the story of living colour

By | December 27, 2015

Barbara Harrow is an artist who uses dance to present her visual imagery. She studied textiles at Winchester School of Art in the early 1970s and since that time her work has centred around the theme of colour and movement combined. At Winchester, Barbara became fascinated with colour and as she found that colour itself had life and movement in it, she began by constructing mechanical objects that showed colour moving. She then saw similarities between people and colour, as she found that when people smile at her they seemed to have a real glow which gave her a feeling similar to that she had when she looked at colour.

So she decided to use the human form as a vehicle to bring colour to life and, while still at college, began to use performance as part of her work. She made movable sculptures which people would wear in a place that they were publicly on view–lying in the grass, up a tree or being lead through the shops in town. At her degree show, she put the ‘Sculptures’ on show in the library and found to her surprise that people flocked to see them. It was then that she had the idea of making a living painting to take around England to share her love of colour with other people.

Barbara had no theatrical background, not even an interest in theatre. She didn’t even think of her work as consisting of performers and an audience, but as a way of sharing her love of colour with other people.

At this time she began to paint the face but she realised that she didn’t have the technical skill to paint faces as she wished to. It was while travelling in India, she discovered a school training Ketakali Dancers, who used the most amazing make-up. She returned to India in 1974, having spent two years saving enough money to fund her training, and spent two years with the Ketakali Dance Troupe. Barbara’s whole training in theatre came from this strict and formal eastern tradition, from which she learned all the practicalities of a performance, for example, when actors have to arrive, when and how the make-up is put on and how costumes are hung up and looked after.

Barbara returned to England in 1976 feeling so inspired that she wanted to make a performance to celebrate all she had seen and learnt in India. This was to be called Spirits of the Sun. She also formed a troupe which she called Centre Ocean Stream. The first performance exactly followed the way it would have been done in India, except that the concepts were completely Barbara’s own, and she used Ketakali make-up and her own designs as well as ideas which had, whilst she was in India, remained unfulfilled.

To begin with she thought of this performance as a one-off thing, purely to celebrate her ‘Indian Experience’ and she did not make any future plans to continue performing. But having done one performance, the Company received one booking after another, until it found itself performing in the Crafts Council Gallery. People reacted to her work with enthusiasm and the troupe was featured in various magazines and did several radio interviews.

It was not until a year later that Barbara began to use trained dancers for her work. Originally she had used people with an art training because she felt they would find it easier to relate to the concepts she was using and the moving sculptures. However, when she wanted to bring more movement into her performance, she realised that she would need to use dancers and found what they were doing very exciting. The performances thus became much more dance orientated and seemed to progress well for about three years. Then things began to go wrong. As Barbara added more dance and movement to satisfy and fulfil the dancers, advisors from the Arts Council told her that she was ruining what she had achieved. Barbara, who had no knowledge in the dramatic field, was left in a quandary. She had come to a stage of uncertainty, and her own work had become less important than the movement.

As a result, Barbara decided to stop performing and completely rethink her approach to performances. She decided that what she really wanted to do was to make ‘living colour’. She took away everything except the most important thing–the person who brought her sculpture/costumes to life–as the most important thing to her was that ‘living beauty’. It was at this time that her husband Julian (a member of Centre Ocean Stream for the five years that they had been performing) had what Barbara refers to as a ‘realisation’ about performing colour: ‘It wasn’t acting, it was using the energy of the space in whatever mood he was in and working with it. So he started to understand this very, very concentrated, focused way of performing, and I started to understand the root of my work which was to work with colour and energy’.

So they began again to build a new performance. They began with stillness and silence, to which they added sound and very slow movement, and made it quite simple and quite minimal. Barbara and Julian saw this as a major breakthrough, as they felt they were no longer stuck ‘in-between’ dance and drama but had actually begun to invent a new way of moving. Barbara now began to add subtleties as rhythms and textures into the movement. At this time a dancer called Anna Rhome from the London School of Contemporary Dance (LSCD) offered her services free of charge.

Barbara, Anna and Julian began to work together and decided that they wanted to work with the emotion of colour, and reflect that through the performance. They also decided to give emotions directions so that: happiness went up, anger went forward, sadness went down, and fear went in and back, and began to add this to the direction of the movement. They continued to work in the face of strong opposition from Southern Arts who felt that their work was unworthy of being seen, and that it hadn’t developed, but their strong motivation kept them going.

In 1984 Barbara began to develop her own kind of choreography. She wanted to find a new vocabulary of movement that was quite different to balletic and more natural. She would ask the performer to do something such as to lift a heavy box then she would take the box away and look at how the body moved. At this time, Tamara McLeod, a dancer choreographer trained at LSCD came to do a workshop with Centre Ocean Stream. She was to have a strong influence on the way Barabara worked, as she could see that they didn’t want dance but wanted a way of moving that was in harmony with Barbara’s costumes. She began by asking the performers to work out a cartoon-like stoRY whilst she and Barbara were out of the room. When they returned, she asked them to put on Barbara’s costumes, added lights and sound, and they performed the piece. Barbara was amazed by what was happening, she found it completely transformed the costumes and what excited her was the fact that improvisation had such a creative effect. Barbara found that with the costumes on, they were producing incredible images and movements, which gave her masses of visual imagery, and began to select movements and organise them into something that worked visually. They now tried reflecting moving objects and worked in this idea more and more until it is now central to Barbara’s way of working–the theme behind the movement is taken away to leave the abstract movement which is completely original. This is developed by Barbara’s visual selection and she adds to this what she calls pre-movement, to make the performance complete and to add a rhythm.

When Centre Ocean Stream takes a show out on the road, the performance will be changing and developing continually as every time Barbara watches the performance she makes amendments.

Barbara makes all the costumes (or sculptures as she calls them) herself. They contrast very shiny and very matt fabrics, and very strong, brilliant, and very dark blacks, and very pale colours. She uses what appears to be a kind of quilting technique but they are made mainly on the sewing machine.

Barbara does not make drawings of what the costumes are going to be like but prefers them to grow and evolve, as she makes them.

The costumes are many faceted and extremely complex. They do not conform to the shape of the human body at all, but instead are formed of a series of blocks of colour, which are usually held together by a background of black which forms the garment part. Some parts of the costume move with the body, others move on their own, as they hang from the costume. They completely distort the human shape, so that all you see moving are the shapes and colours. Because of the construction of the costumes, every time the performer moves they conceal or reveal different parts. The painted face becomes one with the costume, so that any human resemblance is taken away and the performer becomes a moving brightly coloured sculpture. The costumes usually involve complicated headdresses, which again detract from the human form.

The performers move with a mixture of slow delicate movements and quick jerky movements, the costumes are at their most effective when moved very slowly, and positions are held. The space around the performers is also very important, it must be very black so that the colours jump out. Barbara Harrow has evolved her own fascinating way of bring colour and art to life.

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