A (working) Class Act
Image copyright Joe Armitage
An interview with Gary Clarke, by Lou Cope
LC: So, Gary Clarke, for this issue of the South East Dance newsletter we are talking about ‘identity’ and how it shapes practice. If I describe you as a white, working class, gay choreographer – is that acceptable?
GC: I would say that I am a lower working class gay dance artist.
LC: Ah – ‘lower’. Ok! Well, having worked with you a number of times, most recently on COAL – may I ask, how does your identity feed into your work?
GC: What sets me aside from many other choreographers, I think - I’m not sure, is that my work differs all the time. It constantly shifts through different subject matters. It depends what piece I’m making and each piece requires a different approach and a different side of me. All my work does not require the same attachment.
LC: Yes and you’ve done shows about art – that may be considered quite ‘high art’, and you’ve done shows about life – like COALwhich was about the miners’ strike, or shows about your personal life and so on. But within that it seems to me that your signature practice is some sort of accessibility. People understand it.
GC: Yes, because my audience are my main focal point when I make work and I have to constantly see things from an audience’s point of view. I make work FOR audiences, that’s very clear. And I make work that audiences from ALL backgrounds can easily access. I always say that I don’t tend to make abstract work. I tend to make work that is clear in its context or it has some sort of communication at its heart. And that’s why I also work very visually, and why costume and the visual art is very important - so it can work visually as well as physically. So, yes the audience is at the heart of what I do and my work is generally about social and popular culture.
LC: And do you think that that is part of, or partly in response to, your identity?
GC: Yes. I originally accessed dance and art by it being a coping mechanism. It wasn’t a privilege, or a luxury – it was something I had to do to help me get through what was essentially an incredibly hard upbringing. My entrance into the arts came from life - not anything else – so I tend to interrogate that through my work.
LC: Can you say a little bit more about that?
GC: I grew up in Grimethorpe in the early 80’s when the coal mines got closed down. As a result of that my village imploded in on itself and with that came depression, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and arson. It was a horrible time, especially for a young gay artist.
LC: You were how old at this point?
GC: When the strike happened I was five – so I started making work at five actually!
LC: Oh wow! Do you remember your first ‘piece’?
GC: It wasn’t dance when I first started. I used to do baton twirling. I used to create installations. I used to take a torch into my bedroom and create shadows, puppetry, and light shows to music – all for my own gratification – there was no audience – no-one ever came to see it. I was in my bedroom creating art and the world outside was going crazy. So it was a coping mechanism. That's why I feel my work doesn't come from an academic place - I just know what works for me and what doesn’t – it’s always a gut feeling.
LC: So you have developed a well-honed instinct about what works for you… Do you remember when the audience first became important for you?
GC: I used to go to the local disco and dance. But really dance. Sweat dripping off me, people going ‘Oh my God – who is THAT!?’ In the coal mining village of Grimethorpe where most men and boys were playing football or were in the coal mines – I was pounding around the dance floor and would get applauded. They saw me as a beacon. I somehow brought a glimmer of hope to what essentially was a broken and destroyed community. So then I understood an audience. I used to hold my own assemblies at school, and get the whole school to attend. And the school would ALLOW me to do it. Can you believe it? They’d whoop and cheer and clap, so I decided that my shows should get longer and longer. I was about 14. It was at this point I knew I belonged in the arts. From that point on people encouraged me to keep going, and yes, I’m driven by all of this. My work somehow has to communicate it, or at least carry its energy.
LC: Ok, so now to bring you up to date: as a ‘white, lower working class gay man’… how is that in this industry?
GC: The older I’m getting and the more I understand the industry the clearer my identity becomes. I’m not from a privileged background, and I somehow want to communicate that more and more now. I want to carve out a new way of looking at being a choreographer or a dancer, or making work, and how this can carry a different identity. That’s why when I was making COAL it HAD to be totally working class. I somehow had to find a way, through movement, costume and sound, of it looking and feeling like a working class show. Like you often see in theatre – but to do it through dance. Which NEVER happens. To my knowledge that’s not been done. And I thought 'well if there is anyone that can do it, I think it’s me'. So I attempted to create a working class dance piece on the mid-scale. And I think I achieved it.
LC: Yes – and after an extremely successful preview earlier this year – it’s going to premiere and tour next year.
GC: Subject to funding - yes, nationwide from February.
LC: What can you tell us about it?
GC: COAL is a full length work marking 30 years since the end of the 1984/85 British miners’ strike. It acts as mark of respect to the many men and families who lost their lives and jobs to the coal fields. It is an attempt at continuing a legacy and keeping alive a time in British history that changed the fabric of our society. The show has 7 professional performers, a live brass colliery band and women from local coal mining communities; it felt wrong to make a work about community and not involve them. I am very proud of the work and think it needs to be seen.
LC: And you combine contemporary choreography with some 80’s pop culture, some social dance, and some hard-going political news footage, all at the same time as giving the audience a good night out. Is combining these elements also important to you?
GC: For sure. I’m telling one story – but I tell it a number of different ways. That’s why there’s something for all types of audiences!
LC: Great, and next – do you know what the next iteration of this identity of yours might be?
GC: No, I don’t actually. COAL is what I want to say at the moment, and I’m just looking forward to touring it.
LC: Can’t wait to see it out there. Thank you Gary.
To find out more about COAL and Gary’s work visit his website.