Canning Town Folk Artist Talk




Maud Karpeles, Daisy Caroline Daking, Elsie J. Oxenham and the Canning Town folk dancers

Artist Ju Gosling aka ju90 talked about the background to the exhibition as it opened at Cecil Sharp House:

Where did the inspiration for the exhibition come from?

As a school story fan, I knew when I moved to Canning Town in 1985 that Daisy Caroline Daking had taught folk dancing in nearby Plaistow in the 1920s, and that author Elsie J. Oxenham had written about this in her ‘Abbey books’ series. However, I’d always assumed that this was a case of the upper-middle-classes bringing culture to the deprived East End, and that this post-dated World War I. Then a few years ago Girls Gone By publishers brought out an unabridged version of Oxenham’s The New Abbey Girls, with an introduction by Ann Mackie-Hunter. The book contained a lot of descriptions of Canning Town that had been cut from later editions, which was exciting in itself. But what really surprised me was finding out from the introduction that Maud Karpeles had been teaching folk dancing in Canning Town before the Society was even established, and that local children and teenagers had been instrumental in demonstrating the dances for Cecil Sharp in the run-up to the founding of the Society in 1911. That put a very different complexion on things.

As in 1911, Canning Town is one of the very poorest parts of London. However, it’s currently going through regeneration, and as part of that there is a renewed interest in local history. At the same time, the area was targeted by the Arts Council’s Well London fund because of the high rates of poor health, and grants were available for arts activities that also promoted wellbeing. So it made sense to team up with East London Dance to create a project that brought together the history of folk dancing in Canning Town and Plaistow alongside a summer project to re-establish folk dancing in the area. Thus the 2010 ‘Folk Formula’ project was born. There was a great uptake among people of all ages, and at the end of the project local people formed their own folk dance club.

What are you hoping to achieve with the exhibition?

I’d like people to realize that the folk dance revival of the early 20th century wasn’t simply about the middle- and upper-middle-classes from leafy suburbs, and that the urban working classes were involved from the beginning. Canning Town is also unique in that the cultural and ethnic mix in 1911 was the same as today’s – the most diverse in Britain. People who lived and worked in Canning Town at the beginning of the 20th century came from all over the world; the dances weren’t simply performed and enjoyed by white English people. Then of course Maud Karpeles has never had the attention that she so richly deserves – not least, of course, because she was happy to remain in the background and let Cecil Sharp shine alongside the dancing itself. Nor has D.C. Daking been remembered much outside the world of Oxenham’s fans, yet her activities during the First World War were responsible for the widespread acceptance and respectability of folk dancing in the years following, as well as making an amazing story in their own right. Nor has Elsie. J. Oxenham been recognized as the historian of the folk world that she has by default become. We have no better record of the Society in the early 1920s than the descriptions in her books, with so many personalities and incidents lifted directly from real life. The Chelsea Christmas school, the Cheltenham summer school, official classes and parties are also minutely described, along with Daking’s teaching in Plaistow and the part that dancing played in all of those people’s lives.

What inspired you to create the three animated pieces for Cecil Sharp House?

I had been wanting to create animations of some of the dances mentioned by Oxenham for several years now, taking an overhead viewpoint in the way that people viewed the dances originally from balconies and the tops of stairs. I was particularly interested in animation as a means of isolating the movement paths of the dances, which can be lost for modern onlookers because we are so often on the same level as the people dancing (or lower, in my case). The dances would have lent themselves very easily to animations of flowers in meadows. However, in the context of the Canning Town exhibition I wanted to use the contemporary urban aesthetic of the computer game. I also wanted to get away from the layers of meaning that have been ascribed to folk dancing over the past century – both positive and negative – and focus on the dances themselves.

How did you go about animating the dances?

I started with the Playford dance instructions, and persuaded my friend Joy Wotton, who dances with the Morley College group, to talk me through these slowly while I made sketches of the movement patterns. (The sketches could only be interpretations of the movements, since they had to be foreshortened to keep the ‘dancers’ at a visible size as well as being simplified.) Then I worked out the time frames and created much more detailed sketches to storyboard each dance, before checking these back with Joy. I wrote the music as published in Playford into a piece of free software called MuseScore, and then imported this into Cubase Elements to arrange the tunes. I created the drawings of the movement paths and processed the backgrounds in Photoshop. Then I worked from my sketches to animate the movements in a programme called Toon Boom Studio, but used Keynote — a bit like Powerpoint – to animate the titles, and FCPX to bring it all together. The dancer shapes were generated in Word. It was all rather low-budget!

The accompanying drawings of the animation movement paths seem almost Celtic in appearance?

That struck me too. I think it underlines the fact that the roots of many English folk dances lie much further back in our past, at least in terms of individual movements and patterns. There also seems to me to be some similarity between the movement paths of these three dances and labyrinth designs. It seems possible that dances of this kind were originally spiritual in origin as well as social, and that dancing them had a similar meaning to walking a labyrinth. The drawings were central to the animation process, since they acted as templates for all of the animated movements before being removed from each scene at the end of the editing process. I was working with a fairly cheap software package, so I wasn’t able simply to programme in the coordinates for the different positions and let the computer get on with it.

Did your perspective as a wheelchair user influence the work?

As an onlooker I think I’ve probably thought more about the choreography than perhaps I might have done if I danced it, strange as this might sound. When I was storyboarding the animations, I was aware that choreographers probably did something very similar at some point in history, perhaps moving around objects to represent the individual dancers. From 2008-10 I danced with Graeae Theatre Company’s comedy wheelchair line-dancing troupe The Rhinestone Rollers. During the storyboarding process I became aware that that in one sense I was creating choreographic versions of the dances that would be suitable for wheelchair dancers. This is something that I hope to explore further in the future if the funding becomes available.


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© Ju Gosling aka ju90 2010

Supported by Arts Council England, Well London, East London Dance, English Folk Dance and Song Society, London Borough of Newham, Newham NDP. Lottery funded.