David Mead talks to Motionhouse Artistic Director Kevin Finnan about the company’s new show, which opens at London’s Peacock Theatre on September 22.
Artistic Director Kevin Finnan freely admits that Motionhouse’s new production, Nobody, has been shaped by the pandemic. The scenario sounds familiar. An exploration of the tension between our inner lives and how we make sense of the world around us, it follows seven characters searching for answers as the world they knew unravels around them. Watched by a group of crows who question their every move, it turns into a journey of self-discovery, on which they find strength and support in each other.
That was not Finnan’s original vision. When he started exploratory work with the dancers for Nobody in late 2019, he explains that he was looking at external voices and how we believe who we are. “I was looking at all the different mediums; the internet, how it affects lives, how it affects young people especially. And then Covid came along.”
Suddenly he and Executive Director Louise Richards were working flat out trying to keep the company alive. “For the first time ever, we had to lay people off. It was extremely painful. Just before Covid, we had one weekend where we did four different shows in four cities. All of a sudden it came crashing down. I was thinking, are we able to go on?”
At such time of stress and anxiety, playing out conversations in your mind is something many people experience. Finnan says he spent lots of time walking and thinking, especially early morning, with just the voice in his head for company. “In terms of humanity, the relationship between the voice in our head and the voice outside is really fine-balanced. The voice tells people to do things, but they don’t realise it’s their own voice they hear. I find that fascinating. I’m really interested in it how we relate to it.”
When the dancers returned to work in early 2021, Finnan immediately began to explore the idea. “It was a wonderfully productive time, utterly joyous. Everyone had an incredible urge to be creative and to explore new ways of moving,” he says. “I think the energy and emotions of the extraordinary collective experience of dealing with the pandemic shaped the content and the movement we were coming up with as a group.”
The narrative of the reshaped production reflects this. Finnan explains that the first act is driven by the raw emotion of our recent experiences, complete with a sense of isolation, being alone, and the effect that has. “It is kind of the struggle and the descent in fear of the voice in your head. What it is doing to you. Is it real? The confusion, darkness and pain that comes from it.”
After an interval, the second act starts in the darkest hour, before there’s a sense of coming together and the strength derived from that, in an uplifting conclusion. “I was so moved when we came out of lockdown. We were together, with friends. The first thing people want to do is come up and give you a hug. The thing is, we are meant to be together. We are meant to listen to each other. We are meant to help each other. That’s the essence of our humanity. I just thought, this is what the second half should be.”
The title, he explains, comes from the basic question, ‘Who are we?’ “Everyone wants to be somebody but there’s a real power in being nobody. All nobodies are important.”
Nobody is actually Motionhouse’s first ever show with an interval. Finnan says that he’s always avoided them because they do tend to break the performance dynamic. My narratives are like strings of pearls, he explains. “If you break them, if you go off for an interval, you have to do another beginning, middle and end. So, I was always resistant to it. But for this show, it’s perfect.”
Regular watchers of the company will spot other differences too. “Normally, in a Motionhouse show, the performer is a mercurial form,” he says. “But for Nobody, I have a cast of everyday characters, then we have the crows, who are the voices.” That gave him an opportunity to give each a particular movement language, with what he describes as a “dancey, more technique-oriented form, which I don’t normally do,” for the latter, before reconciling the two groups in Act II.
Finnan also promises a move away from dancers interacting with the film projections as they do in the trilogy of Scattered, Broken and Charge. While Nobody does have a big screen at the back, this time he explains that they are also projecting on smaller moving objects in the space, which, added to the moving bodies, he feels makes it more involving and more three-dimensional. The relationship between a film that’s really moving and a static film becomes really interesting. It’s given us a whole new dimension, and maybe opened up where we should go in the future, with moving image both corporeal and digital.”
Finnan is also recycling some set from Captive, one of the company’s outdoor pieces that is still touring. That’s all part of Motionhouse’s green agenda. “It is quite flexible in how you interpret it,” he says. “It’s got a series of doorways, so you instantly have domestic space, but then you can transform and translate it and make it move in all sorts of seriously extraordinary ways. It has fabulous possibilities. It was perfect because, I needed something to show very simply how we were all trapped indoors.”
Looking back, Finnan says it was a creation period like no other. In the first lockdown, nothing could be done. “It was a totally schizophrenic experience. One half of it was fantastic. For the only time, there was this big period of time to think about all the research we had done and revisit things. That was unique and unbelievably liberating. My mind was going crazy.”
The downside was being alone and distanced from his collaborators. “A lot is generated when you bounce things off each other, put things out there, play with ideas. We couldn’t do any of that. So, it was all in my head where the voices were a clamouring crowd. It was extremely challenging.” Even, now, he has still not met in person with Logela Multimedia from Bilbao, who are again providing the film. All meetings have been on Zoom.
Originally conceived pre-Covid, Nobody has taken on new themes and new relevance thanks to events and raw emotions experienced in the past year and a half. It has been a bumpy ride at times but setbacks have been turned into opportunities and Finnan says he’s very pleased with the finished show; one that breaks new ground, embraces the relationship between dance, digital and circus in a new way, develops Motionhouse’s movement language and expands its use of on-stage digital technology. Its messages are certainly pertinent. He promises that audiences will be able to relate to what they are experiencing and be moved by it.
Nobody by Motionhouse premieres at the Peacock Theatre, London on Wednesday September 22, 2021. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for details and tickets.
It then tours throughout the UK, Denmark and Germany. Visit www.motionhouse.co.uk for dates, venues and booking links.