Caro Meets Festivals Interview

Leo Geyer: Spin A Tale

By | Published on Friday 30 April 2021

I’m quite the fan of Derbyshire, so I was very interested when I heard about Constella OperaBallet’s latest project, a collection of seven films in celebration of a cotton mill in the county, made in collaboration with local residents, all under the banner of the ‘Spin A Tale’ festival.

The films feature a range of disciplines, genres and themes, and all are inspired by, and focused on, Darley Abbey.

To find out more about the project, and the company behind it, I spoke to Leo Geyer, Constella OperaBallet’s founder and Artistic Director.

CM: Can you start by giving us an overview of what to expect from ‘Spin A Tale’, in terms of format, style and content?
LG: ‘Spin A Tale’ is a multi-disciplinary festival celebrating the heritage of the Eighteenth Century cotton mill complex at Darley Abbey.

This includes a series of seven short films with newly commissioned dance, music and drama, made in collaboration with Darley Abbey residents and performed by singers, dancers and actors from Constella OperaBallet, with participation from local choirs, the Derby-based Déda Youth Company, the University Of Derby, and local primary schools.

In addition, an installation of giant bobbins and threads of bunting will be put on display throughout the village.

CM: Are the films connected in terms of themes?
LG: Each of the films explore a different aspect of the past, present and future of Darley Abbey. This naturally centres on the cotton mill heritage.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about each of the films?
LG: ‘Water Hymn’ is inspired by the ‘The Darley Pageant’ by Wendy Bitton, and is a brand new opera-ballet paying homage to the unceasing energy of the River Derwent that gave power to the former cotton industry.

‘Evolutionary Cycles’ is a dance film, recorded during lockdown by dancers from Déda Youth Company, who perform their own choreography that reflects and comments on the evolutionary cycles of humankind.

‘Tangled’ is an abstract installation piece for camera that explores the ephemeral body as a central protagonist in the reconstruction of historical narratives. Using strings of fabric to tie narratives to the protagonist, the short film explores how the body cannot fully be separated from the history in which we live.

‘Hanging By A Thread, Billowing Through Space’ sees University Of Derby students explore the use of fabric within the park of Darley Abbey. The sense of connection that we have lost in this pandemic time is portrayed by the longing connection through their fabric.

Uniquely, the Evans family – owners of Darley Abbey’s cotton mill – created a micro-welfare state which included the provision of gravestones for workers and children who sadly passed away very young. We pay our respects in a ‘Requiem’ recording performed by singers in self-isolation during lockdown.

‘Brick Row’ is a new music drama that showcases a snapshot of Eighteenth Century life in Darley Abbey’s historic building. The libretto is inspired by ‘A Cottage In The Village – 1795’ from the aforementioned ‘The Darley Pageant’ by Wendy Bitton. This film is dedicated to Jane Manning OBE, Constella’s patron, who passed away in March this year.

And finally – in a culmination of all aspects of ‘Spin A Tale’ – ‘Darley Abbey And Me’ draws in the history, the heritage, and the habitants of Darley Abbey, in this original song commemorating the growth of the village, the importance of community, and the cultural impact of industry.

CM: Can you explain how you engaged with the local community and tell us a bit about their involvement?
LG: Despite the challenge of the pandemic, we are delighted to say that several hundred people have been involved in this project through various ingenious methods. This includes virtual workshops to develop lyrics, musical recordings made in self-isolation, and bunting made by children at local primary schools.

CM: What was the inspiration for this?
LG: Constella has done a similar project celebrating the heritage of a different industry. Specifically, ‘The Canary Boys’, which was a national outreach project showcasing the culture surrounding the coal mining industry.

CM: It sounds like work began on this before the pandemic hit: how did the lockdown affect your progress? Was the original plan for live performances? Or did you always plan to make films?
LG: The original plan was for a day of live performances, in fact in 2020. So, we have had a lot to navigate. In the end, we are very pleased with this outcome as we have been able to involve more people in the community than we had originally planned.

CM: Cultural events becoming available digitally has become standard over the last year. Do you think that’s a trend that will continue?
LG: We think that the pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of society, so whilst some aspects of ‘normality’ will return, some virtual and digital alternatives are likely to stay in place – including online culture.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the history of Constella OperaBallet? How did it begin and what ethos does it have?
LG: Constella is coming up to its tenth year anniversary in autumn this year. Founded initially as an orchestra, we have migrated to becoming the world’s only company dedicated to opera-ballet. Our core mission is to create cutting-edge, interdisciplinary performances for today’s diverse audiences.

CM: How has the company continued its work through the lockdown?
LG: We created Connecting Stars – a live and interactive performance programme for care homes. Since the pandemic began, we have given over 200 performances for care home residents across the UK, with thanks to public donations, Arts Council funding and support from Sir Willard White.

CM: What aims does the company have for the future?
LG: We are proud to have continued to operate during the pandemic, proving that – by being creative – we can be resilient. We are determined to continue to reimagine the arts for today’s society, most likely continuing to empower digital technologies.

CM: What’s coming up next, after this?
LG: Funding dependent, we are planning a major expansion of Connecting Stars, with over 800 performances in the pipeline. When restrictions finally lift, we have numerous live productions up our sleeves, but we can’t yet spill the beans… You’ll have to wait and see!

Constella OperaBallet’s ‘Spin A Tale’ films will premiere as part of a live online event on 8 May, and will be available on demand from then on. See this page here for more information.

LINKS: | | |