It’s rare and beautiful witnessing a theatre crowd in the opening bars of a show gettin’ jiggy. The anticipation, palpable from the very back rows, over what they think they are about to see. Tickling surprise and intrigue is what Moving Memory Dance Theatre, following 13 years of consistent delivery, does exceptionally well. The name of this show, The Devil’s Doorbell, is already quivering a cheeky eyebrow.
Conjuring the words rebellion, animated anarchic visual art, and comedy you’d think we were witnessing the resurrection of the YBAs, but on the cool shores of the serene oyster fraternity known as Whitstable, Kent is the first place to sample this 2023 show. Set to tour the English countryside, the Arts Council England sponsored production is directed by Sian Stevenson and co-curated with an ensemble core of enthusiastic, experienced and energised later-in-life women.
“There is huge seriousness in humour and in the mess of life, the mess that we make”, says Sian, the company’s choreographer with over 30 years theatre experience under her belt. Opening with the fervorous tune Spirit in the Sky, the narrative juxtaposes an historical and religious patriarchy that places women firmly as the sinners of society. “Celebrating being able to laugh at one’s self and at the shit of life, about the resilience of women, women who get up time and time again,” is something that Sian believes “binds the company together.”
Moving Memory are a charity funded dance-theatre company passionate about changing the way we view, act and talk about age. That their members are all aged over 50 ignites admiration for the energy and vim needed for the hours of rehearsal polishing a 90-minute show. Wisely, University of Kent placed MA student Mira Chakhtoura with Moving Memory to observe their workshops and she was invited by Sian to co-produce the R&D stage of The Devil’s Doorbell.
Mira, an experienced late twenties Lebanese dancer and choreographer in her own right, says, “this experience really changed my perspective and I cannot say in how many ways, I really can’t because it’s the first time that I worked with older people. They kind of opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn’t know before and the way I see them working, it is really hard work, every day, and we did rehearsals in August for nine days solid from 10am-5pm.”
The ensemble spent months sharing moments, truths and stories of their lives, guided by Stevenson, to co-create a production that has gravitas, an intersectional narrative with political weight, personal experience and careful exposition.
“It takes time. Working with a group who have competing life needs and commitments; they have genuinely become a kind of family. Gradually it has become a space where people feel more confident, believe themselves to be performers, and believe their stories are worth being heard”, says Stevenson.
And this all comes from community. Moving Well, the outreach expression of Moving Memory, invites over 50s to come and learn how to express themselves through dance at their own pace, using their own everyday movements and gestures. Groovin’ Well workshops take place in community halls, arts centres and libraries across Kent and also via the company’s online platform.
DamnIt!DanceIt! takes place in shopping centres and public spaces and is often the first point of contact. The workshops are a seed bed for possible future core performers, facilitated by “people who are not about teaching” who, Stevenson stresses, “are not teachers,” and have a “non-prescriptive approach, it is about empowering and enabling older people to become the artist and about treasuring their life expertise and stories, taking those, shaping and animating through practice.”
This visibility is key to dispelling stigma around the value of older generations, integrating societal attitudes by exploring common ageless activities, needs and making space for a national inclusive future that redefines an ageing population.
Creating a safe place to explore is essential and something Mira values from shadowing the company: “I learnt a lot, especially thinking about the atmosphere and the space you want to create whenever you are doing any work, listening and checking in, regardless of age. I was always aware that they are older than me but kind of forgot about it.”
The Devil’s Doorbell, a euphemism for the clitoris, doesn’t shy away from hard subjects, asking the audience to grapple with a history of sexual exploitation, oppressive patriarchy, social antifeminist agendas and biological freedoms:
“I’m shocked by the lack of progress with gender equality, rights and voice, it’s really important to have those places and spaces to celebrate what it is to be women.” There’s a special magic amongst them. It is like a witchcraft, like there’s a sense of reordering the world, reimagining if we lot were leading it and influencing it on a much greater level”, says Stevenson. “I’ve not tussled with a piece as much as I have with this. And with their (the core ensemble’s) confidence to carry this material.”
Layered amongst the seamless stage direction is a body-pulsing soundtrack playing with the ridiculousness of society’s slow progress regarding women’s liberty, autonomy and safety. Brilliant digital imagery forms a backdrop that compliments and contrasts the onstage performances of the honest, courageous and damn right witty performers in this production.
Mira says candidly, “I know that I’m not their age but I really understood everything and I felt really intrigued to know more of what happened with them. If someone younger comes to me to talk about it, I’m able to say yes from experience, how strong that is.”
Taking this production to quality theatres in Whitstable, Gravesend and Tunbridge Wells means Moving Memory can draw on the Moving Well community growing throughout Kent, highlighting that ageism has a non-negotiable seat at every decision-making table. From suburban home to council office to national agenda.
“At the moment the definition of health is far too narrow in terms of physical activity and nutrition. We want to be part of a movement that is saying engagement in quality, creative cultural activities is food for the soul and is essential to a sense of wellbeing”, says Sian.
And that is ageless.
Lucy Edwards, 18 October 2023