It starts with conversation: Peterborough prepares for Jo Fong’s dance show How Shall We Begin Again?

by Jennifer Ramm

It’s a short but noisy walk from Elephant and Castle tube station to the Siobhan Davies Studios, the hustle and bustle of London all around. Once inside the big upstairs studio, however, everything outside grinds to a halt. This is where Jo Fong’s How Shall We Begin Again? is being performed, and the excitement in the audience is palpable. As dancers fill the space with emotive, rhythmic movements, to favourite pop songs such as Bette Davis Eyes, and Smile by Wolf Alice, what emerges is a work uncovering the depths of our humanity.

I’m in the audience as part of a group connected to Jumped Up Theatre in Peterborough, who have one thing in common: a desire for connection through dance. Among us are dancers and film-makers all keen to be part of the creative process and months of work that will result in Peterborough’s own production of How Shall We Begin Again? in March.

Much like life itself, How Shall We Begin Again? has a cyclical structure, with dancers performing solo routines, and then handing over to another as if to continue a conversation. Every once in a while, silence would fill the room, creating space for inner reflection; a sense of calm and stillness would wash over us. Then, everyone who was a part of the show would emerge from the audience, assemble and regroup, forming a collective body. The dancers created their own kind of beat, with deeply personalised performances to songs they loved and connected to, that were captivating to watch. Through dance and movement, matters such as grief, identity and anxiety were approached delicately. There was mutual gratitude, shared between the audience and dancers, for the art of dance as well as the chance to be in a place that transcended the commotion of everyday life. Every dancer was captivating to watch independently, but they came together to create what looked like a cabaret of catharsis.

A moment to be

Now the project is coming to Peterborough: the seeds have already been sown through a series of coffee mornings, held by Jo Fong from October to November of 2022, at creative spaces such as Metal Culture. Newness and a sense of relief hung in the air as anyone interested in this dance project came together to chat. This included, but wasn’t limited to, trained dancers with industry experience, dance teachers sharing their knowledge with the next generation, or even those who just dance for fun. Participants in the open studio sessions communicated what dance means to them, and then whatever was brought up, such as recovery or self-confidence, was eventually explored through soft, gentle movements. Already How Shall We Begin Again? was providing a refuge for people to exist in their bodies and to reflect on life – the difficult past few years in particular. 

Jo dreamed up this work from a realisation that people needed a moment to just ‘be’, and that dance would be a suitable medium for it. This is especially relevant after multiple lockdowns infringed on people’s lives and creative endeavours. The hardships and joys of life consistently mould not only our hearts and minds, but also the art we produce. Working together through the collective pain inflicted by events such as the pandemic might make the process easier. Reconnecting feels essential: some of the participants expressed how it still feels strange to sit in a room full of people without masks covering their smiles, and it’s as if we are learning how to return to normality, whatever that looks like. Whether it’s a case of grasping at what once was, or starting fresh, it’s projects like this one that deliver guidance and comfort. 

Release in togetherness

This is as much true for the audience as it is for the performers. The audience is a fundamental component in this project; they are supportive and understanding of the dancers, there not to just observe but to be a part of the wider story. I was joined in one open session by my mum, Elaine: somebody who has always appreciated the arts and theatre but has never taken the leap to be involved. We headed into the Key Theatre together and were met by Jo and a group of dancers acquainting themselves and outlining what the project might look like. One was the artistic director of a local dance theatre, while another had been urged to come along given her love for dance in her community. Elaine and I became, in essence, their first audience members; Jo lightheartedly told the dancers they weren’t being tested, given my reporter’s notebook in hand. 

We didn’t feel like spectators, though. Elaine was joining in the conversations, connecting, and sharing laughs over her confession of dancing in the kitchen with Alexa playing 80s tunes. She told me that she wasn’t expecting to stay and was just dropping me off, but with an atmosphere as warm and inviting as the one created in that room, she felt compelled to sit for a while. “I’ve never seen anything like this in Peterborough before, and the opportunity to meet other like-minded people was refreshing and uplifting, just to connect with others and having Jo there to guide us was fantastic,” Elaine said later. Much like the dancers involved in the production, Elaine felt the need to push herself to go out and mix again. While she wouldn’t be up on the stage with the dancers, she showed up to support me and became a part of the process by leaving her comfort zone. Elaine found that How Shall We Begin Again? can move anyone who watches it, saying “even if you only take home a little of what you see, that in itself is a release.” We are all beginning again in our own ways; this production captures that element of the human experience, and it’s the people of Peterborough who currently represent that.

The call to dance

Peterborough is a beautiful amalgamation of cultures, histories, of stories to be told by individuals from all kinds of backgrounds. From Shiamak Bollywood dance classes at Bharat Hindu Samaj Mandir temple to the Folk Dance Club at Marholm Village Hall, it is undoubtedly a city that hears a calling to represent cultures through dance. But this is also a predominantly business-oriented city, and in the open sessions, it was discussed how there’s been a drought in opportunities for the arts community in Peterborough for a while now.  How Shall We Begin Again? is sure to open up a gateway to artistic expression and freedom, ignite a passion that we don’t normally get to see here, and build a vital bridge between all kinds of people, dancers and non-dancers alike. 

I recall Jo expressing in one of the first open sessions that the spaces her dance projects happen in should feel like home – even somewhere as big as the Key Theatre. There’s something monumental here; it’s not often that intimate, personal shows like this take place in such traditional venues. In London, it made sense for How Shall We Begin Again? to take place in a dance studio: a safe, familiar environment for the dancers. A lot of the Peterborough dancers shared that they felt a shade of vulnerability on the relatively large stage, and were grappling with being a professional and being human. Letting go of your inhibitions and the conventions of the dance industry seems like it would be difficult – but I know that the participants will support one another in this, with an encouraging audience at their side.