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Choreographer Sarah Shorten: ‘It’s not about doing the high kick, it’s how you make people feel’

Sarah Shorten, artistic director of Stacked Wonky dance company. Photo: Rod Higginson

Sarah Shorten is artistic director of Devon-based landscape dance company Stacked Wonky, which focuses on creating site-specific movement performances. She tells Giverny Masso how she incorporates children in her work…

Tell me about the development of your company.

Everything happened really fast – I didn’t know what I was doing. We performed a piece in Tottenham Court Road, and had a residency at Cecil Sharp House in Camden. Then I had kids and a bit of a hiatus and moved to Devon. I remember making work in a factory and breastfeeding in cupboards. I’m grateful, though, because this taught me how to merge children into my work. There wasn’t really a precedent, but I wasn’t bothered because really it was about me wanting to keep working with kids of my own. Children and teenagers bring something that adults can’t. When you put a child in a forest at dusk and an audience member discovers them, they know something is up. The hairs on the back of your neck go up, because it’s wrong. It’s a very powerful force, and we have to empower those kids to take that on.

How do you choose where to make work?

Half the time I’ll be somewhere and I’ll think ‘this is the place’. For our piece The Landings, I thought about what it would mean for the North Devon coastline if we could land strangers on our shores and then the audience can follow their journey through the landscape. Sometimes it will be a commission, so it will be someone else’s desire for us to bring our work to their world.

How did you get into dance?

I’m quite maverick, I don’t come from a traditional dance background. I first got involved aged 29, and assumed from the beginning I’d be making work that was not on a stage; I never felt comfortable on stage. I was desperate to be a dancer as a kid, but I came from a fairly low-income family. When I was 29 I was working in a drug rehabilitation centre for women in Manchester, and I visited Trinity Laban in London as there was some dance therapy work happening. Next door there was a lesson going on and I thought: ‘I want to try that.’ Three months later I relocated to London and was hanging out at the back of their class. It was an era when you could turn up to a workshop with Wendy Houston and no one would say: ‘Why are you here?’.

Tell me about your latest work; Those Who Are Not Here Are Here for the Dorset Inside Out festival?

It’s in an area of Boscombe and a third of a mile by two thirds, next to the cliffs. There are over 90 benches in the area. Audience members will walk the route and trigger performances. There are three child performers, a six-month old baby and a guy with his two spaniels.

What have you got coming up?

I’m going to be working with the National Youth Dance Company. There’s an element that worries me about youth dance: the idea that the best dancers go at the front and you learn how to imitate Hofesh Shechter. In my world children have to be instigating, else they won’t feel the authority to be there for two hours or however long. If people feel things, we’ve done our job. It’s not about doing the high kick, it’s how you make people feel.

stackedwonky.com [1]