From the height of the Cairngorms: behind the scenes of How The Earth Must See Itself

With the founding principle of being a theatre without walls, everyone at the National Theatre of Scotland is ready for the unexpected to be a part of their day to day. The week of May 20th was no different, as the National Theatre of Scotland’s team headed to the Cairngorms to make the new short film How The Earth Must See Itself with choreographer Simone Kenyon and filmmaker Lucy Cash.

A project with collaboration at its core, it emerged from the crossing of three paths: that of choreographer Simone Kenyon, filmmaker Lucy Cash, and the National Theatre of Scotland’s Artistic Director Jackie Wylie; all three of whom shared a passion of Scottish poet and writer Nan Shepherd’s seminal book the Living Mountain. In fact, Simone Kenyon had already created a performance, Into The Mountain, inspired by Shepherd, which became the driving force behind the creation of How The Earth Must See Itself, and the two artists’ collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland and The Scottish Sculpture Workshop. This new short film will bring together the Kenyon’s initial performance, developed over eighteen months, together with artful and poetic cinematography shot on 16mm film, and extracts from Shepherd’s original prose, to create a new site specific performance.

The site in question was situated about two hours walk from the nearest car park, and while the team had planned to use a horse to assist with the transport of the kit to the height of the mountain top, it quickly become obvious that no vehicle nor animal would help them reach their destination. Going by foot, carrying filming gear, performance materials, and mountaineering kit for the next two hours, and back down the same way at the end of a long day of filming and performing, it is fair to say our team had quite the experience of the Cairngorms’ vast open space.

Finally arrived at the site, the crew worked on the film’s central performance, developed with, and performed by, a cast of five women dancers, with the addition of a newly created singing group working with the artist and composer Hanna Tuulikki. From the choreography to the cast, from the settings to the costumes, every part of the performance was crafted to echo and dialogue with the surrounding geography. Wearing beige hand-knitted sweater with knitting patterns responding directly to the shapes and forms found in the natural landscape of the Cairngorms, the performers’ costumes were reminiscent of the early 20th mountaineering gear Shepherd would have used for her numerous walks and hikes in the region. The subtle, careful series of movements performed by the dancers merge them slowly with their surroundings, offering a poignant visual answer to Shepherd’s original thoughts on nature, mindfulness and connection.

Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain was written over seventy years ago during the Second World War, although it was not published until much later in 1977, when Aberdeen University Press printed a small run of the book. This ode to the Cairngorms resonated with many in its description of the connection between human and nature, and reframed the discourse surrounding mountaineering by shifting the focus away from nature as a space for conquest and individual pursuit. Instead, Shepherd put forward a more aware and connected attitude toward landscape and the natural world, and proposed a mindful experience of walking, breathing, and existing in the open wilderness. This shift in perception interrogated the gendering of mountaineering as tradition and practice, as well as questioning our relationship to nature. Now more than ever, The Living Mountain reminds us of the intrinsic connection between people and landscape, and the need to shift our perceptive from nature as an object to be owned and controlled, to nature as a space for communion and reflection – an argument that resonates deeply with our contemporary ecological concerns.

This is an extract from the previously published From the height of the Cairngorms to the streets of Glasgow: all in a day’s work, June 20, 2019

How The Earth Must See Itself

A new short film by Lucy Cash and Simone Kenyon, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and Scottish Sculpture Workshop, and based on Aberdeen writer Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, and artist Simone Kenyon’s Into The Mountain project.

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