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Review: Dan Canham’s ‘Ours Was the Fen Country’ @ Project

Sun 25 May 2014

Review: Dan Canham’s ‘Ours Was the Fen Country’ @ Project

‘Why would anyone want to hear about the fens? I should think there’d been enough written about them at this stage.’

This is the question that opens Dan Canham’s ‘Ours Was the Fen Country’, a performance that delves into the lives of the inhabitants of the low-lying Cambridgeshire fenlands. But the piece doesn’t seek to write about the fens so much as present its inhabitants in their own words, uninterpreted.

A fensman himself who migrated to London, Canham interviewed numerous long-term residents of the fens as the basis for the show, in particular seeking out those who still pursue a way of life that is rapidly becoming extinct. Horse breeders, eel catchers and farmers people the piece, snippets of their stories and opinions woven together to form its acoustic ether.

The four performers, Canham himself along with Ian Morgan, Neil Paris and Tilly Webber, swim through this ether, looking for spaces to extend and embody the words being spoken. The genius of ‘Fen Country’ is the light touch used by the dancers, a treatment of the interviewees’ words that hopes to provide access to them rather than say something about them.

It’s a perfectly pitched exercise in channelling buried emotion. Layers of meaning are exposed through understated movement and music, tools that are used to carve something hidden out of the stories. Sometimes the movement echoes the texture and rhythm of the words, such as the stamping section that adds a military edge to one interviewee’s assertion that the Fens are ‘Cromwell country’.

At other times, the movement takes its cue from a hint of emotional depth behind what is being spoken, given by a quaver in the voice or a hesitation. Webber’s jagged and contained solo in response to an elderly interviewee’s statement ‘I daren’t tell you what I really think’ takes the ominous tone of her words and expands it into a series of eloquent physical contortions.

The stories being told are broken apart in this way, revealing meaning either in the repetitions and rhythms of the words, or in the tones and musicality of the voices. The score (Canham again) and the movement inhabit these extra layers and foreground them with a poignancy that reverberates through the entire performance.

There’s an elegiac tone to ‘Fen Country’, with references made to both the disappearing livelihoods of the inhabitants and the disappearance of the fens themselves. The piece, however, ends on an optimistic note, the last word being given to a young farmer who is one of the next generation of the fens. It’s a bittersweet tribute to a landscape and a people who are, in their own words, ‘on the brink’, but still stoic in the face of that inescapable fact.

Last showing tonight (Sunday 25th) at 8pm in Project Arts Centre - go see!

Words Rachel Donnelly (@racklette)