Preview: COAL choreographer Gary Clarke – 'It felt like the right time to create a dance work which looked at the mining industry'
Growing up in a Yorkshire village Clarke was at the sharp end of the miners' strike, here he talks about his homage to the communities still hurting
In 1994, Grimethorpe in Yorkshire was listed as the poorest village in England, a direct result of the decision to close its colliery a year earlier. Growing up in the village during the 1980s, choreographer Gary Clarke was surrounded by turmoil as his community battled to save its livelihood. Today, his powerful dance work COAL pays tribute to the people who were quite literally at the coalface during that time – and are still living with the consequences today.
'COAL is a very personal work and I see it somewhat as an autobiography,' says Clarke. 'I've always been very connected to Grimethorpe, where I still live, although it's a very different village to how it was back then. I was only a child at the time of the miners' strike, but still have vivid memories.'
It wasn't until Clarke was older, however, that he realised just how much his village had suffered during 1984, and how the strike – and ultimate pit closure some years later – has shaped future generations. COAL started life as a small production in 2009, but in 2014, with the 30th anniversary of the strike looming, Clarke revisited the piece.
'It felt like the right time to create a dance work which looked at the mining industry,' he says. 'I wanted it to act as a mark of respect and add to the coal mining legacy that is too easily being forgotten. I felt as if contemporary dance was being shaped into a very conservative way of thinking, so I wanted to create a piece which was typically working class and told the stories and views of real people.'
To support his own experience, Clarke interviewed ex-coal miners and their families, collected photographs, videos, stories and artefacts to create the backbone of the piece. The story of the strike had been covered before many times, through television, film and theatre, but at that point never through contemporary dance (Mark Baldwin has since choreographed a work for Rambert on the subject), so Clarke was keen to explore how the story could be conveyed through movement.
'I began by looking at the typical day of a coal miner and their family,' explains Clarke, 'domestic scenes, the act of work, the social element and the strike. I very much wanted to tell the story through physicality as much as I could, but didn't want to abstract it too much or change something that was so steeped in history and legacy. I knew the work had to tell a story and I couldn't over complicate it, yet at the same time I tried to pack it to the brim with startling images and intricate choreography.'
Authenticity was paramount, as was making the work accessible to all – especially those who had experienced the strike first hand.
'The piece is about the resilience of a community, the spirit and camaraderie,' says Clarke. 'How people can come together to fight for what they believe in and then ultimately be crushed. Yes, times move on but my village, along with many others, is still suffering badly and the scars run deep. So when ex-coal miners and their families come to see COAL, it's guaranteed there's not a dry eye in the house.'
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