Follow me on my first one-shot dance video response to the outdoors. I visited Wentwood Forest near Chepstow, UK, for my first movement experiment.
The decision to start this project was an oddly emotional one. At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, I found myself struggling a bit. I'd begun on the kind of journey that I think I probably share with quite a few people; at first I thought, "this is Okay, I can actually get a lot of work done from home, and really push through on the writing that I'm currently working on." At first I did, but of course (like many of us) I didn't really think that all of this was going to last as long as it has.
I believe it was sometime in May 2020 (although the accurate memory now escapes me and the days continue to blur together!) that I realised I needed to do something differently. I was feeling quite emotional about lots of things, and the pandemic genuinely terrified me. I'd already realised that spending absolutely all of my time at home - for the first 6 weeks I didn't leave the house at all - was driving me slightly round the bend. I'd started going on walks with my partner, and we discovered some new parts of our town, but it wasn't enough to get that nagging feeling out of my head.
I'm a professional dancer, choreographer and theatre maker. So when lockdown hit, I suddenly wasn't able to dance anymore... or at least not in big open spaces. I was writing my PhD in dance, so I was still engaged in what I love, but I really missed dancing. I found that, for the most part I just couldn't face the online dance classes that were being offered - trying to dance alone in my tiny carpeted home office just wasn't the same as dancing with other lovely people in big studios. I missed that feeling of being free and experimenting with my movement.
In fact, lockdown was marked for me by the cancellation of various projects. I was working with a integrated dance company (a dance company made up of disabled and non-disabled dancers) on a commission for a performance in the ruins of Abergavenny Castle in South Wales. We were so close to the final show when Boris Johnson made the announcement that all non-essential venues and businesses should close. In fact, that announcement was made as I was on the train to rehearsals. I had one final session with the company, and it was heart-breaking - to get that far and it all come to an uncertain end.
I'd tried to keep up a personal yoga practice, and I spent some weeks interspersing my laptop-based work with a make-shift workout kit in the back garden - tins of beans and water-filled milk bottles as weights, brand new skipping rope bought just before lockdown hit. These things kept me fit and active, distracted my brain from the laptop... but I really wanted to dance.
At the time, my partner was figuring out his new Insta 360 ONE R camera, and had filmed me dancing on our walks in local picturesque places as a test to see what the camera could do. I really enjoyed the feeling of moving again, and being outside to dance gave me a new sense of freedom during the lockdown. I began to look forward to our next walk and dance filming session. Each time we watched the film back, I'd feel this lovely sense of artistic achievement - I'd created something by moving my body.
We had always travelled a lot, and initially lockdown put a stop to that. We were planning a round the world trip when COVID-19 hit. Now, we're exploring more local places as the current lockdown eases. I thought, why not put these two things together - our exploration of new places, and my dancing. I decided that we would create a new short dance film in every new location we visited, and thus, footSTEPS was born.
For our first outdoor dance experiment, we went for a hike through Wentwood Forest.
Wentwood forest lies north east of the city of Newport in South Wales, and used to be part of the hunting grounds of Chepstow Castle. Visiting in the summer months you'll find lots of green, densely-packed trees covered in all kinds of moss and lichen, but in amongst the heavy canopy, there are some more open areas as well. The section that is owned by the Woodland Trust is 873 acres, and we only made ourselves round a small section of it in a day.
The woodland is often described as ancient, with links to Bronze Age settlements, an important source of timber for the Romans and a hiding place of Welsh outlaws who rebelled against the English, along with the Welsh Prince Owain Glyndwr.
Having given myself this mission, I found myself a little nervous when it came to filming the first dance. I'm forever the perfectionist... is 'perfectionist' the right word there? - someone who wants to make something perfect the first time they attempt it?!
That being said, recording this first movement experiment felt like a great achievement. I felt freed from the restrictions of lockdown for the first time, that my body was suddenly allowed to move in ways that it hadn't for so long. I remember thinking how green the forest looked - I hadn't seen that much green in a while. This first video was an experiment in how much of the site's diversity I could get into one short dance film, and an attempt at playing with the dynamics of the space.
There was something about growth and balance in my brain as I filmed this dance. Growth - of the trees, and an internal wondering at how old they all were, the things they'd seen. Balance - not of nature, but actually of balancing on that tyre, which was not as easy as it looks! The tyre was very interesting to play with though, challenging my core as I experimented with moving between crouching and standing, arms outstretched.
I thought about the fallen leaves that littered the floor, imagining throwing them high into the air and then tracking their last moments as they slowly dropped from above, like feathers on the breeze. I noted how the wind whistled or whispered through the trees at different levels of the canopy, and tried to echo that with some of my movements.
If you want to take a visit to Wentwood Forest yourself, please make sure you're wearing the right footwear - whilst some paths are easy, others are much more difficult. If you're just coming out of your own quarantine, try not to over-do it - I ended up with a slight strain in my foot afterwards, I think simply because my brain was thinking "Yes! Freeeedom!" and my feet hadn't quite caught up yet!
If you find yourself wanting to watch more dance videos in gorgeous green spaces, then check out the following posts: