Ageless Dance Festival, Leeds (Yorkshire Dance) – Review

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By Barney Bardsley, October 2019

The tyranny of ageism is nowhere more prevalent than in the dance world. In ballet and in contemporary dance, the fetishism of the young and “perfect” body – despite decades of resistance and challenge by dancers working out in the community and in alternative theatre – remains strong and corrosive. But movers of all ages are fighting back!

As part of this kick back, Yorkshire Dance has just presented a vibrant and energetic two day festival, cunningly entitled Ageless, which specifically celebrated the older dancer. Age is no barrier to dancing in an interesting – and indeed beautiful – way, as this joyful event certainly proved.

Delegates from the UK, USA, Canada, Europe and beyond, gathered on the stages and in the rehearsal rooms of Yorkshire Dance, Leeds Playhouse and Leeds City College, during one astonishingly rainy October weekend, to watch, listen, talk and move, through a tightly packed timetable of events. In fact my only complaint is that there was too much to choose from, over too short a time. And everything of such high quality: a nice predicament for a reviewer to be in.

Liz Aggiss, enfant terrible of the British contemporary dance scene, now 68 years old, but ever-edgy and defiant, headlined Friday’s opening performances with ‘The President’s Wife is Still Dancing’. One of her choreographies appeared the next day, too, in a cheeky two-fingers-up piece on ageism called ‘Head in My Bag’, presented by DANCE SIX-O, when a row of punked-up dancers tipped the contents of their handbags upside down – along with all stereotyped associations – and rammed the bags on their heads, then rocked out blindly, with gleeful, snarling abandon.

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Dancer, Liz Aggiss

“Work of the highest standard”

This piece was one of four, making up a nearly two hour show – Celebrating Participation Performance – shown on the huge new Quarry stage at Leeds Playhouse, on the second day of the festival. The show started quietly, with a beautiful piece called ‘Nonna(s) Don’t Cry’ by DÍRTZ Theatre, which featured a young solo dancer and an “older” puppet, and demonstrated the connections between a young and an old life, with exquisite sensitivity; and culminated in a general, enthusiastic free-for-all in ‘Beige’, a flash mob of older dancers from Yorkshire Dance, first choreographed to be performed in shopping centres, to celebrate International Day of Older People. Some of the dancers performing here had a lifetime of dance experience – some, none at all. The point was: their age – anything from 60 to 80 plus – was no barrier to moving freely, and their exuberance was contagious. They were not ‘beige’ at all, of course, but peacock-feather bright in attitude, and life force.

The whole festival came to a stunning conclusion on Saturday night, with three solo professional performances from Canadian Claudia Moore, international artist Tamara McLorg, and veteran Jamaican-British dancer Namron.

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Namron (image: Anna Miller)

Each of these three dancers was mesmerising: from the rigorous, almost tortured, balletic introspection of Claudia Moore; to the wistful rises and falls of McLorg, as she took us on a journey through her lifetime of travelling, and dancing, through the world; and the muscular, flight-filled energy, and father-son reflections, of Namron. Each gave us a deep and honest insight into the process of ageing, refracted through their moving, dancing bodies. They also gave us virtuosity. This was work of the highest standard: and gave a message of hope and defiance.

“Radiant and reflective”

As Namron said in the aftershow talk, “Beware the SOFA! It will swallow you up!” The body was built to move, from cradle to grave. Each of us, he emphasised, has a responsibility towards keeping that body moving, in whatever way it is still able, right to the very end.

Throughout the festival there were action-packed workshops and provocative discussion panels – and filmed work too – to accompany the live performances. It was particularly rewarding to share snippets of choreography and working practise with artists in their various workshops: and then to see the artist in action, on stage, later on.

Tamara McLorg’s workshop was a special delight. She had a sunny and uplifting demeanour, pushed the group she worked with (of varying abilities and ages) further and harder than we thought we could manage, and did so with an energy that was – just like her later performance – both radiant and reflective.

A talk highlight for me was a particularly lively and provocative presentation on ‘Participation, Ambition, Vision and Scale’, from Rosalind Conlon, artistic director of DANCE SIX-O, whose dancers are all over 60; Alan Lyddiard, artistic director of the Performance Ensemble, whose theatre company of older performers, has international range and ambition; and Cecilia Macfarlane, a passionate veteran of the community arts world, with a special expertise in connecting the different generations, in a shared enthusiasm for dance.

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DANCE SIX-O performing ‘Head in My Bag’ (image: Ellie Kurttz)

“Something vibrant”

Each speaker had a powerful artistic goal. Alan Lyddiard, in his large-scale and multi-media theatre projects, is always “looking for ways to develop the art of older people”, breaking the barrier between “professional” and “non professional”, to create something vibrant and new, across cultures as well as ages.

Rosalind Conlon is ever-enchanted by the “embodied experience of an older person”, and urged us all to “think of yourselves as dancers all the time”. Stand tall at the till at Tesco! Even as you walk, you are doing a kind of dance.

Cecilia McFarlane, at 70, said “You must always feed yourself as an artist,” whilst making that artistry accessible to all, by inclusive and imaginative new dance and movement work. “We were dancing before birth”, she says, as we tipped and turned in our mothers’ wombs, and we could think “of a dying blink as being the last dance of all.”

Thank you, then, to Yorkshire Dance, for a truly inspirational and ground breaking two days. As someone who believed I was “past it” when I trained in dance at the Laban Centre at the grand old age of 29, but am now in my early 60s, and moving and dancing more than ever before – and encouraging those I teach to do the same – this life affirming festival was a welcome reminder and exhortation: on with the dance! And do so with a light and gleeful heart.

Top image: Three Score Dance Company by Zoe Manders


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