I began developing my own choreography in 1975. Returning from studying with Sigurd Leeder in Switzerland, I developed a relationship with the nascent Oval House Arts Centre in London. Part of a loose gathering of early independent dance artists, we had a show reviewed enthusiastically by The Observer one Sunday. Following a colourful tribute to the main ensemble piece – one of the very first to use computer generated imagery – my first choreography, a duo called Shadow and Tale, was described as “best of the rest”(!)
Since then I have devised numerous solo and group choreographies both singly and collaboratively in many parts of the UK and abroad. Some have been with professional dancers and others that have engaged participants in a very broad range of community settings. A considerable amount of influence and experience has impacted and left their mark on me over the years as my practice has developed and changed. For instance, there was a time when I always began a choreography with the preparation of moves, steps, spatial direction, etc. Now I want to begin by drawing on a number of improvisation strategies to explore movement differently through situation, theme, dynamics and mood – and then to see what kind of dance is emerging.
Between 1975 and 1992 with friends and collaborators I developed and made work for the small-scale touring network in the UK, and in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland and Spain. Having lived in Switzerland for three years I had a fairly straightforward springboard to continental touring through an agent in Zurich. I also began teaching workshops in 1977 with the Saturday morning classes in contemporary dance at the Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Art in Bristol, where I lived for two years until moving to take up a year-long residency with Dance Tales at Rolle College in Devon. (Which became three years in total.)
I began to be interested in developing work in non-arts spaces and my thinking and subsequent making were influenced by a growing knowledge, perception and imagination about place, situation and social setting.
I had already been very moved by the first visit made by Steve Paxton to the UK when he introduced Contact Improvisation for the first time here. I was living in Devon at the time and he came to Dartington College of Arts where I had an invitation to contribute to the international dance festival there. Steve is also an electrifying solo dancer. Being taken by the breath of fresh air a number of American dancers and choreographers brought over to the UK at this time – late 1970s'early 80s – I felt very ready for change myself and spent three months in New York taking daily classes at the Merce Cummingham studio and learning repertory with the recently established Trisha Brown Dance Company.
I moved from figurative dance making to a more fluid and abstract work and began the devising process with improvisation and allowing individual abilities to merge with organic choreographic strategies such as clustering and dispersal, catching a partners weight and deflecting it into the next movement phrase, and so on, all the while the ensemble seeming to be an emerging picture of what a sense of positive and trusting community might exemplify. Which is what I wanted to do next, but away from theatres and in other real life situations.
I devised new work in art galleries, hospitals, with people with learning disabilities, and finally prison and youth custody with a solo performance called Frank devised with and directed by Jacky Lansley. And changed again later when I intuitively immersed myself in the call-and-response investigation that site-specific work asks.
The collaborative work I developed with dancer and author Miranda Tufnell, which was based in settings focusing on arts, health, and social regeneration, also spawned Spirit Level, a performance that also involved musician/composer Sylvia Hallet, storyteller Malcolm Green, and visual artist Chris Crickmay.
The solo work I make for myself is of course different to any of the work I have made for others in that it is and remains a personal investigation. I am the author, artist and performer. I research and keep looking at what it is that keeps me constantly returning to working in the studio that I share where I live at Burnlaw in Northumberland's North Pennine hills. With the piece called Upending (2007) I wanted to make a work with short episodes that were like the stanzas of a poem – one where poetry works at its very best, conveying relationships, thoughts and imagery with few but essential words. I wanted to do that in movement.
I have shared my practice with dancers who have worked with me on the various site-specific performances I have conceived and devised, notably Vicky Mateu, and with Northumbria University students where I was Visiting Fellow in Performing Arts 2008-2011.
With the more recent solo Divided. between. displaced. newfound, devised in 2011, I merged experiences of exploring movement out of doors and unsighted with those of some workshops I had led with refugees and asylum seekers where we had used dance to devise a kind of temporary architecture that fulfilled an emotional quest for an imagined home. Christo Wallers had filmed some of my unsighted experiments and the solo dance grew from my watching this and nailing some essential responses.
I am currently working with a series of exploratory improvisations in the public atrium entrance to Dance City. I asked a number of younger dance artists who I know to provide me with a thought, a theme, an idea, or some lines that would sustain me for a one-and-a-half-hour improvisation. So far I have worked with the lines spoken by the Fool in King Lear, a poem by Ted Hughes about a last letter to Sylvia Plath, and a series of four drawings and sketches that lift movement from landscape.
Aspects of my approach to working with external landscape are included in Tamara Ashley's PhD dissertation Site-sensitive dance in transition.