For this latest blog post, I talked to Hannah Wallace, a dance artist, choreographer and teacher based in London.
Hannah started ballet as a young girl and this was her focus until she met an inspiring dance teacher at school who introduced her to contemporary dance, sparking a desire to pursue it further. Hannah went on to train at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, graduating with an honours degree in contemporary dance. During her studies, Hannah went to Spain for a term, first dancing with Conservatorio Superior de Danza de Valencia, and then with the company La Siberia in Barcelona. This was an amazing opportunity to expand her horizons within the dance world. Since graduating, Hannah has worked with the choreographer Theo TJ Lowe at Trinity Laban, and has also started her own choreographic work, Groundmarks Project, for which she received funding from the Trinity Laban Innovation Award. Hannah describes her current practice as being in an “in-between state,” and with the restrictions of the past year, this has given her the time to explore her own artistic interests.
Hannah’s articulate answers provide a great insight into the process behind creating a dance work within an unconventional setting, which in this case is a beautiful London wood! She also touches on finding abundance of nature within the city and questioning how we can find a better connection with these places. Read on to learn more...
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
At the moment, I’m working in many different places. I would usually be working in a studio, but since this hasn’t been as possible, I’m often at my desk reading and researching, which is a big part of my practice. I also go out for walks and cycle rides which usually bring ideas to mind!
Currently, an important place for my practice is Sydenham Hill Wood in Southeast London, which is part of the Great North Wood. A big part of South London used to be covered in this woodland and this is the largest section that is left of it. I’m making a new piece in this wood, and therefore spending a lot of time there. I like to think of it as my “meeting room!” We haven’t started the creation process yet, however I have had many meetings with people in the wood.
If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I imagine I wouldn’t be working in so many different places. However, I find that I need change and I often find inspiration through constantly changing and moving, so I do enjoy having all of these places to work.
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
I’m very much someone who likes to look to other artists and I do a lot of research around them and their work. At the beginning of a project, I spend time gathering information, reading, researching and finding things out. After I have spent a long period of time doing this, I leave this information to the side, knowing that it’s somewhere inside of me, so that I can figure out what I want to do for my own work.
For the new piece I’m creating, we are hopefully going to be performing in person. This isn’t happening just yet though, so one thing in particular that I have been doing recently is gathering with my team through an online paperchain! Each week we form a different order, each creating a movement score. We each visit a different place outside and take a picture, noting down the time and date, and record our movement score that we have created at this place. We then pass this onto the next person so that they can begin their score using the one they received, continuing the chain before passing it on again. This has been a great way to connect virtually, rather than through Zoom or similar platforms that we are being over-exposed to. In our own time, we send these paperchains across all of our computers, and I’m hoping to use material from this in the piece I'm creating.
When I’m working with other people on a piece, I avoid starting to create and choreograph straight away. I try to strip back our boundaries and find our way into the environment, which is particularly important when working outside so that we can each find our own relationship with it and develop our own questions throughout the creative process.
What is the main subject of your inspiration?
I’m inspired by a lot of different choreographers and people who I meet. But in terms of creating my site-specific piece, I am mostly inspired by the places that I find to work in: the richness of these places; finding something more within a place that people visit as part of their everyday lives; finding something that people wouldn’t ordinarily notice.
I try to force myself to start with questions, rather than being inspired by a certain object or idea. I like to try and answer a specific question through my work, for example: questioning the sensory experience of the place I am in. It’s about developing a process and enquiry, then seeing where this takes me in terms of a theme or idea that is being explored.
What are you working on at the moment?
My main focus is on my project Groundmarks, a site-specific performance piece being created in Sydenham Hill Wood, which is run by the London Wildlife Trust. I’m imagining it as taking the audience on a journey in the wood on a summer evening at dusk. There is going to be live sound from the dancers. I want to bring the audience movement, sound, texture, something that is real and happening in real life!
I was looking for a place in London that was quite wild and a bit untouched. I knew about this wood but I didn’t realise it was somewhere I had visited a lot as a child. I found the spot where I am making the piece, which is by this amazing cedar tree – it’s the tallest tree in the wood! I told my mum about this incredible tree, and she replied “Oh, that’s the tree you used to play around when you were little!” It was interesting to know that I have more of a connection to this place than I first realised.
I’m also thinking about doing creative workshops based around the project in the summer. I’m still figuring out how to do this in-line with Covid restrictions. One of them will be similar to a company class, where professionals or those in professional training can come to explore the practice we have been building for Groundmarks.
"I am inspired by the places that I find to work in: the richness of them; finding something more within the place that people visit as part of their everyday lives; finding something that people wouldn’t ordinarily notice."
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
I think sense of place is a state of being very aware of the place you are working in; you are sensitive to the place. You are always working somewhere, but sometimes it’s not a focus, or the place isn’t in the forefront of your mind. Being aware and sensitive of the place also includes its context. This could be the history, what is currently present, and its future.
Sense of place is relevant to my work almost as an inspiration. It’s a source of so much richness and a never-ending thing of exploration, especially if the place is somewhere really wild and lovely like Sydenham Hill Wood. I also like thinking about what would have been in places a long time ago.
Particularly because of Covid, having to spend so much time in one place has brought more of a stronger sense of the changes that take place over time, watching the seasons pass and noticing small shifts. This has given me the desire to spend some extended time in a place and get to understand what it is about: become part of it, feeling its rhythms, changes and the small things that you don’t notice until you spend time there. Not quite yet as I’m eager to move around a lot when we can, but one day!
There’s a brilliant author called Nan Shepherd who writes about nature and her experiences of walking, particularly in the Cairngorms in Scotland. She writes about leaving her body and entering into the mountain. I like this idea of being inside a place rather than at a place. [See Hannah's book list below].
Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?
Aside from what I have previously mentioned, I’m interested in the timescale of the natural world. For example: it’s interesting to think of trees as moving beings; they are moving but we are on a different, faster timescale to them so we can’t necessarily see it. Their growth is slowly moving. The natural world works on different rhythms and timescales, and so our perception of time might differ from other creatures and plant-life. I’m interested in finding a balance between the dynamism of us compared with this different timescale, and how these two ways of time can be together. In a greater sense, we are so often disconnected from the natural world. I’m questioning how we can bridge this gap and find a better connection.
"I think of trees as moving beings; they are moving but we are on a different, faster timescale to them so we can’t necessarily see it. The natural world works on different rhythms and timescales, and so our perception of time might differ from other creatures and plant-life."
Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?
Definitely! I love going for walks and being outside in my garden. Living in London, it can be harder to find wild spaces, but once you start looking, there is actually quite a lot out there.
In my free time, when we are allowed to travel, I love going on trips, such as camping and spending time in the outdoors. It’s such a different way of living which I love.
The natural world has always been a big part of my life because my parents are both invested in nature. My Dad is a bird-watcher and obsessed with it! And, my Mum is really interested in wild flowers. They have a huge collection of books about these passions. I’m lucky that they also took me on long walks and trips around the UK when I was younger and taught me a lot about the natural world. I’m perhaps slightly unusual for a Londoner having felt this connection from a young age.
Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?
One of my favourite artists is the choreographer Pina Bausch. I love the atmospheres she creates, the wildness of it, and the imagery she uses. Her dancers almost become a heightened version of themselves.
Also, I’m inspired by people who are around me and independent artists. I find that these smaller artists are often more experimental and take bigger risks, perhaps because there is less at stake for them! One example is MassHysteria Collective. They make really interesting work and definitely take a lot of risks. You don’t necessarily always see this at bigger venues.
What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?
Don’t worry about what other people think, make work that is interesting to you. Follow your own interests and try not to compare yourself too much to others. Just start and go for it! I’m probably saying this advice because it’s also something that I need to hear!
The first step might be to figure out what it is that you are interested in that is outside of what other people seem to be interested in. Watching, reading, and looking at other art work from many different disciplines are good starting points to establish this.
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?
Think about things from other people’s perspective. Be kind. The world can be harsh. It’s important to look outside of your own box and explore the greater world around you to see things through other people’s eyes.
Hannah's Book List:
1. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
2. The Overstory by Richard Powers
This book is about trees and people, and how they connect with one another.
3. The Idiot by Elif Batuman
This is play on the book of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It’s a novel that is very relevant for someone who is just starting out and discovering the world as a young person.
To learn more about the Groundmarks project visit hannahwallace.org/groundmarks-project and on Instagram @groundmarks.project
Image 1: Laura Ronning Engholm
Images 5, 6: Felix Ursell
Images 2, 3, 4: Artist's Own