Gregory Nash


Joanna Mowbray:
Moving Monuments

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 Seahorses.

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.

Gregory Nash
April 2000

© Gregory Nash

Gregory Nash was a choreographer, dancer and teacher for seventeen years working internationally in opera, theatre and dance. In 1995 he re-trained, gaining an MA in Arts Management from City University in London and joining Dance Umbrella as Programme Manager. He is currently Drama and Dance Projects Manager for The British Council with responsibility for Western Europe and Africa.

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