Maddie Inskeep is a fourth year English student fascinated by story and storytellers of all kinds, forms, backgrounds, messages and mediums. She loves to learn and write about art - especially about the artists that make it, forever intrigued by the mysterious, myriad things that drive humans to create. If you have a story to tell, or would like your story told, you can find her in the corner of Aikmans on Bell Street, St. Andrews. Preferably with a whisky.
Artistic passion runs deep and wide in the St. Andrews community, disproportionate to the three, deceptively quiet, old streets to which we are confined. Any given week of the year is studded with myriad visual, musical, literary and dramatic events, and each creation is due its audience. But art starts with people - both its makers and takers - and I’ve long wondered what it might be like to explore the people behind our community’s creations. I want to hear their stories, their goals, and their reasons for making what they make – I want to know the artists, behind the art. Welcome to the Artist Profiles.
This week, I interview Alison Thomas, dancer and choreographer.
We have Aikmans almost entirely to ourselves, and but for the rain-drenched traffic outside and the occasional Beach Boys song buzzing ironically in the background, my interview with Alison Thomas goes uninterrupted. Residual artistic energy from the many open mics, local band performances, and even the few dramatic productions that Aikman’s has hosted seems to carry our chat directly to my core, key question.
Why is dance an “art?”
Granted, that’s a tough question to answer about any creative endeavor, especially when trying to avoid the more cerebral (and more pretentious) discussions surrounding definitions of “art.”
But Alison takes it in stride, “One reason is because it’s hard work,” she says, smiling. She’s just returned from a choreography training course with YDance and the Scottish Ballet in Glasgow, and I could hear the weight of experience behind the humor in her words.
She nods, “Yeah, I think that’s one good place to start. The reason why dance fits into the concept of art... dance tries to tell a story. That’s something that art does – it’s storytelling in various forms. Dance tries to communicate something.”
I perk up at this. As a writer, anytime another artist uses the word “storytelling,” I get excited. We talk, for a bit, about how dance is a kind of language, and at some point I use the words “body poetry,” which, as funny as it sounds, gets a nod from the dancer herself.
“This is the thing that blows my mind about dance,” Alison says. “You can have an entire show, or just a piece of a show, with no words whatsoever, and everyone in the audience knows exactly what’s going on. They laugh, they cry, they engage,” she nods at me, “I love words, I love poetry, don’t get me wrong – but dance explores what you do when you don’t have words. One of my first teachers said, ‘We use movement when words aren’t enough.’ I am fascinated by how much dance can convey without words, and how words are not as necessary as I originally thought they were.”
I nod, knowing only too well how often I struggle to express feelings that the English language simply doesn’t seem to cover. It’s heartening, also, to hear someone speak about their art with so much wonder. It’s obvious from her expressions that dance is just as new, exciting and full of possibility for Alison now as it was when she first began. I have another question along the lines of how dance has changed her over the years, and how it fits into her life in St. Andrews.
“I think I notice more?” she says, her on-the-spot self-reflection causing it to sound more like a question. “I’ll hear a conversation, or see two people interacting on the street, and wonder how could I make a piece about that, how could I show that through dance? I study psychology and geography – I’m all about the people. Human interaction fascinates me. I want to create stuff about that.”
Alison has a keen eye for people and the spaces between them, both academically and in her choreography. In the pub, the nerdy poet in me is pleased to connect her love for dance and her degree in a kind of metaphor. She is a dancer, and, as such, lives immersed in an art form where the study of people, emotion, time and movement becomes – as you train to physically represent these things – a literal part of the way you move and express yourself. Considering the universality of those topics, I wonder why more people haven’t taken up dance as an artistic expression, here in St. Andrews.
“When some people imagine the arts, it’s often that they think, ‘painting, drama, poetry,” says Alison, “I would say that is absolutely changing, which is wonderful. A lot of people say ‘dance isn’t for me,’ or ‘I can’t dance,’ and I would say first, of course you can dance. And if you’re interested in art at all, and you haven’t seen dance or physical theater… give it a try.”
Over the last of our drinks, Alison and I chat a bit about the ways that art scenes in St. Andrews are mingling, how opportunities for making dance more accessible – through On the Rocks or Mermaids, or even aspects of Saint Sport, for example – are becoming more common. It’s nice to realize that St. Andrews’ myriad arts-languages are dialoguing, creating a new kind of open conversation. We end our interview when I ask if there’s anything that Alison herself wants to create…
“I want to create a piece or a series of pieces that is performed in a public space. Kind of like a ‘flash mob,’ but not exactly? I saw Janis Claxton’s Pop Up Duets at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it blew me away. She (and I) are interested in the idea of the ‘accidental audience.’ People don’t go with the intention to watch dance, but stumble across it and realize that they love this beautiful art form they’ve never encountered before. I’m hoping to do something similar... both to try performance art in places other than a stage or auditorium, and to introduce more of St. Andrews to contemporary dance, in the hopes that they’ll love it as much as I do!”
And after encountering Alison Thomas, I’m not exactly sure how they couldn’t.
To see the dancer and choreographer in some of her not inconsiderable glory, transforming art spaces here in St. Andrews, check out Alison’s ongoing collaboration with filmmaker Tommy Rowe, the Improv Sessions, HERE.