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Creative Collaborations

Two days of workshops, classes and performance linked to the London visit of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for Dance Umbrella 2003

by David Watson
Second year student at Northern School of Contemporary Dance Student

November 2003, London Contemporary Dance School, The Place and Tate Modern, London


In late 2003, the Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) became a full member of The Conservatoire for Dance and Drama (CDD). The CDD comprises a number of small, specialist vocational schools devoted to preparing students for successful and lengthy careers as performance artists. Being part of the CDD provides more money for the schools, enabling them to excel and develop training as well as excellent resources and opportunities.

We knew that creative collaborations between the members of CDD were in the pipeline and out of the blue the students of NSCD were invited to spend two days in early November with London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS) students - all expenses paid. We were told that over the three days in London, as part of Dance Umbrella we would participate in a large workshop, watch a Merce Cunningham performance at Tate Modern and also take part in technique classes comprising NSCD and LCDS students.

London Contemporary Dance School

As we arrived at the front entrance of LCDS we were greeted by an array of students as well as the Principal, Veronica Lewis. However, Veronica was in the Foyer and the clusters of students were all at the windows of the studios which faced onto the road. As we walked into the building, there was a notice board with a lovely hand-made sign welcoming us to the school – most appreciated.

We quickly moved upstairs to discuss the agenda for the day with Veronica and Gurmit Hukam (NSCD Principal) as well as an introduction to some of the other staff of the departments at LCDS. After our mini discussion we went down to the largest studios in the LCDS to work in mixed groups comprising the first, second and third years of LCDS and second, third and fourth years from NSCD.

We were divided into 17 groups and received a CD with one track of 18 bars duration. Each group had to create material to fill the 18 bars, including an entrance and exit. Armed with our instructions the groups dispersed around the school in the various spaces and studios and set to work straight away. I was in group one and we stayed in the large studio with a few other groups.

Each member of our group had plenty of ideas and eagerly wanted to express them. However, we all gave each other the opportunity to talk and give opinions. It was very professional and everyone was on best behaviour. My group decided to focus our 18 bars on movement based on habitual Body Language. We all took our habits, whether it was walking with our noses in the air or the swinging of the arms and then exaggerated these movements and constructed our personal signatures. We then learnt each other’s signatures and slowly began to put them together. We used unison, cannon and a range of other choreographic devices to give the choreography some body and variety.

We rehearsed our piece around 5 times together as group one and then we were called back to the main studio where all 17 groups would perform. Group one started on the stage and performed their material then exited. Group two entered, performed and exited and so on. This was a really quick collaboration but some fantastic work was produced. It was good to get a taster of the competition we would face in the future; even though on this occasion we weren’t competing, we surely would when we graduated.

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project. © Olafur Eliasson. Photo © 2003 Tate, London

"The Weather Project" at Tate Modern

That evening we went along to the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern to watch a Merce Cunningham Dance Company performance in the same space as “The Weather Project” installation. “Anniversary Events” was fantastic, with Merce’s 15 strong dancers, the installation and the audience all forming part of the landscape - it was the experience of a lifetime. The ceiling was covered in large mirrors as well as the back wall which also had a gigantic bright sun placed in front of them. There were three stages linked by walkways for the dancers and as we wandered around watching each one, you could also feel the relationship with the other stages.

Together with the musicians, Merce Cunningham was on a balcony above the performance area and at the end of the work we had the pleasure of applauding him, as well as the dancers. Everyone left on a high and the coach on the way back to the hotel was full of chat and opinions about the performance.

The final day of the visit came and we joined LCDS students in technique classes, but my experience was disappointing. Firstly we were told we would only have ballet and not contemporary and the ballet class was only an hour. Nevertheless, we all went determined to enjoy and get as much from the class and the teacher.

We spent 45 minutes at the barre doing 7 exercises; it was really slow and then the teacher cut the class by 15 minutes. The general feedback from the NSCD students on these classes was also disappointing and I feel I gained very little from this aspect of the visit. However, the workshop and the Merce Cunningham performance at the Tate were fantastic and an experience I won’t forget in a long time.

While waiting for the coach to arrive, I was in the foyer putting my ballet shoes in my bag when the one and only Merce Cunningham came through the doors. I know it’s rude to stare, but I couldn’t help myself. He swiftly turned his head and looked over at me and nodded and gave me a big smile. The only thing I could do was smile back. He went into the lift with his assistant and I was just all warm and giggly. At least I could say in the future “Merce nodded and smiled at me”. Star struck or what!

Veronica Lewis then came out and told us Merce had invited all the students to watch the company class. Everyone shot downstairs and waited patiently for the Merce Cunningham Company and The Edge Dance Company from The Place who were taking class together. Some of the pre-professional students in Edge had been students at NSCD and it was great to see them.

Then Merce slowly stood up and began to join in the class. I know we were supposed to be watching the whole class, but I think everyone was staring at Merce for a lot of the time. Watching the great man performing some of the exercises, clarified for me exactly where the movements came from, as he had mastered them so well. It was an amazing end to our London visit.


Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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