Rosemary Lee: On Taking Care and On ‘On Taking Care’

Rosemary Lee photographed by Richard OliverRosemary Lee photographed by Richard Oliver

Rosemary Lee has been choreographing, performing and directing for over 30 years. Known for working in a variety of contexts and media, she has created large-scale site-specific works with cross-generational casts, solos for herself and other performers, installations and films. Rosemary also writes and guest teaches and lectures internationally.

In June I visited Rosemary at her house in North London. It was a warm day but we sat in her cool kitchen with cups of tea and talked for a couple of hours. The conversation seemed to hover around particular topics, resulting in an interview that seems to ask to be published in six parts of varying lengths.

As speech became text, Rosemary wanted to make changes. These changes are in the text – green for additions or alterations, blue for comments, and gaps where things have been removed.

On Taking Care is a DVD resource around Rosemary’s work Common Dance. I begin by asking about its role as documentation.

I should talk a bit about that, really
I was very lucky through ResCen to meet someone called Nikki Pollard
I think you’d have loved her work
She was an English literature,                  Cambridge graduate
She was always a dancer
Sadly she died really young
She’d done a lot of work as a researcher, done her PhD about working with artists to write about them but to write with them, not to write about them
That whole thing of feeling you’re like a butterfly with the pin through
I’d always been really wary about academia and art and the relationship with people writing about your work as if that becomes more influential than the artist’s intention
She was really looking at that
We did a lot of co-writing, and because she would come and watch all the work, I’d have someone sitting very quietly, watching
I found that very helpful in terms of keeping the audience in mind
I had an audience through those workshops and it made me even more aware of how would someone read this?
She became a fantastic collaborator
She helped me, she was very influential in us finding new ways to document the work

I often feel that after you’ve made a piece of work, you’ve got your notebook and all the ideas
Lovely visual ideas before it
And then the real thing manifests itself and sometimes it’s more ordinary, or it’s gone away from that
But it’s one manifestation of this idea or world you wanted to create
But it’s only one
And it felt like for me that that world was still there, the potential of that world was still there
I hadn’t milked it enough
So with Beached,  a Commonplace       book, (that’s the title of a book available from ResCen) which she helped me, she actually thought of
It was as if she was aware, by watching the process, that I was still kind of living with these images
That had gone now, because the live work had
But the images were still present
And how could we bring them into another way, another form
So we wrote this book that’s more like a book of poetry, or musings
Perhaps a bit impenetrable
But it was an experiment
Thanks goodness for ResCen, thank goodness that we had the chance to experiment with another way of bringing it to life
It might not be documenting but it’s a second life, like a cat having nine lives
Pieces have a lot of lives

With Common Dance
There were so many people saying oooh, we must make a documentary about how this piece was made, like fly-on-the-wall
And I’m tempted by that but I always know I can’t do that because first and foremost I must be thinking about the piece
I mustn’t focus on the documentary that’s going to come
So it’s just too much
So I didn’t want it to be a documentary, I wanted it to be something that somehow revealed the depth and the multiplicity
So many worlds all crossed together that you couldn’t separate them
I couldn’t work out how I was gonna do that, document that
Luckily the wonderful Ros Chesher had been filming many of the rehearsals and performances

Doran George, who’s one of the interviewers on the DVD
On Taking Care, the symposium, was inspired by Doran’s amazing symposium that he did as part of his residency at Chisenhale that was called The Mourning Dance, and he was investigating grief
I just thought wow! That’s so interesting
That’s what my work is about, it’s about birth and death on some level
It’s about the human condition, and I’m so interested in social care and in the soft sciences, the humanities

And if I wasn’t a dancer I’d want to be working with children in some other way
Or behavioural work, I don’t know
The caring professions, serving
That relationship of caring for someone feels quite similar to me in terms of when you’re caring to bring forth a piece
The kind of care you have to put into it
How humble you have to be and how you have to kind of be in that place of serving it as well as creating it
All that rich interchange feels really similar in caring for someone who’s dying
Also being there when someone gives birth
I’ve done both, once
I was really interested in that place, that moment, and the whole thing of being present and all of that

Often educational tools, thing with community dance, y’know what’s your practice, what’s your methodology, feels too limited, because I can’t put a box around it
I was talking to Doran about making the work and about the symposium and he said why don’t we do interviews, like this
And that helped me, because I can’t go ‘and I do this’
I can’t talk about my practice in that way
Someone else has to look at it and unpick it for me
So that’s how it evolved
So it is a document but hopefully is a kind of resource, as well
It’s not just documenting the work

I ask whether the DVD was a pre-planned part of the project.

I thought it might be
I think, yes, I think ResCen must have said we’d really like you to produce something that documents this process
When Ros was filming I thought that we’d use that footage in some way
But I didn’t know what it would be
I just knew it was there
It was a massive job because we had hours of footage
Eight different chapters
And they’re long
I purposely said I didn’t want to just get bite-sizes
These are gonna be long, a bit rambly
They’re edited,                                  I answer the same question but under different headings and I think that that’s quite useful because that’s how it is
You don’t do this and do that, it’s much more fluid
Yes, I am really interested in that, but I’m wary of getting too… traditionally academic
I’ll say that
I know that I’m in a university but sometimes I get a bit worried about that
I have removed this line because it is misleading and could be misinterpreted
ResCen has been really helpful for me so I’m not critical of that at all

I do feel quite passionate about teaching, and about people who are going to go in and work with people that aren’t trained, or work in community settings
I think there are models of good practice and I think that there are questions you should ask yourself
Having gone through the big year of participation with the Olympics
I think there were a few models that were really exploitative and others that were absolute genius
I’ve nothing but praise for Danny Boyle

I know that he spent five hours shaking the hand of every person
That’s fantastic
Of course there’ll have been little things that had to get cut
You can’t please everybody
In general, I think that was masterful
I think he cared, he genuinely cared
I think caring is the thing that I’m so fascinated by
When you care about something you talk about it the whole time
It’s about caring about the relationships you make and caring about the work and caring about how it relates to society
It mattering
When something doesn’t matter, when it’s no purpose or you can’t care for it
That’s when things become completely dysfunctional, I think
That’s why we’re in this mess now
Because Thatcherism wasn’t about caring, not in the slightest
We’re kinda stuck, now, with a legacy and generations that don’t understand what care in this biggest sense might mean
I think education comes under that as well
Caring about what we do, and what surrounds us
Feels like it’s at the core of everything
So in that sense it is a document, but it’s also a bit of a plea to say
Ask yourself those questions, as a practitioner

The On Taking Care DVD is a resource available from Artsadmin.