Heather at the crumbling edge of contemporary dance
- Credit: Andrew Partridge
Norwich choreographer Heather Eddington specialises in creating dance shows that are different from anything you've seen before. ANDREW CLARKE spoke to Heather and some of her collaborators during a break in rehearsals.
Dunwich is teetering on a knife-edge. A lone house stands on a precipice – all it will take is one powerful winter storm to undermine the cliff and the house will tumble into the sea.
This is the premise for House On The Edge, the latest work from DanceEast associate artist and Norwich-based choreographer Heather Eddington.
Her company, State of Flux, specialises in multi-media performances which blend the spoken word with dance, and enhanced with specially-designed audio-visual elements.
Heather has been developing work at DanceEast for the last three years. Her last show, Forgetting Natasha, went on to earn glowing reviews at the Edinburgh Festival before embarking on a nationwide tour.
Her current show is being developed and refined over the course of several rehearsals, workshops and rough-cut performances before having its world premiere at DanceEast's base at the Jerwood DanceHouse in Ipswich next weekend. It will then be staged at this year's Edinburgh Festival.
She said that her work is a mixture of dance and theatre. Her work has a strong narrative thread and she is fascinated by character and how movement informs character and helps tell a story.
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Add to that wonderful soundscapes and dramatic lighting and you have a sensory experience which combines the highs of dance, theatre, cinema and art.
Over the last couple of years she has worked closely with poet Anna Selby. Anna is providing the narrative for House On The Edge.
Heather said that the show, about an older couple living on a crumbling cliff top, is not only a story about coastal erosion but can be viewed as a metaphor for life in general.
'These days we are all living on the edge. Everything is so finely balanced.'
Her latest production features two older dancers, Nicholas Minns and Ann Dickie. Nicholas has been tempted out of retirement, while Ann runs a company for mature dancers called, appropriately, From Here to Maturity Dance Company.
The production team have paid visits to Dunwich, Happisburgh and various coastal villages, gaining inspiration from the coastline and what it feels like to be there.
'We are not saying that this is the story of the Suffolk coast or of Dunwich, but it has formed the core of our research, of our thinking behind this piece. It has informed our understanding of our characters, where we are placing them and the experiences that we are forcing them to endure on the stage.'
Actor Pradeep Jey said it was important just to walk along the cliffs and experience the fresh air and strong winds coming in off the sea.
'It gives you a real sense of place.' Heather adds: 'Dunwich – the old town of Dunwich – is central to what we are doing. The research into the town as it was, the town that is no longer there, the hustle and bustle of the town informs our attitude to the one house that is left standing.'
The piece is an examination of a couple who are faced with illness and how they cope with their changing situation.
Heather, her dancers and the supporting team have spent the last few weeks at DanceEast exploring the physical and emotional effects that illness can have on formerly active people in later life. 'It changes their life as a couple from that moment.'
She said she likes to utilise and blend different art forms into her work because she believes it is the best way to tell a story.
'It is incredibly challenging to do but very rewarding. Is it dance, is it theatre, is it something else? I don't know. But I do know that it feels right for what we are doing.
'Every time I make some new work I am entering into new territory. I am working with text, pushing the narrative, combining the visuals and the sets into the piece, working out how to integrate the projection of images – there's a lot to think about.
'I am constantly having to adapt the way I work. I enjoy learning new things and one way is to invite new people in to collaborate, which allows me to build on the skills I have.'
She said that she has huge respect for the dancers who willingly walk into one of her productions, because they are walking into the unknown.
'I hate repeating myself, so the practice becomes very fluid. We are all in this together. As I said, we are in new territory, so we have to find a new language.'
During rehearsals Heather surrounds herself with a host of specialists who all contribute to problem-solving discussions as she works through what she wants to achieve.
The set is flanked by two broad canvas 'flats' onto which images are projected during the performance. This is more than using photographs as a set. Visual artist Magali Charrier has created some bespoke animation which will be projected during the piece and will interact with the dancers and the text.
'Everything informs everything else. We like to play with ideas together and see how we spark off one another – and, of course, you can only do that by all coming together and working in the same space.'
Nicholas said that he was so taken with Heather's ideas that he was persuaded to come out of retirement to work on this project.
'What excites me is that the project is shaped by the people involved in it. The fact that you have older dancers in the show doesn't limit what you can do so much as allows you to shape it to reflect the ages and abilities of the people in the show.
'It also gives character to a piece. I have never liked it when you see a younger dancer made up and told to act like an older person. I think that Heather using older dancers is sending out a very good message.
'We may not be able to do everything that we once did but it is now more expression-led. It is now more about character; telling a story. Heather is clever because she utilises actor/ dancers. It's a mix between an actor and a dancer. It is an actor who is moving and a dancer who is speaking in order to express themselves – to tell the story.'
Nicholas added: 'This mixture of theatre, dance, animation and music all combines together to bring the show closer to the audience. It getting closer to what people do and say.'
This chimes closely with Heather's view on contemporary theatre/dance, which is all about communicating and telling stories.
'I trained as a dancer and became very interested in film and the way that film worked, and the way it told a story. It made me look at the way that my pieces worked.
'The greater number of skills you have got, the better. I think it is exciting to be able to pull influences from all these different areas. You can tell your story in a much more vivid manner if you can play with an array of different media.'
Even the name of Heather's Norwich-based dance company, State of Flux, was chosen to highlight that this is an arena of dance where almost anything is possible.
She has been creating performance pieces, combining dance and film, since 2003, but had not designed a fully-fledged stage performance until she was appointed as an associate artist with DanceEast in 2010.
Since then she has also directed a dance magazine programme as DanceEast's contribution to The Space – an Arts Council-BBC website collaboration to kick-start the Cultural Olympiad.
Heather Eddington comes from artistic parents and said, in addition to her fascination with film, it was her parents' willingness to experiment in their own work that inspired her to work with different media in live performance.
'I was brought up in an artistic environment and was surrounded by people who were quite happy using different media to make their work look how they wanted it to and say what they wanted it to say – be it paint or fabric, chalk . . . whatever.
'I grew up thinking it was the norm to mix things up to achieve the effect you were looking for. I love putting things together and seeing what comes out.'
t State of Flux — House On The Edge, Jerwood Dance House, Ipswich, February 8-9, £15 (£12 cons), £8 children, 01473 295230, www.danceeast.co.uk