Fran Landsman: Tripping the light fantastic simply gets better after a certain age


As an observational documentary film-maker I feel it is my job to totally immerse myself in the subject. But the utter joy of becoming one with a contemporary dance company whose average age is 79 came as quite a surprise.

Making Imagine – Save The Last Dance For Me for BBC One proved to be both an inspiring and touching experience for me. In a culture where everyone is desperate to stay young, I was forced to think again.

Getting too close to one’s subjects can have its drawbacks though, and sometimes it’s hard not to relate a little too much. In fact I’ve been through quite a few personas in my time.

When I made a film about autism (My Family And Autism, BBC Two) I became a bit of a loner. It even got to the point where I just stood and flapped my hands when the chaos on location proved just too much.

When I was commissioned to make a film about Evelyn Waugh’s family (Fathers And Sons, BBC Four). The witty one-liners came thick and fast, and the disdain for authority became a dangerous pleasure. What could top that? But then I heard about the Company of Elders – a contemporary dance group based at Sadler’s Wells. They had all taken up dance after they retired, and ranged in age from 61 to 85. They worked with many top choreographers and had performed everywhere from the Albert Hall to the Venice Bienalle.

They sounded fascinating, but would I go grey overnight? Develop arthritis maybe, or lose my marbles entirely? As a dedicated film-maker I was prepared to ignore all dangers and I set off to recce a company dance class. After a few minutes I was totally entranced. Of course they weren’t performing arabesques and jete-ing around the room, but the power and intensity of their movements was both striking and touching. Their joie de vivre was tangible, and if that was catching, I wanted some.

The 20 dancers ranged from Alison who, as a young woman, suffered from a brain tumor which meant she had to relearn how to walk and talk, never mind dance. Then there was Geoff who, at 85, went to six dance classes a week including ballet, jive and salsa.

The best bit was, the more stressed the choreographer became, the more relaxed the dancers. It seems that, once you’re past a certain age you don’t worry quite so much about things. As for me, I began to see that there was a benefit to getting on after all. The whole company were a delight to meet and it was an honour to spend two months with them. I’ve never felt so full of life. If this is old age – bring it on.

‘Imagine – Save The Last Dance For Me’, 23 June, BBC One 10.35pm

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