What do you get when you bring together 17 outdoor swimmers, a choreographer who is also a scientist, two professional dancers and a calm, moonlit night in the Scottish Highlands?
On Friday 22 September 2023, 50 audience members gathered in the dark at the side of Ladies Dell, Loch Faskally, Pitlochry. Few knew what they were about to see, having only received an invitation to an ‘illuminated night swim performance to celebrate the Autumn Equinox’ a few days before, by a member of the local outdoor swimming group The Dell Dippers.
What they saw was a 20-minute magical piece of dance theatre, incorporating swimming, dance, shadow play and the night sky, exploring the myriad of interwoven webs and networks that exist in nature: the patterns of a leaf; a shoal of fish arranging itself in response to each other and the environment; the fungi in a forest connecting trees into an underground web of mutual exchange and communication.
A performance inspired by the landscape
Early in Spring, 2023, Edinburgh-based choreographer Thomas Goetz met local Dell Dipper member and creative producer Julia Harriman at an artist networking meeting at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. On a walk after the meeting, Julia showed Thomas the beautiful loch-side location and the two dreamt of one day creating a performance inspired by the natural landscape, in collaboration with the local outdoor swimming group.
Fortunately, after a little coaxing, 17 members of the group signed up and wholeheartedly embraced a land and water-based movement workshop and just one rehearsal preceding the performance. The project was co-creative in nature with Julia and Thomas developing the concept, Julia producing the event and Thomas choreographing the piece, all in close collaboration with the swimmers.
The science of underlying patterns in nature
Thomas has just finished an MA in Choreography at Codarts University of the Arts (which also supported the project with a research grant), where he researched ‘Emergent Patterns in a Choreography of the Nature of Nature’. Thomas draws inspiration from the science of underlying pattern and network formation in nature and consecutively transposes these principles into movement scores and compositional designs. Some of these scores can be performed by community groups including people with a range of ages and movement abilities.
The performance at Ladies Dell was based on these improvisation scores, where swimmers responded to each other and their environment while towing their safety float (illuminated by a torch inside). This gave rise to organic patterns and connections in time and space. The piece began and closed with a dance duet by Rasa Kazenaite & Sky Su, which hinted at the cyclicality of nature. Thomas’ choreography was accompanied by a music score composed by Kristin Weichen Wong.
An ethereal experience for the swimmers
There is no doubt that bracing the cold autumn waters of Loch Faskally in complete darkness was a harrowing prospect for many swimmers at first. Yet, Julia, who also performed as part of the swimming group, describes her own experience of the event as ethereal, moving and profound. This is echoed by other performers who used words such as unique, magic, mesmerising, spiritual and bonding to describe the experience.
Outdoor swimming in wild places has experienced a huge renaissance during the Covid pandemic and its mental health benefits have now been universally acknowledged. We propose that combining it with an element of community arts and performance has the potential to transcend the act of swimming into a collective and bonding experience. This can leave the audience and swimmers with an experiential understanding of and an emotional connection with nature’s webs (networks). We hope that such an experience can be the seed of a caring relationship with nature as we navigate the challenges of the Anthropocene in our everyday lives.
Words: Julia Harriman and Thomas Goetz. Photos: Sandra Cairncross