Simone Kenyon: 'There's definitely a growing interest in women discussing and celebrating their experiences in the mountains'

Simone Kenyon: 'There's definitely a growing interest in women discussing and celebrating their experiences in the mountains'

Simone Kenyon, Into The Mountain rehearsals, 2018 / Courtesy of the artist and Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Photo by Lucy Cash

Artist and choreographer discusses her new live artwork, inspired by Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain

'There's something about the way Nan Shepherd writes that really stood out to me,' says artist and choreographer Simone Kenyon. 'A few years ago I was working on a project about women and walking so I was reading a lot of nature writing – stuff about hillwalking and mountaineering. Someone recommended The Living Mountain and I'd never read anything like it.' Shepherd wrote it during the Second World War but couldn't get it published, so it lay unread for another thirty years before Aberdeen University Press printed it. Shepherd's description of her walks in the Cairngorm Mountains, a world previously only mapped out by men, is considered a masterpiece, not just of modernist prose, but of feminist nature writing. It's why the face of the English lecturer and keen gardener now looks off into the distance on Scottish five pound notes.

'The Living Mountain was the only female account I'd read of the Cairngorms,' explains Kenyon, 'but it's also written in a very poetic way. She's able to describe walking across a very high plateau in a way that makes it seem very possible. She talks very matter of factly about the dangers of the mountains; she includes all the facts and figures and science, but weaves in passages about her own self development, always coming back to her own bodily experience. Or what she calls, "Walking the flesh transparent".'

After receiving funding from Creative Scotland amongst other places, Kenyon has developed a work inspired by Shepherd's writing and in collaboration with hundreds of women living around the Cairngorms. Into the Mountain, produced by the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, is the culmination of a year-long programme of talks and events. Over three days, groups of ten will be taken on a guided walk into Glenfeshie (an area written about by Shepherd) where they'll watch five female dancers (Jo Hellier, Claricia Parinussa, Caroline Reagh, Keren Smail and Petra Söör) accompanied by music. Artist Hanna Tuulikki's new score will be performed by a choir of women who responded to an open callout for singers, and led by vocalist Lucy Duncombe.

'Hanna specialises in nature and birds so her music – and the women's voices – adds in those ethereal, otherworldly elements from Nan's writing. Hanna, Lucy and the choir have been rehearsing for several months and I think their sounds will bring something mystical and magical.'

Simone Kenyon: 'There's definitely a growing interest in women discussing and celebrating their experiences in the mountains'

Simone Kenyon, Into The Mountain (2019) / Courtesy of the artist and Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Photo by Lucy Cash

Kenyon's choreography is inspired not only by Shepherd's book, but by bodyweather – a dance training style and philosophy developed by Japanese dancer Min Tanaka on his farm in Japan during the 80s.

'I suppose it's about how the environment around you makes you move. How hot or cold it is, for example. Bodyweather is practised by a lot of non-dancers who like the way it makes you hyper-aware of feelings in your body.'

Kenyon describes the dancers' movements as 'abstract and spacious'. She's been rehearsing with them on the mountain over the last few weeks – sometimes in hot sunlight, sometimes in harsh hailstorms.

'The culture around walking in the Cairngorms is changing. At first a lot of women got in touch, saying they were the only woman in their walking group. There's definitely a growing interest in women discussing and celebrating their experiences in the mountains.'

Kenyon's next project is a short film about the project commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland, to be premiered in September.

'There's no way I'd have had the confidence to go out on my own, in the winter, six years ago,' Kenyon says. 'The book has led me on a bit of a journey. We want the walkers to go on one too – they're not just going to watch a performance, their personal experience is very part of it too.'

Into the Mountain, Cairngorms, Scotland, Thu 30 May–Sun 2 Jun. intothemountain.co.uk

Into the Mountain

Guided walk and place-sensitive dance performance from Simone Kenyon, inspired by the writing of Nan Shepherd.

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