Barrowland Ballet on their trio of tiger tales

Tiger Barrowland Ballet

Barrowland Ballet - one of Scotland’s most exciting and successful contemporary dance companies - is touring this autumn with not one, not two, but three very special tiger-themed shows: TigerTiger Tale and Playful Tiger.

While the main thrust of the story is the same in each performance, the productions vary in their performative approach, and meet different needs for different audiences. Tiger Tale is for ages 7+, Tiger is aimed at adults and young people aged 14+, and Playful Tiger is an adaptation of Tiger Tale, which has been created specifically for children and young people who are profoundly autistic and mainly non-verbal.

We caught up with Barrowland Ballet's Artistic Director, Natasha Gilmore, to find out more.

Tell us about the Tiger shows - what are they about, and why were they created?

Each Tiger piece tells the story of a troubled family whose lives are turned upside down when a tiger invades. The family in our story are stifled by the rigidity of their life: they have emotionally imprisoned themselves and so need the tiger to be a catalyst for change.

Each piece is made for a distinct audience. Tiger Tale is for children 7+ and their families, Tiger is for adult and teenage audiences, and we are currently working on Playful Tiger: the third in a trilogy of Tiger productions.

Playful Tiger has been created specifically for children and young people who are profoundly autistic and mainly nonverbal. Being specific about who the pieces are made for gives us the freedom to develop each production in different ways to suit the audiences. Playful Tiger has a very different structure that allows for an interaction between audience and performers. The audience capacity is six to eight young people and their carers.

The second part of the show is an improvisation with the children dancing with the cast as the performers respond to the children, allowing them to take the lead within the structure of the piece. Tiger Tale tells the family’s story from the perspective of the daughter allowing the children in the audience to identify with her experience, while Tiger focuses more on the breakdown of the parents’ relationship, exploring elements such as the complications of their sex life, that would not be on a child’s radar.

My interest to make Playful Tiger came about during the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival when I saw Storm a theatre piece by Bamboozle who make work specifically for children with profound autism. As I sat watching the way they performed and engaged with the children, I thought how perfect dance as an art form would be for this audience and how the skills of dance artists would be useful for engaging the children in physical improvisations and dances.

When making work for children and young people, my objective is for the work to be simultaneously accessible yet sophisticated, to be enjoyed by the adults as well as the children- Natasha Gilmore, Barrowland Ballet

At the same festival, Ellie Griffiths, a theatre practitioner who specialises in neurodiverse audiences, saw our production Little Red and later our production Tiger Tale, and approached me to see if I was interested in working together. I was delighted at this synchronicity because I knew that I lacked the expertise, but was so excited at the prospect of making work for this audience. Through funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation, we have started to research this new piece, Playful Tiger, at Isobel Mair school. Following training days with Ellie we built our set in the school hall and over a series of interactive performances and workshops explored the material for this new production. It was brilliantly chaotic with beautiful improvised duets occurring between the performers and the pupils. The children that this production is aimed at do not currently have access to theatre productions, because even a relaxed performance might not cater to their complex needs.

I’m thrilled by the prospect that these children and their families will have access to contemporary theatre and that they will have a visibility in our arts centres across Scotland. To support this, through our Paul Hamlyn Foundation funding and as part of a wider research and audience development project surrounding the Playful Tiger, tour we are delivering a programme of activities to ensure a real welcome for these children when they visit their local arts centre.

This includes sensory auditing carried out at our venues by Ellie Griffiths and a young person on the autistic spectrum. The creation of Venue and Audience Support packs and Visual Story resources to support venues and their audiences in preparation for the performances. The visual story will be sent to audience members to acquaint the children with the performers, the props, the set and a description of what will happen. Including explaining to the parents that we don’t expect their children to be quiet and sit still through the performance.

In what ways do the shows differ from one another, and are there any similarities?

In all the productions there is very real physical risk-taking place, as performers navigate themselves through a unpredictable changing landscape as the set reconfigures throughout the piece.

The three pieces are all immersive with the audience sitting up close to the action on all four sides. There is a sensory element, with the use of the smell of oranges that is released with the tiger and the burning of matches in the dark.

Each production does, however, have very distinct differences. Each piece has a different tone achieved through the structure of the story and the way the pieces are directed, emphasising for example the inner world of the daughter in Tiger Tale, the mum’s state of mind in Tiger, and of course the biggest difference is the attitude and behaviour of the audiences themselves that adjusts the atmosphere so dramatically. The way each piece is edited, how quickly do we meet the Tiger, which elements are left in or taken out has been chosen based on the audience.

What creative process did you go about to develop them?

Tiger and Tiger Tale were co-created by playwright Robert Alan Evans and I, although there is very minimal text in the productions, what was brilliant working with him is his ability to structure stories and his imaginative playfulness in the creative process. The creative team made up of three dance artists Jade Adamson, Kai-wen Chuang and Vince Virr, composer Kim Moore and set designer Fred Pommerehn worked alongside Rob and I to devise the pieces.

Every single artist contributed to the creation, and this is recognised in the fact that the dancers receive royalties for the shows alongside the rest of the creative team. Early on in the research period we knew we wanted to seat the audience on four sides right up close to the action with the Tiger invading the space from outside. We started to develop an obsessive character for the mum’s role where she was so focussed on cleaning that she does not interact with her daughter, this gave Fred the idea of the use of multiple buckets in the design.

So, on the first day of devising the actual piece, following the research period, we were able to build the set and start experimenting with the hanging buckets, incorporating them into the choreography. Finally the sculptural string element of the cobweb like structure that surround the set, allowing the audience see in but trapping the family, was developed. The set unleashes the Tiger in unexpected ways sending the hanging buckets crashing to the floor and spilling their contents as the chaos explodes.

Kim Moore was with us in the studio through the devising process discovering the right textures for the piece though improvisation and compositions using viola, guitar, voice and her incredible electronic sound. The live sound supported and stimulated the improvisations, which in turn inspired the recorded elements. She developed the full sound design placing speakers to fill the space and the addition of subs to crate the thrilling rumbling grows of the Tiger.

How did the company go about creating three different productions?

Our first focus was to complete Tiger: this being the longest on the three productions in terms of content. From there we started to focus on the relevant parts for a younger audience, how could we shift the focus to the daughter, we took out the elements that related solely  to the parents emotional state and their relationship, their desires.

This edit left us with the content that related specifically to the daughter within the story, some parts were harder to let go of but the overall effect was that the she was placed at the heart of the story. We then shifted our focus to creating a different atmosphere through the directing, the way certain scenes played out, for example the interaction between the mum and the Tiger has a different dynamic within the two pieces.

Playful Tiger starts with a set performance part and then within the structure when the Tiger invades the children are invited to be swept up in the wildness in a physically interactive way, then as the characters rediscover their happier, calmer environment the children too are taken on this journey. At the end of the show the children in the audiences of Tiger Tale and Playful Tiger get to explore the set and play with the cast and the props.

What are the main objectives when creating work for children and young people?

When making work for children and young people my objective is for the work to be simultaneously accessible yet sophisticated, to be enjoyed by the adults as well as the children and for it to be well edited. Playful Tiger has been made so that children with profound autism and their carers are able to access the theatre, dance as an art form seems a perfect fit. I’m thrilled that these children and their families will have access to contemporary theatre and that they will have a visibility in our arts centres across Scotland.

What would you like audiences to take away from the shows?

It’s really important to me that the families and schools attending Playful Tiger come away feeling that their child was welcomed and their needs met and that they had an enriching immersive experience of contemporary theatre.

The Tiger shows are touring across Scotland throughout September and October. See for full details.

Images: Courtesy of Barrowland Ballet, (Brian Hartley).

This article was published on 03 Sep 2018