Like the last moments of a crane fly, a dancer extinguishes amongst their accumulated stuff. All of it left behind.
I devised this short film with choreographer and dancer Kate Ross. It was commissioned for the Britain in Song Festival, and funded by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. It was video projected during live performances of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Three Shakespeare Songs’ at the festival itself, and on a concert tour of mainland China and Hong Kong in 2014.
When directing video for live projection, you have to judge when, how, and why you might steal focus from the performers. Also, having live human presence alongside a film permits longer, more meditative shots, so you don’t feel that the action has stalled when narrative dots don’t connect as they usually would in a movie; it’s a different grammar. As such, I conceived of a video in three acts: the first permits focus on the choir, slowly revealing the items discarded around a deconsecrated church in Leeds. The second act steals attention, showing the birth and death of the dancer. The third is a long-held shot of the expired body amongst their things, handing attention back to the choir.
When directing video projections for plays and concerts – particularly revivals – I don’t want want to steamroller works that are already fully-crafted, that have traditionally stood on their own. There must be synthesis if you’re to add film to the experience.
On receiving this commission, I entered a brief email correspondence with Hugh Cobbe OBE of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. I learned that Williams had set Shakespeare texts to music throughout his life, and that these three were his last attempts. I was given blessing to interpret the underlying connection between his chosen Shakespeare verses in my own way.
I started with the texts. Williams has chosen two excerpts from The Tempest, and one from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The first, ‘Full Fathom Five’, has Ariel misleadingly tell Ferdinand that his father has died in a shipwreck, describing the ‘sea-change’ from life to death. The second song takes Prospero’s ‘Cloud-Capp’d Towers’ speech, which closes with the line: ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’. Both of these songs can be thematically linked by lifespan, and the transition to death. But the third song is quite different: ‘Over Hill, Over Dale’ is spoken by a fairy, describing the interventions they make in the human world. Williams’ composition for this is, well, a lot jollier than the previous two songs. It reminds me a folk dance, of the energetic movement of bodies, of community, and the consumption of alcohol. It also reminds me of another moment from the same play: the fairy Puck says ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be’.
This third piece, contrasted with the first two, seems to rebel against the death that they’ve described. Most, if not all, of us are terrified of the end of life, and elect to be ignorant and foolish when it comes to our short lifespan. I focussed on this. The film shows pleasure, abundance, and learning, alongside momento mori such as ripening fruit, cut bread and – of course – a skull. The dancer is the wordly human life that will inevitably burn out, but pretends this will never happen.
Are we really all fools? Life is quite enjoyable if you don’t think about its end.