For award winning choreographer and dancer Gary Clarke, COAL represents the drama, the tragedy and the unbreakable spirit of a working class community fighting for its future.The major new piece of contemporary dance is the recent winner of the UK Theatre Award for Achievement in Dance, with the Gary Clarke Company named Best Independent Company at the prestigious Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.The production - hailed a four star hit by The Times - comes to Lighthouse on May 31 as part of a sell out national tour, commemorating Britain’s mining industry and communities.
It was created to mark the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike but even more importantly for Gary it reflects his own experience of growing up in the Yorkshire coalfields ...
“COAL is a direct response to my upbringing in the working class mining village of Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire,” he explains.
“It's about trying to capture a time in British history that is too easily forgotten and it is an attempt at keeping the memories of the mining industry alive, an industry that I believe shaped the fabric of our society and how we live our lives today.”
Gary was actually a young boy when the strike of 1984/85 hit the mining communities of Britain in a year of frequently violent struggle that left those communities with scars that would take decades to heal.
Many of Gary's family, including his grandfather and his uncle, worked at the coalface and all were involved in the political fight that would forever shape British industrial history.
Despite his family’s roots in the mining industry, though, Gary took a very different career route and he is now one of the new generation of dancers and choreographers bringing new life and vision to the world of contemporary dance.
"I'm not saying I would have gone to the mines but there might have been a kind of pressure to do that because that's what was expected of a man, that was the trade and that was what supported the village," he says. "But when that support was taken away, what do you do?
"I remember loving dancing but I was never sent to ballet at the age of five or anything like that.
"But I have always been an active kid. I would win disco competitions against people who were a lot older than me – they never liked losing to a ginger four-year-old!"
The closest Grimethorpe could offer to a dance class was the local majorettes team, hardly the sort of thing a South Yorkshire boy was expected to take up.
"No, my parents never tried to suppress it," he laughs. "The house was an open house and I could do what I wanted. I was a free child."
Eventually, that love of movement and expression led him to take a place on a dance course at Barnsley College and from there he graduated to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.
During vacation time from the Northern School he would work as a Blue Coat at Pontins camps in Great Yarmouth and Torquay.
"It was one of the best jobs I've ever had!" he laughs. "It really was, hands down! As a Blue Coat you just have to be happy and fun because holiday camps are for people who want to get away from reality.”
The winner of the 1998 Brian Glover Memorial Award, Gary Clarke is currently regarded as one of the UK’s leading contemporary dance artists and he has received great appreciation and acclaim for his work as a choreographer, director, performer, mentor, teacher and facilitator.
He has developed a reputation for creating extraordinary dance work of various sizes and scales which have received praise from critics, audiences, producers, national dance agencies and venues in the UK and abroad.
Over the last decade he has worked on a variety of projects with Lea Anderson’s The Cholmondeleys & The Featherstonehaughs, Matthew Bourne’s Adventures in Motion Pictures (AMP), Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theatre, Liv Lorent’s balletLORENT, Candoco Dance Company & Jerome Bel, Retina Dance Company, Nigel Charnock + Company, Bock & Vincenzi, Phoenix Dance Theatre, Sadler’s Wells Productions, Maresa Von Stockert & Tilted Productions, New Art Club, Javier De Frutos, Wendy Houstoun, Frauke Requardt Company, Opera North and Compagnie Felix Ruckert.
In addition, in 2011 and 2012 Gary also worked as a movement artist on the Paramount film World War Z starring Brad Pitt and also had a featured role in the zombie action movie.
But the memory of how the families of the mining industry struggled as the strike hit harder would not leave him and it was those experiences that led him to develop COAL into what has become one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated pieces of contemporary dance, playing to sell out audiences around the country and given a coveted Four Star rating by The Times.
It’s a riveting dance theatre show that takes a nostalgic but honest look at the hard hitting realities of life at the coal face, the back breaking physical graft and the impact it makes on body and soul, both underground and on the surface.
Strong, powerful and emotive, Gary’s aim was to explore the darker underbelly of the mining industry, unearthing the true nature and body wrecking demands of a working class industry now almost completely forgotten.
As the piece grew into a full evening of theatre, however, Gary embarked on years of personal research, including extensive interviews with Anne Scargill - former wife of NUM president Arthur Scargill - and Betty Cook, the founders of Women Against Pit Closures.
He also spent time with Chris Skidmore of the National Union of Mineworkers, Bruce Wilson, author of Yorkshire’s Flying Pickets, Barnsley historian and author Brian Elliott and Paul Winter of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.
Believing strongly that a piece about community should also have a major community involvement, every performance features a quartet of local women with no previous performance experience who play the miners’ wives.
And adding even more authenticity is the inclusion of the sound of brass - in Poole that will be provided by members of the acclaimed Filton Concert Brass.
It makes for a moving, powerful and disturbing tribute to a time and an industry that has now been consigned to history but which for many people remains a major part of their lives.