Reflections on The Argonauts

Welly O’Brien and Jemima Hoadley
Welly O'Brien and Jemima Hoadley reflect on The Argonauts and what could have been.

Welly O’Brien

In 2013 I was asked by Candoco, alongside Chris Owen, to hold dance workshops in Georgia and Armenia, hosted by the British council. Subsequent years later, numerous workshops were held as part of a programme called Unlimited; Making the right Moves, run by the British Council in the South Caucasus and Ukraine. Candoco artists who delivered sessions as part of that programme were Jemima Hoadley, Kate Marsh, Joel Brown, Susanna Recchia and Laura Patay.

As a culmination of six years of work, Candoco commissioned Lost Dog and Ben Duke to create a piece of work to showcase performers from the region. It was an exciting chance for dancers to come together, for friendships, tour and travel. Candoco and Ben Duke created a piece of work with 10 dancers that were selected from the region. I was invited alongside Jemima Hoadley to be Rehearsal Directors for Ben. Personally, it was a joy for me to be back and work with the group, many of whom I remember from previous workshops over the years.

The making period was hosted in Kiev, Ukraine with the brilliant support of the British Council and an extended group of wonderful translators, and support workers. At first, translation was tricky as there were so many factors to take into consideration but we soon found our way and “The Argonauts” was born.

The piece is a theatrical blend of Greek tragedy and characters, along with personal stories which the dancers kindly shared with us throughout the process. The dancers threw themselves into every task with complete enthusiasm and energy and never failed at giving their all. Ben’s tasks bought out the dancer’s voices and at times their singing voices! It’s a show with depth in which you see every character/ dancer fully.

We toured the work in the South Caucasus and were shown around the cities, met wonderful people, ate delicious food and saw some breathtaking countryside, as well as performing in beautiful theatres. The group bonded for life which was a joy to see. Memories I will take away from the experience are smiling faces, a bonded union of people that came together and created something really special.

The Argonauts was due to come to London and perform at the Southbank Centre as part of LIFT 2020 in June this year. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, it couldn’t happen. We were all looking forward to it very much and the dancers were looking forward to coming to the UK and being together again.

A small film was created from footage taken from each of their respective homes during lockdown, in a form of coming together. We hope and wish that one day it will happen in the ‘real’ world and ‘The Argonauts‘ will be together again.

Jemima Hoadley

When I received the news that, due to Covid19, LIFT Festival was cancelled and therefore The Argonauts would not be performed at Southbank Centre, I felt at a loss. So much effort had gone into trying to make this performance happen.

Firstly, I mourned for the dancers and then for the audience who would not get to see this work. As Ben said in his reflection on this loss “Is a piece of art that hasn’t been seen by an audience still a piece of art?”.

A performance tour to London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall is a dream not many dancers get to fulfil in their careers and for The Argonauts (our collective noun for the cast) this was going to be a, perhaps, once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to Europe (let’s pretend we are still part of the EU) to develop the work and be together again, in residence and on stage…and now it wasn’t to be. I imagined the dancers receiving this news and feeling…broken.

Pondering the loss of this work, I thought of the human connection it had afforded last year when we made it; the amazing Argonauts family that the dancers seamlessly formed, in spite of multiple language barriers, and I thought how we should honour this family and honour the work, regardless of the loss of this performance opportunity.

As social distancing in the UK ramped up (before Zoom birthday get-togethers were a thing), I imagined us – the dancers and creative team – getting together, remotely and having some kind of Argonauts ‘happening’ – just for us. Could we relive some of the piece? Could we do a script reading? Maybe we could just have a mini-disco (a reference to one of the sections of the work)?

Thinking about what exactly we could do together, with the Argonauts dancers, to mark what we would be missing, we imagined nightmare Zoom calls, with 5 languages being cross interpreted. We had to keep lowering our expectations, but actually what we came up with felt apt for the time – a very simple idea involving each of the dancers filming themselves dancing either inside their homes or outside. We wanted them to enjoy the process and have the freedom to be creative.

The preceding months in worldwide lockdown had thrown out so much dance video content, that we had quite a good idea of what we didn’t want to create and a vague sense of what we did: In the live performance of The Argonauts, a deaf dancer signs the Buffalo Springfield song ‘For What It’s Worth’ in Russian Sign Language (RSL is shared by many post-Soviet countries). The rest of the ensemble stop what they are doing and are drawn to join her, ending as one joyous resistance. It felt like this song was important and captured the spirit of the work, so we asked the dancers to use it for their videos.

Directing a film from a different continent is difficult. For everyone.
“Please can you film yourself again, this time with the sunlight behind the camera, not behind you?”,
“Please can you move closer to the camera?”,
“Travel across the frame…”,
“Enter the frame once you’ve started recording!”,
“Please do the same again, but filmed in landscape?”,
“Please can you do more of your beautiful dancing this time?”…

Perhaps it was a cultural lost-in-translation thing? It was like one of those old-school live messenger chats, where the timing is so out, that you end up having multiple simultaneous conversations, that don’t make any sense.

Each of us gave our time voluntarily, with a common aim of creating something to celebrate and mark what would have been.

Related journal entries

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Find more info here.