Part One: Back to the Beginning by Choreographer Dane Hurst
Our upcoming production of Requiem with fellow Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Theatre sees two nations unite as we collaborate with South African partner companies Jazzart Dance Theatre and Cape Town Opera to deliver an extraordinary cross-cultural performance. In a unique series of blog posts we will be exploring the inspiration behind the choreography and shining a light on the production’s deeply rooted South African connections and cultural influence.
In this first blog Dane Hurst sheds light on how he creatively approached choreographing Requiem and how, out of this period of research and development in South Africa with fellow artists Warren Petersen and Robyn Walker, this has sparked another artistic response to the themes of the work including a short dance film and series of photographs shot in the Cederberg Mountains.
The early creative research and development for Requiem took place in South Africa, the place of my birth. After returning to the ‘Mother City’ of Cape Town in 2022, I started working with the Jazzart Dance Theatre training programme in March. That May, along with the team there, we chose eight dancers from the graduate dance programme to form a professional dance. During this time Jazzart Dance Theatre were busily engaged in various new productions and performances with little time to focus on a new work for 2023. However, we carved out some time in between productions to research some initial movement material with the dancers in the studio. This created the spark to set the work into motion in preparation for my return to the UK where the process would officially begin with Phoenix Dance Theatre in late January 2023.
Initially it was difficult to create movement to Mozart’s Requiem – it is such a complete and overwhelming piece of music that you can just end up listening to it and, before you know it, an hour has passed. I would create a few movements to one of the pieces but continually felt something was missing from my first steps and early approach to the work. I questioned the essence of the movements and tried to see how the body could convey the enormity of loss, grief and sadness felt and experienced by millions of people who have lost those dearest to them.
Everything pointed towards needing to go back to the beginning and the need to start from scratch. I consulted with my collaborative partner, creative consultant and fine artist Warren Petersen, and we discussed themes associated with the natural cycles of nature: how death and life are intertwined, how nothing is lost as it naturally returns to the soil to regenerate again, and how this cycle is best experienced within a natural landscape. We conceptualised a creative research trip and, together with photographer and film-maker Robyn Walker, we embarked on a creative journey inspired by the themes of Requiem. This journey took us to the Cederberg Mountains, located about 4hrs drive from Cape Town in the Western Cape.
(The choreography and capture of this dance film formed part of the R&D process for Requiem. The Requiem double bill will be performed by dancers from Phoenix Dance Theatre and Jazzart Dance Theatre and Dane Hurst will not be performing on stage.)
The trip to the Cederberg was focused around capturing the spirit, energy and fragility of the human body found alone within the vast and open landscape; exposed to the elements with only the first few bars of the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem as the stimulus. The Lacrimosa translates to ‘on that day there will be tears’ and is positioned as track no. 8 within the Requiem. It is symbolic of infinity, serving as the awakening, the first breath, which is a continuation of the last. In life there are tears of joy at birth and tears of sorrow at death, so, in essence, it is a return to the beginning.
The unfolding and awakening dance was like emerging from a deep sleep, an inner cocoon, a sacred space. It was a return to the centre – to the beginning – in a reconnection with source energy, a life-giving vibration present within the landscape where nothing dies, and everything lives in cycles and symbiosis.
The initial capturing of this short dance film led to the creation of a growing body of work which will form part of a new exhibition entitled ‘Sacred Space’, featuring photography and film by Robyn Walker and fine art by Warren Petersen. This work was to me an opening, a sacred ritual that caused the channels of creativity and spirit to flow and has served as the nucleus and source material for my research into the creation of Requiem: Journeys of the soul.
The first proper creation and rehearsal process started a few months after the initial trip to the Cederberg and, as a result, the movement material was charged, changed and almost developed a life of its own. I created the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ which remains largely unchanged, and developed sections of ‘Dies Irae’, ‘Confutatis’,‘Recordare’ and ‘Offertorirum: a. Domine Jesu’ in South Africa with the Jazzart dancers in December 2022. Video recordings of these were sent to Phoenix Rehearsal Director Mbulelo Ndabeni to rehearse with the Phoenix dancers ahead of my arrival back to the UK at the end of January 2023.
We’ve just completed our first phase of rehearsals in Leeds and are currently on a short break before I travel back to South Africa. There I will continue the creative process and finish the response piece, which makes up the second half of the double bill, which is set to new music by South African composer Neo Muyanga entitled After Tears: After a Requiem. Once the work has been created the next, and final, stage in South Africa will be to return to the natural landscape with all of the dancers and the choreographed dance to complete the cycle and perform a ritual of thanks for the initial creative burst of vital energy that set off the creative process in the beginning.
I am looking forward to the arrival of the Jazzart dancers in Leeds in April and coming together with the full chorus, orchestra, design and tech teams from Opera North in May to complete the production ahead of opening night on 26 May.
Header image & Sacred Space video © Robyn Walker