Human connection and new beginnings: On watching How Shall We Begin Again

by Jennifer Ramm

Sitting in an audience can be equally powerful as standing on a stage; to become completely absorbed in a live performance is such a special experience. You become part of the wider story, which is how it felt watching the Peterborough performance of How Shall We Begin Again? It has already taken place in London and Cardiff and here it was in our hometown, at last. The next pivotal chapter of Peterborough’s story was being written, the ink being the dancers’ performances, the paper being the stage. Hand-picked music injected new life into the Key Theatre auditorium, providing the soundtrack to the lives of 35 co-creators: what they needed to feel or express at that moment. It resembles therapy through dance, like a pocket that holds the people of Peterborough’s hopes, dreams and life experiences.

The stage becomes their home

Ready to approach the concept of moving on from a lost love and finding yourself, Chloe takes to the stage. ‘Letting you go, closing the void’ is part of her theme, and this is explored through emotive songs like Cherry by Lana Del Rey. She lets the heavy strings and trap drums sweep her across the stage in swirling movements. Her dancing conveys emotions that words cannot. The stage becomes her home. It’s a safe place to channel the matters weighing heavily on her mind, released through music and perhaps reminisced about in the silent, still moments. One of the most fascinating parts of How Shall We Begin Again? is when the music ends, and the performer is left alone with their thoughts – and the audience – for a short while. We see the performer return to the here and now, witnessing the cool-down from the emotional build-up that is born out of their performance. Taking everything in, Chloe has a minute to herself, then sits at the very front of the stage to talk to us about her song choices and the personal journeys she has been on. Human connection is integral in this project. If we can listen and find points of relatability in the performers’ words, then we can begin again together.

Although each performer’s time on stage reaches an end, their message does not: the work of being more grounded in your body and recognising what it needs is surely something that will stay with all those involved. Claudio contemplates his own family’s legacy and how it moulded him into the person he is today, his movements graceful as a butterfly. Emerging from grief, he spreads his wings on the Key Theatre stage, supported by the cheers and words of affirmation from his fellow co-creators in the audience. He shares with us that he will soon be embarking on a new journey – starting university in a brand new city – and his powerful movements signify that life is a current you sometimes have to just ride out. Free-flowing, his dancing seems to resemble an unbreakable spirit – just what does it mean to persevere in the face of adversity? There’s no need for any succinct answers; Claudio’s dancing does the talking, as he dips and twirls just like the ebb and flow of life. Immersing himself in music that stirs up feelings of hope, love and loss, with some tracks upbeat and others more mellow, Claudio uses his time on stage to recollect the past and then to look forward to what’s to come.

Freedom and acts of courage

Reflection of the past and reflection of self were common themes for the co-creators of How Shall We Begin Again? Faustina, an active member of the Chinese community who dedicates most of her time to others, expresses a need to show herself some compassion and attention while she is on stage. With tremendous pieces of music such as This Is Me and Everybody Be Somebody, she lifts not just everyone else’s spirits, but her own too. Beginning by crawling on the ground, she slowly rises to her feet, ready to dance as she starts the journey of discovering her self-worth. Emily B seems to break free from the confines of her perfectionism, letting go of her inhibitions as she permits her body to just feel for a moment. She runs in circles, commanding the stage as her music sends ripples of self-love through the auditorium. Momentarily, the music and the act of putting her body into motion allow her to become unchained from any harmful expectations. She falls to the floor, and laying flat yet undefeated, she reveals that she feels much better. It looks freeing – and to us, it’s an act of courage to bear parts of your soul on such a grand stage. 

Perhaps that is part of the process: confronting difficult feelings that could otherwise be overwhelming if left to fester and deal with alone. Most of the co-creators let out a sigh of relief at the end of their performance; How Shall We Begin Again is an essential deep breath in, followed by a long breath out. It’s a chance to regain a sense of control; ironically, letting go just might be the key to this.

This moment is what matters

The sacred nature of this show shouldn’t be overlooked, and one co-creator, May, takes this to new heights with a beautiful selection of gospel songs that invigorate everyone, regardless of background. Her passion is contagious, and towards the end of her performance after three uplifting tracks, practically every audience member is dancing in their seats. Moved by the music, some of the other dancers move into aisles to dance, lifting their arms and singing; just being present and in the moment becomes all that matters. No outside influences can penetrate the forcefield of positivity surrounding the Key Theatre. May welcomes us into her world, driving home the sacredness of How Shall We Begin Again?, showing that faith can be a sanctuary; just like this show, it can teach us more purposeful ways to exist. 

The final moments, bringing all the dancers on stage together after ten hours of performance, were nothing short of a celebration – a collective cheer, an acknowledgement that ‘we did it’ – a heartwarming culmination of everyone’s months of work. Faces lit up, dance music was blasting loud and a feeling of renewal coursed through the room; the Key Theatre was theirs at that moment, reclaimed and owned. Theirs – but also ours: audience members were encouraged to participate as well, everyone coming together to move their bodies. If this show were to exist in a single snapshot – while it shouldn’t be limited to that – it could be that moment. Watching from the sidelines, I saw that How Shall We Begin Again? is so much more than a performance. It’s not just dance – it’s life.