What is it about Dartmoor? Why does this beautiful part of England attract such a diverse range of creative people? It's a question I keep returning to time and time again whenever I come here.
Indeed,it's a question I will ask Katy Marchant and Dhevdhas Nair, who have chosen Dartmoor not only as the base for their unique theater troupe, The Daughters of Elvin, but as the place they call home.
The Daughters of Elvin base their shows around infectious medieval music, played on authentic instruments with fabulous names—crumhorn, dulcimer and hurdy-gurdy—as well as Border bagpipes, recorders, harps and whistles. Added to this heady brew is the beautiful voice of Jennie Cassidy. Katy and Dhev, along with the other Daughters, are accomplished musicians, playing a huge range of instruments between them. Katy especially loves the Border bagpipes, while Dhev revels in percussion (though he is also skilled in jazz piano and Indian classical music).
For both Katy and Dhev, music has been an important part of their lives from childhood, with Katy picking up her first recorder at the age of 18 months and Dhev learning piano at an early age. It wasn't until the early '90s, however, that destiny brought them together. "I was having a fairly wretched time at Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall," says Katy, "and would just go home and practice on my penny whistle. Someone I was living with at the time gave me a three-hole pipe, which I made a few half-hearted attempts to play, but gave up as I thought it was unplayable. A few years later, I met someone in Devon who could actually play the pipe and tabor, which is a three-hole pipe played in the left hand accompanied by a tabor drum in the right. One day I was practicing, and Dhev and a friend, an African drummer, walked in and started to accompany me on the drums. Suddenly we had created a powerful mix of cultures and styles that struck a deep chord in all of us." So I learned from him how to play. He also introduced me to a few medieval tunes, which had a special earthy quality that I was attracted to.
Katy grew up surrounded by Baroque music, which she still loves, but finds very formal in style and structure. She longed to discover a freer mode of expression. For her, the discovery of putting medieval music together with the up-tempo and fiery sounds of Dhev's percussion has been a revelation. "For us," she says, "it's the percussion that helps bring the music alive. There is a distinctive Middle-Eastern influence largely due to the Crusades. People returning to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa brought back an array of percussion instruments, and were very inspired by Arabic music."
Katy and Dhev started playing in this style just for fun, devouring any historical references they could find to expand their knowledge and repertoire. Around this time, they heard a band called The Dufay Collective, a contemporary medieval group, who inspired them with their dynamic, exciting performances.The group continued playing together, but without any serious aspirations, until they were asked to play at a party. "We thought it would be really fun to surprise everyone," Katy says, "and Alan Lee, the brilliant artist, had made this incredible bird mask that he said I could wear, and I made a cloak to go with it. Dhev had a mask that looked like a Brussels sprout! The other person playing with us had a rubber chimp mask, and the three of us moved in procession through the party with the percussion, and me playing pipe and tabor. Then I found myself putting down my instruments and dancing, and suddenly, again almost by chance, we found we had something really powerful—the masks totally invigorated the music. Soon after, people started hiring us to perform, and that's how the Daughters of Elvin formed."
Though the band is based in Southwest England, initially their popularity grew in the North. In 1996, Manchester International Arts booked the Daughters to perform at their annual festival; and they were also invited to play at an international showcase weekend, called Ex-Trax, featuring hundreds of musicians and dancers from all over world. Ex-Trax provided an opportunity for performers to get noticed and, hopefully, booked. Suddenly the band had the exposure they were looking for.
Ex-Trax is not, however, for the shy and retiring. "You wouldn't believe how competitive it is," says Katy. "We'd start playing and some brass band would drown us out, trying to get the attention of the promoters. On the first day we couldn't even get onto the stage for our spot, we just kept getting muscled out. It wasn't until late in the day that we finally performed, and just as we did all these promoters came running towards us! So we played even more enthusiastically, but they all ran past us and onto their coach. Turns out it was the last bus home!"
Undeterred, the Daughters played the next day. But they felt decidedly glum, performing under a leaden sky beneath a railway arch, a solitary promoter watching them. They returned to Devon thinking it had all been a waste of time, when suddenly Katy got a phone call. It was that solitary promoter, inviting the Daughters to tour Ireland which turned out to be a huge success.
By 1999, The Daughters of Elvin had expanded to ten members from the original three. The band's reputation was growing, and Katy, who was originally a sculptor, was making the wonderful masks that are so intrinsic to the Daughters experience. The designs come from imagery found within churches and cathedrals, inspired by the way that Pagan and Christian images often exist comfortably together. For instance, in Exeter Cathedral there is a carving of the Virgin and Child standing on an image of a Green Man, a well-recognized Pagan symbol.
Creating the spirit of medieval dance was more difficult. "We know a fair amount about the music that was played, as this exists in manuscripts, but little is known about the actual dances and steps," says Katy. "You can see the dances in paintings from the period," continues Dhev. "On one hand, there are paintings of people performing very prim dances with tiny steps, in heavy, restrictive costumes; and on the other, the more wild, exuberant and less formal dances of the countryside. But it is impossible to recreate the actual dances from such images."
Because of this dearth of information, Katy decided to ask dancers to wear her masks and then move freely to the music, finding that an evocative performance could be created by putting medieval imagery together with the music of the period. "I found that we'd create something, only to learn later that it was authentic," she says."For instance, I decided we absolutely had to have a pig mask in the show to dance to a bagpipe tune. It was only later that I discovered what a strong medieval symbol the pig is when, while visiting Beverley Minster, I found a carving of a pig playing the bagpipes! It turns out the pipes are associated with pigs because of all the weird grunts and squeaks the instrument makes."
The pig was to play a prominent role at the group's first performance on home ground. It was in an old Dartmoor church, and its like had not been seen in the town since medieval times. "The climax of the show is when the Pig enters but tries not to draw attention to herself. She climbs over pews to get past the audience, but of course, the more she does this, the more she causes uproar. She sits down and tries to be good, but she's so overwhelmed by the music that she gets up and dances in the aisle. Then she pulls up members of the audience, and they start dancing with her. Before we know it, everyone is up and dancing and following her around the church . . and we're all thinking, 'Oh no, this is the village where we live! What will our neighbors think?' Next thing we know, the pig has led the audience out into the graveyard! And everyone is dancing in the dark, enjoying the revels!"
Katy later discovered that medieval people also used churches and graveyards for popular festivals of a purely secular kind, to a persistent stream of clerical protest. Due to their central locations and spaciousness, graveyards proved ideal for carolling (a medieval circle dance) in spring and summer, and the church itself was a useful dance hall for evening entertainments or when the weather was bad. "I just love playing in churches!" Katy enthuses. "It's where the music and the dancing work best. As all the masks we wear are based on images from churches and cathedrals, it's like we are bringing the fabric of the church alive. In the Middle Ages, dancing and singing often played a part not only in secular festivities but in religious worship, with priests sometimes dancing and singing the litany and congregations keeping night-long vigils before the great feast days of the Christian year. These included much singing, dancing, story-telling and merriment. Elaborate theatrical productions were also staged in churches and cathedrals. The Church later put an end to this, so it feels good to be bringing something of the old spirit alive again."
In 2000, Katy was commissioned by England's prestigious National Trust to write a series of summer shows to perform at Castle Drogo, a trust property in Devon. "Initially," Katy explains, "I went to the Trust with quite a small idea, two musicians and two dancers, but they said 'No, just go for it, do whatever what you want to do.' I'd never been asked to do that before, so I did! I'd always wanted to create a medieval circus, as we have some aerial performers who work with us, but we'd never had adequate funding before. And now, suddenly we did."
Katy knew what the show should look like and that it would involve the number three. Somehow she knew that the imagery she needed would be found in the British Museum. Sketchbook in hand, she walked around the museum's Medieval Galleries, unable to find what she was searching for. But just as she was about to give up, she came across a fabulous Flemish tapestry depicting three wild people leading three fantastical beasts. "I quickly sketched it, got back home to Dartmoor, and phoned Wendy Froud, another amazing artist who lives on Dartmoor. I explained to her that I had an idea for some sort of dragon on stilts, and asked could she help.
"She invited me 'round, and there at the top of her pile of reference books was a picture of the very tapestry I had seen! We were on the same wavelength! "Wendy created a marvellous costume of a dragon, based on the tapestry. This required a dancer who could dance on stilts, but fortunately her son Toby had these skills. He joined our troupe in this and other roles and has become one of our most valued performers. I then drew on the expertise of an old friend, Barbara Houseman, who was a theatre director with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is such a fine director, and she helped us shape the show and create a storyline and structure for what became The Garden of Earthly Delights. Wendy's husband, Brian Froud, a world reknowned artist, designed our publicity material for the show and the cover of our first CD."
The show was created collectively by the company from Katy's original ideas. She explains its story and themes: "It's about earthly love and transformation, and includes a pompous Fool who is cruel to his friend, a dancing bear. The Bear is very wise and ends up turning the tables on the Fool and winning the heart of a woman the Fool is trying very hard to impress. There is also a lovely young medieval Princess who is forced to marry a repellent suitor. She escapes a horrible death only to contemplate her own suicide. She ends up defiantly embracing her 'inner wild woman' and attracts a fabulous and magical Unicorn. Two Devils set out to show up the pomposity and inflated ego of the Fool, but they end up treating their own captive creature, the Dragon, as cruelly as the Fool does the Bear.
They both end up getting their come-uppence in an unexpected way. Finally, there is a Pig who overcomes excruciating shyness and, by doing so, ends up stealing the show with her wild, ecstatic dancing. So infectious is her energy that audience members join her in one final, joyful dance."
After the big outdoor shows of the previous year, the Daughters of Elvin have scaled down their performances, taking time out to prepare their next large-scale production, which will be based on Dante's Inferno. In the meantime, they continuing playing smaller venues and are also putting together an educational package in order to take costumes and simple medieval instruments to schools, allowing the children to dress up, play the instruments and learn some dances. In January 2003, with the aid of an art development grant, Katy will travel to Tucson, Arizona in order to work with mask maker Beckie Kravetz, learning new mask making techniques and material. Dhevdas continues to teach, compose, and perform a wide variety of music. Ultimately though, they are looking forward to bringing the next big Daughters project to audiences around England.
And finally, I come to the "Dartmoor Question." What is so special about the place? "We first came to our village by chance," Katy says. "We quite liked it and saw a place for rent. So we moved here, but thought perhaps we'd made a mistake, as it might be a bit dull. But on our first night, there was a knock on the door and someone turned up with a bottle of wine and a whole list for Dhev of people who needed piano lessons! There was a whole community of artists willing to share their skills, and they made us feel welcome.
"There's something more to Dartmoor than just the beauty of the area," continues Dhev. "It's inspiring to see so many artists doing their work and making a successful living from it. I've gone from just liking it here to wanting to spend the rest of my days here," says Katy. "It's the kind of place where if you want to run a medieval circus show you can, and people will help you do it. There is something magical going on. It's a place where your dreams can come true."
About the Author:
Guy Cracknell is an English graphic designer and writer who has lived in Devon for the last thirteen years. He loves faeries and folklore, has a particular interest in Celtic myth, but holds a special place in his heart for dragons. His article on The Daughters of Elvin first appeared in Devon Today magazine, September 2002.