I first saw Joanna Mowbray's work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1986.
Three white structures entitled Movement 1, 2 and 3 appeared to defy gravity
as the tension in the curved metal allowed them to arc and spiral away from
the ground. I realised that in my own investigations as a dancer I had been
doing the exact opposite. I had been striving to eradicate muscular tension
and to use rather than resist gravity; to allow the body to fall with its
own weight and to recover and continue along a line of natural momentum. I
realised that a single concept was common to our work: a strong and clear
sense of direction outward from a central point, a centre of gravity. But
in subsequently working with Joanna I learned that the processes by which
this was achieved were totally different. Joanna required that the
materials she used had tensile properties and she exerted force on
this so that it would support itself. I did exactly the opposite.
Seeing this, Mike Tooby of Sheffield's Mappin Art Gallery brought us
together for our first collaboration in 1988. We planned to use the three
Movement pieces to create a work for the park surrounding the Gallery. But
the night before we began, the sculptures were vandalised and we were
suddenly presented with the challenge of creating a performance for a single
indoor gallery space. Natural collaborators both, we rose to it, and for
two weeks our fifteen performers improvised with paper, wire, cardboard and
some of Joanna's smaller and more portable pieces to create an hour-long
piece: Some Consolation with live music by Sheffield band, Nick Fish and the
Our next project at Leeds City Art Gallery in 1990 (see project Abyss) allowed us to begin to
create a work which would evolve over three years into an hour-long piece
for six dancers, live music and three different sculptural environments. To
begin with at Leeds we utilised a number of very different spaces: stairs,
corridor, gallery, to create several different environments through which
the viewer passed. Phil Saunders' lighting states and Jim Beirne's live and
recorded score combined with sculptures, raw materials and the movement of
twenty performers to create a different event for each space as the audience
passed through them.
Joanna's latest work at this time was a series of vertical, tower-like
pieces that created strong, fixed points in the space that the choreography
then negotiated. In their stillness these solid pieces defined the
performing space and contrasted with the speedy, multi-directional movement
of the dancers. Although abstract in form they created a strangely
theatrical setting - a kind of steel forest through which a frenetic,
scampering trio of women might journey.
This was the beginning of Surface Tension, a three-part work that was fully
realised in 1992 as a result of an imaginative collaboration between
Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Contact Theatre, Manchester. Contact's wide,
sweeping stage presented me with the opportunity to create lush sequences
that moved laterally, while the participation of ten members of the
wonderful Manchester Youth Dance allowed me to swell the numbers of my own
six member company to realise a choreography on a new scale. It was a scale
fitting to Joanna's newest work. A set of monumental structures were
carried on and off stage by the dancers like ancient stones, sometimes
revealing dancers hidden inside, sometimes deliberately obscuring the dance,
sometimes providing the starting point for a chain-reaction of fractured
movement travelling across the space. We subsequently recreated Surface
Tension for a vast gymnasium on the campus of Bretton Hall College in
Yorkshire - a monumental task but an enormously satisfying one.
I loved this work and the process of creating it. Joanna's understanding of
space, how to create it, to use it, to occupy it, is stronger than that of
many choreographers. Her kinetic sense is very highly developed and this is
so clearly manifest in the strange almost muscular beauty of her work. Her
ability to recognise the potential for a little theatrical magic is a bonus.
Her lack of preciousness is an absolute joy.