Performing Mountains

In this week’s blog, project lead Professor Jonathan Pitches describes how combining mountain culture with live performance has led him to a new way to translate mountain experience.

In October 2016, I began work on the Performing Mountains project. Supported by £250,000 funding from the AHRC and £15,000 from the Arts Council, the project set out to discover the meeting points between theatre, performance and mountains.

Over the period of my fellowship and to make sense of a huge hitherto unmapped area, I have found myself constructing a new canon of mountain drama, developing a new model of mountain rituals (from the personal to the epic), and formulating a new micro-history of site-specific work – from Iran to Snowdonia.

I have also developed three extended case studies of specific mountains and mountain ranges, using the languages of performance to understand how people behave on them: mountains as sites for scenographic experiment, for training, and for play (these ideas all appear in a monograph, Performing Mountains, which has just been completed and is due to be published by Palgrave in 2019). 

The late, great Tancrède Melet, of the Flying Frenchies troupe. Credit: Sebastian Montaz-Rosset.

One of the most enduring insights of the project is the discovery that live performance offers a unique platform to translate mountain experiences, inciting the emotions and exciting the senses in much the same way as climbers and hikers experience on the mountainside.

In November 2017, a practice-led research performance, Black Rock, presented in collaboration with the legendary British climber Johnny Dawes, premiered at stage@leeds in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries.  Created by a team of artists led by Post-doc David Shearing, we followed the live performance with screenings of a professional documentary at the Kendal Mountain Festival (our project partner), on the Isle of Arran, and at the largest mountain studies conference in the world, at Banff, in Canada in 2018. 

As a multi-media and sensory performance, Black Rock is influencing the way in which mountain festival organisers and producers think about the value of live performance, encouraging some of the most influential players on the festival circuit to embrace the performing arts as a key part of their cultural offer in the future.  

The project has also provided a hub for other artists working in (and on!) mountains and has brought them together with prominent mountaineers and climbers in a series of recorded public talks Mountainsides and at an international symposium, all hosted by PCI. Everest veterans Doug Scott and Stephen Venables as well as contemporary explorers such as Jo Bradshaw have rubbed shoulders with performers and artists including the performance company Lone Twin and the site-specific artist and designer, Louise Ann Wilson.

Unplanned but equally welcome is a new project, sparked by these meeting points led by photographer Rachel Ross and Occupational Therapist Marlisse Elliott, using film to give voice to climbers’ sense of (sometimes fragile) identity. Marlisse joined the project for 9 months on a funded internship scheme, feeding in her OT expertise.    

David and I are now working on a Special Issue of the Performance Research journal, On Mountains, with contributions from academics, mountain archivists, artists and performers and there are developed plans to follow on the research with a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) dedicated to mountain arts.

For more info take a look at https://performing-mountains.leeds.ac.uk/

Or search the hashtag #performingmountains on Twitter

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