What makes a dance company perform with a JCB? And how do you turn a giant machine into a graceful dance partner? Motionhouse dance company do just that in their new show, EXO, at Bell Square this week, and tell us a little more about it below.
Motionhouse are one of the UK’s most established dance companies, having produced both indoor and outdoor shows for 30 years. They have an athletic, high impact style and regularly mix dance with circus, physical theatre and music.
This was the company that brought BLOCK to Bell Square in 2016 - dancers and circus performers leaping off giant Jenga blocks, high in the air, all performed to a pulsating sound track!
But Motionhouse are probably most famous for their performances with JCBs – dancing with diggers! They have been making these unique shows since 2004.
Dancing with diggers
Chatting with their Artistic Director, Kevin Finnan, I asked him what had initially attracted him to the idea of bringing a JCB into a dance piece! He said, ‘I was very interested in where we are going in the future as a species. I wanted to look at how, in the future, humans will be integrated with machines. Everybody thinks about the film ‘Minority Report’ or having your body physically augmented, but I was fascinated by how a massive machine and a human could work as one – and I knew it would be exciting to watch: a dancer, a machine (and a driver).’
This combination of ‘man and machine’ has continued to stimulate his imagination ever since. ‘Just like with a dancer, with a machine, you have to discover its movement language. With every show we do, we learn more about what dancers and machines can do together. Every show moves us on in the language and the relationship between the two. New exciting possibilities every time!’
I remember seeing one of these shows back in 2011. It was called Waiting Game and the JCB acted as the waiter for a couple at a table in a restaurant. It was an amazing show with playful interactions between the digger and the dancers, and beautiful moments where the dancers were carried in graceful arcs high in the air. But in the new show, EXO, created this summer, the dancers and the JCB do seem truly connected – dancers and machine as one.
The shows are equally exciting for the dancers and the JCB drivers. In an article for The Guardian (20 August 2015), JCB driver Kev Burrow talked passionately about the process and possibilities of the collaboration. ‘As a JCB operator who has worked with machines for most of my professional life on construction and demolition sites, I thought I knew what they were capable of. But collaborating with the dance company Motionhouse has opened my eyes. It’s made me truly understand the beauty of dance – and broadened my JCB operating skills.’
‘The contrast of scale between machine and human, as well as the aerial versus ground-based work, is a beautiful combination. Turning a machine that is often perceived as oversized and ungainly into a graceful dance partner is inspiring – especially when I see that the audience are genuinely moved; from where I sit in the cab, I can see their reactions and emotions. The machines become gentle giants that extend their mechanical arms to lift and hold the performers. This tender relationship is what makes it so poignant.’
Making a new ‘digger show’
When Motionhouse look for a new dancer, they want people who are brave, skilful and willing to try things out. All of their dancers have added to their skills whilst working with the company – whether it be aerial performance, acrobatics or hanging off the bucket of a JCB digger! Kevin wants his dancers to be part of the creative team, so they can be fellow artists who create and develop the show with him. Whilst the idea for a new show always comes from Kevin as the choreographer, he then works closely with the team to develop the idea and create the different elements, including the dance, the costumes and the music.
And this collaboration also includes the JCB driver. Kev Burrow says, ‘I’ve known Kevin Finnan, the Artistic Director of Motionhouse, since 2005 when he first asked me to be involved in a show. I was impressed by his eye for detail, his creativity, and his ability to see potential in everyone, including me. He has always treated me as one of the team. I’m made to feel like an artist and the company’s kindness and support is extremely touching. It’s like being part of a family; you gain each other’s trust which is so important in this kind of work.’
I talked to Kevin about how, as Artistic Director, he brought the dancers and the digger together in making the latest show, EXO. He says, ‘I now have experienced dancers and very experienced drivers who have worked together before, so I allowed the performers to experiment together on material, and then I just fashioned it into what I wanted to say. The machine shows are a lot of fun, we all enjoy them! They are so pleasing to such a wide audience – from grandparents to grandchildren and everyone in between. They are a pleasure to make!’
And audiences all over the world have proven that they are also a pleasure to watch!
Come and see EXO by Motionhouse at Bell Square on Saturday, 3 November. There are 2 performances, at 1.00pm and again at 3.00pm.
And let us know what you think on social media using the #BellSquareLDN hash tag!