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Jenny Reeves: Illuminating Place, Stories and Local Heritage

This month’s artist is dancer and choreographer Jenny Reeves, the founder of About Time Dance Company.

Jenny was born and raised in Lancashire and started dancing from a young age. She went on to train professionally at London Contemporary Dance School, followed by training at Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance where she studied for her Master’s degree. Jenny worked in London and worldwide for a number of years but began to realise it was time for her to go home and return to her roots of living rurally, walking in the hills and being near the sea.

Returning home to Lancaster City, Jenny started choreographing work about Lancashire. Her first piece was called Cotton in 2017, exploring through dance and sounds the processes of cotton production in Lancashire. Jenny formed About Time Dance Company in 2016 and has since gone on to make a number of performances across the Lancashire region and works with a large pool of local artists and collaborators. The company’s work always illuminates stories from local heritage. Their most recent work is Quite Unfit for Females (2021), which explores the tale of the Dick Kerr Ladies football team from Preston, who defied a ban on women’s football 100 years go.

Currently, Jenny is retraining as an osteopath, with much of her work involving soft-tissue therapy, teaching Yoga and dance, choreographing for About Time Dance Company, and student osteopathy. In her own words, a very exciting time!

This conversation highlights just how important place and the people who live there are to the creation of Jenny's work. Read on for a deep dive into her creative process and to learn how a dance piece exploring football and women's rights came about!

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

I live and work in Lancashire city, near Morecambe Bay which I can see from my window. All my work is about place and, within that place, the people that come from that place; so, a lot of my work is about Morecambe Bay, Lancashire and the surrounding areas. The more research I do into these places, the more I find incredibly inspiring stories of women and moments of history, which go on to inspire my work.

My latest work is about the Dick Kerr Ladies Football team from Preston in the 1920s. It is poignant for me because I’m from Preston, and therefore it feels local and important. As a local artist, I want to share the things that are right on my doorstep. Place has always been hugely important for my creative process in this way.

"I will always start with a story: the story has to touch hearts, be inspiring and incredible, and there are so many of those available. The people in the story are particularly important."

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

I could talk all day about my creative process! I will always start with a story: the story has to touch hearts, be inspiring and incredible, and there are so many of those available. The people in the story are particularly important. I will do a lot of research into their lives, their working conditions, their personal backgrounds. The process takes hours and hours, as I always speak to historians about the subject, and visit museums, galleries, and archives. This allows me to gain as much knowledge and backstory as I can.

I also love working with images; I take inspiration from things such as the body positions of workers. Images can tell you so much about a person and you can get a unique physicality from looking at them. For example, when I was working on Cotton, I looked at thousands of images of workers in the cotton mills and then emulated the physicality in the body of those people. I think this helped to make the piece real. I love to work with poetry too. The great thing about history is that there is so much poetry and text documented in the archives. Lancashire archives are particularly amazing for this.

I will then take all of this inspiration into the studio and work with a selection of dancers. I like to work with dancers who are local because I feel that they have that sense of place and belonging, and often want to share their local heritage too. The dancers do a lot of the creating themselves as I shape and guide the work.

Do you have any rituals that help with this process of creating work?

My research process is a ritual for me. The process takes me about two or three years to solidify an idea into a project. For example, with Quite Unfit for Females, it took about two years of solidification before I even thought about what the outcome might be. Heaps and heaps of research is my ritual to get right to the crux of what I want the story to say and what I want the audience to experience.

In terms of an everyday ritual, a cup of tea in bed, just to put my thoughts in order, plus conversations and chatting, always helps to build ideas. I love that each day is so different in my work and therefore I don’t really have a routine, although I do come up with my best ideas when running!

"Helping people to find a sense of place summarises what I do. Illuminating what is already on our doorstep, in a different and unique way, so that people can experience stories and feel proud to understand where they come from."

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just finished touring Quite Unfit for Females. In Preston in the 1920s, the women who worked in an ammunitions factory started playing football in their break times to raise money for wounded soldiers. They became an incredibly successful team but in 1921, the FA banned women from playing football. It’s a shocking story and it has been amazing to tour it.

A solo project at the Kendal Brewery Arts Centre, with a twelve-piece orchestra called Propellor, is another recent collaboration. This was a side-line away from my company work and more to do with my personal practice. I got to perform with a 12-piece orchestra, wear beautiful costumes and take my inspiration from migratory birds. It was quite something performing on a proscenium arch stage again too after so much of my work recently has been site-specific and outdoors. Those backstage nerves are very real!

I also have another performance at Astley Hall in Chorley, which is a site-specific piece. The performance will illuminate Astley Hall, which is an old manor house. This is part of a light festival that is showcasing light art. I’m really excited for this!

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

For me, sense of place means to take pride in your local history and heritage, and to love the places around you. I think it also comes down to a sense of belonging within a community as we all know that people are as important as the place itself; and it's often the social history of a place that makes it so interesting. Having a strong sense of place will often make people want to learn more.

Creating a sense of place is my work! Helping people to find a sense of place summarises what I do: illuminating what is already on our doorstep, in a different and unique way, so that people can experience stories, and feel proud to learn and understand their local heritage and where they come from. Sense of place is huge to me. I think it’s what brings communities together and what makes us tick as humans, knowing our belonging and family, and understand the places around us. I would hope that this is very present in my work given the fact that I always use hyper-local stories.

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

At the moment with my company's current work, I want to share this unjust message of the FA ban on women’s football, and that women, against all odds, continue to play football regardless.

In general, lifting each other up, and that community will always come through in the end, are the messages that I hope my work portrays.

Jenny's Book List:

1. Still Life by Sarah Winman

I have just finished reading this most beautiful book! The community and sense of place comes through as the characters build a new home in another country. I cried my eyes out whilst reading it!

2. In a League of Their Own: The Dick Kerr Ladies 1917-1965 by Gail Newsham

I read this whilst creating Quite Unfit for Females. It describes everything you would ever need to know about the Dick Kerr Ladies so therefore hugely poignant in the creative process of the performance.

3. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

I have just started reading this and I’m really enjoying it so far…

To discover more about Jenny's work and About Time Dance Company, visit their website and Instagram @abouttimedancecompany

Images 1, 2, 5: Robin Zahler

Images 3, 4: Artist's Own


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