About Us is a reflective journey which began in 2016, about people living and growing older in a rapidly changing habitat. It’s a collection of personal stories and political musings communicated through a multidisciplinary framework of movement, music, singing, text and film and performed by an equally eclectic group of multigenerational artists. Directed by Jacky Lansley, whose vital contribution to independent dance spans four decades, About Us is a tribute to her indomitable spirit.
While the show has toured round England I see the final performance at Oxford House in Bethnal Green. It’s a hospitable venue for the work, as it’s where Lansley co-founded Dance Research Studio in 2002 and evolved much of her practice.
We’re seated on four sides around the stage in a beautiful large studio with deep red walls. On two of the walls are projected extracts of Roswitha Chesher’s films, which show the dancers performing in a range of locations. These extracts juxtapose with live action taking place here and now.
Esther Huss moves a chair around with determined motivation. It’s like her home and she guards it fiercely. She abruptly walks off stage to change into another outfit, while Fergus Early gets up (all the performers are sitting amongst the audience) and practises his cricket bowling. He initiates a social gathering as Jreena Green and Tim Taylor join him in casual yet smart clothing. Convivially they offer each other glasses of juice while settling into their own unique dance styles: Green a sort of released mix of salsa and lindy hop; Early, athletic reaches and lunges which morph out of cricket actions. While separate solos emerge, collective moments of fielding the ball unite the group. They dive into the floor or jump up into adventurous leaps to catch it.
What we see is a delightfully idiosyncratic feast of movement which acknowledges social dance, pedestrian as well as balletic and contemporary forms. Here are quirky, individualistic styles that hint at a lifetime of training, development and research in fluid backgrounds of dance and performance art. Lansley herself steps in sometimes to hand over a microphone or teach a few gestures and even dance academic, Ramsay Burt, performs alongside the others expanding his role as dramaturg.
Green abandons herself to her solo, stamping out rhythms and throwing her arms wildly in the air but the energy changes and she becomes frustrated and angry, beating her hands viciously against her chest. The personal is political and it’s hard at times. However, the others are there to reassure her with embraces and soothing words. Then our attention is attracted to a film extract of performer and teacher Ingrid MacKinnon who is not in the live show, talking about the challenges of working as a dancer with a new baby – but finding a way through. Each little autobiographical fragment that we are presented with, whether it’s a film or a voice-over or a collection of movements, reveals a group of people who take responsibility for themselves and others.
This is utopian performance in which performers bathe both one another and their audience in well-being and gently instil a sense of hope for our collective futures. Through sharing titbits of their own histories without being dull or too worthy, through interaction and the collaborative spirit they show us ways in which we might reduce the damage inflicted on our planet or the discord over Brexit.
Lights dim, glittering disco balls appear and Taylor turns smaltzy, singing about a tantalising encounter with a desired one. We feel his frisson of excitement but also nostalgia for a time when dating wasn’t as brutal and digitally mediated as it is today. As depressing statistics flash up on the walls about endangered species, the performers embody the animals that our planet is losing – it’s touching, amusing and sad all at the same time. While all these episodes are not necessarily connected, and sometimes random, they are performed with a conviction that makes them coherent. Staging is swift and smooth in order to hold our attention and prevent the show becoming drawn out, mushy or dull.
Lansley collaborates not only with her multi-skilled group of dance artists but also interjects the audience into the show. We are always visible, the performers place hats on our heads and at one point direct us to change places with each other in order to “gain a new perspective.” It works! Then we’re taught a bit of choreography. After we’ve mastered some hand movements we wait for the visual cues, then we participate in the show. It’s incredibly uplifting this feeling of doing and watching, like singing in a choir. In a final tableau the company assembles with accordion player and musical director, Sylvia Hallett, singing altogether and demonstrating this communal strength.
I walk away from About Us feeling calm and cheerful. It’s reassuring to see older performers celebrated and dance histories cherished. It’s a show that doesn’t emphasise what you can’t do but what you can. Rather than being over-stimulating or jarring it’s kind and inclusive. And a lot more.