The Making of Dance Me To Death With Eight Other Older Dancers

The Making of Dance Me To Death With Eight Other Older Dancers

Rose Rouse, creator of the Dance Me to Death performance

I co-founded Advantages of Age – – which is a social enterprise that challenges stereotypes around ageing and re-imagines getting older. I had my first poetry pamphlet published when I was 64. I strive to do personally what we campaign for. We are also death activists in that we are forming a library of resources around death and dying including an hour-long film, Death Dinner where a group of death professionals – from a pathologist to a death rituals expert – discuss what a good death might look like.

I’m also passionate about dance – mostly the freer forms of dance like 5 Rhythms which I’ve done for over thirty years. When I saw the work of FUBUNATION – contemporary dancers and choreographers, Rhys Dennis and Waddah Sinada – which is an intimate deconstruction of black masculinity, I was instantly drawn to working with them. It was the way they worked with trust and courage and where they were daring to go, that attracted me. And the idea of an intergenerational project and the gifts therein.

Fortunately, Rhys and Waddah were enthused by the community aspect of this performance with older dancers. I envisaged a group of older dancers – all Over 60 – leaning into death and dying with a raw openness. The idea was to create a live performance in Kensal Green Cemetery, one of the Victorian Magnificent Seven in London as well as a performance specifically for camera on another date. With live musicians – cello and percussion.

Eventually – on my second application – I received the funding from Arts Council England to go ahead. I’m keen on collaboration so was excited by working with Rhys and Waddah. And remember this was in April 2021 when lockdown was still very much in place. I liked the effect we had on each other. They organised the movement-based audition for the dancers and I suggested that we also have a chat with everyone. For me, this was vital. I needed to know that they would be committed to the morning workshops on death and dying which, I was going to lead. Rhys and Waddah may have thought it a little strange but they agreed, and this exchange really helped establish who would work well together in terms of a group.

And there were some funny intergenerational moments! I was 68, Rhys and Waddah were in their late 20s and early 30s – we made an unusual trio. When I managed to find a great, light hall to rehearse in – we three went to see it together. I exclaimed happily about the toilet being in the hall. I wasn’t really meaning that I was ecstatic to have a toilet, I just hadn’t noticed it before. Rhys and Waddah thought this was hilarious. Of course, I had to declare that this was a misunderstanding in no uncertain terms. I refused to be a toilet-needing older.

We started rehearsing in May, the live performance was in June and the filming took place separately over two days in June and Sept (we had a weather and a timing issue). During the mornings, I led work around death and dying. There was a non-religious shrine that we created in the corner every time in order to increase the ritual atmosphere in the space. We warmed up then sat in a circle. The first week, I invited everyone to bring an object that reminded them of someone that they wanted to honour who had died. We went around the circle talking about that person. There were photos, books, a necklace of shells. And at the end, we got up in silence and placed them on the altar. It was moving, personal and challenging. This process – which we repeated with different themes every week – built up an extraordinary level of trust between us. Rhys and Waddah – being young – were aware that they didn’t have as much to share about death but were forever keen to join in and also listen. Rhys even said he learnt information about Waddah that he hadn’t known before because of theses circles. These mornings included talking about grief, creating an International Grief ritual, writing a poem, researching local people who had died from Covid, discussing what qualities we’d need for a ‘good’ death.

In afternoons – there were only six-day workshops and a technical rehearsal – the musicians, Fran Loze and percussionist, Mark Fisher arrived. Now Rhys and Waddah set about making the performance out of the emotional vocabulary of the mornings. Many of us older dancers – our oldest member is 74 – do 5 Rhythms dancing as a practice which really helped with building intimacy and improvising. Our challenge was structure and counting beats. Fortunately, we had one semi-professional member, Bruce Currie, who really helped with that beat backbone.

We were introduced to new terms to us like flocking where we were encouraged to move around the room changing our leader and movements almost imperceptibly by the end. This increased our spatial awareness of each other. It also contributed distinctive pieces of choreography which started to make up the piece. But Rhys and Waddah also focused on the experiential nature of the workshops in order to increase our confidence and enjoyment. There was a gradual gathering of content. There were duets that we created ourselves from Rhys and Waddah’s ‘you move, I move’ directions. A couple of them made it into the performance.

It was a steep learning curve. We were mostly older dancers who’d never performed in public and never with this kind of structure. But everyone’s total commitment enabled it to happen. There were difficult moments – like the first day of filming which was before the actual live performance and was too early in our evolution to actually enjoy or do well. There was learning in it. That day of filming should have been put in later. Thank goodness we had a second day of filming where we had the dance much more in our bones and blood so we relished the movement this time.

The live performance day in Kensal Green cemetery was a fine day. We were very much dependent on the weather. It was an outside performance where there were still Covid restrictions in place. We were blessed with the weather. And fortunately, we all rose to the occasion with the exquisite care of Rhys and Waddah. We rehearsed in the morning with the musicians and flowed into the afternoon with a sell out performance. It was without a doubt one of the best days of my life. We were dressed in burnished oranges and reds set against the grandeur of the Anglican Chapel columns and there was an initial procession where we carried objects that honoured our dead loved ones. The movements felt like a death ritual and a celebration of life. Many members of the audience found themselves crying.

The filming had a different quality as the director Marlon Rouse Tavares and cinematographer, Pablo Rojo, wanted to use different areas of the cemetery to film in so that we really felt into the wonder and sumptuousness of this particular graveyard. And then there were our voice-overs where we talked about our feelings around death and dying in a very open way. I was so grateful to the dancers for being so honest and unafraid.

Finally, I had one very proud moment when Rhys and Waddah were telling us that they’d been discussing this project with their professional partners and family. They said that people often assumed that because we were Over-60 that we were frail. ‘They would be so surprised at the depth of your movements here,’ he added. This is exactly the sort of stereotype that Dance Me To Death and Advantages of Age are disproving.

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