Wander:Land: A gothic cathedral, a dress with a 20ft long train, and 10,000 pieces of paper – if you’re looking for a memorable start to 2014, this could be it. The latest creation by Dundee-based contemporary dance company Smallpetitklein, Wander:Land aims to evoke the power and beauty of a whirling snowstorm.
Performed by four dancers, 11 choristers and an organist, the work will form part of the ambitious Scot:Lands programme across Edinburgh on New Year’s Day.
Best known for Within This Dust, a poignant exploration of 9/11, Smallpetitklein may be unknown to those outside the contemporary dance world. So for choreographer and company head, Thomas Small, being the only dance work on the Scot:Lands bill is the perfect way to reach out to new people.
“It’s very exciting to be part of such a wonderful event,” says Small. “And a fantastic opportunity to present work to a very different type of audience. We hope that some people who wouldn’t normally seek out contemporary dance may stumble into St Giles’ Cathedral and discover something new.”
In preparation for the event, Small and his team have been getting to grips with a train only slightly shorter than Princess Diana’s infamous wedding dress. Walking down the aisle with such a lengthy piece of material is one thing – but dancing with it?
“The dress is quite breathtaking,” says Small. “It’s almost like dealing with another cast member, as it appears to have a life of its own. Trying to find a room big enough to rehearse with it has been a challenge, as has trying to make it move in the exact way we want it to. But when it does start to move, it really feels like a snowstorm, ready to sweep you up and engulf you in its wintry coat.”
The piece will be performed on a blanket of papery ‘snow’, and audience members are encouraged to wander around the cathedral during the 35-minute show, observing the work from different vantage points. A former organist himself, Small was keen to incorporate live music, and to make good use of such incredible surroundings. “Wander:Land has been very influenced by St Giles,” says Small. “The sheer scale of the cathedral is almost overwhelming and I’ve tried to capture that feeling. We’re delighted that one of Scotland’s top organists is playing live for us, and I also wanted to involve the renowned St Giles choir, too. It’s a real honour to be accompanied by such amazing talent.”
Small was also influenced by two snow-based works from poetry and literature. American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote The Snow-Storm in 1847, a work that captures the snow’s ability to blur the horizon and bring life to a halt until it passes.
Similarly, Leo Tolstoy’s 1856 short story The Snowstorm, depicts a sledge journey across Russia, which could end in tragedy at any minute. Drifting in and out of sleep as he battles through the snow and wind, the narrator begins to daydream about times gone by. The idea of life flashing before your eyes when the prospect of death arrives, is something Small latched on to for his earlier piece about 9/11 – and again for Wander:Land.
“I think anyone who knows them will see the connection. I was interested in the hallucinations that Tolstoy so beautifully describes, because there’s something about the clarity people arrive at when faced with their own demise that really ricochets through to your heart. And the 20ft dress was very much influenced by Tolstoy’s story – I see it as the physicalisation of the snowstorm.”
During Wander:Land’s rehearsal process, Small discovered that “the combination of humans dancing and humans singing is a very beautiful and powerful experience”. A beauty and power reflected in the show’s ‘star’ – the snow. And, like the other eight projects taking part in Scot:Lands this New Year’s Day, Small was mindful of the atmosphere his work would take place in. Those venturing out on the first day of the year carry at least the hope of change, renewal and starting over.
“The performance aims to take audiences on a transformational journey through a beautiful counterpoint of chaos and tranquility in the eye of the storm,” says Small. “Which resonates with the stillness and peace found in St Giles’ Cathedral. I view the snowstorm as a metaphor for rejuvenation and cleansing – perfect for New Years Day.”