depart: dancing with the dead in tower hamlets cemetery
Imagine Thriller opium-slowed. The show’s only just begun – the first dancer moving above a verdigris-stained headstone – and I realise that what we’re here to celebrate is the body: its dexterity and strength. Its ability to do its own thing. Let it: even inadvertent twitches are a sign that it goes on – a huge advantage of the thousands of burials beneath us, gathered for this dance event in the grounds itself. As I enter the cemetery a looped series of commands are played to the audience:
Depart with care
Walk with silence
Stay with your group
Do not look back
There’s a blonde woman on a rope, above us, still - or dead - amongst the branches, wearing satin white underwear. There’s something masochistic in how she comes to life and handles the rope that the audience brushes against as they pass. The orchestra at the base of the tree sings as she twists fish-lithe to the song; then a male performer starts to ascend on another rope, legs angled in adductor locks, passing the woman who descends as he rises up. I walked past the man a few moments before, led by the funereal host’s amber lantern: he’d stood with his face in his hands as the audience were guided along the sodden path. The female dancer brings her performance to a halt with a sudden abrasive release of her body, her ankles now securely wrapped by the rope: the body as rejected cargo, swings from the tree. Contortions and twists fused by ankle and wrist now cease. In Anne Summers’ chic she swings head down to the headstones. Eros and thantos: the erotics of the cemetery.
As new stunts rise from behind gravestones and in nettle-logged parts of the cemetery the ambient music score provides a consistency: a mellifluous white noise. Repetition and loop. A woman sits up high in a hula hoop, then a male dancer dances inside a hoop on a trampoline, surrounded by the silent peninsula of the audience. He lets the hoop circle towards its final flat rest on the trampoline as he walks away towards the Scrapyard Meadow. The circle is the presiding symbol of the show: eternal life: no beginning, no end.
Now all things rest
Darkness and light
Whilst working on my Magnificent Seven cemeteries project (the first book, In the Catacombs, is published by Penned in theMargins) I’ve spent many hours looking at angels attached to mausolea, but this is different: behind the bluish-green patina of the headstones are living women, faces blanched, dancing with sinews flickering to the last of the summer light. They are orchestrated to be part of this bigger performance but within that they freeform: each body moves its own way, just once like this, for this performance.
There’s an opera in the woods: a woman in blue, Eurydice, is dancing to the song of a woman wearing all black. Before the song is finished the audience is moved forward by torch-bearing hosts, the hearse-people of the show. We walk past digital roses on a head stone, twisted ghosts streamed to tombs. I’m so used to walking around the Magnificent Seven alone but here we move as one group. The experience brings me closer to strangers, all of them: these shuffling stragglers squelching, like me, through mud. Fellow travellers to the grave, sharing the ambient backing track. I love how people have dressed up despite the email from the cemetery giving a MET warning about the weather. Ankle cut jeans, hipster leather: look your best for the East End dead. I could even love the man with a ginger beard and Led Zep t-shirt, the woman with grey hair in an oversized mac, the young couple who giggle all the way through, kissing under a rain-sodden elder. Sharing this death-changing experience, breathing in this festival of revenants. Making sense of it.
I’ve always loved being alone in cemeteries, out of the crowd: the last person above ground. A woman stands on an oak stump to get a better view. A man performing above me, in his Travolta whites, stares at me with a purple determination in his temples. Even the guides, with their amber torches attached to gnarly sticks, seem to be here just to be a part of it. The crowd and the audience are united as the living. We’re outnumbered by those below whose chances are gone. Here we hold hands freely or think ahead to supper or last orders. I even love the man in front of me swinging his rucksack to the orchersta’s lament. We’re together in that: path-led to the grave but still on the path with all to play for. Even the rain’s stopped for us. Eurydice in her blue dress winds through the crowd: immersive theatre: the audience and stage as one. The stage we occupy is real land and air, the act of breathing.
As we walk through the paths, through deeper puddles and nettles fronding the brown soup of the mud, it’s easy to imagine figures calling you forward, with flames, down abandoned paths. Cut sap hits the nostrils. A performer dances with the upside down anchor of a crucifix shadowed against his chest. This is the East End, as much as the pubs or cafés. It just turns out that local history is also the human condition, the generations of dockers beneath us. Order another cup, add an extra hash brown.
The highpoint of the show is the penultimate moment: two men dancing together in white, tenderly, supporting one body on the other. They hoist their bodies sideways like a flag, static from the post. The inner core that includes the heart. Hoisting themselves up a poll in an entangled caul of limbs. One body levitates on the other. Sinks and rises. There is strength in fusion.
It might be said that all art appeals to us, draws us towards it, to feel what it is to live more keenly. But Depart takes us further into that driving force, connects us to the memento mori that exists in sensory experience: we’re here only because we’re living. The two men in white walk off breathing heavily towards the high rise flats, blanched with mist. No one has noticed that it’s raining again, dripping from the canopied roof branches. We all gather in the open field that we started in – the man in the Led Zep t-shirt, the woman in the mac – to watch the final dance. A dance paced to the fugue of the pain of loss, and not just the pain of loss in death: the loss of love, that death known in life. It’s here in the embraces, bonding and flourishes of the dancers’ bodies. Eurydice has made it this far through the winding paths of Tower Hamlets, but not far enough to escape the loss that comes with looking back. She breaks into a run, the uplighters dropshadowing her body against the windblown trees above. When the lights go out – after the massive applause – the crowd moves towards the cemetery entrance: the lights along Mile End welcoming us back to a more familiar landscape, each of us more alert than when we entered the cemetery two hours ago.
Depart with care
Walk with silence
Stay with your group
Do not look back
I am writing a series of books about London's Magnificent Seven Cemeteries: West Norwood, Nunhead, Brompton, Tower Hamlets, Abney Park, Kensal Green and Highgate. I am grateful to Arts Council England for Grants for the Arts funding to give me time to work on this project. The first book, In the Catacombs: A Summer Among the Dead Poets of West Norwood Cemetery is available here. The next book, Cenotaph South: Mapping the Lost Poets of Nunhead Cemetery will be out in November.
Depart is part of the LIFT Festival and takes place in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, 16-26 June 2016 https://www.liftfestival.com/events/depart/