Motionhouse: the dance-circus group still digging deep at 30
Known for its athletic, high-impact style, Motionhouse gets to grips with the modern world – literally, with dancers moving across buildings and JCBs. Its husband-and-wife founders tell Rachel Elderkin of their future plans
Motionhouse is a dance-circus company known for its high-energy, visually spectacular productions. Its work has included JCB diggers, seen dancers scale the sides of buildings and perform on sets built from giant jenga blocks. It’s an impressive resumé for a company that began its life touring duets.
“When we started, we didn’t imagine that 30 years later we’d be running this company,” says executive director Louise Richards who, along with husband and artistic director Kevin Finnan, has built Motionhouse into the full-time company it is today. “We were just young artists who wanted to make work. So we made a duet and toured it, travelling around in a Volvo Estate.”
“We choreographed our first show so that every time we wanted to change the lights we put in a solo. That way, one of us could go off,” adds Finnan.
Now, things are very different. This year marks the company’s 30th anniversary and, fittingly, it has moved into new premises, Vitsoe, in Leamington Spa, where the company is based. It’s a huge, open-plan warehouse filled with light, which Motionhouse shares with a design company. While the designers create and construct, the dancers run through material from different shows. One couple rehearses a duet under Finnan’s watchful eye, another pair devises new material, while a third practises lifts.
The option to work on multiple productions at once is a huge bonus for a company that currently has two shows touring simultaneously. Charge, the final work in a trilogy that spans 10 years, is coming to the end of its UK tour, while outdoor show Block tours in Australia. “Hopefully this new venue will allow us to develop things even further, working with our sets and with film and media,” muses Finnan.
Ever ambitious, it seems part of Finnan’s nature to keep striving for bigger and better, a penchant that has, in part, led to the spectacle-driven, large-scale shows that Motionhouse now produces. “I was that kid in school that got shouted at for daydreaming,” laughs Finnan. “Now I can make work out of my daydreams.”
Watermusic, a large-scale show recently produced for a festival in Denmark, is a spectacular example of those daydreams brought to life. “We took over a whole harbour,” explains Finnan. “There were skydivers, ships, cranes, dancers on buildings 150ft up.” They even lifted a house out of the water.
The grand vision of such productions filters down into the company’s touring work with ambitious sets, interactive digital imagery and high-impact choreography.
“I’ve always had a sense that theatre is a visual art,” Finnan explains. “We wanted to take that aspect and push it and play with it. All these elements become partners in trying to make this 3D, even 4D, experience on stage.” To achieve such effects, the sets are in the studio from day one of the creative process, allowing the company to create their work around them.
The company’s athletic style, drawing on influences from acrobatics and circus, has been the result not only of its interaction with its sets but also of collaborations with artists and companies. “For The Voyage in 2012, we worked with physical theatre company Legs on the Wall, and more recently with NoFit State Circus for Block, which was a real exchange of skills,” says Richards.
Choreographically, Finnan finds that this fusion of art forms offers a wealth of possibilities. “There’s a great beauty in circus and we want to unlock that in an emotional context – that’s where it’s so rich to us.”
Motionhouse’s high-impact style has helped it grow an enthusiastic following and attract audiences that might not regularly go to watch dance. A recent regional performance attracted an audience of 1,350 on a Wednesday night, something of which Finnan is evidently proud: “Over 30 years we’ve honed what we’re doing, where we want to go and how to reach and engage people. It’s been an interesting journey, evolving our understanding of what spectacle is at this point in time.”
To focus upon what is attractive to audiences now is a smart and practical way of thinking about dance. While not an approach taken by every company, it’s a connection that is perhaps missing from much of the contemporary dance world. “We want those audiences that love dance to see our work, but we also want to attract those who might live up the road from us, who may never have been to dance before,” says Finnan.
Motionhouse’s desire to engage with the public is rooted in the original ethos of the company. “When we started, ‘community work’ was the poor relation,” explains Richards. “We wanted to show that you could make first-class work that could also be accessible to a broad audience, which reminds people that dance can be for everybody. That still underpins our beliefs today.”
5 things you need to know about Motionhouse
1. Artistic director Kevin Finnan was choreographer and movement director of the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
2. In the past year, more than 11,000 people have taken part in one of Motionhouse’s learning and participatory activities
3. In 2010, Perfect, a Motionhouse show about time, became a set piece on the GCSE dance curriculum in England and Wales.
4. Artistic director Kevin Finnan was awarded an MBE in 2013 for his services to dance.
5. Shows Traction and Fragile both feature dancers and JCB diggers – a collaboration that began in 2004. Traction was performed as part of the Marseille-Provence European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2013. Motionhouse has made shows for four European City of Culture celebrations, as well as the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
According to Finnan, that ability to connect with audiences has evolved from the company’s work on an outdoor festival circuit. “Outdoors, you can see when people start to drift and that transformed the dynamic of our shows. They have accelerated over the last 15 years.”
The addition of outdoor work to its touring schedule enabled Motionhouse to exist as a year-round company, a development Richards cites as its “breakthrough”.
“Previously, we had a high dancer turnover so the vocabulary we worked with only got to a certain level. Making that long-term commitment meant we were able to push our initial vocabulary and learn from other artists,” says Richards.
Its dancers are now able to execute sequences of demanding contemporary dance, as well as lifts, aerial and hand-to-hand work – made possible through their year-round training together.
That shift to full-time contracts not only benefited Motionhouse artistically, but also provided a better work-life balance for its dancers. One is currently expecting her second child. A full-time contract, with maternity benefits, means she can return and carry on with her career. “We want dancers to be able to buy their own homes, to build families, to have their own lives,” says Finnan.
It’s a model of sustainability that could truly benefit dancers and the art form. In a time of constrained resources, particularly for independent dancers who work on a project-to-project basis, those goals are often unattainable. To achieve them, most are required to turn to other means of financial support, often away from the dance world.
In the experience of Richards and Finnan, it is a case of maximising the resources available. “There are ever fewer full-time contemporary companies,” Finnan observes. “To make a new one is going against the tide but the fact we have done that is testament to Louise. We have consistently looked for new outlets to our work, to make ourselves relevant and spread what we do.”
That resourcefulness has not only enabled the company to grow, but has also allowed its dancers to be challenged artistically and, importantly, to build a life outside their work. And, after three decades, Motionhouse continues to make enthusiastic plans for the future.
Its 30th celebrations will see it perform “30 lifts for 30 years” around Leamington Spa in August, alongside the continuation of its theatre and outdoor work. There are also plans to begin creating its first family show, plus another large-scale work to be staged in Timisoara, Romania, the European Capital of Culture in 2021. If Finnan’s ideas are anything to go by, it looks set to rival the grand scale of Watermusic.
“To me it’s not that we got here, it’s that we’re more successful now than we’ve ever been and we’re doing the work we want to do,” Finnan says.
Richards agrees: “I think we’re delivering our best work now and I think that’s the natural way. There’s a pressure these days to deliver your best early in your career. But it takes a number of years to really know what your work is. What we do now is entirely fed by our history and the lessons we’ve learned, and I’m proud of our dancers and our achievements”.
Thirty might be a landmark, but for Motionhouse it’s not a resting point.
Executive director: Louise Richards ( pictured left)
Artistic director: Kevin Finnan ( pictured, far left)
Number of performances: 73 (2017-18). Over the last 10 years, the company has performed 1,259 times – an average of 126 performances per year.
Audience figures: Almost 70,000 (2017). Since 2008, nearly 520,000 people have seen the company perform.
Number of employees: 18
Turnover: £750,000-£936,000 per year
Funding levels: Motionhouse is supported using public funding via the National Lottery through Arts Council England