the passing play we had perfected during rehearsals in lots of ways i.e slow motion, animalistic, rhythmic, from an aerial perspective. Balbir then suggested we finish with a ‘free for all’ type of ending, which incorporated buzzwords that informed us of the required movement. The words were; huddle, drunken monkey, weaving play, selfish, tackle, music, audience and to finish ‘five’, which signified the aim of ending with all each of the dancers with a ballat the beginning. This section was very fun to be a part of and for me it highlighted a side to any physical profession that not everyone sees. There are elements in which we need to serious and level headed but others where you can really let go and be yourself.
There were lots of elements during the making and many areas of collaboration. One that I haven’t mentioned in significance is, the ball. Its quite obvious as the piece is based on rugby but I found that it helped to inform a lot of my movement. The ball was a significant part during the creation and the final performance of ‘The strategist’. It took a journey of its own from manufacturing, to finding its feet on the field and being childlike as it grew through its journey to the ‘big match’. The balls significance to the movement, the space, and rhythm, how each player’s personality interacted with it was fascinating. To me the ball became the wise owl of the piece- starting from nothing but leather, gaining knowledge, movement, and its own voice and overseeing everything that happened no matter the outcome.
After being involved in the process and having time to reflect on it all has really made obvious that we, as a whole team of creative people, had our roles to play in making the performance a success- as would a rugby team. This gives evidence to Jon’s statement in the first rehearsal as to how many similarities sport and dance have. All elements of the piece came together like a jigsaw. From lots of segments evolved a well-rounded piece that could be enjoyed by everyone. One element of the piece that gives its significance is that it’s based on women’s rugby. Although women’s sport has always been less in the limelight than men’s sport, that is something that is slowly changing. The piece felt like a celebration of women’s rugby and not focused on continuously highlighting the struggles. It was a pleasure to be involved with so many talented people and learn lots of new things.