Starburst memories: Fulfilling a dream of dancing at the Barrowland
FIFTY people are fulfilling their dreams of dancing in the famous Barrowland Ballroom in a new work choreographed by Michael Clark. Peter Ross hears their very personal reasons for tripping the light fantastic.
Because their grandparents met there; because they are recovering from depression; because they always dreamed of being a dancer; because, because, because – the reasons why about 50 “ordinary” members of the public have signed up to be part of The Barrowlands Project are various and deeply personal. Over three performances next weekend, in work choreographed by Michael Clark, they will dance at the Barrowland Ballroom, fulfilling their dreams beneath that famous glittering ceiling of stars.
The Barrowlands Project is the final event of the London 2012 cultural programme, but in its Glasgow setting looks forward to the Commonwealth Games coming to the city two years hence. Members of the public applying to take part were chosen not so much for their dance skills, which in some cases were nonexistent, but on the strength of the reasons they gave, in a written submission, for wanting to be involved.
“As a rather timid child, I drove my mother close to despair by refusing to join the circle of other four-year-olds in a dance class on Great Western Road 50 years ago,” wrote Christopher.
“I knew, though it may sound mad, when Nureyev died,” wrote Anne. “Looking out of the window, I felt his soul soar.”
“The Barrowlands,” wrote Rita, “is everything to the Glasgow people. The Barrowlands is Glasgow and always will be.”
Community participants, as they are known, will be joined in the performance by members of Michael Clark’s own company, and possibly by Clark himself. The Aberdeenshire-born choreographer, once the enfant terrible of modern dance, is now 50 – ancient in the cloistered world of pliés and pirouettes, but far from the oldest member of the unorthodox troupe he has assembled in the Gallowgate. The participants range in age from late teens to mid-sixties. Intense, challenging rehearsals, to David Bowie’s It’s No Game, have taken place over several weeks.
For very few of the participants is this simply a diverting thing to do. The work, the exact nature of which is being kept secret, resonates with the personal histories of those taking part. Ross Cooper, 40, one of the dance leaders, professionals who act as conduits between Clark and the dancers, is a former Royal Marine who volunteers as a lifeguard at the nearby Glasgow Humane Society on the banks of the Clyde; his parents met at the Barrowland Ballroom in the 1960s, so – just as those he plucks from the river owe him their life – so does he owe his to the aphrodisiac qualities of the legendary dance hall.
“Everybody involved in this has a wee story like that,” he says. “The sincerity and humanity of the participants is very rewarding.”
Jerry Burns, a Glaswegian songwriter, says her decision to take part in the project was rooted in the end of a relationship which left her so heartbroken that she didn’t want to write any more. Taking “refuge” in a job backstage with Scottish Ballet, she grew to admire the dancers and felt eventually that she, too, would love to dance. “It’s been a beautiful experience,” she says of the Barrowland rehearsals. “I went into this more vulnerable and fragile than I’ve gone into anything. But I now feel braver and tougher than I’ve felt for a long time.”
“My heart,” she adds later by email, “is mending with every turn and step I take with Michael.”
Martyn Clark, a 40-year-old business consultant, spent a decade enjoying the good life in Edinburgh before flitting west 18 months ago. The move was prompted by the near collapse of his business. He lost almost everything, sold his Georgian property, and is now renting a flat in Glasgow. One weekend he discovered the Barras market, and somehow the energy, warmth and community of the place touched him. “In all my time spent with the rich and powerful, I’d almost forgotten what it was to be human.”
The Barrowlands Project, for Clark, is a way of giving something back to an area which he found healing. It is also part of his ongoing attempts to “inhabit” his own body, having been raised to believe that physicality was somehow sinful. It was a strict presbyterian upbringing. He remembers getting into trouble, aged six, for dancing round his father’s church. “Dancing wasn’t ever okay,” he says. “My cousins used to dance all the time, and I was jealous that I wasn’t allowed to. ‘Good people don’t dance.’ A lot of the presbyterian principles are based on real care, but somehow they get warped into this sternness and end up inadvertently crushing people.”
Now, dancing in the Ballroom, on the floor where serial killer Bible John once stalked, he feels that he is six again and loving being alive. “I’ve not told many people I’m doing this,” he says. “It’s not about showing anything to anyone. I’m doing it for me.”
Margaret Young is 57, a widow known to “samba like a maniac”, who grew up in and around the Barras. Her parents made and sold bags on London Road; as a baby, she slept in a drawer in the back shop, while the customers came and went. By the time she was five or six, she was serving, too.
Her experiences of bereavement and grief and “a lot of difficult things in my childhood” have left her feeling like a survivor. She identifies strongly, therefore, with Michael Clark, himself a survivor of depression and drug addiction, whom she has long admired as a creative artist.
“I feel at home at Barrowland,” she says. “I was born in Bell Street. I’ve lost an awful lot of people. An awful lot of my family have died. But I feel like I could cross the road and my aunty would be there, and my uncle, and my granda. It’s just a lovely feeling.”
In just a few days, the results of this extraordinary experiment will be seen, the famous starburst Barrowland sign lit for the occasion. Already, though, this has been a stellar experience. “Having Michael Clark teach you to dance,” says Jerry Burns, “is like having Gene Kelly and James Cagney step into your dreams.”
The Barrowlands Project takes place on 8 and 9 September. The Michael Clark Company will present a world premiere of new work, influenced by The Barrowlands Project, at Tramway, Glasgow, 4-6 October. The performance is going to be live streamed on BBC space http://thespace.org/ which will be on demand until the end of October
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