For this film, Alan Yentob met the inspiring ‘Company of Elders’ in the first of the new series of BBC One’s Imagine strand, which aims to “capture the power of the arts and the people who have changed our way of looking at the world”.
The said Elders are just that with the performers in the group ranging in ages from a youthful 61 to a slightly less youthful but no less determined 85. We followed the intrepid pensioners through some of their eight weeks of practice as they built up to a performance at world-famous dance venue Sadler’s Wells.
Without doubt, the most obvious thing from the get go about these ladies and gentlemen was that they’re all committed and determined, even if they forget they are every now and again and need the occasional gentle reminder…
It was also evident that they weren’t going to allow their physical frailties to get in the way of their dreams which, given they included dodgy hips, feet that “feel like leather” and poor eyesight, was quite a miracle in and of itself.
The temptation when watching and subsequently reviewing this show was to think of it much as you do a kids play at school; with the same pat-on-the-head and ‘didn’t they do well?’ ethos and to some extent, that’s unavoidable. With their problems, this dance group were never going to be step-perfect or totally in time but what did stand out is that, technical ability aside, everybody just loved to dance and if that’s what yanks your chain, then going for it is a brave move for people who could well end up in A&E nursing a shattered hip as a result.
The most interesting aspects of this film though weren’t actually anything to do with the dance – for me anyway – but rather the remarkable life stories of the dancers themselves. For instance, 61 year old Alison had a brain tumour when she was in her late twenties and had to spend the next decade learning to walk all over again so as a result, she revelled in being able to dance and she never takes it for granted that she can.
Then there was Sybil who recollected her favourite performance at a gay club and 85 year old widower Geoff whose entire life is dominated by dance of all kinds. Another dancer in the company, Eve, has peripheral neuropathy which means she can’t feel her feet so you would think dancing would be the one thing she couldn’t do, but you’d be wrong. Eve also revelled in the company of the company; “A lot of us live on our own and we don’t get touched” she explained which was a bit of a lump in the throat moment.
If it’s any consolation Eve, many of us don’t live alone but still don’t get touched 😉
However, the whole ethos of the company and last night’s programme about them was summed up by choreographer Richard Alston when he said, “When you see people at the end of their life dancing, they’re really putting a hand up for life.”
And they certainly had plenty of that left in them! And I have to say, there were some truly funny moments last night as well as the many touching ones. I had a good titter at the choreographer berating some of the company for their short term memory issues…
“I’m still very, very worried that you’re not holding on to what you learned in the last rehearsal.” I know short term memory loss isn’t amusing but I did have to laugh a little at the fact that they may well forget their choreographer was very, very worried.
If I had any gripe about the show it would be Alan Yentob’s condescending manner throughout much of it. His giggling and patronising remarks about the dancers and the performance which, granted, was far from flawless, I found a tad irksome. If Mr Yentob was looking for excellence in the field, he was never going to find it amongst this troupe but if he was looking for genuine joy at the pleasure of being alive and doing something you love, then he was in the right place, but I don’t think he appreciated that fact.
If you missed this Imagine film, you can see it on BBC’s iPlayer here and it’s well worth a look, if only to remind ourselves that life doesn’t end when you’re 50 and you don’t have to start fading away just because your joints ache.