In 2020, Pascal Theatre Company (PTC) put a call out to women whose lives, and mental and physical health had been disrupted by Covid and the enforced isolation of lockdown. Respondents were offered a platform to express their feelings, plus the opportunity to work with expert theatre and literary practitioners to explore and develop their ideas.
The result was the Giving Voice project (www.pascal-theatre.com/project/giving-voice), a digital archive featuring work by 38 women in written and recorded form.
Forward a year and the ever-resourceful Creative Director of PTC, Julia Pascal, found a way to extend the reach of the project – by collaborating with students from The London Contemporary Dance School at The Place Theatre and professional performers to create a promenade performance piece for the 2021 Bloomsbury Festival based on several of the Giving Voice submissions.
An immersive improvisation/rehearsal process explored the imaginative connections between dance, speech and memory, interweaving song, bodywork and cabaret-style performance to share the hidden stories brought to light by the project.
Dancing, Talking, Taboo!was a site-specific creation staged in the Grade I listed St Pancras Church off London’s Euston Road. The performers used every inch of the ground-floor space, leading the audience to and from the choir seats on the altar, up and down the aisles and to both side chapels, to hear different tales told, often in experimental and abstract ways.
There is little to beat the experience of having dancers move and sing just inches away from you, and this is what the performance delivered, kicking off with a piece based around words from Ruth Posner’s poem memorialising her arrival in England as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland. Another section brought to life Amanda Petrovic’s searing account of having to keep her Roma identity hidden.
At one point, the audience was led down the western aisle, where we were regaled by snatches of nursery rhymes from performers posed in and on the pews on both sides as we progressed along. This had the nightmarish quality of a fairground ghost train or hall of mirrors, with the performers making strong eye contact as they sang their songs and twisted their bodies towards us. It evoked memories of childhood joys, fears and confusions that many of the Giving Voice writers had thought and written about during lockdown.
I particularly enjoyed the use of the gorgeous spiralling steps up to the pulpit by the narrator giving voice to Clare Manley’s submission about her triumph over trauma through judo – meanwhile, the dancers’ movements and vocal utterances on the floor below perfectly expressed the physicality of Clare’s experience.
Mistress of Ceremonies Amanda Maud had her work cut out corralling the 30-strong audience and the troupe of 12 performers in the same direction at the same time, but she managed the role with charm and humour, ad-libbing as required to keep everyone feeling included and involved. Her musicianship and singing skills added much to the whole experience.
The commitment and talent of the young dancers, who were also required to sing and speak, were similarly inspiring.
The performances were filmed, so the experience should soon be available to more than the 100 people who were able to be there on the day itself.