Recounting the conception and creation of the exhibition, by Rosie Reed Gold.
Hallo! I'm Rosie, a photographer who has worked in-house for Cecil Sharp House for a number of years now. During that time I have been privileged enough to see many of the gigs and social events that the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) put on. As an artist, I was very excited at the prospect of creating a location-specific exhibition for the foyer of Cecil Sharp House, based on research from the vast wealth of information held within the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.
This exhibition explores the similarities and differences of movement, both physical and social, between starling murmurations and folk dancing. Having decided that I was interested in pursuing something to do with the notion of birds, I was lucky enough to be directed to Marshall Barron’s book of Birds, Fancies and Delights by librarian Nick Wall. I was immediately taken with its beautiful cover design and unusual music annotations such as “a fluttering of wings”. Having recently heard about the starling murmurations in Brighton, Song for the Starling (Joy After Sorrow) immediately jumped out at me from the page.
When I headed down to Brighton to photograph the starlings themselves, I listened to a recording of Song for the Starling at the same time. The birds seemed to be dancing along to the same rhythm, bringing a much lighter, livelier feel to a tune I had previously found a little on the weighty side. The performance of the song by Rebekah Robertson and Pete Thomas at the exhibition preview could not have done any more to recreate the lightness and the 'Joy After Sorrow' that I had felt the first time I heard the song together with the starling murmuration. It was an incredible experience.
Later on in my research, I discovered some amazing hand-drawn descriptions of dance steps for morris and country dances. Even at first glance these seemed to echo the movement of the starling murmurations, which you can see on the captions to the work. I also found some very old photographs of morris dancers frozen mid-air as they waved their handkerchiefs. I was struck by the way these mimic the movement of birds' wings, and wanted to find a way to incorporate this into the work. This led to the 'bird' mobile hanging in the stairwell made from handkerchiefs.
After one of several stimulating conversations with curator Faye McNulty, I looked into early forms of animation such as the Magic Lantern and zoetrope. This resulted in the design of a related type of animation in the form of a praxinsoscope, which illustrates the mirrored movement of both a single starling and a morris dancer. The praxinoscope requires the onlooker to turn the wheel to make this movement occur, thereby adding another dimension of social involvement and interaction.
A key collaborator on this project was dancer Laurel Swift. Working with her was an absolute delight; she had so much insight into the translation of the drawings of morris dancing steps. Laurel was kind enough to offer her time for a photoshoot. We worked together to create a collection of sequential still images to use for the praxinoscope, along with the series you can see in the stairwell, describing the movement of handkerchiefs and feet during the dance.
As well as being able to translate the dance steps accompanying Song for the Starling, I spoke to her about wanting to recreate the dance in a slightly looser format, based on my video of a starling murmuration. Laurel really took the reins in putting together a group of 6 amazing dancers, taking this idea and bringing it to life. Using the original steps, as well as a shadowing technique on the night of the preview with the starling video projected behind them, the dancers really showed the similarities between social movement between starling murmurations and folk dancing.
The process of creating an exhibition really comes down to a question of the theme you choose to explore and the story that goes along with it. For me, with my background in photography, a stand-alone work of art has to make an immediate strong impact in terms of composition, colour choice, subject etc, similar to the way one musician uses a single melody and tonal style. With an exhibition you get more space to really show the thought process and development of a project, to use more subtle notes to create a fuller and (hopefully!) more harmonious whole.
I have a few projects keeping me busy over the next few months. Currently I am in the busy season for photography, but have also started working on a project called Attendant, based on Samuel Beckett's infamous play Waiting For Godot. If you'd like to keep an eye on my progress please do check out my website.
Rosie Reed Gold’s exhibition Murmuration of Folk is available to view at Cecil Sharp House until 12 August.