Inside the heartbreaking dance documentary about loss, isolation and an unprecedented shift in the world.

Unspoken dance documentary dancer spin

Dancer Sebastian Haynes

Unspoken dance documentary dancer spin
Dancer Sebastian Haynes

It is a time when life, loss and everything in between is under the magnifying glass. Isolation and lockdown has heightened the weight of the multitude of emotions and conflicting energy the world has brought around. But one heartrending piece of art attempting to make sense of it all is Unspoken, the ambitious brand new short film from choreographer Paul Lightfoot (@lightfoot_paul) and director William Armstrong (@williamarmstrong).

During lockdown Lightfoot sadly lost his father, and with policies in place, was unable to be by his bedside. Faced with this tragedy, he searched for a vehicle in which to process this unsurmountable grief, before he connected over Instagram with Armstrong. They sought to tell a story about this unprecedented shift in the world and the collective feelings of those affected by the pandemic. Unspoken was born, as the two artists attempted to create something beautiful out of the situation – a breathtaking and moving tribute to Lightfoot’s father, as well as a soaring beacon of creative possibility in this uncertain time.

During a six-week period, Lightfoot choreographed entirely remotely from his home in the Netherlands with Sebastian Haynes, a dancer based in Denmark, with filmmaker Armstrong recording every conversation and rehearsal. Composer Alexander McKenzie joined to create original music for the film, and the final performance was filmed on location at Copenhagen’s iconic church Grundtvig’s Kirken.

We caught up with Lightfoot and Armstrong and talked about the challenges of lockdown, the cathartic process of filming the documentary, and how Unspoken is a testimony to the power of art…

Unspoken dance documentary dancer
Unspoken dance documentary dancer closeup
Unspoken dance documentary dancer
Dancer Sebastian Haynes
Unspoken dance documentary dancer closeup

Paul Lightfoot, choreographer

First of all, congratulations on Unspoken. It’s truly beautiful and moving – when did the idea come to turn this experience into something palpable and creative?
Like much of my life, destiny played its part in the creation of Unspoken. William and I literally struck up a friendly chat on Instagram of all places. I rarely speak to people personally on this forum, but Will proposed the idea of a short film accosting the feelings of isolation during lockdown through dance. Could creativity still exist under these exceptional circumstances? He was ignorant to the fact that I was literally within the moment of confronting my father’s death and experiencing the repercussions of someone dying during COVID-19. Tragedy and creativity collided in an alchemy which I was suddenly drawn towards exploring.

Once Will understood my predicament, he asked if I might be willing to connect these two themes of loss of a loved one and choreograph under lockdown together. I watched his short film Adam, and was deeply moved by the sensitivity and class of how he broached the subject matter. The more we spoke, the clearer it became that I could trust him to show my vulnerability. To take all this sorrow and frustration, transforming it into something beautiful hopefully.

How did you start the process of creating the documentary – did you jot down the emotions you wanted to see manifested?
From my part, there wasn’t time to reflect on what was ahead as far as an emotional plan. I simply put on my choreographers hat and got down to the nitty-gritty of how to create this solo without ever being in a room with Sebastian, the dancer who performs the solo, or Alex, the composer who wrote the original music for Unspoken. Naturally, my Dads passing and the inability to say goodbye properly predominated my head and heart.

We all agreed to video every single conversation, meeting and rehearsal from day one. At first, it was unnerving knowing that your every movement, word, or emotion was being stored. Yet I soon forgot, endeavouring to be as transparent as possible. I wear my heart on my sleeve, therefore much of the thoughts, inspirations and turmoil of emotions were captured. I must admit that the documenting of the process supported me so much in not feeling the loneliness and despondency of the situation. The choreography and the circumstances…. It was as if the one relied on the other to exist.

The documentary part of Unspoken opened a window to sense the emotional process and the deeper information which an audience rarely gets to know when watching dance. The choreography lifted the film to another level, when suddenly words were unnecessary and pure kinetic connectivity could still thrive driving our joint messages home with a purity and humility.

And how was it choreographing and rehearsing entirely through a camera instead? And did this change from the beginning towards the end?
Bizarre! Sebastian and I have known each other for several years working and creating together. Seba has this incredible blend of silent power and grace, juxtaposed with the kindest and most humble of hearts. The entire process required much patience, something I possess little of, so my gratitude to Seba’s calm warmth is unending. It was as if my Dad was within him.

The actual physical process was almost farcical at the start. I had created a little material for our first encounter alone in The Hague. Seba was in his lounge at his home in Copenhagen with the furniture piled up in the corner to make space. With his laptop precariously set on a high shelf in the corner, I literally felt like spider on the wall staring down at this poor beast trying to learn movements via a dodgy Zoom call, bashing into the walls and slip-sliding about on his wooden floor! He looked like a panther in a small cage…

It was clear we needed bigger, better spaces for Seba to work in…. Thanks to Philip Maury, we could use a small corner of the French church, but the polished stone floors proved lethal to dance on. Surface was equally, if not more important, than square metres to create on… Will found a photo studio who allowed Seba in to rehearse. The space was so light and beautiful. It was as if whilst the solo was enlarging, then so was the environment.

Still, there were other challenges. I’m a devil for musicality, and it took a few days of me grumbling to Seba that he was constantly late in the music, to realise that there were time delays in what I saw related to the choreography due to internet. Poor WiFi often meant Seba would freeze frame mid dance, then suddenly appear somewhere else…. Oddly, I grew accustomed to it. It was if I could feel his energy despite the obstacles. I knew when he was correct, even if what I saw or heard did not match. Due to limited camera scope on his computer Seba would keep disappearing off screen. We found our way though, by breaking the solo down into bytes and piecing them slowly together. The solo itself is not long and with Alex’s poetic music it was like water off a duck’s back to create. The distance made the process slower, but I think in just over a week we had it basically ready.

This was just at the same time that the ballet studios at Tivoli gardens were granted to us by Peter Bo Bendixen. I could finally begin to see the entirety of the work.
A wave of emotions hit me, as all our labours suddenly became fluid and united.

Williams original idea was to film the Unspoken outdoors, but he shifted his thoughts as he saw how the solo was progressing. It was an unbelievable honour that, thanks again to Philip Maury, we gained access to one of the most stunning and largest churches in Denmark, Gruntvigs Kirke. This utopian environment was the final link to the puzzle of Unspoken.

Unspoken dance documentary dancer face time rehearsals laughing
Unspoken dance documentary dancer face time rehearsals
Unspoken dance documentary dancer face time rehearsals laughing
Dancer Sebastian Haynes
Unspoken dance documentary dancer face time rehearsals

It really is a testimony to hope and creativity in the midst of a time so dark and uncertain – what do you hope people will take from watching it?
On a personal level, Unspoken has become this huge vehicle to help me through this loss within such exceptionally difficult times, but deep down I had always aspired that it might be a beacon that shone out to say to the world that there is opportunity in every corner, even the darkest. That dance, the prime symbol of connectivity is still there, despite all the denials of corona-times. Creativity is an unstoppable force.

You really observe how in flux the body and emotions are, and indeed how grieving is often a full-body experience – did this make you come to any realisations around this?
Losing my father was my first real massive grief around death I’ve ever had to enter into. Mourning is a total absorption and outpouring of oneself. I was aware that there is a traumatic physical and emotional experience. I suppose as a choreographer I was aware of how my body responded to my grief. The shrinking of oneself. The shapes and angles which took over me unconsciously. Whilst making the choreography for Unspoken, I was doused in all the sadness. I had no other choice, it was part of me and therefore within the solo. Sebastian, again was an angel in these moments, sensing the grief within. Moulding it to his own body selflessly. It was a therapeutic and salubrious time I now see…

The breathing at the end – the body-wracking inhalations – what do they represent?
On my father’s death certificate the principal cause of death written was pneumonia. The week before he died alone in hospital, I had spent at his bedside. His shortness of breath was overwhelming him. I witnessed him literally searching his own lungs for pockets of oxygen. It was a constant memory when creating the solo.

His breath. Shallow, then strong briefly… How that intake and exhalation of air dominates our bodies. It became an overbearing theme in the work.

How did the experience change your outlook?
Creating this way would never have been my preference before Unspoken. Dance on film is challenging. I ache for live experiences… Yet, having said that I felt a metamorphosis in my way to choreograph which has given me new tools to explore.

Has dance always been a manifestation of your emotions? The scream as well is astounding, you feel every ounce of pain and frustration in it – how did you convey what you needed from Sebastian here?
Indeed it has. I was born on a farm in rural England and as a hyperactive child, so many of my emotions were channelled through my physic. Over the years, I’ve learned not to fear emotions within my work. It is my motor.

The scream as well is astounding, you feel every ounce of pain and frustration in it – how did you convey what you needed from Sebastian here?
The face is also a labyrinth of muscles and nerves. I’ve never shied from exploring using our faces in choreography. A scream is often this blast of anger or frustration. Seba understood why it was there, there was no need of explanation. He took it and it grates against the fluidity of the solo suddenly acting as a reminder of the storm inside us all.

Also you talk about how this is your way of saying goodbye – did you mean to choreographing?
Me, stop choreographing? Impossible! Then I would die. No, this was a way of saying farewell to my father. My root and constant inspiration of a good man. He means everything to me, and I had to let his body and presence go. This is something which begins often at a funeral. Because of COVID-19, we were not able to unite to bid him adieu together. We live in a small village and the community lined the streets as his coffin and body within were driven to the crematorium. Unable to be closer and mourn together. It was a deeply emotional moment to witness. All these people, friends, colleagues, relatives, dispersed on the roadside having to expel their grief alone on the lonely curb. I’ll never forget that moment. It haunts and comforts me still.

Unspoken dance documentary dancer face time rehearsals behind the scenes

(LEFT) William Armstrong pictured left
(RIGHT) Paul Lightfoot

Unspoken dance documentary dancer face time rehearsals behind the scenes
William Armstrong pictured left
Paul Lightfoot

William Armstrong, director

First of all, congratulations on Unspoken. It’s truly beautiful and moving – when did the idea come to turn this experience into something palpable and creative?
Thank you so much. The seed started in the first month of lockdown. I was feeling pent up and eager to find a way to stay creative under the circumstances. I was exploring the paradox of a dancer who’s life is movement and physicality – being forced to stop moving and touching. Early on the idea was to incorporate the dancer’s frustrations as voice over to a physical performance. But a big question about authenticity remained – I wanted it to be real rather than fiction.

I interviewed several dancers over FaceTime and didn’t find the conflict I needed. Messaging Paul on instagram was a moonshot, I didn’t expect much. It was 11:30pm and suddenly there was a reply in my inbox. We began discussing the project that evening and while talking I learned that Paul’s father had passed away just days before in a COVID-19 related situation. Paul is an icon in his profession and the timing was everything. He was grieving and processing a new world without his father, in fact the funeral hadn’t happened yet. He felt there would be something cathartic in the project, a way to express his feelings. We both commented that Paul wasn’t alone in this, there were thousands going through some sense of loss around the world – our film might reach them and show that there was a way through. That’s when it became real. It carried an enormous responsibility for me as a director, but it was so clearly a story that needed telling.

Had you ever directed anything this personal and ambitious before?
This was unique for a lot of reasons. The first was lockdown – Paul was in The Hague, I was in Copenhagen. We were embarking on an intimate, deeply personal and sensitive story that needed Paul to open his heart and share what he was going through into a camera on his laptop. It took us a few calls to get to know each other. In one of the early calls Paul sat on his father’s bed in Cheshire and read a poem he had written for the funeral. Perhaps this is part of the art of a choreographer and a dancer of over 3 decades, but Paul was so generous and trusting with his emotions.

In terms of ambition – I owe a lot to my editor Stephen Dunne. When I first discussed the project with him, he said “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you need to record everything, every conversation, every rehearsal, we need a ton of footage that we can sort through and layer in.” It was a mountain of work, I think the zoom calls alone amounted to 35+ hours of video between Paul, Alexander the composer, Sebastian the dancer and I. Stephen watched every second and eventually we reduced this to 3 minutes of story.

And the venue is absolutely perfect with the light flooding through – how did you find it?
It was so nearly something else! My first idea was to shoot this in the inner city of Copenhagen. I found a basketball court and thought we would shoot from a distance, showing the empty city as a backdrop. All drones and remote cameras on tripods – as a response to lockdown. Groups of people weren’t allowed at that point. But the rehearsal locations in the zoom calls were all interiors, and quite beautiful ones, it felt that the final performance should be a step up. It deserved close, intimate camerawork. I didn’t want to be overly religious in the symbolism, but when we found Gruntvigs Church it was absolutely perfect. We had to delay the shoot by 3 weeks as lockdown was easing in Denmark but once the church was allowed to reopen they gave us a weekday to shoot. It’s a one of a kind building, extremely minimalist, only one colour of brick used for the entire building, no scriptures or ornamental details. Sparse and stunning.

How did you know Sebastian Haynes was the right dancer for the job?
This was all thanks to Paul. On the very first phone call he said he had never choreographed remotely before, and if he was going to do it, it had to be with someone who’s physical language he already understood. Sebastian is Danish/American and was actually already a dancer at The Netherlands Dance Theatre, where Paul was Artistic Director. However he was home in Copenhagen to isolate, where I happened to be too. Paul called Sebastian one of the most exciting male dancers in the world and was all I needed. At the time Paul also introduced me to concert pianist and composer Alexander McKenzie, who also happens to be one of the rising stars in his field. I had somehow landed in the company of three insanely talented artists so I really just buckled up as they began creating together.

How did the experience change your outlook?
Good question, I think I’m still processing. Wonderland is the first publication to get the film, so we have no idea how it’s going to be received. As a filmmaking experience outside of the reception it has been so memorable. I knock on a lot of doors as a storyteller trying to find important themes and charismatic characters to explore. A lot of those are dead ends. It has been so validating not only to break through with a master like Paul, but to have something meaningful as a result. Paul wrote to me yesterday and said he had just rewatched it after a few weeks and felt the tears flooding back. As condensed as the story is, he felt it represented something immense. We are both so proud of it. Has my outlook changed? Maybe this just allows me to double down my reason to make films – to hold a mirror up so that we recognise the journey we are all on, both the sadness and but also the beauty and joy to be found in it.

And did you experience an outpouring of emotion synonymous with Paul? Especially also seeing how Sebastian is also full of emotion as the kind of vehicle of the grief…
Absolutely. Making this film has moved me to tears on so many occasions. I have to say, I think it’s easy to dive into sadness as an emotion. It’s much more challenging to find optimism and the beauty that pulls you through to the other side of it. That’s what I wanted as a take away from this film. We are all going to lose our parents, everyone can relate to grief. In the past 6 month the world has been grieving in a way, trying to hold on to how it was before, trying to figure out who we are now that everything has changed. But this film shows how to move forward. To celebrate life, to turn loss into positivity, to focus on the things that pull us closer together.

Watch Unspoken below… Follow the pair at @lightfoot_paul

Unspoken from William Armstrong on Vimeo.

Maybelle Morgan

Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related → Related →