A conversation with Northern Rascals

Words by Sophie Thomas. Sophie is part of our Guest Writers development programme, supported by Arts Council England.

An evening witnessing a Northern Rascals production feels like peeping through a keyhole into someone else’s world. As characters grapple with their own journeys and relationships, vulnerabilities are shared and souls are bared, resulting in work that is powerful and poetic. The Leeds-based dance-theatre duo combine movement, spoken word and digital art to create narrative driven works, often focusing on issues that affect their surrounding community. As resident artists at nonprofit studio The Middle Floor, Northern Rascals are an active part of the Leeds contemporary dance scene through delivering high-energy improv classes, focussed on individuals “feeling their best selves”.

Interested in how they build these worlds and characters, as well their involvement in the Leeds dance community, I sat down with Anna Holmes and Sam Ford to chat all things Northern Rascals. To get the ball rolling, I asked how they would describe their work.

AH: “We create socially impactful work. We take stories from our community and then work with our professional teams to shape those stories, to create high quality dance theatre. It’s important to us that we always work with the community – which tends to be young people aged 14 to 30, particularly in the North – and to work with them on every aspect of the piece.”

Sam adds that the pair are also inspired by their personal experiences, as well as the experiences of the surrounding communities and professional dancers. Having multiple viewpoints informs and shapes the work to be somewhat autobiographical, yet has the ability to resonate with many. It is this shared sense of empathy and vulnerability that enables the performers to find an honest portrayal of their role within the narrative.

This link between honesty and character struck a chord with me. When watching their most recent production Shed back in November, the characters had felt layered and human. Our conversation steered to the process of creating such characters.

SF: “It starts from working with the artists and doing loads of self-reflecting exercises, digging into themselves and using character profiling to find how they relate to this character. The character obviously has a direction that we want but we leave it quite free for the artists to determine their direction. Ultimately, if it doesn’t feel honest to them, then it’s probably not going to come across as honest. So the artists have a lot of say in it.”

However, this interest in honest characterisation can be tricky, when dealing with the dark sociopolitical themes that often drive Northern Rascals’ work. We discussed how performers find an understanding and connection to these emotions, whilst simultaneously “creating a little bit of a shield”.

Anna reflects that it is about “finding where you and the character meet, so you can put the character on like a jacket and can take it off when you leave”.

Northern Rascals are interested in complex societal issues of mental health and female safety. But the pair stress that they “never necessarily want to provide the cure, or provide the answer to it, [they’re] always looking to raise awareness.” Sam stresses that, “it’s an opportunity to evoke change because you have lots of people’s eyes on one thing.”

Although important, its not exclusively about creating awareness. They both express their personal interest about these subjects, as well as spotlighting how the themes naturally generate a distinct movement language. We discuss how emotional history and experiences can reside within the body, and the release that audience members could feel when seeing those emotions portrayed physically.

AH: “It’s what interests us as people. Also it’s what we like to go and see in theatre and in dance, we love that experience of being moved or connecting. As much as we love typical abstract dance performance as well, for us it needs a bit more heart and a bit more depth and a bit more soul. Because we want to feel like we’re making an impact in the world.”

Northern Rascals weave a variety of mediums together, to build worlds that feel rich and believable.

AH: “The reason that we use so many different art forms is that we want to make this rounded storytelling experience that’s inclusive and accessible for a huge variety of people. So it’s not just contemporary dance; people can find their way in through theatre or they can find their way in through digital art or the spoken word. It means that we can create something that really immerses you into a world and then you can have these ‘woo!’ firework moments of feeling something because you are so invested. It also means that we can integrate access, from the beginning, in a really exciting way as well.”

They spoke about the joys of working with different art forms and artists, and how this continual difference fuels them creatively. Their driving force is clearly about the individuals. They speak about their enjoyment of working with collaborators that they have an unspoken bond with; the passion and ownership movement artists have for the work; and how audience members can recognise a part of themselves within the stories. Our conversation keeps circling back to the sense of authenticity, and the work being meaningful to the people involved.

And it trickles down into the Leeds scene. When I have attended their classes – there is joy in the room, a freedom of expression, often bassy beats that bring out your best self and, above all, an acceptance. These classes take place at The Middle Floor, a nonprofit arts and dance space, set up by Imogen Reeve. With Northern Rascals’ involvement at The Middle Floor, I was interested in what the initial vision was for the studio.

SF: “The whole thing was just this lack of a hub in Leeds. For dancers, from dancers. There were other places obviously, but it very much felt disconnected, everywhere kind of did their own thing. It didn’t feel like there was somewhere where artists could just come and have their own space and to have it run by dance artists itself.”

With the mention of improvisation, somatic and hip hop styles, its clear that the space is an open door to lots of different communities, with a focus on making everyone feel welcome. From regular professional class and workshops, to residency space and the talk of a potential artist development programme in the pipeline, we agreed that it’s “the fluidity of The Middle Floor, the ability for it to evolve with its community, that provides something different”. And something to be celebrated.

In contrast to London, the duo reflect that “Leeds is a small compact place. There’s a real opportunity to have somewhere that is open hearted and that everybody can get to.”

The Middle Floor is a social hub and is run with, and for, the community. While this allows Northern Rascals to be flexible, it’s not without its challenges. Sam highlights that, “It’s still planting its roots. We need as much help and support as we can in these stages”, explaining the necessity of people supporting the venue, so that the money can be reinvested back into the local dance community. Anna adds that, “there’s definitely a big future if people keep on supporting it at this baby stage, and let it become a teenager and the adult it was always meant to be.”

I asked the pair to give us a taster of what we can expect next from Northern Rascals.

They replied excitedly that they’ve got funding to create their new work, Sunny Side, which will have test performances happening in October. In addition, their piece Shed will be touring throughout Autumn and into Spring 2024. There will be opportunities to connect with company as intensives and open class will accompany both of these creations.

You can keep an eye on Northern Rascals by following them here, and for classes and more information on The Middle Floor follow here.