In the studio with BBC Young Dancer finalist, Matthew Rawcliffe

Words by Izzy Rogers.

Matthew Rawcliffe, finalist in BBC Young Dancer of the Year 2019 and Sadler’s Wells cast member in Matthew Bourne’s Romeo & Juliet, is an up-and-coming young choreographer with an intelligent approach to making dance. Rawcliffe’s newest commission is a work for LEAP Dance Festival in Liverpool, on the theme of the moon landings. He invited me to rehearsals at the Ovalhouse last month to find out about this new duet entitled The Sun Rose. 

Rawcliffe is a welcoming and guiding presence in the studio.  He leads introductions with a sense of grace, but it’s also clear he is balancing – with considerable ease and vigour – a number of simultaneous movement direction projects. I regard this an early sign of the energy he will need to succeed in the competitive sphere of choreography. 

In conversation, Rawcliffe is confident but errs away from any self-aggrandisement. His methodology is refreshingly thought-through and designed to be accessible to those that aren’t the usual audience for dance. We discuss opening-up the genre through everyday scenarios, an approach which has led him towards task-based choreography for this piece; improvisatory exercises given to the dancers to explore, which then form the nature and building blocks of movement, to be shaped and re-arranged. 

This mode of making is highly interesting for the dancers, who get to contribute authentic aspects of themselves and their chosen way of moving. I learn that the performers — three are at work today — bring a background of contemporary but also theatre. This is firmly in evidence, characterising the style of The Sun Rose. The dancers try things out, and verbalise their thoughts throughout the process: ingredients which Rawcliffe considers essential to the exploration. The theme of the ‘other worldly-ness’ of space is brought down to earth through a narrative of a relationship, played out in three distinct sections. 

Viewing the work in progress, and it is an experimental piece with substantial dance-theatre influences: pedestrian movement, dancer-made noises (of a supermarket self-checkout) and quirky movement patterns. Throughout the segments we see the opening, middle and closing stages of a romance. The two dancers notice each other casually as they bleep through their purchases. There is a pleasing ambiguity and absence of sexual charge, highlighting the innocence of liking someone and wondering what might happen next.  

In the middle part, the dancers swirl and overlap, moving around the space with closed eyes, continually locked together at the mouth in a still embrace. Messy and uncertain, they find their way into different shapes and angles — lying on the floor, then upwardly straight-backed and close together — ever-connected. The image evokes those heady, early days of infatuation, where everything comes second to that person you can’t stop thinking about. Understatedly performed, the sequence portrays a touching intimacy. The audience will reminisce about when they’ve felt the same way. 

Although danced by two women, the arc represents arguably the story of two people, whoever they might be. Rawcliffe highlights in discussion that same-sex relationships need not always be special or othered as they sometimes are, even in 2019. The dancers move with a gender-neutrality which looks strong and decisive, and feels modern: no girlishness or sass. Rawcliffe’s love story happily dispenses with overwrought emotion for a far more complex and interesting musing. Individuals who meet and nurture something between them, then watch it fall apart, is a recognisable narrative. 

The last section shows the fall-out and struggle of when things go wrong. Cathartically expressive, it sets two contrasting movement languages side by side as each process the break differently, their physical dissimilarities in stature and build heightened. The dancers are in sync with Rawcliffe’s intention, contributing an attitude which is whipsmart, open and unafraid. Their insight and life experience are valuable assets, used well. 

The Sun Rose premieres at LEAP Dance Festival at Hope Street Suitcases, Liverpool on 11th and 12th October 2019. It will be performed at Resolution Festival at The Place, London on 9th January 2020. 

To find out more information about The Sun Rose and Matthew, check out his website.

Costume Design: Ruby Butcher

Dancers: Polly Constance, Yemurai Zvaraya, Zara Sands

Images: Romain Biros