Earthfall Joint Artistic Directors Jim Ennis and Jessica Cohen talk about Stories from a Crowded Room
ASIW: Stories from a Crowded Room is performed in a space with a standing audience and moves around the spectators and interacts with them. How did the idea for this come about?
Earthfall: Jim Ennis, Earthfall’s co artistic director’s first professional performance was in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam as a maverick physical performer alongside the Dutch National Ballet in an immersive encounter with a gallery audience. This was in 1978. Although ‘stories from a crowded room’ is a very different and more personal work, it was always his intention to revisit and develop that early idea with Jessica Cohen and Earthfall. So we met with designer Mike Brookes and he started to sketch the structure that we are now touring and where the performance takes place. In several of Earthfall’s works the performers have invariably invaded the audience ‘space’, this time we wanted to bring them to us. Up close, personal, bitter-sweet encounters, spontaneous and planned. With the idea of blurring the boundaries between performer and audience.
ASIW: Did you encounter any difficulties in allowing the dancers to perform while also maintaining the safety of those watching?
Earthfall: During the development of the work, we tested a lot of our material several times with invited guests and students, to see how they would react and to see how much risk and interaction could take place. We have measured how far we can go in terms of safety and risk, there is still an unknown element to certain actions, but the dancers have become very spatially aware and their interaction with the audience is sensitive as well as bold.
ASIW: How much of the piece is set in stone and how much is improvised live?
Earthfall: Nearly all the performance is set, but not in a conventional way. Our encounters with the audience vary from performance to performance. We don’t necessarily know what may happen sometimes, but we have a pretty good idea. Certain encounters happen privately and subtly, not everyone will witness everything that happens, but the overall experience for the audience is a rich one.
ASIW: What do you think has been the most successful aspect of the performance judging from audience reaction?
Earthfall: The whole performance is a journey physically and emotionally. It succeeds in allowing the audience into a world where bodies fly past very close, where musicians walk beside you as they sing, where film wraps around you. It succeeds as it lets the audience in and increases the performer audience connection, without the latter feeling threatened. The whole uniqueness of sharing the same space and experiencing the power of the complete performance together is what we have gathered from our audience feedback.
ASIW: Was it the idea to have live music from the start, or did that come about later in the process?
Earthfall: In all its 25 years Earthfall has always had live music. The musicians start composing from day one of the rehearsal and everything is intrinsically linked to the choreography, the mood and the narrative. This has always been Earthfall’s way and we have been lucky to have worked with some very talented musicians.
ASIW: Is it rewarding or frustrating not to have a definitive version of something as flexible and ever-changing as Stories from a Crowded Room?
Earthfall: The performers are trained and experienced to react to anything new. In previous works, Earthfall has always sought to develop, change, refresh and improve any aspect of a performance throughout its lifetime. We will also keep on developing Stories from a Crowded Room, but we are happy that we have made a powerful work and the main changes will come from the nature of the different audiences and how they respond.
ASIW: What would you say to spectators who might feel a little anxious that the interactive nature of the show might not be for them?
Earthfall: The performers are sensitive to any fears anyone may have. The interaction is subtle and measured. No one has to dance, we just ask that the audience walk around in the space and involve themselves in the experience.
ASIW: Has the success of Stories from a Crowded Room got you thinking along any similar lines for a future presentation?
Earthfall: Earthfall have started planning three new works. We are fascinated in investigating different ways of performer and audience relationship. But Stories from a Crowded Room is one of our favourite ever works, so we are determined to keep it in our repertoire for a long time.
Earthfall, Stories from a Crowded Room. Riverfront, Newport Until May 15