Roots and Routes Over Time, a creative arts project in Leeds from Balbir Singh Dance Company (BSDC), began in 2020. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, walking took on a whole new meaning, as people came to cherish that precious hour outdoors allowed for exercise. When venues were closed, performing arts companies found new ways to reach audiences and working with people outside looked ever more appealing.
The Leeds-based dance company has partnered with Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods, to create four themed walks in the local woods. This was part of a wider arts and health initiative called ‘Thriving Communities’, spearheaded by local charity Space2 Leeds.
These interactive story walks, created by Balbir Singh and his team, took place in 2021 and were well attended. Following taster workshops, the walks were framed around themes, each one ‘on the trail of’ something either real or mythical; ‘The Gledhow Valley Fairy’, ‘The Senses’, ‘Herbs and Spices’ and ‘Diwali’. Each walk had ad-hoc elements of performance alongside a chance for the audience to get moving and get involved.
Sowing the seed
In a year when people faced the difficulties of lockdowns, the artists and communities relished being outside in green spaces with the opportunity to meet new people, explore nature and discover new things. The walks took place in and around Gledhow Valley Woods in Gipton and Harehills, Leeds and were documented by photographer Malcolm Johnson.
Miraculously, the walks were dry – a relief in a part of the country where we’re used to overcast skies and rain. Being outside in nature means you are part of something fundamental to our region, including the weather and the seasons. “The woods take on a different quality depending on the season”, says Balbir, which “adds to the drama of the themes”. He explains that the walks “facilitate togetherness, connecting people to nature, to themselves and to each other”. Following the success of the Thriving Communities ‘on the trail of’ walks, the company has begun plans to extend them.
“It takes most of a morning to prepare with the artists”, explains Balbir. Adjusting to the weather, accommodating the demographic of the people on the walk and factoring in how people arrive at the woods is all in a day’s work for the team. The walks are a way to combat loneliness and see familiar places in a new way, “every city is a map of known and unknown spaces”, Balbir notes.
Sharing local stories
The company’s new series of walks takes the storytelling aspect to a new level, as Balbir will co-create the story walks with people from the local communities of Gipton and Harehills. Each walk will tell a little more of the story of the diverse local communities that live there. The project has shown how extraordinary seemingly ordinary places can be when you really look.
The project has been supported by Leeds Civic Heritage Foundation, which means the walks can be offered for free and the company can in turn create more work for local freelance artists. It’s hoped that social prescribing link workers in local neighbourhoods will be able to direct residents in need of a boost to their mental and physical health to the company so they can benefit from the project.
For the artists, spending time in the green spaces in and around towns and cities – whether near water, in woods, in parks or cemeteries, offers a new way of thinking about performance. The artists are presenting performance not just on the journey, but about it. “The special connection you get to the audience when you are outside with them for a couple of hours is magical”, says dancer Kali Chandrasegaram.
“The dream is to create a vibrant community of walkers across West Yorkshire and a vibrant set of new stories”, Balbir explains. “With people from the visually impaired community joining us, the full sensory element of the experience will be important.”
The new season of walks begins in April and the company has again teamed up with the Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods alongside new partner, the Association of Blind Asians (ABA). This is an exciting new partnership for both BSDC and ABA Leeds.
ABA manager Debbani Ghosh is enthusiastic about the project:
“We are so pleased to take part in this a project uncovering local stories and connecting people. This will be a great opportunity to be part of this innovative initiative to create a meaningful impact on our service users and the community.”
Bigger and better
News of the story walks is spreading. Balbir will be adding walks in Beckett Street Cemetery for for NHS workers in Leeds, in partnership with Thackray Medical Museum, and family walks in Kirklees as part of the Sangam Festival during South Asian Heritage Month.
The new season of walks is both ambitious and a real development of ‘on the trail of’. The company will offer a taste of what it would be like to live in rhythm with the seasons and to forage off the land, as well as create dance and drama pieces based on the communities’ stories. “The best part of any project is the memories we are making”, concludes Balbir.
You can join Balbir and everyone involved on Saturday 30 April at Gledhow Valley Woods Lakeside from noon to celebrate the restoration of the lake by local volunteers. There will be a walk around the lake at 1pm where attendees can hear all about the new project and take part in imaginary fishing. Everyone is welcome. For more information, please contact [email protected].