Walking Stories: A Journey into Sustainability

Choreographer Charlotte Spencer shares an insight into her latest project, Walking Stories - an audio walk for parks, and why environmental sustainability is important to her practice.

When did climate change and the environment become important themes for you and your work?

I grew up in the countryside and although as a teenager I was desperate to move to the city, spending time in nature was the way that I dealt with stress. Whilst training at London Contemporary Dance School (2000-2003), I lived with people who were passionate about protecting the environment. My world opened up rapidly to the realities of climate change. But for several more years my dancing world and my evolving outlook on life remained fairly separate.

In 2007- 8 I moved to Ireland to take up a yearlong residency with Daghdha Dance in Limerick. I made a pledge to stop taking short-haul flights and instead travelled between Limerick and London by train and ferry. It took 12 hours. I became interested in the process of being on a journey, amongst a changing landscape. I can trace a consistent line of choreographic enquiry from this time onwards: work that rises from the landscape; that seeks to question ideas about journey, presence, time and shared experience.

Sometimes, people say to me ‘oh so you’re an environmental artist’. I’m unsure how to answer: in a time of uncertain economic stability and a rapidly changing natural world, I feel strongly that all people need to be environmentalists. It is therefore important that the entire process of developing my work gives careful consideration to its sustainability - environmentally, economically and socially. Far beyond the content of the work, this is imperative in how the work is rehearsed, constructed, realised and distributed. If the work itself endeavours to enable deeper connection to self, community and natural environments for its audience, then the process of creation needs to endeavour to live by those connections also.

I don’t really make work ‘about climate change’. I try to deal with climate change in my every day life and that of course includes my work life. We experience life most immediately through our body. It constantly reminds us that we are alive, and witnesses and responds to all other life. By inviting people into closer relationships with their moving bodies, changing landscapes and with others, I hope we make a contribution to this process of re-connection and change.

How did the idea for 'Walking Stories' develop?

During Summer 2011, I had been dancing in Amsterdam and then attended the final meeting of a project in Santiago di Compostela. Straight to Hamburg for a residency and then to Grenoble for another. Traveling by train or hitch-hiking. (Train when there was funding, hitching when there wasn’t.) Lots of long journeys. Lots of landscapes. By the end of our time in Grenoble, I’d run out of steam.

My collaborators left and I had a spare day, so I walked from the city out into the mountains. During that walk I realised how useful I found walking as a way of thinking. It made me curious to create a work through the process of being on a physical journey rather than in a studio; and to create a work that was itself a journey.

This intention was jumbled up with a delight in treasure hunts, an audio walk in the New Forest made by Tom Spencer (my brother and longtime sound collaborator), a desire to blur the edges between performance, performer, spectator, stage and life, and a determination to make a work that was portable, tourable, and economically viable. These were the departure points for Walking Stories: a group audio walk for parks.

WALKING STORIES by CHARLOTTE SPENCER PROJECTS from Dance Umbrella on Vimeo.

Working with a remarkable collection of artists, an extraordinary time ensued. There were many months of not much sleep and lots of crawling around a long sheet of paper with all the scripts stuck to it, calling out time codes to the sound artists at 3am and cycling 3000km across England and France. I was repeatedly asked why we were cycling all this way. What did it have to do with Walking Stories? For me the connection was always clear.

In order to design a journey through a landscape for our audience, I felt that we, the creators needed to be on a journey together. A long one. To remain in the landscape and feel the work seeping into us, not just think about it in a ‘brainy’ way from the bubble of a studio. We took our walk for a cycle, that wound its way back and forth across the south of England and then through France ending back in Grenoble. We remained in the landscape, close to the ground. A little community - camping, eating, sleeping and working together. It made our legs stronger and our bodies tired. We made Walking Stories.

What do you hope people will take away from the piece?

The walk quietly calls us into the present moment with our bodies and our actions - we do not sit and spectate; we do it. Old people, young children, teenagers from all walks of life come and somehow it is relevant for them all. It is an opportunity to slow down and to watch, to play and to run, to wander and get lost; to make intricate choices in time and space - to choreograph.

I think it allows you a little breathing time and space outside of your usual busyness. I hope it brings you closer to the places you travel through. I wonder if it changes your thoughts or experience of yourself. The edge between performance, performer, spectator, stage and life all get whirled up and no two walks are ever the same. Without you there isn’t a show, so come and find us in a park somewhere.

Walking Stories, Charlotte Spencer Projects. Image credit: Pari Naderi.

What are your top tips for artists interested in working on environmental issues?

I guess I’m less interested in pointing a finger at the problem(s) and more interested in allowing us all to find our own interest in carving a path that confronts the environmental and climatic challenges that we face today. That we all face and that we face together.

With a global system that broadly exploits its resources (its people and its land) in search of profits, I feel great need for us take responsibility for ourselves, our communities and our shared space. This can feel like an insurmountable task, but for me creative expression as a means for building connection and community, is an essential ingredient in looking for a way forward in such uncertain times.

Finally, what's next for you?

I’m working on a new and pretty substantial project, Is this A Wasteland? (ITAWL) We’re hoping that this project will evolve into an interactive performance work designed specifically for two contrasting sites: an urban industrial wasteland space and a forest.

Wastelands are at the centre of conflicts around cultural, economic and historical priorities and wasteland spaces are considered of no value until developed. I want to work precisely in these places to acknowledge the value of what thrives there; to participate in conversations about how we might (re)imagine and animate our future spaces as we question ideas of progress and strive for more sustainable models of living.

Is This A Waste Land, Charlotte Spencer Projects. Image Credit: Pari Naderi.

Walking Stories will be part of Dance Umbrella in London from 17th - 31st October 2015. There will be 35 opportunities to join the walk across 15 days in four different parks in London.

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