DANCE / Dishing the dirt: Marianne Brace spoke to the choreographer Lea Anderson about her new work

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The Independent Culture
Twelve dancers in velvet ballgowns, crepe cocktail dresses and Doc Martens are trying out a routine for the choreographer Lea Anderson. 'Gary - tweak and lunge. Lift your skirt,' she suggests. 'And if your hat comes off just boot it out the way.' Gary has dreadlocks and the nippiness of a basketball player. Why is he wearing a dress? Anderson happens to like dresses. 'We have to work with found costumes and dresses are what we've got a lot of.'

If dresses are in abundance, time is at a premium. Anderson, choreographer of the all-female Cholmondeleys (pronounced Chumleys) and all-male Featherstonehaughs (Fanshaws), usually enjoys 10-week rehearsals. But she has just two weeks in which to produce her dance piece Dirt, part of the Women's Playhouse Trust 'City Works' project. And if that doesn't make things dicey enough, Anderson has chosen a group of mixed abilities. Only half the dancers are formally trained. All are non-professional and unemployed.

On Day One the pace has been leisurely, with dancers being asked to improvise a sequence using a garment, an ironing board and an iron. There's an intake of breath but they pitch in, a large girl ironing the hair of her tall, thin partner, a man surfing on his board, while another irons the sole of a boot with the wearer's foot still in it.

Later, Anderson will be introducing bowls of washing-up water, plates, cutlery and 'lots and lots of dresses'. Dirt is about domesticity and obsession. It's something that fascinates the choreographer, who tells of a Featherstonehaugh who 'can't watch television unless there are Hoover marks on the carpet'.

Anderson 'collects' her movements from anywhere and everywhere rather than from dance classes. And the smallest movements attract her, like raising one finger to catch a waiter's eye. Giving her dancers an inner narrative, she provides them with images that they can project. In the past she's put Karen Carpenter's walk, Cagney and Lacey's body frisks and an aftershave ad into the same work.

But the audience would never know, for Anderson believes 'dance is the most unsuitable medium for a narrative in the sense of storytelling. When I make dancers think of things, it's to give them an attitude towards the movement. It's not just making beautiful shapes in space.'

Which is why, for Dirt, Anderson was interested in finding candidates with performance rather than dancing skills. About 90 people turned up for the auditions which were advertised in the Big Issue and Time Out. 'I hate auditions,' Anderson says. 'Whether someone can pick things up very quickly in a studio has nothing to do with what they're like on stage.'

She wanted people who looked interesting, some of whom would be 'very technical and others who would be motivated to devise their own stuff. The usual dance student attitude is wanting to be told everything - you're always a pupil. I was looking for people who'd be willing to take responsibility for themselves.' According to Navraj, a graduate in drama, during the audition 'we were taught a routine. Lea chucked out a load of people who had got the movement quite deliciously.' He was picked instead.

'And I was crap.'

This isn't the first time Anderson has coaxed dancers from other walks of life into her steps. She has used a tree-surgeon and a doctor before. And she hires in all shapes and sizes. 'I'm no sylph. I don't actually like people to have that elongated, stretched-out ballet look. Dance is real people. When I go and see dance I usually hate it, which makes me strive to do something which is different.'

Nine years ago when Anderson started choreographing she noticed that dance always attracted the same minority audience. 'A lot of people who go to theatre, cabaret or comedy won't go and see dance. It's seen as needing some kind of specialist knowledge or secret language. I felt - and still do - that if you don't think there's a way into it, then it's not good work. Good work is accessible.'

Deciding to seek out people who would like dance but didn't yet know it, the Cholmondeleys entertained at gallery openings, supported bands and pursued 'groups of people who were out and tried to perform to them. Sometimes you'd get on stage in a dreadful costume and (the room) would be full of Hell's Angels. It was a really hairy thing to do.'

Yet dancing in such circumscribed conditions - slotted between sculptures, or avoiding beer spillages on the floor - encouraged a gestural style, and Anderson developed an obsession with unison work and patterning. She concentrated on different ways of amplifying and focusing small movements.

Anderson also discovered that she works well within severe limitations. 'Dance. You get into a studio and what can you do? Everything. It's almost too open. If you're painting you have an idea of the colours you're using. With dance I'm very aware of the design and the constantly moving shapes and tensions between things.'

Her visual approach comes from having begun a degree in sculpture at St Martin's College of Art, London. 'Dance is probably the only art form that you experience in a different way when you're doing it to when you're looking at it. Something may feel fantastically beautiful when you're dancing but when you see it, it has none of those dynamics. Having a fine art training develops your looking skills.'

It means, too, that she often begins work with a visual image, like pictures in newspapers. 'I'm really interested in what movement means and the relationships between people. You're not just making a shape if you go up to someone and touch them intimately.' And yet 'dancers are trained from day to night to lose all their own personality and to make a shape the same as everyone else. I'm trying to get the interesting personalities out of people.'

Back in the studio, at the close of the first week, things are moving at fever pitch. Everyone is rehearsing a group dance taken from Jailhouse Rock, performed with different music and in period dress. They have also been working on a second involving 'fish, a poisoned koala bear and my dad dancing'. It looks good but how are the dancers faring? Michelle, who is trained, finds herself 'watching the non-dancers most of the time. I like their performance style.'

But, for the untrained, it's tough going. One man left on the second day during a particularly balletic warm-up. He stopped dancing, stared into space, and left with his things. 'I know that feeling,' Laura admits, 'when you think you're going to look a fool.'

She had one difficult day trying to keep up with the frenetic pace and fancy footwork of the Elvis routine. 'I reached a point when I thought 'I can't do it.' It was so bad, I thought I might cry or hit somebody.' For Navraj, too, it has been unexpectedly demanding. 'Counting bars is really difficult for me and everything is incredibly quick. It's excellent, a real strain.' He gives a weary smile. 'I really do enjoy it.'

Preview tomorrow, perfs Fri, Sat, Wapping Pumping Station (071-379 9700)

(Photograph omitted)