Choreographer Gary Clarke speaks to photographer David Severn about the parallels between Gary’s contemporary dance show COAL, which was recently on at the Nottingham Playhouse following a national tour and David’s photography project Thanks Maggie.

The two discuss the parallels in their work, what inspired them and some of the very human stories that they came across during their explorations and research.

Q: What compelled you both to make work focussed on the mining communities in Britain?

David: “So, my project Thanks Maggie looks at mining communities in North Nottinghamshire where I grew up. I moved away from that area around three years ago and a friend called me with a project they were working on for a museum in Mansfield. The project was an arts project looking at how disused old colliery mines were being re-used or what had happened to them. Prior to this I had no ambition to go back to Mansfield to make work but the project really interested me as I spent a great deal of my childhood on those sites. I learnt to ride a bike on those sites, I spent a lot of time as a teenager loitering around those sites, doing things that teenagers do. From that project, it all sort of snowballed and became really interested in photographing people who had a real nostalgia about them.”

Gary: “What I love about your project is that it’s so nice to still see these social clubs still in use as apposed to being flattened. Back in my village there used to be six pubs and now there is only one.”

David: “For me these are such romantic places, weddings have taken place here, birthdays, real momentous occasions in peoples lives have past through these buildings.”

Pohot credits: Joe Armitage

Q: It seems like Thanks Maggie & COAL are both routed in your own experiences, would you agree? 

Gary: “Yes, COAL is routed right in the middle of it (the miners strike), so we witness a day in the life of a miner living through it. So we witness them getting ready for work, and going down in the mines and going to the social clubs. Then Thatcher arrives and we see the strikes happen and the break up of communities. The show is set in 1985; I can’t say it’s a comment on the 80s or the 90s; its very historical and very precise to that year. So the horrendous after effects that are still felt today are not explored to their full extent. Somewhere like Grimethorpe was built around the mine, once you take the mine away, that’s it – it’s gone. Left derelict. Poverty ridden.”

David: “Often when I’ve been going round photographing, it’s the small pit villages that fair the worst.”

Gary: “…and unless you were effected by it you don’t know and that is why I made this piece. I felt like I was getting so lost in contemporary dance, trying to make something interesting or clever. Then I realised that I was a working class, northern man that’s interested in something different. So I thought I’m going to make a piece of working class contemporary dance that draws on my history, my family, my memories. With COAL I wanted to make an impact – the fact that we’ve got ex-miners in the theatre, junior doctors who are on strike, women against pit closures, firemen – I really feel as though it’s making an immediate impact.”

David: “I felt like I was clutching at straws, scrambling around for ideas that I have no affinity with, then I had this epiphany, that I have a story and an experience, as long as I tell it with integrity.”

Gary: “…It’s such a relief! The story of COAL is already there and I can just do it, I don’t have to worry about being clever or trying to go on and on about the conceptualisation of the piece. The concept/the story is already there. I’ve just got to make sure what I do is done well, and where the work is for me is making sure it communicates well and I put all my skills as choreographer to crafting a well structured, powerful piece of work.”

Photo credits: David Severn

Q: The New York Times picked up Thanks Maggie and obviously so far COAL has played only in Britain, who do you think the audience is for both these pieces of work? Is it a story that resonates internationally? 

David: “The New York Times was a great platform but the great joy for me is giving it back to the community. Its so lovely to be able to maintain relationships with my subjects and bring it back to them and continue the conversation. I’ve had an exhibition at the Mansfield museum and last year we had a very public exhibition in the Market Square in Mansfield. Exhibition designers from Portugal brought over these light boxes, which can be used as street furniture, so people were really interacting with the work. In terms of an international audience, Mansfield seems like it’s natural home but across the world there are COAL communities which have had a similar fate and I had a lot of emails from people in the USA.”

Gary: “COAL is the story of a day in a life and it’s a universal struggle. COAL is live and it has dialogue with a lot of Northern humour but it has universal themes. A photograph captures a moment in time. Very few people comment on the choreography of COAL when leaving the theatre. It seems like a vehicle for other things as it evokes feelings, about family and hardship. It’s a portrait of COAL.”

Photo credits: David Severn

Q: How did you retain, or evoke in the case of Thanks Maggie, the authenticity and integrity of the period that the pieces focus on?

Gary: “So we have local brass bands playing and local “pit women” to play the strong women against pit closures of the piece.”

David: “One thing I was really focused on is the feel and musicality of the coal fields. The banners, the glitter curtains in social clubs, the brass bands and then trying to capture the incredible stories that these people harbour in their own personal history.”

Photo credits: David Severn

COAL was on at the Nottingham Playhouse on 23 & 24 May. It has received some great reviews from its national tour and will continue on another tour later in the year. Take a look at their website for more info.

David is currently working on a project called Workers Playtime. You can check out his portfolio of work on his website.