Gary Clarke

Dance Manchester talks to….

Gary Clarke, Artistic Director of COAL

Gary Clarke

Gary Clarke sat down with Chris Connolly to talk about his upbringing, COAL & art being his saviour…


CC: As Artistic Director of your own company, what does making new work mean to you?

GC: Up until now, I’ve only done short works with very few dancers so this is quite a new venture for me. It’s the first time I’ve created a full length work with a full company of dancers and also a bigger production & management team, working with live-music & community casts as well. It means I’m creating much more ambitious work on a much larger scale and also bringing in bigger and wider audiences, and different audiences who might have never seen contemporary dance. So it’s kind of ambitious on many different scales and to have the backing from Arts Council England and all the other commissioners on board makes it more secure for me so I can create the best work possible.

CC: All of your productions have very specific themes & stories behind their creation. Do the inspirations come from your own interests & experiences?

GC: Yes, I tend to draw on real life as a sort of inspiration and look at the world to see what’s happening. I look at world issues and politics and what’s happening on the streets, in the arts, in music, TV and media – and I use that as a type of springboard to create work. I think it’s important that art should reflect life, so I try to interrogate these scenes or ideas that are happening at the minute. I’m passionate about politics, I’m passionate about people, passionate about people from communities, people who might be marginalised, like the working classes or gay communities. I’ve dealt with a lot of sexuality issues and prejudice in my work. Rather than trying to look elsewhere or look for abstract ideas, I very much work with issues that are in today’s popular culture. Especially with COAL, with this production that I’m bringing to Manchester, that is very much steeped in British history and politics.

CC: There’s an importance on music in your work. I remember coming away from seeing one of your pieces remembering the songs as much as the choreography. How important is its role in your work?

GC: Music is amazing and I think the power of music is really immeasurable. Music and movement is a great marriage. I use a lot of eclectic popular music in my work, music that audiences might recognise. Even in COAL, with the live brass bands, we use music that people understand so they have a connection and relationship with it. It’s rare that I use ‘abstract’ music. Although in COAL, Act 2 uses industrial noise as a soundscape, but that’s quite specific to what’s happening on stage. I love music that’s out there in the domain, that’s what I listen to. I’ve been brought up on popular music and that bleeds through into my work.

CC: And COAL obviously displays both of these things – a strong theme and music. Tell me the story behind why you made it…

GC: I’m from Grimethorpe, which is a lower working class mining village in Barnsley. I grew up in the 1980s and saw the dismantling of the coal industry which left my village in tatters. It was completely disseminated and became a derelict wasteland. So essentially what was once a vibrant village became desolate. And that’s when I discovered art and movement and creativity as a way of coping. I didn’t want to become a drug addict or criminal, which a lot of my friends became. I wanted to find a new way, a different way of coping. So art became a real saviour for me. Then I became a choreographer and felt like I wanted to create a piece of work which celebrated my community and the people of that community. For the work to act as a mark of respect and a tribute to all of those people whose livelihoods were torn apart. I wanted to create a piece of contemporary dance which was typically working class, which you never ever see. Contemporary dance can be quite elitist and I wanted to try to break that mould. Push the boundaries of the class system in contemporary dance. I think the Miner’s Strike and the working classes are constantly being explored in film and documentary, but never in dance. I wanted to make a piece of work which reflected history, which acts as a piece of education to people who might not know about the mining industry, a piece of work that could be clearly understood – so not to challenge an audience too much, but so they can allow themselves to follow the journey of the work. One of my aims was, ‘can I get ex-coal miners into the theatre to see contemporary dance?’ That was a big ambition of mine and I’m pleased to say that up to now a large percentage of our audience have been ex-coal miners. Some of whom have never been to the theatre, some have never seen dance, some have never seen live work before and suddenly they’re sat watching contemporary dance unfold in front of them, and that just feels amazing. That’s why I created COAL. I felt it was a story that had to be told.

CC: It obviously hits a note up here in Manchester, where it’s sold-out. You’ve done autobiographical pieces before, but this isn’t just about your experiences, it reflects those of your family’s and the working class population of the country. Did that place extra responsibility at your feet?

GC: Absolutely. I knew if I was going to tell this story I would have to do it well. Essentially, what’s on stage is people’s lives. The strike and the issues surrounding it are still really alive in a lot of the mining communities. So it was really important to us to get it right. Part of our research was to go out into the coal fields and meet ex-miners and their wives. We sat for hours and hours and they’d talk to us about their experiences and their feelings about that time, and then we had to try to translate that into the art of movement. It took some time to get it to a place where it felt authentic, but it’s very important COAL feels authentic. It should feel real when you’re looking at the work, as if you’re seeing real life. That it’s not an abstract version or a representation, but it’s a reality. And along the way I got ex-miners into the studio to give us feedback. I got very few people in the arts in to see the work because I knew that they would give a particular slant on it and I wasn’t interested in that at all. I was interested in the real people coming to view it and giving us guidance. Making sure we’re on the right track. But it’s a massive responsibility, the idea that all of the stories present in the show are not fiction, we don’t make anything up. It’s all real. And a lot of people who helped us do the research came to see the show, so they’re looking at their own lives on stage. Like a mirror image back to them.

CC: And finally, can you give some words of advice to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

GC: Believe in yourself. I’m not from a privileged arts background, and I’ve managed to carve out a career in contemporary dance which is hard to do, but with persistence, self-belief, being true to your art form and being true to yourself there will be a way forward. Rather than money, finance or success, let your art guide you and take your time. Be patient with your art. I think a lot of young people fall into the trap of wanting to be successful and they don’t give enough attention to their art form, which results in them creating weak, mediocre or diluted work. ‘Follow your art with your heart’ and keep a sense of humour about it all.

This is the end of the sold-out COAL tour. See it again in 2017…


Interview by Chris Connolly – DM’s Marketing & Social Media Co-ordinator