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Coal

DanceXchange

Patrick Centre

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

THIRTY years ago you would never have thought a contemporary dance company would one day create a working class piece.

Mind you, thirty years ago it would have been inconceivable that Britain, in 2016, the nation that created the industrial revolution, would not have a single coal mine nor one working miner. How times change.

Coal from the Gary Clarke Company is a piece which incorporates spoken drama, dance, audio and video to express first, the arduous life down the pit and then the raw emotion of the miners’ strike, a strike not about pay but about jobs, about pit closures and the future of the industry.

Clarke, in the programme notes, says “it is not really a political show”, which is akin to saying grass is only a bit green. Any clash between public sector workers and the Government is political whether the miners’ strike of 1984-5 or even the current dispute with junior doctors.

It is 30 years since the Miners’ strike ended but the repercussions of one of the longest and certainly bitterest and bloodiest strikes in British history still remain; therminerse are still areas of former mining communities where a Tory will never win any election, even if they are the only candidate, and where the police are barely tolerated and are never welcome.

Clarke was brought up in Grimethorpe and wanted to capture a moment in our industrial and social history he is afraid is being forgotten. The plot of Mike Herman’s film Brassed off, incidentally, set 10 years after the end of the strike, was based on Grimethorpe’s own battles against pit closures and featured the famed Grimethorpe Colliery Band. A year after the closure an EU report stated Grimethorpe was the poorest settlement in Britain and one of the poorest in the EU.

Colliery bands were as much a part of mining as coal, a point recognised by Clarke with extensive use of a five-man brass band providing live music, with musicians drawn from local brass bands, and, if possible colliery bands. For the world premiere it was members of the City of Birmingham Brass Band.

Clarke has also recognised the huge part played by women in the strike, something examined by Steven Downs in his play Black Roses, and has invited women from mining communities to take part. Many have never been on stage before but bring an authenticity to their roles as miner’s wives; in Birmingham it was Michelle Burgess, Heather Albrighton, Jeni Bennett and Lindsey Richards who played their parts well – and handed out a collection of biscuits to the audience in splendid style – it’s years since I had a Blue Riband!

But it is the miners, seen above,  who take the accolades, danced by Alistair Goldsmith, Nicholas Vendange, James Finnemore, Joss Carter and Connor Quill.

We open with TC Howard, dancing the part of a wife with an amusing, athletic and noisy piece as she gets her man ready for work. Then we have the miners laughing and joking their way to the pit, changing into overalls and then descending into the depths in the cage.

I have been down pits three times as a journalist, including Daw Mill at Arley in its National Coal Board days, the last working pit to close in the West Midlands, and they are both fascinating and frightening places. Places no one would choose to work – but miners were a special breed.

Men work surrounded by cracks and groans as half a mile of rock above them settles and shifts, working in seams sometimes barely high enough for a man to kneel, with a threat of explosion, of fire, of roof collapse, of gas, or of simple industrial accident always present with dust a constant, silent danger – causing miner’s pneumoconiosis, black lung.

These are the conditions and emotions Clarke tries to depict as his miners work their shift – with a light hearted break for snap – as the darkness, danger and sheer physical effort find their expression in dance.

The strike is epitomised by Margaret Thatcher, danced by Eleanor Perry, in a symbolic blue suit overlaid by quotes in what was a personal battle between her and the miners.

She draws a symbolic line with long thick rope and one miner crosses it, a scab, returning to work. Despised and reviled by former workmates, once the strike ends, symbolised by the remaining miners throwing their shows at the Iron Maiden, he is even shunned by Thatcher.

Scabs are still not really forgiven and are still regarded as outsiders and seen as traitors in some solid mining communities and, when the curtain fell and bows were taken to cheers and loud applause, Eleanor Perry’s Thatcher received . . . concerted boos.

That should have dispelled the fear Clarke had that this episode of history was being forgotten. He wanted to keep the memory alive – and a full house for the premiere of the work, co-commissioned by DanceXchange, shows it is a long way from being forgotten.

Charles Webber’s lighting design adds to the drama while the set, a bare space with props around the side give an intimate feel, Choreographer Clarke has also used an interesting selection of music from folk songs to the brass band with the likes of The Floral Dance and The Miner’s Hymn, Gresford, to a dramatic recording of Beethoven’s Fifth.

It’s a play, a social commentary and a dance piece which expresses all the emotion and pain – and humanity and humour - of the time. And that is exactly what Gary Clarke intended. To 13-02-16

Roger Clarke

11-02-16

In 1983 Britain had 174 working underground mines and in 1984 187,000 miners came out on strike, while others who continued to work made the numbers of miners even higher.

In 2011 NUM membership was down to 1,855, while the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, founded in Nottinghamshire in 1984 by miners who had continued to work, could muster just over 1,000.

In December last year Britain’s last deep mine, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire closed and the British coal miner is no more.

Incidentally, South Tyneside musician Robert Saint, a former miner at Hebburn colliery, wrote the tune Gresford in 1936 commemorate the Gresford Mining Disaster, at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham, where 266 men and boys were killed in an underground explosion in 1934.  

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