Dance Continuum – drawing dance at the Rambert Playground

St Paul’s Cathedral. August 2008. I check I have everything in place. Paper secure on the easel, sharpener, rubber, charcoal, pastels within reach. Music flows around the cathedral. Its rhythm tugs at the tourists, pulling them to the North Transept. They shuffle past, whispering and waving to friends, then take their seats, turning to look at the dancer in her ragged ochre-yellow costume. Poised, expectant, as am I. 

The dance is about to begin.

I was drawing ‘Moving Visions’ an annual dance series that Ross McKim, then director of the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance presented in St Paul’s and other cathedrals all over the country

Now, years later and under lockdown conditions, I am involved with ‘Dance Continuum’ a Virtual Gallery created in a collaboration between six visual artists and Simone Damberg Wurtz, one of the founders of the Rambert Playground.  ‘The Playground’ is a Friday evening event where choreographers, dancers, musicians  and visual artists of all kinds get together to explore their various ideas and practices at the Rambert Studios on the South Bank. 

My interest in drawing dance began at the Royal Drawing School in a class that worked with movement. We drew dancers, acrobats, wrestlers and babies. For me the class became very special, a day when I knew I would work in particular way, living ‘in the moment’,  making immediate responses to what I saw and felt. When in 2018 I first drew at The Playground I felt I was renewing a connection with dance, and the Rambert in particular, that had begun when I came across an article by Ross McKim

In the article, Ross described his experience of the ‘numinous’ and how he had developed his choreography and dance practice to make such experience available to dancers, and through their dance, to the audience. I immediately recognised his description of the numinous as akin to the ‘flow state’ I had experienced when drawing movement at the Royal Drawing School. I believe it is something about the summoning of a particular concentration,  the ‘flow state’, that gives rise to the feeling of the numinous.

An evening at the Playground begins with an introductory session where the three or four choreographers chosen for that event give a brief outline of their ideas to the assembled dancers and visual artists, enabling them to choose which choreographer they would like to work with for the next hour or two. Work begins once everyone has moved to their assigned studio. Visual artists are able to move between studios and they work in a wide variety of media, including photography and film. From the first I decided to work exclusively on my iPad, using the Procreate App.

On an iPad I work in layers, each layer like a new sheet of paper. I am a sculptor who has always done a great deal of life and landscape drawing and I think sculpture is particularly relevant to my approach to drawing dance. There is a sense in which sculpture should be dynamic and I believe it has a close relationship to dance in the way that form and weight are brought into the most emotionally significant three-dimensional relationship.

I am always very impressed by the level of ‘dance intelligence’ and this was demonstrated at the Playground by how quickly understanding and trust developed between the dance participants.  I usually began drawing immediately during the introduction and warm up process, concentrating on one or two people nearby.

Drawing on an iPad is totally unlike drawing on paper. The surface is reflective, so it cannot be used in a strong light. There is an enormous choice of ‘brushes’ including  many imitations of traditional media such as charcoal, brush pen, pencil, but the physical experience is totally different. The small surface prohibits large bodily movements, and the hand/eye co-ordination is reduced to that of a pencil, or the brush pen which I find more appropriate to the iPad.

Once in a Playground studio I need to grasp the emerging pattern of movement and decide how to respond. Should I follow one person or a group? There may be between six to thirty dancers, of all shapes and sizes, wearing singular clothing and interacting in twos or threes or moving as individuals.

The dancers warm up is a starting point. Whilst generally there is no story narrative, (such as ‘swan lake’) the work is built according to the choreographers’ interests and involves some repetition and development of movement.  Any accompanying music or sounds are vital as an entry point to the drawing project

I was still at the early stages of practice and experiment drawing dance on the iPad when Covid hit and the Playground lost its physical incarnation. I had enough time however to become interested in the use of the Procreate App’s ‘playback’ facility that creates a video of every brushstroke. I discovered I could do some basic editing of the video on my MAC, and this is leading to yet more possibilities and the necessity of more experimentation with the Playground drawing…

An Evening at the Rambert Playground

I am currently at point where I believe the iPad gives me two choices for drawing dance. I can create still printable compositions out of my layered drawings, of a generally figurative nature, the sort I might have drawn on paper. Or I can draw in a different way, a way that responds more directly to the dance experience, making marks in instantaneous time to the rhythm and feeling of the dance and the music. I can then export and edit the playback as a video.

This second option is the project I am most interested in continuing. The drawing will necessarily be faster and more abstract and the video will require careful editing to slow down or smooth out the drawn image frames. A further factor I would like to include is sound. I feel this is a very important part of the project. If I draw to a certain rhythm or sound I need to include it in the video in a meaningful way that works with the spirit of the original dance as well as the newly created moving image.

I am impatient to get back to drawing the dancers as they perform in the flesh. The Playground has moved online during Lockdown with dancers from all over the world joining in sessions facilitated by the Towards Vivencia Academy.  And now thanks to Simone Damberg Wurtz, we have created ‘Dance Continuum’ a virtual gallery showing work by myself and five other visual artists who attended the Rambert Playground.  Please visit this link to view our exhibition

Visit the Virtual Gallery Dance Continuum

Read about drawing ‘Moving Visions’