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Neema Bickersteth: Century Song

By | Published on Saturday 11 August 2018

Fringe First winners from Canada, Volcano, return to the Festival with a fascinating show called ‘Century Song’, which explores 100 years of black women’s unspoken history through wordless music, movement and visuals.

With ‘Century Song’ being so interesting in both form and message, I wanted to speak to the performer at the heart of it, Neema Bickersteth, to find out more about the show and her story.

CM: Can you start by telling us how you would describe the show? It’s listed in theatre but seems as though it crosses more genre boundaries than that?
NB: ‘Century Song’ begins with the music recital form and then borrows heavily from the worlds of dance, theatre and fine art along the way. The songs chosen – which are performed in chronological order – all have wordlessness in common. We have connected them through visual imagery geared to the eras through which we pass.

We owe debts to two source texts in particular for inspiration: ‘In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens’ by Alice Walker, which explores a largely untold history of black women in the Americas, and Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’, which follows its main character through many identities over a vast span of time.

CM: So would you say the show tells a story?
NB: It takes the audience on a journey. The journey isn’t a traditional story – it’s wordless and it’s driven by music and visual imagery. But it is an emotional trip, it moves through time, and it definitely arrives somewhere: in the present, with a woman singing a kind of song that didn’t exist 100 years ago.

CM: What are the primary themes of the piece?
NB: Audiences receive this show differently wherever we go – as a non-verbal piece, it’s really subjective. So different people will see different things in it. For me, it’s about all the versions of you that happened before you happened.

CM: The exploration of black women’s history is a really important theme. Is it your hope that this show will educate people on this?
NB: This show doesn’t work in the same way as a text-driven show. Maybe it will educate, but it doesn’t teach a lesson – not in any ordinary sense. Maybe it takes the viewer somewhere they haven’t been before. Maybe it makes connections they haven’t seen made before. Maybe it offers something new to its audience – a new way to look inside someone else.

CM: What was the inspiration for the show? What made you decide to focus on these themes?
NB: As a classical singer, I have spent a great many years training my voice to the exclusion of almost anything else. Once I became immersed in the form, and no longer a student of it, then I began to question the form itself. I started to wonder how I, as a black person singing white European roles from another era, connect personally to this art form.

I also realised that my voice and my body – the idea of singing and dancing together – had gotten separated by all that training. Growing up, I always loved making noise, but I also loved moving my body. I would make up fake ballet dances in my living room. Who knows where that came from?! I think that because my parents are from West Africa, music and dance were just a part of my life. No one was afraid to move their bodies, no one was afraid to make noise. That always seemed natural.

So, at some point, it became problematic to connect with what I was trained to sing. I love this music, but I began to feel constricted in my expression of it, and I began to look for other ways to fuse my training and love of classical music, with my dawning awareness of other modes of expression.

That was the start.

And because I had this secret that I wanted to sing and dance at the same time, that was how ‘Century Song’ began, with me and Kate Alton – the choreographer – just trying things together. I wanted to go back to my past, or my roots, or something within me, to try to put voice and movement together again: to mash up my unnatural-turned-natural voice with what my body always wanted to do, which was move.

So this began as an experiment. And then the creative team realised it was more than that. It was about what the music and movement was doing as it passed through me – it was about who I am – and, by extension, who we all are: a sum of historical parts that can’t be pinned down or even spoken about.

CM: How did you go about putting the show together?
NB: Slowly! And with a lot of great artists working alongside me – which is how Volcano works. It started with the music, then the movement and then came a lot of questions and suggestions and more experiments.

I’ve been working on this show for over five years, yet every time I perform it, it’s new again. I have to master my mind, the singing, the dancing, and then fill everything up with heart and self. It becomes a practice, a kind of meditation.

CM: What made you want to bring it to the Edinburgh Festival?
NB: I don’t know a lot about producing, but my partner, Ross Manson, who founded Volcano, thought that Edinburgh was where the show needed to be in order to amplify it.

CM: How do you feel Edinburgh audiences are responding to the show?
NB: They’re lovely. And they’re buying tickets and coming to see it, so it feels like they’re finding something in the show that they like. Some people are stopping me on the street and being incredibly sweet.

CM: What are you enjoying most about being in Edinburgh?
NB: I love it. It’s been a massive tour. I’m travelling with my three year old daughter, as well, and the team arrived here from doing the show in Rwanda, at a new festival there called Ubumuntu. So, we’ve gone from one massive experience to another. Life has been full. But Edinburgh feels very comfortable – friendly, not too big, and beautiful.

CM: What plans do you have for the show after its Edinburgh run?
NB: Apparently we already have interest in the show from several different cities in a few different countries. I’m not yet sure what will come to pass, but I think I might be doing it again.

CM: What other aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
NB: I want to learn to play the guitar. Averagely well – yes I know that’s not a word! There’s a little travel guitar in a music store next to our theatre on Nicholson Street that I’m thinking of buying. I want to learn Tai Chi. And I want to keep having a lovely life with my family.

CM: And finally, what’s coming up next for you?
NB: I have a gig in Toronto at a company called Soulpepper – singing in a concert. And with Volcano I’ll be singing the title role in a massive reimagining of Scott Joplin’s ragtime era masterpiece, ‘Treemonisha’, an opera that is unlike anything else in the canon.

That creative team – myself included – has been working on it for about two years. A new libretto and new orchestration are being written in a joint Canadian/American collaboration.

It musically gathers rag, blues, gospel and jazz into a classical form, and it tells the story of a black community in the 1880s electing a woman as their leader. It’s a big one. That will open sometime in 2020 and hopefully make some waves.

‘Century Song’ was performed at Zoo Southside at Edinburgh Festival 2018.

LINKS: volcano.ca