Before I was invited into the realm of Rugby, I had little to no knowledge of the sport. I had seen previous Rugby League matches as a child, however didn’t follow along with the rules, I instead enjoyed watching how the audience would react and found enjoyment in singing the chants and being engulfed in the team spirit of it all. Following the rules never seemed important to me, I could get an impression of the overall sense of the game by watching the reaction of the audience.
The start of my journey with The Strategists began in the research phase. I was set many tasks and observed many matches online, in order to identify a basic understanding of the intentions and the movements that the players made. The video clips of rugby games allowed me my first glimpse into the intricacies of each movement and tackle, each scrum and each kick. It was evident that the players had complete awareness of their bodies; how to move them in the right way, where to place each body part and where they needed to move to next. The research process had twists and turns and the final product ended in a completely different direction to where we thought we were headed, but I believe this gave the piece its strength. We weren’t restricted to following the initial plan. The initial research which covered a wide range of rugby elements, its cultural approaches around the world and the soul behind the players, gave us the foundation we needed to head in to the studio and see where our findings could take us.
Whilst the videos were helpful, they couldn’t prepare or educate me as much as practising first hand.
My first contact with the Rugby ball was on my first day in the dance space. Myself and two other dancers worked on rhythmic sequences, using the ball as a driving force of inspiration. We experimented with leading the ball, the ball leading us and a battle between not knowing who was leading the ball. We used Kathak rhythms / compositions and entwined the ball into the movement. We also focused on some of the rules of the game, which included: “no obstruction” and “only pass backwards.” We portrayed these rules with a clear, pedestrian approach. As a more abstract concept we also experimented with “testing the field”; a ritual which many rugby players carry out before a match. They may test the dryness of the pitch, or do an action which they believe ensures good luck before a game. With the help of Balbir, we adapted this section to make it more abstract and have more of a dance approach than other sections we had previously worked on. Towards the end of the first session we played around with animalistic movements and the characteristics of our chosen animals. We later revisited this work and used it as a way to portray each player and their role within the game.
The next phase of the creation process began with an introduction to Jon Beney, an ex rugby player who later went on to train and perform as a professional dancer. Beney repeatedly mentioned that dance and rugby had strong similarities, and as the process developed I began to understand his reasoning. Rugby has set placements, if these placements are carried out incorrectly, the players are in danger and the ball goes out of play. The placements of a “line out” (lifting a player), formations and co-ordination all have clear similarities to dance. The mental similarities, however, became the most relevant to me. Rugby is hard. Dance is hard. If you want to do either of these activities well, it requires a person to fail repeatedly, yet get back up and try harder each and every time. Resilience, dedication, passion, team work, initiative and drive were the parallel attributes that became apparent to me.
We learnt many skills from Jon Beney, some of these being rugby drills, which involved practising how to pass the ball correctly and how to catch it effectively. We started from the beginning and learnt the complete basics. We were taught how to carry out the “line of defence” (throwing and catching sequence) which allowed us to develop as a team of dancers and trust each other with the ball. We practised tackles and how to stand in a scrum. We learnt defensive moves such as spin off, hand off and the side step. With each of these skills we explored ways of doing them in a literal manner and then developed them into fluid contemporary movement. We never adapted the drills so much so that the demonstration was lost and audiences wouldn’t be able to see where this movement derived from. I personally thought this worked well as it allowed a wide range of audience members to be able to access this movement and understand the concept, intention and effect of these specific skills.
As the rehearsals progressed we were taught more difficult drills which included quicker passing, more challenging routes and less instruction from Beney. As dancers, we all became familiar with the ball and it was clear that our confidence was growing with every drill, every skill and every new challenge. We were never going to head out and have a rugby match against a professional rugby team. However, the dedication and effort that everyone put into the rugby sections of this piece really did credit how hard Beney worked with us and how grateful we were for his input. Having that ball handling education, allowed us to feed that into the creation process but to also almost have it become second nature, so that the ball didn’t feel like a negative energy in the space or as a prop that could cause detriment to the final performance.
The rugby ball was a key factor in the creative process. We experimented with the different routes the ball takes during a game. We moved the ball in slow-motion, we gave the ball the power and control and then gave ourselves the power over the ball and threw it around the space confidently. We expanded our rhythmic ball work and in groups we made short sequences which echoed simple Kathak rhythms. We carried out the perfect play, sometimes the ball was present and other times the movement was given aesthetic instruction e.g. “how would the perfect play look from above?” “how would it look if you were animals,” “how would it look if you were close to one another or far apart?” Creative tasks really were the mechanics of this piece and with our different pots of knowledge we were able to combine everything we had learnt and experiment under Balbir’s instruction.
A personal highlight for me was “Beneys Dream Team”. This was a section which allowed us to become the animals Beney associates with each position on the rugby pitch. For instance, the eagle is the “full-back” position as they are all-seeing and hold back behind their team-mates patiently until they know they can perfectly time the moment where they can swoop and catch the ball or protect their fellow players. After Beney explained the full-backs role on the field I wrote this description:
The full-back needs speed and tremendous pace.
They hold back and defend but are able to accelerate and attack when needed.
They are patient and alert, brave and able.
The full-back is the last line of defence.
We explored these animalistic sequences via several different approaches. We introduced each animal as a unit so that the audience could clearly unravel which character was which. We played the “perfect play” as our animal characters and we had a “western superleague” where dancers would portray specific animals playing one another on the field. As a performer I enjoy moving as a character so this was an enjoyable section where I would move in ways that I didn’t necessarily move in other sections of the piece. A large proportion of The Strategists is contained, using the ball or using another prop. The animalistic sections really showed off the skill of the dancers and offered elements of calm and a contrasting aesthetic for the audience.
We were lucky enough to work with Julia Lee during one rehearsal. Lee was one of the first female referees in Great Britain and New Zealand and she offered great insight into the mentality of a referee. We were taught how to stand with authority and were guided through some of the hand gestures we would need during different sections of the piece. She helped us match referee movements to certain tackles and she generally made the whole piece “lawful”. We kept this movement pedestrian so that it would be as clear as possible for the audience to understand exactly what was happening. I think this was key as I saw the referee as being an extension of the crowd/audience in the final performance and as the audience began to pick up on certain rules, the referee movements came into play.
Another highlight for me would be the final “perfect play”. This was almost entirely improvised (within a tight framework) and dancers were given the freedom to be a fool on stage. We were given the chance to act and experiment on stage. We had a given set of instructional vocabulary such as “huddle”, “drunken monkey” and “selfish ball”. Dancers would react to these vocalisations and it created an energetic and fun atmosphere and such a stark contrast from anything the audience had previously witnessed throughout the piece. This section really emphasised to me that even though rugby players and dancers train religiously it is always an experiment once they set foot on that pitch or stage. No-one truly knows the outcome of all that hard work and that, to me, is the magic of it all. Committing to something with no secure outcome.
The musicians and vocalists within the piece added a whole other texture to the final performance. The music was composed by Jesse Bannister and included Indian influences, rugby songs and vocal commentary. There was so much going on with every element on stage that it really was a fusion that hopefully appealed in some way to everyone sat in the audience. The commentary lifted the piece in areas which were more focused and they held the narrative throughout the animalistic sections. They were the connection between the music, dancers and the audience. At times I feel they were the life-line of the audience, similar to that of the referee. Crowds aren’t always clear of the outcome of everything happening on the pitch and they are on the tender heels of the referee to announce a decision. The commentators in The Strategists had a similar role and guided the audience through the ups and downs of the piece.
The most powerful moment, for me, was the final scene of the whole piece. Dancers had just performed a light hearted section where we were falling over and shouting at one another. The music calmed and the dancers travelled to the font of the stage. Commentators spoke of the unity of the women rugby players and their resilience; it was a celebration of everything they achieve no matter the result of any rugby game. It celebrated the hard work of the dancers and the process we had been on. It celebrated the men who had created and composed for The Strategists. The musicians, the commentators and the audience had all been through the drills, the sweat and the exhaustion with the dancers. Those final moments felt like a celebration of everyone. It didn’t feel, to me, that we were celebrating the difficulties that women face, or that we were just celebrating women alone. Those last two minutes felt like a celebration of everyone who stands back up every time that they fall.
There were obstacles within the process, such as lack of rehearsal time and lack of availability. But the team that worked on this project, I believe, worked harder in order to compensate for those difficulties. I never thought that I could achieve the rugby drills that I am now capable of and I never thought that I would understand the rules and positions of rugby in depth as much as I do now. Having that understanding allowed the dancers to get in the right mind-set and try to understand the rugby players mentalities as best as we could. The ball handling became second nature so we felt confident on stage and dropping the ball wasn’t really a concern.
As I mentioned in my introduction, I never really understood rugby when I was standing in the crowd. I never felt the need to. I have learnt so much throughout this process regarding rugby and its similarities to dance but one element stands out in my brain as the most apparent. Rugby creates an energy and a camaradherie that sends players head first into danger and potential injury. As my confidence and capabilities grew I could see my “wanting” for the ball also begin to grow. I would dive lower, fall quicker and jump higher in order to grasp the ball. In dance, I fall without thinking and I dive without question. Sport and dance create what I can only think to call – energy, that makes crowds weep and audiences cheer, it makes players fall and dancers stand. Sports players and dancers will do what it takes to be the best that they can be, they educate their minds and mould their bodies in order to achieve whatever it is they need to achieve. To me, this is the greatest similarity I found and the reason I found the dancers became so desperate to get this piece right. I believe The Strategists speaks for everyone and anyone who will train their mind and body to become the being they need to be in order to succeed.