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Sketches of Scotland

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of catching a perfectly shaped, humorous dance vignette of two dancers with two chairs, set to the first movement of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor. It was both playful and choreographically complex. This duet has since, in the words of its choreographer Katie Armstrong, grown arms and legs. “Sketches” now encompasses four dancers performing the whole concerto, intertwined with specially composed sound from DJ, composer and improviser Mariam Rezaei and performed live by a string quintet. There is also a concurrent film project, which has been both created within and shown throughout this last tour throughout Scotland. Sounding complex? Well, funnily enough . . .

Katie Armstrong's “Sketches.” Image courtesy of the artists

“I was choreographically interested in illusion, intricacy, patterning and musicality,” Armstrong states. The original, “physically dense” movement wasn’t initially set to Bach—this came later, in a creative process that Armstrong likes using in her other work: “bringing in something like [Bach], which is so multi-layered and polyphonic—and quite mathematical—feels like a puzzle, like something that has to resolve itself.”

Within that first movement in the concerto, she started by focusing on the rhythmic pulse behind the work. “There’s a humanness to Bach’s work, it makes me think about life itself—there’s a lot of emotions.” After this first duet came two more additional vignettes, expanding into the whole concerto. Each sketch has a different “obstacle”—another piece in the puzzle. The first vignette has two chairs, the second has only one, and the third has a table. In rehearsals, they would pull apart the score to hear the nuances in the music. I’ve seen these three “Sketches” performed across a mixed bill evening, popping up between other acts, giving the audience short, snappy insights into this strange and meticulous world.

Katie Armstrong's “Sketches.” Image courtesy of the artists

So, how did these short pop-up “Sketches” transform into one single performance? The decision, Armstrong explains, was to make a “fourth movement.” She approached composer and turntablist Mariam Rezaei, who she had worked with in previous projects. Rezaei and Armstrong worked together to compose this interlinking fourth movement, continuing the thematic process of things breaking down and rebuilding. The resulting sound world is a mixture of strings and electronics, or, in Rezaei’s words, it “incorporates new coordinates on the turntablism continuum; no longer the chameleon, this new sound charges across the dance floor.” The different sections are at points complimentary, at other points juxtaposed: Armstrong nonetheless still feels a sense of euphoria in the new composition that speaks to the emotions she perceives in Bach. 

The work has been touring throughout Scotland this summer: the ambition of working with a big cast and in such different venues has been embraced through what Armstrong describes as a “slow touring model.” Time is built in at each location to settle and adapt the piece to each specific venue. Their first show at Platform in Glasgow was in a traditionally raked theatre space, with the audience consequently viewing the piece from above. On the other hand, at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock, the audience were seated on stage with the performers and looking out at the auditorium, giving the audience a new perspective and an up-close insight into the intricacy of the work. The sonic experience of each space is also carefully curated to bring the audience close to the sonic textures. At Universal Hall in Findhorn, the musicians began the piece by moving through the crowd to arrive at their designated performance space: at this point in our chat, Armstrong flips her head round to suddenly look behind her, mimicking the audience’s enjoyable disorientation when hearing the first swells of music.

Katie Armstrong with composer and turntablist Mariam Rezaei in “Sketches.” Image courtesy of the artists

“Sketches” has also evolved into a series of specially commissioned films. Both prior to and during the tour, the cast have created a new film at each location. This sounds slightly mad at first, but Armstrong is enthusiastic about the process. At each location, a series of informal conversations or workshops are planned with the local community, where they are asked about which areas of local interest are important to them. The cast then film excerpts of “Sketches” at that location; these films are then released, and a legacy of “Sketches” remains. Armstrong enjoyed how much this process also brought in more audience members, who would stumble across them filming in advance of the show. Of course, Scottish locations bring inevitable weather-dependant trials. Filming in Shetland, for instance, would often have to be paused, but their local filmmaker would happily take them on an impromptu visit to other parts of the island while they waited for the rain to stop. 

“Sketches” has an in-built malleability to it (which is handy if some of your cast get stranded and you must make an acoustic version of the show at the last minute). It’s this malleability that Armstrong is excited about in the work’s future. The next stop is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, a completely boisterous environment with its own internal complexity: a perfect fit, then, for such a precise and joyous piece of dance.

Róisín O'Brien


Róisín is a dance artist and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She regularly writes for Springback Magazine, The Skinny and Seeing Dance, and has contributed to The Guardian and Film Stories. She loves being in the studio working on a new choreography with a group of dancers, or talking to brilliant people in the dance world about their projects and opinions. She tries not to spend too much time obsessing over Crystal Pite.

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