Winner of the 1998 Brian Glover Memorial Award, Gary Clarke is currently regarded as one of the UK’s leading contemporary dance artists who has received great appreciation for his work as a Choreographer, Director, Performer, Mentor, Teacher and Facilitator. He has developed a growing reputation for creating extraordinary dance work of various sizes and scales which has received praise from critics, audiences, producers, national dance agencies and venues in the UK and abroad. His latest piece “COAL”, set to tour nationally in 2016 draws on his experience growing up in the small northern “pit” town of Grimesthorpe amidst the backdrop of the miners strike.
Strong, powerful and emotive, COAL explores the darker underbelly of the mining industry unearthing the true nature and body wrecking demands of a working class industry now almost forgotten.
Bringing together Clarke’s striking physical language performed by a company of 7 stunning professional dancers, a local community cast of women and a live brass band, COAL is an emotional, moving and ever-relevant exploration of community, solidarity and survival.
To be asked to create some photography to promote a piece by Gary Clarke was a privilege. Equally, being asked to record a memorial to an issue that, anyone growing up in the north of England in the 1980’s, cannot fail to have been touched by was also an honour in itself.
The chance to work with someone one as renowned as Gary Clarke to photograph his work was amazing as not only is Gary an exceptional choreographer and director, he is focused, has an eye for detail and is totally on the right side of bonkers to make this shoot fun and inspiring..
So what is “Coal”about?
In Gary’s own words :
COAL is a full length work marking 30 years since the end of the 1984/85 British miners’ strike. It acts as mark of respect to the many men and families who lost their lives and jobs to the coal fields. It is an attempt at continuing a legacy and keeping alive a time in British history that changed the fabric of our society. The show has 7 professional performers, a live brass colliery band and women from local coal mining communities; it felt wrong to make a work about community and not involve them. I am very proud of the work and think it needs to be seen.
I had some initial ideas about what I wanted the shots to be like. Dark, grimy, lots of clarity to make the shots grainy and de-saturated. Perhaps even colour them a little green.. Gary and I wanted to bring the physicality of the work into the shots also. To make you see the sweat and blood – the power and the emotion.
We talked about shooting in two locations. A studio setting at Barnsley Civic where we could get some controlled lighting shots and at a nearby closed pit in Barnsley. This would allow for some controlled lighting ion the studio and then some location shots and other pieces to include as composites in the final images.
Mining for the Moment
Shoot day arrived and we set up at the main space in the Barnsley Civic, a beautiful space and full of lovely helpful people and creatives! I drew the black curtains at the back of the space and I knew that the black dance floor would give some lovely reflections. I wanted the figures to disappear into the background if required and the whole image needed to feel like it was in a dark surrounding. Although we had use of side lights I chose to just shoot with one light, the trusty (and now held together with gaffer tape and luck) Alien Bee head with a 1m deep Elinchrom softbox which I removed one of the inner diffusers. I wanted the soft light the Elinchrom provided, but also set the light far enough back and boost it on high power so I could give a lot of room for the dancers to move without too much light fall off.
Gary set up some sections with the 5 “miners” first. They were moving in a group (dressed in great 80’s fashions) and I shot them both as a group and individually. Gary was amazing at directing the dancers to gain the most from their energy and momentum, pushing them to create the best shapes and dynamics. I was able to also push the exact moment of the shutter release to get the dancers at the optimum point in the movement. Shooting with a single flash system allows only one shot before the movement has passed and the moment lost. (It would be nice to work with a strobe system such as the Elinchrom ELC Pro HD systems that allow the shutter speed to be greater than I am using at the moment but – ho hum… cash huh?) Still, having had dance training I feel I have a good physical sense to know when the moment will be and, am able to get this pretty much bang on.. In fact, I like the challenge to get THAT moment…That frozen shot in time… On my own.. with no help from a strobe.
Women in Coal
The next section to shoot was that of the main female role in Coal.
There are many sections in Coal that use performers from the local community to represent the women who were often the rock of support behind the striking miners in the 1980’s. As these parts in the piece would be cast to different people from the local community and at different points in the tour it would have been impossible to photograph them for the publicity however, the main female role of empowered campaigner yet downtrodden housewife is danced by the brilliant T.C Howard. Having known T.C for a number of years I knew she would be brilliant to photograph and would give me everything I needed to, not only from a physical level, but from an emotional point also.
One image that Gary uses in the piece is to show the woman “physically” chained to the kitchen… showing the place that women were given in the age and location of a small mining town where the traditions of men working physically and the women being housewives were the norm. I wanted to use this chain idea in the shot and asked to shoot with the chain feeding out towards the camera lens. I knew this would give a depth of field effect where the front of the shot, and therefore the chain, would be blurred but getting sharper towards the place where it was tied around T.C.
It gives the impression that the person looking at the woman is holding the chain themselves, thus heightening the personal attachment within the picture.
T.C was fantastic to work with being extremely physical and also very funny able to add much needed but tragic comedy into the piece.
T.C captures this emotion of frustration – not only by depicting the woman’s ‘lot’ but also with the frustration and anger towards the men’s ‘lot’ and how the pit closures effected them, their relationships and personalities)
The Poster Shot
For the main image of Coal we wanted to shoot a section that depicted the energy and physical nature of the miners. Rapid movements – almost of swinging pickaxes or digging manically – performed as a group give an effect of this manic shovelling, of the pent up anger but also the beauty that can be seen in the physical efforts of the miners. We shot lots of images of this section with the lighting set to capture the split seconds of the action. These looked great and it was pretty impossible NOT to get a great shot. All the dancers were on the ball and looked fabulous no matter when I pressed the shutter.
However there was also something missing in these shots. The energy of before and after this moment of capture. The answer was to set the camera on a longer shutter speed of about 3 – 5 seconds. The Flash would trigger at the start of the shutter (thus freezing the frame) but the longer shutter speed meant that any movement afterwards would be captured as a blur until the shutter was closed. There was a little trial and error in the lighting power to compensate for the long shutter (letting more light in) but in the end I got it just right and knew that I could also make a few adjustments in lightroom in the editing stage.
These were definitely the shots that would sell the show in my opinion.
upon completing these shots we packed up and drove to the nearby closed pit head in Barnsley. This is a very inspiring place in its own right but to be able to shot with the dancers, for this show there was very special. We ran the same movements but shot with the image of the pit head in the background. It was hard to get the definition of the dancers against the head as, not only were the two so far apart, to try and light them properly left the head in darkness. We managed to get a few nice shots from this but I also took some separate shots of the pit head on it’s own so that I could combine it with the studio shots to create a composite image.
In editing I treated the pit head with a greenish hue to bring out the metalwork and then placed it faintly in the background behind the image of the miners in the manic pose (above). Together the two created everything needed to visually sell Coal to the public.
The pleasure of the Pit.
This project has been incredible and it’s amazing to see posters everywhere and the amount of publications my images are being featured in. I cannot wait to shoot the productions shots in February on tour and really really hope I get to work with Gary again.
Coal is on tour in 2016 at the following places and dates.
- 11-13 Feb 8pm
BIRMINGHAM Hippodrome DanceXchange
Featuring members of City of Birmingham Brass Band
0844 338 5000
- 19-20 Feb 7.30pm
TheatreFeaturing members of Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band
- 5 Mar2pm & 7.30pm
Featuring members of Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band
01302 303 959
- 16 Mar3pm
NEWPORT The Riverfront
(presented as part of British Dance Edition 2016)
Featuring members of Carlton Main Frickley Colliery Band
01633 656 757
- 15-16 Apr8pm
LONDON The Place
Featuring members of North London Brass
020 7121 1100
- 29-30 Apr 7.30pm / 2.30pm & 8pm
NEWCASTLE Dance City
Featuring members of NASUWT Riverside Band
0191 261 0505
- 23-24 May 8pm
NOTTINGHAM Playhouse (with Dance4, as part of Neat16 Festival)
Featuring members of Thorseby Colliery Band
0115 941 9419To book tickets or for further information see.