Witley Court is a ruined mansion in the heart of Worcestershire, and on one gloriously sunny September afternoon it proved to be an interesting playground for all things dance.
DISCLAIMER: This film was recorded prior to COVID-19 restrictions being tightened in the UK in September 2020.
Upon first glance, the mansion looks like there are parts of it imported from all over the globe, as extension after extension has been added to the house in a variety of different architectural styles. It's not just place, but time that you can see in this building, which in fact has Norman roots, as there is evidence of a manor existing on this very spot in 1086, owned by Urso d'Abetot, claimed by some to be a cousin of William the Conqueror.
Following the original Norman building, a medieval manor house was built on the estate, which was then modernized somewhat by the Russell family in the seventeenth century. Iron industry family, the Foleys took over ownership of the estate in 1655, and they are responsible for some of Witley Court's most sizeable developments.
However, the era that perhaps most defines Witley Court, is the nineteenth century. Sold to a rich young man named William Ward in 1833, the buildings here were transformed yet again, under the guidance of architect Samuel Daukes. Ward, whose fortune had been built on income from 200 Black Country coal mines, ironworks, factories and railways, was now the 1st Earl of Dudley. The walls of Witley Court witnessed his extravagant house parties, even frequented by the then Prince of Wales (he'd later become King Edward VII).
As a consequence of a series of families experiencing largely dwindling fortunes, Witley Court continued being handed on to new owners, and was sold again in 1922, this time bought by Sir Herbert Smith, who was a carpet manufacturer from Kidderminster.
In September 1937, tragedy struck as a large fire brought the mansion to its metaphorical knees. Starting in the roof above the servants' rooms and spurred on by a strong wind, the fire quickly spread throughout the house, decimating everything on the east side of the mansion. The surviving contents of the house auctioned before the year was out, and the remains of the house sold in 1938. Witley Court was never lived in again, but was instead purchased by an antique dealer who stripped the house of its valuable (or rather, auction-able) parts in 1954. Since 1972, the house has been considered an Ancient Monument and has been undergoing restoration work, carried out by English Heritage since 1984.
What's left of Witley Court, really is the shell of the building, but that doesn't make this incredible site any less grand. You can see where the fire took hold, often finding ancient pieces of wood burnt to charcoal in the blaze.
As part of the restoration of the site, some elements need a little help to stay upright, and this meeting of the modern with the old is rather aesthetically pleasing. My favourite example of this, was a tower next to the main entrance of the mansion, currently held up with a criss-cross pattern of geometric concrete supports, giving this ancient monument a rather brutalist feel, and casting intricately patterned shadows on the ground below.
It's some of the damage to this once grand mansion that makes it so interesting to me. The fire and the subsequent years of neglect have revealed various layers of the building and its features, like the many skins of an onion, peeled to assorted degrees in different places.
There are panels on the walls which must have once displayed beautiful patterns and decoration - perhaps nineteenth century wallpaper or a grandiose mirror - but years of damage now slice through them, exposing their workings and varied textures. These textures and the slicing-through of history which is so evident in the remains, provided ample inspiration for our dance film.
There's something about my opening lean on the stone bannister of the staircase outside of Witley Court, that intrigues me as I watch this film back, several weeks after recording it. My whole weight is pressed backwards and I lift my leg high into the air, knee bent and foot flexed. This is a movement I repeat throughout the film, sometimes juxtaposed with my arms making soft and flowing motions around my head, neck and torso. There's both a heaviness and a lightness in these movements - as though my body is a hot air balloon, wishing to take off, but weighted down by something else. I see this as related to the history of Witley Court - a site once filled with parties and life, which has now been stripped of that, the site weighted down with the memory of that great fire.
There's a slightly calmer moment as I begin to play with my shadow upon entering the building. Filmed in a very narrow shaft of light, it became quite difficult to get this section right as the light began to fade (we'd struggled with multiple takes of this video, trying not to get people in the shot as it became more populated during the summer months of 2020). The effect, I feel, is one of wanting to escape from that narrow space - perhaps again like my imagined hot air balloon desperate to take flight.
I enjoy watching back the angles and diagonals that I create with my body in front of the concrete-supported tower in the centre of the building, responding to the accidentally brutalist concrete criss-cross monument behind me. I then wind my hips in slow motion, thinking about slowing down time. I do this again after I jump through one of the mansion's front windows, as if portal hopping from one era to the next.
My favourite section sees me running into the room at the end of the great hallway, which is where you can see some of the damaged panels I mention above. I hold onto the wall for support - just like other parts of the building must grip their concrete reinforcements -winding my head slowly around and then leaning into the wall with my leg in the air once again. Here, that battle between heaviness and lightness continues, but this time I am somehow rooted into the building.
I notice how my movement becomes more frantic from this point onwards, before enjoying the quiet stillness in those final few seconds of the film as behind the ruined building, the beautiful - and still working - grand fountain is revealed.
The end of this film also makes me smile in memory of this particular take. What you can't hear on the soundtrack, is the loud barks of the little dog who rushes into shot towards the end. My dancing seemed to startle him, and I wonder what that dog would say about my movements if he could talk... ?
If you're interested in reading more about the history of Witley Court, check out the English Heritage website, here. Please also note that, at the time of writing, Witley Court has restrictions on visitor numbers due to COVID-19, and you must book your ticket in advance. You must wear a face covering in all indoor spaces and there are one-way systems in place.
If this post has whet your appetite for more dance videos in abandoned buildings, then have a look at the following posts:
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