DANCE ON LOCATION 013: Westonbirt National Arboretum, England, UK

Surrounded by rare species of trees from across the globe, I dance through the grounds of Westonbirt National Arboretum in Gloucestershire, UK.

Run by Forestry England, Westonbirt in Gloucestershire is home to the National Arboretum. An arboretum is similar to a botanical garden, but the focus of the plant specimens here are trees. Westonbirt has 15,000 specimens and over 2,500 species of tree from all over the globe.

The National Arboretum was established by wealthy Victorian landowner Robert Holford in the mid 19th century. Holford developed a penchant for collecting rare and beautiful plants from around the world, the collection at Westonbirt still houses many of the plants that he collected on his self-funded expeditions. The collection is rather impressive - Westonbirt lists its headline figures at intervals around the site, noting that it is home to:

  • 500 different types of Maple;

  • 100 threatened tree species;

  • 600 acres of land;

  • Over 1000 species of fungi;

  • 250 species of wildflowers.

On top of that, their tallest tree stands at 44 metres high, whilst their oldest tree has clocked 2000 years! The National Arboretum is a stunning display of this planet's biodiversity, and is well worth a wander around if you're looking to reconnect with nature.

Westonbirt also features a treetop walkway (pictured above), where you can walk among the canopy at a height of 13 metres. Access to the walkway is included in the admission fee. You can explore all of the other trails at your own leisure, or join a free guided walk. However, at the moment, you must book everything in advance due to COVID-19 restrictions and regulations may change as the pandemic progresses.

My favourite tree in the collection at Westonbirt is the Paperbark Maple, native to China (pictured below). I loved the copper coloured bark, which appeared to be slowly peeling, and the many branches which leaned towards the ground. There are a few specimens of Paperbark Maple at Westonbirt, and each appeared to me to have it's own tree-character. In fact, these trees turn a vibrant red and orange colour in autumn, so could be said to be home to their own tree-like alter egos.

Paperbark Maple, China

The Dance

The biodiversity of this site really struck me. When I've danced around trees before, they've usually been very similar trees. For example, you don't see that wide a variety of different types of trees in my dance films at Wentwood Forest and Llandegfedd Reservoir, because in forests and woodlands similar species tend to grow close together. However, the point of an arboretum is to showcase tree species from around the world, and so at Westonbirt there are sections where you won't find the same species of tree next to each other. Instead, you're faced with a whole lot of uniqueness, which I found visually exciting.

In our film at the National Arboretum, I really enjoyed playing around with the dappled sunshine coming through the trees, and with my own shadow. I really like how my engagement with my own shadow towards the beginning of the film reads as if I am dancing a duet with myself... or perhaps another part of myself - like a tree in the spring vs. trees in the autumn, in conversation with the different parts of itself. I particularly like the tiny kick I give my own shadow as I move towards it in the first 20 seconds of the film.

The trees having such different structures and characters gave me a very interesting element to play with - holding onto branches, for example, and experimenting with peeping out from behind them. In creating these moments, I thought about what would and wouldn't be visible at that moment, but not necessarily keeping the unseen parts of my body still. I wanted to almost tease the camera to come and look closer, building intrigue from the knowledge that other body parts were moving, but intentionally obscured somehow.

Wellingtonia, USA

I felt that the trees were also dancers in the film, as I allowed their leaves and branches to graze me as I moved through them. In this way, I felt I began moving in conversation with the trees - my movements switching between reaching towards the ground, and then reaching upwards and outwards with my arms. In reaching down, my pelvis angled towards the earth, grounding myself, I emulated the roots of the trees, and in reaching upwards and outwards my arms became branches, moving in and around the branches and trunks of the trees before curling back again into a more human form.

We also brought the camera into this conversation - with the lens focused on my hand as I began to make a wave through my arm, torso and other arm to refocus on a different tree.

I hope that we matched the biodiversity of Westonbirt National Arboretum with a diversity of movement - moments of stillness vs. a great deal of fast moving between trees, playing with shadows and engaging in conversations with Westonbirt's natural giants.

Pine, Mexico

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