Coal ignites burning issues over bitter strike

Gary Clarke's award-winning hit contemporary dance drama COAL
Gary Clarke's award-winning hit contemporary dance drama COAL

For award winning choreographer and dancer Gary Clarke, Coal represents the drama, the tragedy and the unbreakable spirit of a working class community fighting for its future.

This major piece of contemporary dance is the recent winner of the UK Theatre Award for Achievement in Dance, with the Gary Clarke Company named Best Independent Company at the prestigious Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards.

The production comes to the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, on March 13 and 14, as part of a national tour, commemorating Britain’s mining industry and communities.

It was created to mark the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike but even more importantly for Gary it reflects his own experience of growing up in the Yorkshire coalfields.

“Coal is a direct response to my upbringing in the working class mining village of Grimethorpe in South Yorkshire,” he explains.

“It’s about trying to capture a time in British history that is too easily forgotten and it is an attempt at keeping the memories of the mining industry alive, an industry that I believe shaped the fabric of our society and how we live our lives today.”

Although the inspiration for Coal is drawn from Yorkshire, it also reflects the impact of the Miners’ Strike on many communities in Fife.

Many remember the strike with bitterness: marriages broke up, careers were lost, debt was accumulated, previously law-abiding men came out of it with criminal records.

And while picket line violence was far less a feature in Fife than other areas, anger towards strikebreakers was fierce and did much damage to both families and the community – anger and bitterness which, for some, still remains to this day.

Gary was a young boy when the strike of 1984/85 hit the mining communities of Britain in a year of frequently violent struggle that left communities with scars that would take decades to heal.

Many of Gary’s family, including his grandfather and his uncle, worked at the coalface and all were involved in the political fight that would forever shape British industrial history.

Despite his family’s roots in the mining industry, though, Gary took a very different career route and he is now one of the new generation of dancers and choreographers bringing new life and vision to the world of contemporary dance.

“I’m not saying I would have gone to the mines but there might have been a kind of pressure to do that because that’s what was expected of a man, that was the trade and that was what supported the village,” he says. “But when that support was taken away, what do you do?

“I remember loving dancing but I was never sent to ballet at the age of five or anything like that.

“But I have always been an active kid. I would win disco competitions against people who were a lot older than me – they never liked losing to a ginger four-year-old!”

The closest Grimethorpe could offer to a dance class was the local majorettes team, hardly the sort of thing a South Yorkshire boy was expected to take up.

“No, my parents never tried to suppress it,” he laughs. “The house was an open house and I could do what I wanted. I was a free child.”

Eventually, that love of movement and expression led him to take a place on a dance course at Barnsley College and from there he graduated to the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

During vacation time from the Northern School he would work as a Blue Coat at Pontins camps in Great Yarmouth and Torquay.

“It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had!” he laughs. “It really was, hands down! As a Blue Coat you just have to be happy and fun because holiday camps are for people who want to get away from reality.”

The winner of the 1998 Brian Glover Memorial Award, Gary Clarke is currently regarded as one of the UK’s leading contemporary dance artists and he has received great appreciation and acclaim for his work as a choreographer, director, performer, mentor, teacher and facilitator.

He has developed a reputation for creating extraordinary dance work of various sizes and scales which have received praise from critics, audiences, producers, national dance agencies and venues in the UK and abroad.

In 2011 and 2012 Gary worked as a movement artist on the Paramount film World War Z, starring Brad Pitt, and also had a featured role in the zombie action movie.

More recently Gary has also featured in the Tom Cruise thriller The Mummy and box office hit Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

But the memory of how the families of the mining industry struggled as the strike hit harder would not leave him and it was those experiences that led him to develop Coal into what has become one of the year’s most acclaimed pieces of contemporary dance, playing to sell out audiences around the country.

It’s a riveting dance theatre show that takes a nostalgic but honest look at the hard hitting realities of life at the coal face, the back breaking physical graft and the impact it makes on body and soul, both underground and on the surface.

Strong, powerful and emotive, Gary’s aim was to explore the darker underbelly of the mining industry, unearthing the true nature and body wrecking demands of a working class industry.

Believing strongly that a piece about community should also have a major community involvement, every performance features a quartet of local women with no previous performance experience who play the miners’ wives.

And adding even more authenticity is the inclusion of the sound of brass – in St Andrews that will be provided by the acclaimed Whitburn Band.

It makes for a moving, powerful and disturbing tribute to a time and an industry that has now been consigned to history but which for many people remains a major part of their lives.

• Coal is at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, on March 13 and 14. For tickets, see