Singing with dancers

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ON BEFORE

On the 3rd and 4th of August a number of Waynflete Singers joined forces with Southern Voices to sing Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium" as the finale of Carlos Acosta's production of "On Before". All we had to do in preparation was learn the piece off by heart and commit to doing lateral flow tests three days running. This was heart in the mouth stuff: one positive or even false positive test would have jeopardised the whole production.

"On Before" was originally conceived by Carlos back in 2010 as a tribute to his mother who had sadly passed away. Having hung up his dancing shoes a few years ago, he got itchy feet during lockdown and contacted Stephen Crocker, executive producer at Norwich Theatre, to see whether a short tour could be organised to herald the reopening of theatres nationwide. And so the plan was hatched: a tour starting at the Theatre Royal in Norwich, wending it's way down to The Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury via The Lowry in Salford and Mayflower Theatre.

We arrived on Monday evening for a temperature check and what most of us expected would be predominantly a conventional singing rehearsal, to find that we had four hours of what can only be described as "interesting" stage moves ahead of us, which even had names attached, such as "The Whirlpool", "The Mini Whirlpool" and "The Red Arrows". The Norwich team calmly talked us through it all - thanks in particular to the producer Stephen Crocker and the stage manager Thomas Vowles for their endless patience in steering us through the routines. Sarah Jones (stage left) and Emma Dean (stage right) were particularly proactive at grasping the nettle and focusing the legs of the sometimes wayward troops. Carlos himself was very reassuring saying it wasn't possible to do anything wrong (really?!), encouraging us to just go with the flow.

When we finally got to the singing bit, Richard Pearce of Romsey Choral Society did a remarkable job of binding together all the voices. I think six choirs were represented in all and I even spotted a Winchester ex head chorister in the mix, now several feet taller than when I last saw him. Wayns contributed a good number of singers including no less than six of their first sopranos, and represented 50% of the tenor section! Richard patiently dealt with the tuning and timing issues to create something rather beautiful, despite having to sing the whole of the first verse to "ooh" (ouch!), not to mention the logistical challenges. Imagine this scenario: sops divided stage left and stage right stuck in the wings with their backs, yes their BACKS to the audience, singing into a SMOKE machine (Olbas pastilles well received), whilst the other voice parts were distributed in a line across the back of the stage behind a gauze screen. So nobody could see or hear each other. Great. But at least we were stationary and not doing our walkabout thing at that point. Until Beata Virgo when we did have to start moving downstage, again in a long line, so tuning continued to be a challenge, but at least we could see the conductor at this point. Until we couldn't.

Because we all had to turn our backs on him AND the audience to walk upstage for the final notes. A lot of very counter-intuitive stuff, but I'd say we held it together admirably. There was a near disaster in the technical rehearsal when we collectively realised we didn't have a starting note. Thanks again to Emma Dean for salvaging this situation with her spectacular backstage sprint to share the A on her iPhone... and on reflection also to Omar Puente who we realised had cleverly moulded his string piece to end on an A to give us our note anyway.

Beyond our own contribution many of us felt very moved by the interaction of Carlos and his leading lady Laura Rodriguez, who hails from his ballet school Acosta Danza in Cuba. (He juggles this with his running of the Royal Ballet School in Birmingham). It was incredible to see how hard these dancers work physically and yet with such fluidity and grace.

The soundtrack was a real eclectic mix including upbeat numbers by Little People, works by John Adams, Murcof, and Alberto Iglesias and the specially commissioned string piece by Omar Puente. The second half opened spectacularly with the routine "Footnote to Ashton" danced by Laura Rodriguez to Handel's Aria "Per te lasciai la luce", sung beautifully by mezzo Ann Murray amidst an array of candles that were lit by no less than four blowtorches during the interval.

The performance was extremely well received and we were treated to a standing ovation on both nights which went a long way to make up for those long eighteen months in the wilderness.

Abundant thanks are due to Michelle Harden of Southern Voices who decided with a steely will that this event was going to happen and guess what, it did! Her clear communication and calm patience with us all was quite exceptional. She has been flooded with thankful emails and here are some quotes from Wayns participants:


"That was some return to live singing in front of an audience!! If anyone had told me in advance that my return would come in the form of sharing the stage with one of the world's great dancers I would have wondered what planet they were on! And it was great that the show provided an opportunity for such camaraderie and solidarity between local choirs (at least six involved to my knowledge) after the horrible time we've all had."

"What a total thrill to perform with you all and to connect with world class dancers and a professional production team in such a magnificent venue, as well as an audience who seemed to relish the return of live events as much as we did."

"Just to say: A couple of audience members stopped me in the street when I came out of the theatre and asked me if I had been with the choir. They were ecstatic about our performance - "spine-tingling" and all sorts of compliments -brought tears to my eyes!"

"May I add my note to the chorus of thanks to you for all you did to enable us to share in the wonderful experience that was "On Before" and to Richard for steering us so patiently through the music. I can now swap notes with my elder son who was chorus director for the show when it was done in Cardiff some years ago!"

"You have done a fantastic job organising everything so meticulously through this whole project and hasn't it just been worth it - what a great experience!! Thanks very much to Richard too for directing us so well in (sometimes!) challenging situations. It has been so enjoyable to take part with everyone, in proximity to such illustrious dancers."

"I enjoyed this unique experience more than I can say - it will stay with me for ever."

"Thank you so much for making this happen! It has been an utterly joyous experience, a real red-letter moment, the memories of which will warm my cockles for years to come!"

"Adding my thanks and appreciation for the past three days, it has been a truly life affirming experience to be part of this project with so many wonderful people. Enormous thanks to Michelle, your communication has been so clear and efficient. And thanks to Richard for such good natured and helpful direction in challenging circumstances.

It has been lovely to meet new people and collaborate in this way. I hope there will be more opportunities in the future , though I suspect nothing will ever come up to the dizzy heights of singing with Carlos Acosta"

But the last word has to go to one of our tenors:

"What an August performance!"


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