An interview with Welly O’Brien and Victoria Fox

Candoco Dance Company, June 28th, 2018
Dedicated to... by Caroline Bowditch. Photography by Mik Barton, 2017

‘People are always drawn to movement regardless of where it is…’: An interview with Welly O’Brien and Victoria Fox

As part of her collaboration with Candoco Dance Company, Vipavinee Artpradid (Vip), talks to Welly O’Brien and Victoria Fox (VIX) about working as a duo, touring, audiences, and nature of outdoor performances in their latest Candoco collaboration with choreographer Caroline Bowditch, ‘Dedicated to…’.

Vip: A bit about you and your work first. What would you say distinguishes you individually as an artist? Shall we start with Victoria?

VIX:I think as an artist, I have a really varied background in different kinds of companies that I’ve worked with. So, I like to think that I’m a little bit of a chameleon in that sense. And that I can adapt very well to different situations and different companies that I’m thrown into. And yeah, I think a diverse background that I can really pull and reference from.

Vip: And you, Welly?

WELLY: I think similar to Vix, actually. Yeah, I’m a freelancer, so I work with lots of different people. And I’ve worked for a long time, and I’m always interested in doing new projects, and different things with different people. In that way, I like to sort of always keep my eyes and ears open to new things coming along. And on top of that I’m disabled. That’s just one thing. I’m a disabled performer.

Vip: And have you both worked together before?

WELLY: Oh gosh. We’ve…yeah…

VIX: Well, we met a long time ago. Shall I say the year?

WELLY: What year was it? 19…

VIX: 98? 1998? On a Candoco summer school, and Welly, you were an apprentice at the company at the time? And I just had a love for Candoco, met them when I was 16 and did various projects with them. And then I remember calling Welly and asking her if she’d be in my dissertation- in the practical part. That was our first duet actually- in 1999. And it’s quite funny that we’ve returned together now to do a duet. But we’ve both been in the company at different times.

Vip: And what would you say distinguishes you as a duo?

WELLY: I guess we just get on and….

VIX: There’s just an understanding, having known someone for so long now, who’s been in and out of your life at special occasions, like the birth of your children. I think there’s a connection on a deeper level. And that then transpires into the work.

WELLY: And I also think it makes life a lot easier with touring and things like that because when you’re touring with different people, you have to always be really flexible. I think we’re both really used to that. We’ll go in and work with different people and you kind of go, okay, this is this group and I have to work in this way with this group. And I think this duet’s great because it’s just been really simple and really easy for us to be able to tour together. We live not too far away from each other, so that’s great and then on top of that we’re really easy with each other’s company. If one of us goes, d’you know I just want to go to bed tonight and just sleep or let’s go out, and we go out to the pub or… you know whatever. Or the kids had a funny day and I need to talk to them. You know, I think that’s been really great that we’ve got that. Because this kind of touring is mentally and physically quite hard work as well. So, I think it’s really good to have somebody that you feel safe with. Because we go into really different environments all the time, in that sense.

Vip: What’s it been like working with Caroline Bowditch on this piece?

VIX: It’s been brilliant. I first met Caroline doing this duet, and then I’ve gone on to work with Caroline on a different project for Unlimited. But Welly, you’ve got a long history with Caroline…?

WELLY: Yeah, I’ve worked with Caroline for, gosh, about 5 years now. She’s always full of beans, so happy, so enthusiastic, you know, always just a joy to work with. She’s fun and she just makes it a fun environment to be in.

VIX: I think she’s got such an eye for pulling out the nuances and the flavours that she really wants choreographically, and she’s always surrounded by a brilliant team of people who really get her work and they’re a real team. Together they really pull out the best.

WELLY: And I think that’s something that she’s really worked on in her career- to get a good team of people because she realises that that’s a really important thing to have behind you. To have good people that understand you, that know what page you’re on and they’re on the same page. And I really admire her for that. She’s always done that in all of her work, and I feel really lucky, in the past, to be part of that as well. She’s great, she’s brilliant.

Vip: With this piece ‘Dedicated to…’, what is it about? What does it mean for you?

VIX: I think for me it was really interesting to work with Caroline, who kind of wanted to keep it quite open really, and within the blurb, it’s dedicated to life, to love, to women, to friendship. For me, it’s very much like a journey that I go on to do the piece. And in each place that we perform it- because it specifically made for outdoor work- it kind of takes on a different character, depending on who is up and close to you. And I think it’s really nice that the audience to read it in their own way as well.

WELLY: I think it’s quite generic in that sense as well because the audience is always so diverse and so different. Actually, to make an outdoor piece of work is a really hard job. You know, hats off to her because it’s a big, big job to try and make everyone feel comfortable, you’re doing it to all different ages, you don’t know what the weather’s going to be like. There’s so many things that are involved with outdoor work and I think she’s kind of done that. She’s made it accessible to everybody, and in that way it works. We get nice feedback from performing.

VIX: I think there’s something that everyone can relate to regardless of your age, your gender, where you’re from. I think you can see our connection through the work.

Vip: Have you had previous experience of performing outdoor work before?

WELLY: I’ve had loads. But I’ve had loads in big scale work, rather than smaller scale, so this is the first time that I’ve done smaller scale work. It’s quite nerve-wracking actually. Usually you have the lights and the pyrotechnics, and everything to kind of rely on. So, in that way it feels quite raw. In some ways you feel really like, ooh, the audience are 2 centimetres away. You can really look at peoples’ eyes, so it’s a very difficult work. And on other days, like Birmingham for example, the last event we were in a really small space in the mac (Midlands Art Centre), and the week before we’d been in Birmingham, and we’d been in a huge square, so it’s very different. Mentally, it’s so different to perform in those different environments because you kind of get thrown in at the deep end, and you kind of go, okay, today’s going to be this, and quite often you’ll only know the space that you’re going to be performing in when you arrive. That’s very different from doing theatre work or doing big work, big outdoor work, you kind of know because you’re in the site for a while, and you get to know the site and you get to know how the area is, and all that kind of thing. So, this just feels quite different from the outdoor I’ve done.

VIX: I’ve not done any outdoor work before. I’ve always been in theatres. It’s a really different challenge, and there is a certain rawness and a certain kind of a ‘being exposed’ feeling that comes with it. But there’s also a beauty with that that the audience are so close that they can see the detail in your face, or the detail in your hands- how you are actually holding the bench, rather than when you are in the theatre and it’s very much with a fourth wall, where if we are the audience, you are the performers. I think sometimes you miss the subtleties of a performance.

Vip: Could you speak about the different places that you’ve performed ‘Dedicated to…’ in? So, you were in Birmingham twice, and then before that?

WELLY: We were in Brighton and we were in Egypt.

Vip: What sort of spaces were each of these and how did they change your experience?

WELLY: Egypt we were in 2 different spaces. So, we were in University Campus, and things got changed very last minute because there were a few problems- politically- over there at the time. We were going to be out on the streets, but they ended up having to quickly change it. There was an election going on. We ended up being in the university campus. And another kind of… what was it?

VIX: I don’t know, it was an embassy.

WELLY: It was sort of like an indoor courtyard, and they were both very different as well. The first time in Egypt we had loads of families and I was amazed at how calm and quiet everybody was. It was amazing. Loads of kids, which is great, which is really fun to perform for kids because that doesn’t happen often in the theatre.

VIX: And cats.

WELLY: Yeah, and cats. Running across the space. And then Brighton was on the beach, which was really beautiful, lovely, sunny day. It was great.

VIX: Very iconic under the i360 and in front of the old pier.

WELLY: So just completely different. Very, very different. And in Brighton there were lots of tourists.

Vip: And what about Victoria Square versus the space in the mac?

VIX: I think it’s great to take dance out and put it into unexpected places or into the middle of town centres because not only are you drawing a dance crowd, who maybe know that this event is coming up, but you’re also attracting a crowd that are just passing by and are just going to do some shopping in town at 12 o’clock on a Saturday. And I think in that sense that’s the beauty of outdoor work where you can really just surprise and gain a new audience and get people interested in dance that way. And to show that there’s just so many different types of dance now. In Birmingham there was going from some really amazing acrobatics, 2Faced doing their kids show, and the amazing French company in their amazing pink suits moving around town. In that sense it’s kind of showing that dance really is for everybody.

Vip: What was the significance of the benches in the piece?

VIX: For me, personally, it really grounds us. I think it creates a space where the dance can happen. It would feel really bizarre now not to have them. They mark the space. I think they make the space feel like it’s ours. Even though- it’s really funny- because we quite often have audience members come and sit on them if it’s between shows. And that’s really nice too. In a way that’s so nice because you don’t want to say anything. You should say something but sometimes we just say oh we’ll just let them sit. But yeah, it makes the space feels ours and grounded and it is a focal point for the duet. I think that’s what she wanted.

Vip: Does it represent anything?

VIX: In the UK we have lots of benches in parks and on the seafront and all over the place, dedicated to people. I think also she wanted it to have some significance, maybe with the audience, maybe with us, to have that dedicated to…just somebody. And sometimes I do think of certain people when I’m performing and I just take that day to that person. Yeah, and I think sometimes the audience might see that or they might not see that. I think it’s also great for an outdoor piece where maybe a non-dance audience can have a reference point. They think about their own lives. They consider their own interactions that they’ve had on benches in an open outdoor space.

Vip: Now a bit about the audience. If we speak in general first, what do you feel is the role of the dancer, and what’s the role of the audience?

VIX: For me personally, I’ve always seen my role as a dancer, is to give and to share through my movement or text or interaction with a prop. Regardless of what it is, it’s my role to communicate what the choreographer wants to say through their work, and to reach the audience. I’m not interested in dancing for myself. I’m purely there to give it away and to share what you learn through the process when you’re making work. The ideas, and the movement, and essentially give it away to an audience. And I hope, for me personally, I hope that when an audience watches any form of dance, whether it be Strictly on a Saturday night, whether it’s coming across an outdoor show or going to the theatre, I hope that in some way they can reflect the meaning of the show that they’ve gone to see to themselves and to their own lives. Or that the movement touches them in some way- that they feel something from it.

WELLY: And there’s a connection that’s been made. As a dancer, I feel like if you don’t connect with the audience, you’ve kind of not done a good enough job. You know, the public pay for us to be able to do this kind of work and we’re very lucky to be able to do this kind of work. The public pay money, we get money from the arts council, so it’s our job actually, to pay something back to the audience and say, you’ve actually paid for this and this is art, and enjoy it and it’s a lateral communication between two. I think we’re very lucky to have been given that opportunity. In that way, we have to give it back to them.

VIX: I think dance has the ability to reach a lot of people. I think it can be all-absorbing, a bit like the television- through movement. And people are always drawn to movement regardless of where it is. Your eye will always be drawn to somebody moving, to a rhythm, to some music, and I think it’s really instinctual as humans to watch.

WELLY: And role of the audience, gosh, that’s a really hard one. I guess for them to be attentive in that moment. And that’s what I love about doing outdoor work as well, because somebody can walk away if they’re not interested. Whereas in the theatre they can’t walk away. I mean they can walk away, but it’s much more of a statement. That’s the joy of doing outdoor stuff, because you know whether the audience are enjoying it or not because sometimes you do. You see other shows and the audience are walking away by the droves, and then other times they stay. We’ve been really lucky that they’ve stayed with us and they haven’t walked away. So hopefully we’re doing the right thing.

VIX: I think the audience’s role is to absorb, and to reflect upon what they see and to just let it wash over you, almost. Or to question what you see.

WELLY: And be with you in that moment. It’s a shared moment.

Vip: So, what about the audiences for ‘Dedicated to…’? What’s your relationship with them?

VIX: It’s quite personal really. Because of the audience being so close, there’s a lot of eye contact that we can make with people if it feels right in that moment. As I’ve said, the audience gets to look at a real human being and a real human being quite up and close. So even if I’m nervous before a show, they might see my hand having a few little tremors, you know, you can really feel the movement as well as see it.

WELLY: I think we’ve had really interesting audiences- really varied in age. We’ve had really lovely feedback from all different ages. A few tears. Yeah, we’ve had a few tears from a couple of at the train station that grabbed us. They were like ‘Oh, we saw your show!’. In Egypt there were lots of children. I’ve been quite amazed at the older generation actually, with ‘Dedicated to…’. There’s been some resonance with the older generation. I don’t know whether that’s in the name or what it’s about or that they see something that they find they connect to.

VIX: We’re slightly older.

WELLY: Yes, we’re slightly older. I don’t know. There has definitely been an older audience. In Birmingham, definitely.

VIX: A lot of families as well.

Vip: Are there any audience members you remember in particular?

WELLY: There’s always a few. In both Birmingham ones we’ve had two lovely lads with cerebral palsy that came up and said stuff at the end which was just really, really nice. I’ve kind of gone, go on, go and do some dancing. Hopefully, they might go off and do something. You know, they’re quite young. Oh, and in Brighton we had a young girl who had one arm and she was chatting away to me before the show and she wrote a lovely letter to Caroline, saying thank you so much- her mum wrote a lovely letter to her saying thanks so much, she’s been dancing round ever since the show. Little stories like that have been great, but generally, you know, families, you go to the loo and you bump into a family and they’re like oh thank you! That’s the thing that I love about that kind of work. It’s the human connections, the absolute proper human connections that we have with people that you just wouldn’t see if you were at the theatre. You wouldn’t know what resonance it’s had after the show. Because quite often you don’t see the audience.

Vip: Any other moments with audiences?

WELLY: In Egypt we had lots of young girls, actually. We had quite a few young girls, sort of university students, that came up and they’re like, thank you so much, we really enjoyed it. So maybe, you know, it has some resonance with women, younger women, or women generally, friendship, strength.

Vip: What about as you’re performing? You mentioned that sometimes you have eye contact with audience members, if it feels right. Any particular ones that you remember?

VIX: I think it’s just catching a moment with someone, whether you know them or not. And just having that split second of a look or a smile or allowing them to really see what you’re giving out. I think that’s really important. And with outdoor work you can really get into that and play with that as a performer. From doing the performance more and more you really find those moments where you can play with that. Or there are moments when, actually I really need to concentrate on Welly now, or it’s about partnering, or about supporting, or it’s about exploding with energy at this moment. And still speaking through that. That’s just as valid as eye contact.

Vip: A bit about the nature of outdoor performances. How do you feel outdoor performances have helped you to develop as a dancer, choreographer, and artist?

VIX: I think, like we said, it’s very humanizing, and it makes you know what people like and don’t like more. It’s made me aware that it can still feel quite raw to perform. But I actually think that’s quite an exciting feeling. Because of having experience, I think it brings something that’s quite fresh. And each time we perform in a different space with a different audience, in different countries, actually as a performer, it keeps you alive. Each time I can dig deeper into the material or into the piece and find something new for myself, which then I can give out to the audience.

WELLY: And it’s more holistic in a way because you have so many things that- you have to wear different hats within seconds of what you’re doing. So, you come into this space, there’s no wings, there’s no curtains- you just come into this space. So, you’ve already got a relationship going with them. They see us coming into this space and talking to Gareth the technician, or talking to somebody. So, they already see a lot of different things that they usually wouldn’t see in a theatre. There’s no curtain that comes down. And people can come up to you straight away. They can come up and they can grab you or take a photo.

VIX: It’s very personal.

WELLY: Grounding and very personal, I think. But also so frightening. You know, literally, your nerves keep going from- which is always the same with any performance- but your nerves can go from through the roof because you haven’t done a run properly or something, to feeling really great at the end that you really connected with people. You can go through an array of emotions within 15 minutes.

Vip: So what other places or spaces are you curious about performing in or choreographing for?

WELLY: It’s really fun to perform in different spaces. It’s always different in the logistics of things. So, if the floor is quite hard, it’s really hard on the body. Or if the floor is gravelly, or sandy, there’s always something that you have to compromise on if you’re doing outdoor work. But then there’s always something exciting about that because…

VIX: It keeps you on your toes.

WELLY: Yeah, you don’t know who’s going to be there and who’s going to come, what it’s going to feel like, what the weather’s going to be like, will it start raining, will it be- like, from this burning sun, we actually burned the bottom of our feet from the sun because the dance floor was so hot, and the sun was pounding on it. If you stood still for like 5 seconds you’d burn your foot, so it was a lot of footwork.

VIX: It was a bit like being a salamander.

WELLY: So, you know, there’s always that. But places, outdoor places, I think anything that’s got interesting spaces. I always like interesting spaces- if they’re quirky or something that’s sort of, where you wouldn’t usually see dance. I think that’s what excites me working. So in a way, sometimes at festivals it’s all set up in a square or in the middle of somewhere, which actually sometimes you think, ooh it’d be really nice if it was around the corner in that street at the end of that alley. But then that’s programmers and what they want the audience to really [experience].

VIX: I’m always interested in the unexpected places. Maybe the more kind of broken places. Places that are kind of half finished. Places that you wouldn’t expect dance to take place in. And that you’d be able to grab an audience that maybe were unsuspecting.

Vip: How do you prepare for your performances of ‘Dedicated to…’?

WELLY: I think that depends on the space as well. Some places you have a tiny little room, you know, like a tiny little room on our own. Or you have a bright red tent that the sun’s on and you can’t see anything. So that’s always different, completely, completely different. And also you’re quite often sharing with everybody else that’s on that festival. So, you’re all mucking in together. It’s not very glamourous, basically. It all sounds very glam, but it’s not. Outdoor work isn’t glam, which is what I love as well, because I think the people that come and do outdoor work are a very different kind of person. And I feel like they’re more me, personally, more kind of me people, to be honest.

VIX: But there’s definitely a side that you just have to crack on and do it, whatever space or warm-up space, or not warm up space that you’ve got to work with, and you just have to pull it out the bag really.

WELLY: As well as you can…

VIX: As well as you can!

Vip: In the bigger scheme of things, how are outdoor performances, such as this work, important to the development of integrated dance?

WELLY: Oh huge. Integrated dance- sometimes it’s quite hard out there. Obviously, it’s hard to do any kind of dance. But I think integrating into society and for people maybe to come back and see integrated dance, I think it’s really important and I think that it’s hugely important that people are seeing [this sort of work]. I still think people have no idea that there is integrated dance going on. So outdoor work is really important for that. It’s all there for people to see. So maybe it has some kind of knock on effect in that they might go, ooh, I remember that company or oh, I remember seeing something like that. I’ll go and see that in the theatre next week. I just think it’s good for the general public to see integrated dance. Because integrated dance is in a very small pocket of the arts, so in that way, the more people that can see it and the more people that are exposed and come and watch stuff, the more the merrier really. The more the better.

VIX: I have a hope that by putting good dance work out to the outdoors, into the outdoor environment or different festivals, with dancers who have different physicalities, really raises the profile of Candoco and other companies who are working in the same field, or of just good dance. And that dance is something that everybody can do. For me, I just want to see good dance, regardless of physicality. Whether you’re abled or disabled, wherever you’re from around the world, it’s good dance. And that’s what speaks. And that’s what is showcased.

Vip: Where else will you be performing dedicated to?

WELLY: We’re at Canary Wharf next weekend. And we’ll be in Winchester.

VIX: Stockton.

WELLY: Stockton, and there’s talk about maybe London again, but we’re not sure about that at the moment. Oh, and Salisbury.

VIX: There’s quite a lot in the pipeline.

Vip: Could you share about what other works we can look forward to from you? Individually and as a duo.

VIX: As us as a duo? Not sure if we’re going to be doing any more as a duo. We should Welly! Maybe that was the trial run. Now we’re coming on to our finale. We’ll come back when we’re 50 and still be going. Welly and Victoria.

WELLY: I’m just about to make a film tomorrow and the next few days- a solo.

VIX: I’m working with my own company Tribe and I’m still working with Caroline Bowditch and the British Paraorchestra on The Nature of Why which will be at the Southbank in September.

Vip: Anything else you’d like to add about ‘Dedicated to…’ or integrated dance?

WELLY: I think one day, hopefully in the future, we’ll not say integrated dance, and we’ll just say dance, and any physicality, whatever colour. There are lots of dancers that come out of the company and have gone into mainstream- other dance companies with able-bodied dancers all around. When I left the company, I got offered to join two companies where everybody else was able-bodied. In that sense, it is happening, just it takes time.

VIX: I mean, through my work, I’ve just worked with a dancer who has a disability within my company, but I would never ever put her in that box. She’s just a dancer in that company. I mean Welly was in my place prize piece and it’s not because of… it’s because of you… It’s because of how you move and how you dance rather than your physicality.

WELLY: And also, I find it much more interesting with lots of different physicalities in work. It’s just so ingrained me. That’s what I want to see anyway. I mean I know every dancer is physically very different. I’m not really interested in watching a company that’s all exactly the same and looks exactly the same, doing the same movement. And I know there’s a platform for that of course, but personally it’s not my cup of tea.

Vip: Thank you very much for your time.

‘Dedicated to…’ will be touring throughout Summer 2018, see here for dates.

Vipavinee Artpradid is a PhD student at Coventry University’s Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE). Her work explores performer-audience relationships in the complex space shared between dance and the social constructedness of ‘disability’. As part of her collaboration with Candoco, Vip has followed the company’s latest double bill Face In/Let’s Talk About Disaround the country, and interviewed Candoco dancers and talked to audiences about their experiences watching dance.