DistDancing: a series of performances turning Regent’s Canals into a stage despite police threats to shut it down

DistDancing: a series of performances turning Regent’s Canals into a stage despite police threats to shut it down
A section of Regent's Canal not far from where Hoxton Docks have become an open-air theatre for performances as part of DistDancing. Courtesy Flickr Commons. Photo: Marc Barrot.
Must see  -   Theatre

London’s canals teem with life most anytime of the year. Passing through Camden or strolling around Little Venice you might come across a busker or two while enjoying the muffled hum of a long boat’s engine, watching the locks in actions, and dodging cyclist. Most recently, Regent’s Canal has become a place where you might come across an unexpected, yet spectacular performance, too. Since June, Hoxton Docks have been converted into the hippest outdoor theatre in town thanks to DistDancing, which brings together all kinds of dance, from classical ballet to aerial acrobatics, for free, bite-size performances. Even after police threatened to shut the whole thing down, DistDancing has proven that despite a pandemic and in the face of the law, the show must go on.

Lockdown has been detrimental to various facets of the art world, and dancers are among those hit hardest by the severe restrictions put in place to slow the spread of COVID. The Guardian recently covered the economic stresses dancers have faced in recent months and years, but another frustration faced by dancers during COVID has been the inability to perform. Pubs, cinemas, and restaurants have reopened but theatres have remained shut throughout the UK. Then, thanks to one dancer and her landlord, DistDancing gave dancers an audience and the chance to perform almost like normal.

During lockdown, Chisato Katsura, a first artist of the Royal Ballet, moved flats and it just so happened that her new landlord, Russell Gray, also owned Hoxton Docks. The docks were once a coal storage facility but have since been turned into a performance venue that can open up to the Regent’s Canal. Gray asked Katsura if she could bring together artists that might want to put on a performance at the docks and DistDancing was born.

Pontoons were fitted with dancefloors and rehearsals began, socially distanced, of course, and DistDancing started to take shape. Acrobatic artists, ballet dancers, aerialists, and more came together to create 20-minute long performances which could be viewed from across the canal to passer-byers. The casual nature of the performances was a far cry from the gussied-up evenings at the Royal Opera House, but that made the show even more exciting and attracted people who wouldn’t usually go to the ballet. Kayakers stopped to watch, onlookers cheered and applauded like “boxing match style,” and the shows were treats to those lucky enough to see them, although the crowds didn’t always adhere to social distancing measures.


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Happy to report the massive police raid of 30 August hasn’t stopped DistDancing. Our live performance to the community still stand strong. To avoid further unwelcome – and unlawful – intervention from the authorities we have dropped the strict time scheduling of our performances. For the remainder of the summer season they will be more impromptu. But you may still catch a glimpse of us if you’re passing the docks. Meanwhile, relish the great new video format. Thank you for the undying support. Let’s keep the arts alive together.🙌🏽 Please read the Antepavilion letter to the commissioner of Police. (previous post)📝 . . Save the sharks! #antepavilion #distdancing #savethearts Artists @_jackiele_ @calvin_richardson @nicol.edmonds @benloader.circus @_rorybell 13/09/2020 Film & edit @dancersdiary

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Things were going smoothly until August 30th, when police showed up at the docks and forced performances to halt with threats of arrests. DistDancing was then put on hold while organisers worked to understand what could be done and what they could do to save the shows. Today, a letter penned by Gray was released on DistDance’s Instagram (the only place they’ve promoted their performances) addressed to Cressida Dick, Commissioner of the Police, and it was announced that the performances at Hoxton Docks would continue.

In order to avoid anymore “unwelcome – and unlawful – intervention” DistDancing will no longer release their performance schedules, as they had done in the past. Their performances will continue with an even more impromptu air about them offering a short interlude to those fortunate enough to pass by at just the right time.

For more information regarding performances and to view past shows, check out the DistDancing Instagram.