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It may seem a bit of an odd thing to go to the theatre to commune with nature, but Scotland-based choreographer Natasha Gilmore’s work Family Portrait is just that: an immersive video experience coming to the Esplanade Annexe Studio that will remind you of the gloriousness of moving with child-like abandonment in the great outdoors.
Specifically, in the Scottish Highlands, with its lochs, mountains and ochre moorlands.
“The Highlands is such an amazing landscape,” writes Gilmore in an e-mail interview. “I have really fallen in love with the area and keep returning for holidays. I wanted to capture those stunning locations in the work.”
Family Portrait by Barrowland Ballet, the Glasgow dance company of which she is artistic director, features Gilmore and her three children ranging over rural Scotland. It will screen as part of March On children’s festival, from 9 – 13 Mar 2022. In the film, the children explore the wilderness with their mother, who lets them take the lead. As a quartet, they come up with choreographed movements and touching moments of real intimacy. As an audience, attendees sit on swivel stools, free to follow the action happening across four screens.
Initially conceived as an international, inter-generational project in 2020, with the children taken out of school for a year to join Gilmore on a world tour, Family Portrait evolved when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The project became wholly set in Scotland, filmed over four seasons by cinematographers Robbie Synge, Monika Smekot, George Cameron Geddes and Elga Dudareva. The lockdowns that happened through much of 2020 and 2021 meant that her family became closer to nature, as they live near a park with woodlands and deer, and could take daily walks and climb trees.
“We do a lot of international travel normally so it was such a delight to have the time to really get to know the Highlands so much closer to home,” she adds. “I have toured a lot in the area, but usually I’m in venues, in the darkness, so it was amazing to be out and about and the kids loved it.”
She hopes that the work will inspire and encourage audiences to explore and play in nature. Among her favourite things to do with her children outdoors is balancing big sticks on their heads, or spinning while holding the branches as others jump over them.
And this sense of being curious about organic things can be nurtured even in urban spaces. “The playfulness we find is a physical interaction to the environment around us,” she says. “This can be translated to an urban setting, things to leap over, small walls to climb and balance on or spaces to create an unusual family portrait.”
Besides, children with their natural curiosity always seem to find interesting objects even in urban environments, says Gilmore. “From different types of stones, to skeletons of tiny animals and insects.” To that end, there is an installation component to the piece, in which items like bark, grass, bones of a deer and water from rivers are displayed in glass bottles.
For its upcoming run at the Esplanade, Family Portrait will also be accompanied by on-site activities conceived and led by Singapore creative collaborative team The Kueh Tutus. For example, says the group’s choreographer Melissa Quek, they will take audience members on small expeditions to the gardens of the Esplanade to look for natural specimens that will be added to the growing installation.
“Providing opportunities and space to act and work together, and make memories was an important aspect [of designing the activities],” says Quek.
The Kueh Tutus’ facilitation of the programme aims to bring together the disparate climate and places. On the ways in which links between Singapore and the Scottish Highlands can be drawn, Quek says: “I think it is the act of being in nature that is important. We will find things like twigs, branches, leaves, water. The question is what we do with them or how we value them.”
“The other interesting thing is to see the differences and to try to understand the differences that exist,” she adds. Quek came up with an initial idea of the activities after watching the film and reading the related material. She then pitched it to Gilmore and the Barrowland Ballet team, who explained what they prioritised in the experience and added ideas. “They were really kind and understanding,” Quek says of the openness of the process. “The biggest thing was that there is a shared language of dance and performance that can bring people together.”
Both Gilmore and Quek emphasise the “family” in the film’s title and its importance to the work.
“Family Portrait is not just a celebration of getting out into nature but a celebration of connecting as a family, tuning into each other and allowing for play and exploration,” says Gilmore, who is single mother to Otis, Iggy and Frieda (aged 11, 9 and 5, respectively).
“We obviously know each other very well, and so that makes for very intimate choreography. Each one of them has a different personality and relationship to me and that’s reflected in the way that we moved together and in the dances that we created. We have been engaged in playful physical interactions all their lives, so we were able to draw on this well of physical experiences.”
Her philosophy was also to let the children lead much of the exploration of the natural environments. “If they found something really interesting then it is also interesting for an audience,” she says.
Similarly, Quek says: “It is nice to help children think about family being something that binds us beyond geographical boundaries and that the concept of family is meaningful across cultures.”
The film, which played at Glasgow’s Tramway arts venue in May 2021 and went on to Edinburgh’s International Children’s Festival, has since won an Edinburgh Festival Fringe Bobby Award. “It currently has pride of place on our mantlepiece at home,” says Gilmore. “The whole team have been thrilled by the reception Family Portrait is receiving.”
As for her kids, Iggy and Frieda were both delighted to see themselves on the screens, she reveals. The eldest Otis is “perhaps a little shyer”. “Soon their school friends will have the chance to see the work so they’ll be mini celebrities at school!” she adds.
“I have worked with my children in different projects, and I’m sure we will work together again,” says Gilmore, who has spoken about and campaigned for improving access for parents in the theatre sector. “I would still love to make the international version of Family Portrait that we had planned.”
One scene in Family Portrait, much talked about by reviewers, has Gilmore being buried in bark by her kids. You ask her what it feels like. “As any parent knows, it’s just a relief to have a chance to lie down for a minute,” she says. “But I did discover there was a wee bug inside there with me!”