WE ARE GRACEFOOL
Monday 31st July 2017
I came across the Gracefool Collective during one of those three-in-the-morning-can’t-sleep-need-dance internet binges, that I’m sure are common enough to all dance junkies. I’ve seen plenty of traditional ballet over the years—and although there is always something mind-blowing about watching the sheer skill of the English National Ballet, for example—I was searching for something a bit different. I wasn’t disappointed by my find.
I met up with the Gracefools—Kate, Sofia, Rachel and Rebecca—at a Malaysian restaurant in Euston. Since they are all female performers, I am required as a journalist to describe their glamorous but effortless appearance in impeccable detail, and to mention, almost immediately, their marital status and how many children they have—because we all know that female artists wont be taken seriously if they don’t look and act the part. However, luckily for me, Gracefool’s newest piece This Really Is Too Much takes issue with the two-dimensional constructions of women commonly depicted in art and everyday life. The performance follows the narratives of four women, each of whom fulfil and then quickly dismantle the female stereotypes they represent. The female body becomes increasingly exhausted over the course of the hour long production, as it is constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over and over again. This Really Is Too Much is a psychological and physical breakdown of female objectification, that is both deeply powerful and pants-wettingly funny.
Gracefool are a contemporary dance quartet based in Leeds. They combine dance with physical theatre and comedy to create, what they’ve described themselves as, ‘post-intellectual-pseudo-spiritual-feminist-comedy-dance for the modern day era’. This tagline, pulled directly from their website, first attracted me to their production of This Really Is Too Much. These dancers rebel against the nonsensical notion that women simply aren’t funny, or that dance has to be “pretty”. Instead, their work uses powerful satire, elaborate costume changes and raucous comedy to challenge preconceived notions of femininity, and deconstructs consumerist, corporate and cultural representations of the female body. As well as their dance productions, Gracefool also run workshops and masterclasses based on creative practice; combining physical theatre, clowning, movement and comedy to create performance.
The collective first met at Northern, where they studied contemporary dance together. Sofia tells me, ‘I was in a group with Kate, she borrowed a pen from me, and it continued that way ever since’. ‘We have similar styles’, Kate continues, ‘I think it was a little bit of a rebellion against the dryness of traditional dance. I think we discovered that we liked utilising other types of art forms, not just sticking to pure dance. That was maybe the thing that bought us together, using theatre and text and speech and comedy and making each other laugh, and being able to break out of the mould of pure contemporary dance, which I think by the end we all got vaguely disillusioned with’. They explained that they choose to stay in Leeds after graduating, and decided to continue working together as a collective, rather than head down to London like most of their peers: ‘When you are graduating, everyone is freaking out about what they are going to do next. We were working on this project together and we had some support from the West Yorkshire Playhouse even before we graduated, so it made sense to do something together. It felt quite safe—“I know I like working with these people, we aren’t really sure what we want to do, but lets help each other out”. We thought instead of competing for the few opportunities that are out there, lets do it together, and it helped at that point to share the workload. I think we managed to do much more because of it’.
‘No one in Leeds was really doing what we were doing, so we benefitted from being there’, Rachel explains, ‘things were coming our way, and we’ve been lucky with all the support from organisations like West Yorkshire Playhouse and Yorkshire Dance. Very early on we got on a scheme called Catapult, that takes one artist or one group of artists and mentors them for a year and gives them additional management. So we were then able to actually just play around in the studio and figure out what we wanted to do, and that was the very beginning of the piece that you saw. It started off very differently, with us running around in pants and skirts and hoping that something came of it. But as time went by, we worked out how to make our studio time more productive, and we’re still learning. It still feels like early days in many ways, but we have definitely made something that we feel very proud of. We are gradually building up this piece (This Really Is Too Much). Originally we started with a twenty-five minute version and performed it at a number of venues. It went down really well. We then did a small tour of that version in a double bill with the Red Ladder Theatre Company. So we’ve had this gradual build, and we’re now at this point where we have this piece and the Underbelly Untapped feels like another hopefully, if we do Edinburgh right and work really hard, it might help us to access the next step. So it’s a lot of scrabbling around, as the opportunities come you hope that you can take them and piece together the next part’.
When first performing the longer version of This Really Is Too Much, which is now an hour long piece, they thought ‘it felt very dark. We weren’t sure whether we were just in a very dark place because we were very tired and potentially a bit over worked. But what we find is that we understand a bit more about the work by performing it, because actually it interacts with the audience in a particular way. It relies a lot on their reactions, and what they take from what we are doing, and so Edinburgh will be a good chance to really feel how this longer version sits and whether the piece works’. It was an important move for the group to produce a longer piece: ‘we’ve done twenty-five minute pieces before, and it was the next big step in our professional career to do a longer piece’, Rebecca tells me, ‘it felt like practically we needed an hour long piece if we were ever going to do a show by ourselves, because people wouldn’t pay for an evening out at the theatre to come and watch something that was twenty-five minutes. We couldn’t really do a double bill, because there are already four of us, so if we team up with someone else it would become very expensive’.
This Really Is Too Much is a very political piece, its daring in its critique of female narratives, and tries to tell new stories with the female body. Kate states ‘I don’t think we started out with the idea that we wanted to make a political work, as Rachel said we started out putting hats on and rolling around in skirts. We had nothing at the beginning of it. But the politics behind the show is something we all feel really strongly about and talk about a lot in our spare time. We found we were spending a lot of our lunches and breaks getting very fed up and angry about things, and then we would go back to the studio and roll around in skirts. After a while, we felt that we had spent a lot of time rolling around in skirts, but that the work wasn’t really getting anywhere. We had this four days of mentoring with a choreographer called Charlotte Vincent, who is this fiery character, and one of the things that she pointed out and encouraged us, quite forcefully, to do is get our politics into our work, and not be afraid of making something that was controversial, to not be afraid to say what we really think. We found that we were being a little timid about saying anything that might be even slightly controversial in our first pieces; which had had undertones of political stuff, but they had all been very nice and palatable and accessible. I think we were scared to say anything a bit angry or that we felt strongly about. But it came out of that mentoring, and we realised that that was the thing that was making us excited and inspired, and that we had a lot to say’.
‘And I think that the stuff that makes us laugh also makes us angry’, Rachel adds, ‘sometimes the humour between us is quite dark. We spend a lot of time taking an idea that would just get more and more absurd. So I think there was that realisation that we could say something political and make people laugh and not have to lose anything. We felt like we would gain something deeper in the communication of what we were saying. It almost felt like the way for us to deal with the things that make us angry, is to laugh at them, you know undermining that power somehow. To point at how ridiculous these things are and invite an audience to laugh with you at them. I think comedy opens up the space a bit, makes it less threatening, whilst also pinpointing the issue. We have a lot of women at our shows that then have discussions with their partners that they haven’t really had before, and that’s great, that’s really exciting’.
I asked Gracefools where they wanted to take the collective, in an ideal world where funding wasn’t an object, what projects would they like to take on? ‘We have a lot of big ideas that seem like totally unfeasible because there is no money. But in an ideal world there would be a lot of larger scale projects that we would do. When we first started working together we choreographed a couple of student pieces with about thirty dancers and the second with seventeen or something like that, and we really enjoyed making those pieces. I think it would be brilliant to make a few more really large scale works. There’s stuff you can do with loads of people you just can’t do with four bodies. So it would also be nice to work with other people and utilise different bodies and styles of movement and working and different types of performers, and not necessarily just other dancers. We’ve done some community type projects and it would be interesting to also work with non trained bodies and being able to do community type projects’. Sofia continues, ‘Also in terms of what we’ve said about objectifying the body, we only have our own bodies and we are skinny white women. So there is really only so much you can say with those bodies’, adding, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t have anything to say’.
‘We’ve also been talking a lot about performing in non traditional theatre spaces, and not just providing work for theatres or being able to make site specific work. We’ve been talking a bit about rural touring and we’ve been vaguely researching stuff for a new piece with the idea in mind of using a non-traditional space. In our final year of Northern we did a lot of weird interactive, site specific type work, that were more like experiences or events for the audience, and we are also quite keen to go back to that a little bit and do more event type things. We actually have two pieces we made in our final year, that we’d maybe like to bring back at some point. One is a giant interactive auction, with a rapper as the auctioneer, and the other is a interactive office interview, where the audience gets interviewed for a sort of unexplained job. We enjoy playing with that audience participation. Lots of ideas’.
Gracefools will be performing their This Really Is Too Much at Edinburgh Fringe this August, so please go and check them out! I can assure you, in the words of Gracefool, You’ve never had it so good.