It’s Thursday afternoon at Glasgow’s Dance HQ, and emotions are running high. The dancers, ranging in age from 11 to 70, are putting the finishing touches to Barrowland Ballet’s The River, one of the largest events in the Glasgow 2014 Culture Programme, and a couple of them look on the brink of tears.
This is not, it should be pointed out, any reflection on the leadership of choreographer Natasha Gilmore – far from it. When asked for their impressions of Gilmore, participants use words like “amazing”, “inclusive” and “incredibly patient” to describe the way she has conceived and shaped this ambitious, large-scale performance.
No, the reason the faces before me are wearing expressions of sadness and regret is all down to The River’s subject matter. Before she had created a single step, Gilmore carried out interviews with people who had emigrated to, or immigrated from, a Commonwealth country.
Their stories and experiences formed the basis not just of Gilmore’s movement, but the accompanying songs by composer Quee MacArthur, one of which, Hard to Let You Go, sung in a three-part harmony, is emanating from the speakers at Dance HQ. Add to that Gilmore’s poignant choreography, which depicts relatives and friends saying goodbye to each other, and I’ll confess my own eyes are feeling a little moist.
One teenage girl in particular stands out. Holding tight to two other dancers, she eventually pushes their arms away and ventures forth, looking longingly into the distance, and her future, yet bereft at what she’s turning her back on. Speaking to her after, it becomes clear why the role feels so natural. In August 2013, aged just 16, Ellie Koepplinger left her home and family in Glasgow to spend two years at a high school in Costa Rica. Back in Scotland for the summer holidays, Gilmore’s project caught her eye.
“The River is all about leaving home and what it feels like to leave your loved ones behind, and I find that very easy to relate to,” says Koepplinger. “Every time I go away, I have these tangled emotions – I really want to go back to Costa Rica, but at the same time I really want to stay in Glasgow. So for me, it’s been liberating and exciting to be able to explore that a bit more.”
The scenes I’ve just watched Koepplinger rehearse will take place on the banks of the River Clyde tomorrow and on Monday. Having waved a fond farewell to their loved ones earlier on in the performance, the show’s finale features an emotional reunion when they come back. “The finale reminds me so much of the big hug I get from my younger sister at Glasgow airport each time I come home,” says Koepplinger. “The sorrow of parting is nothing compared to the joy of coming back – it feels so good to see the people you know and the culture you love. So that’s why I play that up so much in the piece, because I can really feel the emotion.”
Like many of The River’s 70-strong cast of community dancers, Koepplinger has little previous dance experience. Benefitting from the knowledge of Barrowland Ballet’s seven professional dancers (who will perform alongside them), and Gilmore’s expertise, Koepplinger has grown in confidence in a few short weeks.
“There’s a real mix of people here from various backgrounds,” she says, “and Natasha is really keen to draw out your ability and push you as far as you can go. So you feel confident putting your trust in her.”
Joining Koepplinger in her dance trio “family” is 66-year-old Irene Kelso. Having not previously danced, Kelso joined the Partick-based Still Dancing group for over-60s a few years ago – and hasn’t looked back. The River is her fourth community production with Barrowland Ballet, having appeared in Dancing Voices, Conversations with Carmel and Bunty and Doris – as well as Michael Clark’s Barrowland project.
Yet despite her wealth of experience, Kelso admits to a degree of self-doubt with each new project. “At the start I think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this’,” she says. “But it’s funny, by the end of a project I’m left wondering what that voice in my head was all about. And I tell myself, you’ve learned your lesson now – don’t go in there next time thinking you can’t do it, because you can. But it still comes back every time.”
Once again, Kelso cites Gilmore’s encouragement and vision as the thing that pulls her through. But keeping 70 dancers in check and helping them tug on a few heartstrings, is just one of Gilmore’s challenges.
The River is a site-specific performance, and will wend its way along the banks of the Clyde, with some elements taking place on the other side of the river (“like a phone call home, where you catch a glimpse of someone’s life,” as Gilmore describes it). While the dancers are busy learning their bit, 70 singers drawn from community choirs around the city are also rehearsing their contribution, as is the team of musicians.
Moving 150 performers – and an audience – along the Clyde is no small endeavour. But having staged a similar production on the banks of the Thames last month, Gilmore is quietly confident The River will be a meaningful and entertaining experience for all.
“We start at the Briggait and then a brass band calls the audience out to start the journey,” she explains. “And there’s always something to pull you to the next place and immerse you in the performance – whether it’s music from the band, a song from the choir or dancing.
“And for the big finale, we’re using a very well-known track – The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles. But our version sounds a bit more like Ladysmith Black Mambazo [the South African male voice choir], until the beat kicks in – and then it all ends with a big rip-roaring party.”
The River, Briggait, Glasgow, 20-21 July, free but ticketed, www.tron.co.uk