Everyone has heard of the Battle of the Somme, the battle which symbolises the horrors of warfare in the First World War. Fought from July 1916 until November of that year, it resulted in more than one million casualties on the Western Front and touched the lives of countless families at home.
Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that Manchester’s Heaton Park played a significant and poignant role in the First World War. It was used as a training camp for ‘The Manchester Pals’, the title given to the thousands of volunteers who signed up to join the army. The Pals were housed in a tent camp in Heaton Park before they were sent for further training.
This is one of the reasons Manchester has been chosen as the focus for the national commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 2016. A service of remembrance will take place at Manchester Cathedral, followed by a free multimedia commemoration featuring music, dance, drama, film and poetry in Heaton Park, paying respect to those who fought and died in the battle.
The Hallé Orchestra, directed by Sir Mark Elder, will play a number of well-known pieces linked to the war including music by Ravel, Stravinsky, Elgar and Holst, joined by poets, dancers and a 300-strong children’s choir from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. The concert will end with poet Lemn Sissay reading a poem which has been specially commissioned for the day.
The ceremony needs a team of volunteers to take part in a unique movement-based performance. So the call is out for hundreds of enthusiastic people to form the Somme 100 Pals.
Volunteer performers – anyone aged 18 years and over – will work with choreographers Lucy Hind and Dan Watson, appearing alongside a team of professional dancers. They will also be supplied with a specially-made outfit from Manchester-based Private White garment makers, which participants will be given as a keepsake.
Dance experience is not required for this once in a lifetime opportunity, just enthusiasm and a commitment to attend a series of rehearsals in June (and, of course, the event itself from 6pm on Friday July 1).
The artistic director will be Alan Lane of the brilliant Slung Low Theatre Company, well known for its site-specific productions involving hundreds of volunteers and a wide range of communities. He observes that “the ambition to include as many members of the public as possible in the National Commemoration of the Somme has been behind all our ideas and planning. There are different ways that people can get involved but I think volunteering in the dance company is going to be one of the most exciting and memorable for everyone involved.”
Co-choreographer Lucy Hind, who was one of the choreographers of the London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, emphasises that “there will be a real sense of community which is why we wanted to name our dance volunteers The Somme 100 Pals, to make it feel like we really are a team. We’re encouraging people to not just come on their own, but to bring friends and family. As long as you’re over 18, you can be in it, there’s no upper limit on age or numbers.
“They will not be playing soldiers, so we don’t need people who look or move like soldiers, we want a community of men and women. All access needs will be catered for, so we really do mean anyone and we’re confident that we’ll be able to teach them the choreography in the short time we have. It’s not very complicated and it’s lovely to do. We’re also going to be posting online videos on our Facebook page, so people can learn the steps before they come if they want to.
“The important thing is that they will be very well prepared. It’s our job to make sure they get on, that they look confident and that they know what they’re doing. We’ve got a good team of dance captains who will be there performing with the volunteers on the night. So people will be well looked after and can, hopefully, feel confident that they can have a lovely time as well. We don’t want anybody to feel underprepared or nervous.
“It’s a celebration of this amazing historical event and I always feel that these events need to feel like they’re big and bold to mark the occasion but also to feel like they’re rooted in the community in which they belong. I’ve loved all the events like this I’ve been involved with so far and can’t wait for this one either. The best part of it for me is that sense of community and all the people that you meet. Standing up on the night performing alongside all these people that you’ve spent that time with is so exciting.”
She adds: “It’s such an important event for the whole nation, and it’s lovely that it has come up here. It is a commemoration, of course, so at the heart of it there will be recognition and remembrance of the sacrifices which were made. We should be grateful for those sacrifices. But there must also be a sense of hope and looking forward, a celebration of the community that we are now as a result of those things.”
By Kevin Bourke
To be part of the commemoration as a volunteer performer, you must sign up using the online registration form: www.manchester.gov.uk/somme100pals
The Commemoration Concert on Friday July 1, 2016 at Heaton Park at 7.30pm is free but ticketed. Apply for tickets at: www.quaytickets.com/sommeheatonpark