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Review: COAL, Gary Clarke Company, LEAP Dance Festival 2017

COAL, Gary Clarke Company
LEAP Dance Festival 2017

Words (and ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪) by Moira Leonard

LEAP Dance Festival 2017, opened with a powerful performance on Wednesday. Gary Clarke’s ‘COAL’ takes us on an emotional journey, whether you lived through the 1980s Miners Strike or not. It speaks directly to the heart.

Karen Gallagher MBE, the Artistic Director of Merseyside Dance Initiative (MDI) and creator of LEAP Festival said “Dance in Liverpool is invisible – we want to shine a light on dance and the work we are doing.  Bringing this festival to you is challenging, risky, scary, but MDI are not afraid to take risks

Gallagher’s long term vision is to have a dedicated dance centre in Liverpool, and this year, MDI have teamed up with Make Liverpool and Unity Theatre for a very special 25th Anniversary of the festival. Together they have created a pop up Dance Venue in the North Docks for the full 12 days. This means that for the first time ever all the festival performances can be seen in the same venue.

The space is quirky, and contemporary, and edgy, and creative. All of which mirror the Festival ethos. There is a wonderful feeling of community around this venture, a melting pot of people from diverse backgrounds, interests and generations all pulling together to make this moment happen.

Community is also at the core of COAL as Gary Clarke uses local people, some who have never been on stage before, alongside the exquisite professional dancers. The combination makes the work even more powerful. It exposes a vulnerability on stage combined with a steely determination to make it work. His aim is to “share how it felt to live through those times. How it felt then, and how it feels now”. And, boy, he has succeeded!

The performance begins in the kitchen with the excellent TC Howard making us laugh with her dramatic antics, showcasing the frustrating morning routine for a working-class miner’s wife. With an exhausted husband, children and parents to look after, the recognisable day to day struggles are brought to life: clean the house, prepare the tea, get the kids up, get the man up, get the breakfast, get them out the door, and so it goes on, and on. Setting the scene perfectly for what is to come, it is almost innocent and unaware that this domesticity is soon to be destroyed.

In the background, live music is provided by ‘Members of the Fairey Band’, each playing a brass instrument. Throughout the performance live and recorded soundscapes are intertwined to heighten the mood: some of it familiar and some of it not.

We follow five miners. We witness the camaraderie, the laughter, the strength of feeling that binds them together, and we follow them down the mine. We are shown the conditions and bleak reality of mining. The contrast between the delicate warmth of the human body and the unyielding harshness of the cold black rock. The audience is right there with them, you can taste the acrid smoky air, feel the claustrophobic dark space, the sheer physicality of it all.

A miner falls, his chest overtaken by tar. A black balloon bursts. Loud shrieks as one by one the miners rush him to the surface carrying him in their arms. The music bursts into a massive crescendo. Will he live? Sharp intake of breath.

The cleverness of the performance, the staging, the lighting, the soundscape…it all combines spectacularly. You are in the moment. The dancers are not simply dancers, they ARE the miners, you care about them.

We are back on the surface, once again the camaraderie, playing cards, drinking, dancing, juggling bananas! In come the wives. A party. Everyone together. It feels good. The fake interval is genius.

And then, once the scene has been set and you are fully engaged, in walks ‘Maggie Thatcher’ and we all know what happens next. The unravelling is heart-breaking: ‘we are not just fighting for our jobs, we are fighting for our lives…’.

I was stunned by the whole experience, it was both a privilege and a pleasure to see this work. If I could give it a star rating it would be five without hesitation. Go. If you can. This is dance of the highest quality and will not disappoint.

COAL runs 1 and 2 March

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Tickets £16/£14

LEAP festival runs from 1 March – 12 March. Details can be found at