Make/Shift @ Earthing the Spirit, Burnlaw Centre, 26 July 2016 (i)

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In late July of each year Burnlaw organises and hosts a five-day festival called Earthing the Spirit. It is now in its 16th year. It began as a response to an interest in focusing and concentrating some of the ideas that draw people to attend smaller events at Burnlaw, and over five days to have a more immersive experience of workshops and activities that explore ideas around personal and community growth, nature and ecology, and spiritual and multi-faith enquiry. Burnlaw is situated in Northumberland’s North Pennine hills and is particularly popular with people living a more urban oriented life.

The festival is inter-generational and groups of friends and families camp close to the events field, which includes marquees and berber tents. A fire always burns in the centre of the field. Everyone contributes in whatever ways they can to a programme of evening entertainment. The event is extremely popular in the way that it is very friendly and completely inclusive. Anything between 80 and 100 people attend. (More than that and the resources for the festival would struggle to meet demand.)

It was thought that this social and physical environment ideal for the concluding public engagement event for this research and development phase of the Make/Shift project. The event took place one afternoon in the Centre’s activity room mid-way through the festival. Usually there is always a menu of activities to choose from, but it was decided to make this the only activity for everyone over the age of 11.

img_0093The space became very full, which gave the beginning of the event a sense of anticipation and significance. Joining Claire, Tim and Christo were refugee and asylum seekers Sara from Pakistan, Omari from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Abraham from Nigeria, and Afshin from Iran. There was an extremely engaged atmosphere in the room right from the start. Penny Grennan, who is undertaking a written piece that tracks the narrative arc of the four-month project, was also present and at our invitation was going to chair the final group discussion of the afternoon.

                                                                             

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We had planned and shaped the workshop around our leading question of how might contemporary choreographic practice engage with the refugee and asylum seekers’ experience of displacement. In effect, the whole session, which involved practical and imaginative engagement with themes and ideas, together with one-to-one conversations and whole group discussion, took guidance from this question and received a range of very positive and useful responses

We began with everyone standing and remaining in place while saying their name to near neighbours. It is said that we are never more than seven people away from knowing everyone in the world – so we then ensured that our names travelled as far around and across the group as possible.

We began with everyone standing and remaining in place while saying their name to near neighbours. It is said that we are never more than seven people away from knowing everyone in the world – so we then ensured that our names travelled as far around and across the group as possible.

Still standing in our own place we also made mention of the fact that it can be said that our own body is our first and primary home. With our hands on our rib-cage we took deep breaths – breathing into the belly and lower back.

Moving on from this quiet individual work we flagged up that the act and experience of covering distance is common, and is often undertaken by walking. As a large group in a relatively small space we walked through and around the space – and were invited to notice various things while making our way and navigating the space. Opportunities emerged to walk with others from time-to-time. Five minutes was then spent with a nearest partner to share experiences that were felt to be of interest and importance.

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As Make/Shift has been working with Crossings in Newcastle, Omari talked about the work of the organisation – its beginnings as a music initiative for refugees and asylum seekers, and its subsequent development in the area of advocacy, representation, and friendship. He also spoke about our collaboration at Whitfield Primary School, where the work with 9 – 11 year olds brought another angle to our enquiry and research.

Abraham followed and told us about the touring exhibition People Like Us – a collaboration between members of Crossings and a writer and photographer.

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We had already decided to present at this event our studio-based research into the body’s relationship with a used car tyre connected to a blue plastic rope; and the body’s relationship with a chair when exploring encounters with bureaucracy. Claire would perform the first and Tim the second.

Playing with these and projected onto the back wall was Christo’s animation based on well-recorded routes of people migration across Europe. This took as its source material routes from the western Mediterranean and up through Spain; across the central Mediterranean from Libya to Italy; and through Turkey and onto the Greek Islands. It is an attempt to destabilise the Eurocentric viewpoint of being overwhelmed from all angles, with Europe as the centre, and to establish that migration moves out and away from its own many centres. In addition we were considering how to integrate video into live choreography.

To introduce this next episode we returned to walking and introduced the tyre being passed around from person to person, rolled between people and, when possible, over people’s heads. The blue plastic rope joined. Followed by the light fold-up chair.

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For the duration of these three objects being passed around Afshin sang and played on guitar a song written by a friend while a political prisoner in Iran. Everyone had a hands-on experience of these three objects before sitting down on the floor.

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During Claire’s performance, Sara recited a lullaby poem in Urdu a number of times.

And during Tim’s piece Abraham stood and spoke about the difficulties and frustrations for asylum seekers in navigating Home Office bureaucracy.

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There followed a few minutes of informal discussion before Penny chaired a discussion that invited initial responses from our four refugee and asylum seeking guests, followed by a range of profound responses about the nature and the value of the workshop and the experience of seeking asylum in our country, culture and society. So much was said and spoken of, we ran well over time, but felt it all so very useful and intensely interesting. And people remarked that the event made a considerable contribution to this year’s Earthing the Spirit.

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