Nigel Charnock was working on In Water I’m Weightless as our maverick, astonishing choreographer when he had to withdraw owing to illness. His death this week has been a mighty blow – and not just to us, but across the world.
Tonight I saw five beautiful, defiant performers move their bodies beautifully and defiantly, as Nigel had taught them, across the stage – his energy, wit, grace, and subversion still present, alive, vital. How we miss him.
Our director, John McGrath, wrote about Nigel and his involvement in this project on the National Theatre Wales community website. He describes our joy and loss far better than I ever could, and I hope he will permit my reproducing those words here:
I didn’t know Nigel Charnock for long (though of course I knew of his work for many years), but in the short time that I did, his fierce, fearless creative spirit had a huge impact on me. The news of his death on Wednesday evening, just a few weeks after a cancer diagnosis, has me, and the cast of In Water I’m Weightless on which he worked, reeling, but also grateful for the precious days we spent in a rehearsal room with him.
Nigel first appeared in the National Theatre Wales office early in 2010. He’d heard about our plans for the company’s launch year and felt he should be in touch. After a time when he’d mainly been working abroad he was keen to find new ways to make work, and new people to collaborate with. He was hugely open about what that might mean. He’d written a play but he also wanted to work on other people’s projects. He wanted to try new forms. He wanted to work in different contexts. A massively established and respected artist, he seemed to be driven not by ego or reputation, but only by the desire to set off on new creative adventures.
It was already too late for me to involve him in the launch year programme, but by the end of that meeting I was convinced that he should be part of our next year of work. When I started to work with Kaite O’Reilly on the texts that were to become In Water…, the idea of working with Nigel to explore the words and bodies that would make up that piece quickly arose, and soon Nigel became very central to the thinking about what In Water could be.
On a selfish front, I was particularly pleased that Nigel would be working on a show I was directing, as I really wanted to see him at work. I will never forget the first day of auditions we did for the show in summer 2011. For hours on end Nigel had groups of people wandering in and out of what seemed like a huge day-long physical improvisation. Within minutes of working with him you could see people’s relationships to their bodies shifting – and I could see the shapes and possibilities of a piece of theatre emerging.
I remember saying to Kaite that this would be the easiest piece I’d ever had to direct – I just needed to watch Nigel improvise with the performers and help pick the best bits!
It didn’t work out quite like that, as a few days before we went into our final rehearsal period Nigel was diagnosed with cancer; but in the meantime we had cast the show and workshopped the piece with our actors. Those workshop sessions with Nigel were amont the most extraordinary I have ever spent in a rehearsal room. At the start of the day Nigel would just roll across the floor and pretty soon the whole cast was with him, creating shapes and relationships that over the course of several days turned into pieces of choreography. The key dances for In Water – Duets, Michael Jackson, and Heavy Load – were made during that time. (Though the input of our wonderful Associate Choreographer, Catherine Bennet, who stepped in to complete Nigel’s work should not be underestimated.)
I will cherish that rehearsal time with Nigel not just for his work on In Water, but also for the many lessons I learned about how to create trust and freedom in a rehearsal room; how to open up unexpected landscapes for people to explore. And more than anything else, how your own behaviour as an artist creates possibilities for others. Nigel only had to move for others to feel they too could move in new and extraordinary ways. Some art is beautiful but sealed off – there to wonder at. Nigel’s art was an invitation to imagine – to step through the door with him into a different, more extraordinary world.
Thank you for that lesson Nigel. With love and respect, John