How do you bring a vivid and emotional dance piece from the stage to the screen? The original production of Kes Reimagined already had to bring the spirit of Kes into dance, now the same team needed to convey the spirit of their own stage show to make a new film.
Writer, stage director and choreographer Jonathan Watkins was born in Barnsley, where Barry Hines’s original novel and Ken Loach’s famous film version, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, were set. It’s a story he says is part of the very DNA of the town, and of himself too.
Boys from Barnsley
“I’m not just from Barnsley, but from one of the little villages in Barnsley where, watching the film growing up, you would recognise so many places you knew,” says Watkins. “It belongs to the people of the town and I was really pleased and proud of what we’d created with Kes. I felt so strongly about the piece that I wanted to share it with as many people as I could.”
Kes is the story of a troubled boy growing up in a town that has always been a mining community but is now seeing that industry decline. Bullied at home and at school, Kes finds an unexpected release when he begins to train a kestrel, and for a time the bird transforms his bleak life.
Right from Barry Hines’s original novel and through Ken Loach’s acclaimed 1969 film to today’s dance version, the plot has always been secondary to its deeply recognisable emotions.
Decades after the book and film, Kes Reimagined was first staged in 2014 at The Crucible where its wordless all-dance production was a gigantic success. “Watkins develops a symbolic language which… becomes genuinely too powerful for words,” wrote Alfred Hickling in The Guardian.
From the start, neither Watkins nor composer Alex Baranowski wanted to simply stick a camera or two by the stage. It was never a question of trying to document a stage show, it was always about how to bring that show’s feel to a wider audience.
Kes Reimagined would ultimately go on to be screened in cinemas around the world, and then on to television beginning with BBC Four.
The problem was how to keep the story, the choreography and the emotion of the staged piece while bringing it to a the far wider audience that a digital film version could reach.
Watkins and film director Ross MacGibbon – himself a former Royal Ballet dancer and also former head of dance at the BBC in London – worked with The Space to do this by create a new video production of the stage show.
The team did have the advantage of that stage show having been fully realised and produced, plus MacGibbon has filmed countless dance productions before. However, they also faced the same issues that surround all arts shows in that ultimately they would have little time and would not have a giant budget.
Preparation and teamwork
“We had three days to shoot this in and it was non-stop,” says film director MacGibbon. “It meant sometimes I’d be filming a scene and planning the next one in my head, and that’s hard.”
To make the most of the time available, MacGibbon says you need preparation and teamwork. “The secret is that getting a good team around you, that you’ve worked with before, is really key to making it work.”
“Then I prepare very, very thoroughly. I go in with a meticulous script that I’ve worked on beforehand, because that’s cheap or even free time, and then I have to just be like a dictator and get everyone to do what we need,” says MacGibbon.
If the video is not a document of the stage show, it is also not a replacement. The stage show is one piece of work and the film is another. “The core essence and spirit of the stage adaptation are all the same,” says Watkins, but it has to be a new work.
A crucial issue is in knowing that the way something plays out in a theatre when an audience is in that space with the performers is different when it’s on a screen.
“There’s a funny football scene for instance,” says MacGibbon, “which is over seven minutes in the theatre yet I reduced it to two and a half. That sounds like a huge cut, but on screen it begins to flag and the comedy wears off. That’s what I can bring to this kind of production, the experience that means I can see how to keep the essence and the sense of it. To make it work on screen yet be faithful to the choreography, the intention of the piece, and its emotional integrity.”
There was also a practical advantage to filming in that MacGibbon could simply skip the moments when stage scenery was being moved on or off the stage.
“In the end, I took twenty minutes out of the whole theatrical performance by tightening it all up and doing things like that,” says MacGibbon.
Dancing on stage vs dancing for film
There’s also a practical difference between dancing on stage and dancing for film, in that the latter takes much longer. It’s one thing to perform a regular dance show for around 90 minutes each night and it’s another to dance that show continuously for three days.
Not only is it exhausting for the dancers, but it also increases the risk of injury. A dance show film can’t have an understudy take over half way through, so MacGibbon carefully scheduled the filming to help the dancers. He would look at who was needed for which scenes and at how to give them a break while he shot other parts of the show.
It’s not only dancers who benefit from careful scheduling, either. “We shot the bedroom scenes [which start and end the show] at the same time, for example,” says MacGibbon, “because the lighting is the same.”
Translating a stage show into a film requires a lot of practical, even technical experience, but it is ultimately about creating a new work of art.
“It was brilliant to re-visit and re-examine how the story comes across on film and to think about how it will be experienced in this new way,” says Jonathan Watkins. “It’s so amazing working with an accomplished director like Ross, as we have been able to tailor it for camera rather than just capturing what was already there. It’s been really interesting for me and the artists to not just revisit the show, but to breathe new life into it.”
The original Kes and the new Kes Reimagined are stories that are both steeped in the same Barnsley town and the production captures the importance of that local aspect. Yet through digital, it is also now able to bring its local feel to a universal audience.
For any arts organisation looking to film one of its productions, Watkins and MacGibbon both say that there are lessons they’ve learned that are invaluable.
- Treat the film as a new work rather than as a slavish document of the original
- Prepare in as much detail as you can over what you want to film
- Schedule that filming to minimise how much time is lost setting up
- Remember that the film isn’t a replacement for the stage show
Kes Reimagined, premiered at Leeds International Film Festival at the beginning of November and was followed by screenings at Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax and Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Kes Reimagined was broadcast on BBC Four on Tuesday 19th November at 10pm.
Watch it on BBC iPlayer until mid December.