A Russian skating star, a Kathak /contemporary choreographer, an Anglo-Indian jazz composer and a champion Canadian figure skater. Who are these unlikely collaborators, and what are they dreaming up on a windswept Northumbrian promenade?
It was an unlikely gathering. Leading international figure skater Gary Beacom and Olga Maloney (previously tour manager of Russian All Stars and Torvill and Dean) meeting on a windswept beach with Balbir Singh and his long-time musical associate Jazz / Kathak composer Jesse Bannister.
The occasion was a post festival get together following two highly successful nights of Peacock Lake, the hybrid dance-ice spectacular that Balbir Singh had just created for Billingham International Festival. But this was more than a chance to review and share feedback. As is so often the case with Balbir Singh, what began as a one-off collaboration, had sparked off ideas and possibilities for new projects that could take Balbir Singh Dance Company even further onto the ice.
Peacock Lake had attempted – and succeeded – in bridging many worlds: the Billingham performance had not only involved skaters, dancers and live musicians. It had pulled in folk performers, in town for the Billingham Festival, and community cast members, to create a show with over two hundred performers, either on or around the ice.
As an opener for the Billingham Festival Peacock Lake brought innovation, ambition, spectacle – and glitz – to audiences more used to the traditional offerings of this most venerable of folk dance festivals. It also brought the logistical challenges of working at scale and across very diverse artistic disciplines – in fact all the ingredients for a typical Balbir Singh Dance Company collaboration!
And while working at this scale is certainly not unknown for Balbir Singh Dance Company, it was the kernel of the collaboration that was particularly exciting to Balbir.
This was the purpose of the meeting on the beach. Building on the momentum created by Peacock Lake, Balbir wanted to bring together his collaborators to explore what this could mean in practice.
Not all artforms share the approach to developing the work that Balbir, trained in both contemporary and Kathak dance styles, brings to a project. So it was exciting to Balbir to discover that his collaborators in Peacock Lake not only understood what he was wanting to achieve, they wanted to explore taking it further.
The learning from the rehearsal process (which had been carried out in Milton Keynes and Coventry as well as Billingham itself) was part of this discussion. But more importantly, the meeting acknowledged that it was Balbir’s ability to manage a creative process in which performers were taken outside their comfort zone that allowed the piece to grow despite the inevitable challenges of so epic a vision.
The meeting on the beach was never going to come up with a new show. But as a starting point for considering how Balbir’s creative vision can be harnessed to future international ice-based projects, it was a resounding success. As with Champion of the Flatlands (which developed from BMXer Keelan’s story) Balbir is keen to explore how Gary’s life and career can be brought to life on stage and ice, especially for audiences unfamiliar with his extraordinary contribution to the world of ice skating.
“I am always seeking new artistic challenges because this is where artistic growth comes from. With Gary Beacom I found a performer who grasped my artistic vision and was very willing to explore how this could be expressed in the language of figure skating. My use of live music and the underlying values and principles of Kathak, which inform all my work, seemed to really spark off new creative responses in Gary.”
Since the time of writing, Balbir’s continued development work with Gary Beacom has led to a new work – The (Elusive) Art of Figure Skating, which celebrates Gary’s extraordinary life and career.