Trinity Laban: engaging audiences with a visionary zeal

CoLab project is putting a new twist on art forms

February 12, 2015

Taking a stroll through Trinity Laban’s campus at Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College is an enjoyable musical experience.

Depending on where you stand, you might hear wafting across the courtyards of the conservatoire’s 17th-century buildings the sounds of a string quartet in rehearsal, a jazz pianist in full groove, or a brass section.

“We’re based in a building built by Sir Christopher Wren, so we don’t have the sound insulation or double-glazing that other places have,” explains Joe Townsend, creative producer of Trinity Laban’s CoLab project, of the unintentional musical mash-ups taking place on the banks of the Thames.

The CoLab project is, however, a far more structured and ambitious scheme to blend the musical and artistic talents of Trinity Laban’s 1,000 or so students.

In mid-February, the school’s entire academic programme is stopping for two weeks, with dance and music students asked to work together on a range of unconventional artistic collaborations.

A “moving orchestra”, in which dancers interact with musicians during a performance of work by the composer Aaron Copland; a collaboration between harpists and dancers based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe; and a hip hop and Motown-inspired reworking of pieces by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis, are just some of the 80 projects taking place this year.

Several performances will take place outside the concert rooms that the music and dance students are used to, with many embracing a “guerrilla” artistic ethos. For one project, music scholars will rework composer Henry Purcell’s drinking songs and take them into the pubs of Greenwich as part of an 18th century-style pub crawl.

Such projects sound like a lot of fun, but CoLab’s primary purpose is to force students to think differently about their area of study and to consider alternative ways of approaching their craft, says Townsend.

“Teaching in a conservatoire setting is often quite didactic and guru-like,” he says, explaining that a master-pupil relationship can often develop as students spend many hours being tutored by world-class musicians.

“A lot of a student’s philosophy can come from their teacher, but CoLab gives them the chance to learn from other staff and students,” he adds. “Students in CoLab mentor each other, and they often start to find their own voice when they are working in these smaller groups.” Some of the projects created in CoLab’s previous years have led to students pursuing careers in unexpected but successful directions, he says.

One group of students set up Op Sa!, an 11-piece Balkan band, which has taken its brand of gypsy swing jazz across Europe, while Stompy’s Playground, meshing electronica and classical music, also sprang from the project.

This year, staff from Ewha Womans University in South Korea will take part in a folk music project that will reflect and showcase Seoul’s lively musical scene.

Encouraging this spirit of entrepreneurship in addition to artistic creativity is a key part of CoLab, believes Townsend, who wants students to think about how to engage audiences in different ways.

The Puzzle Piece Opera, which condenses operas into under an hour, is another CoLab spin-off that has managed to find new audiences for the art form beyond those who might head to Covent Garden, he says.

“We get a few people into the London Symphony Orchestra, but many of our students will be doing their own projects after graduation – some combine gigs, playing in an orchestra, their own chamber orchestra or perhaps playing at a wedding,” says Townsend, who points out that six months after leaving, 98 per cent of Trinity Laban graduates are in work or further study – one of the highest rates in the UK.

CoLab’s finale will take place on 20 February, and is sure to feature a unique melange of musical and dance talents. But Townsend points out that there is a more prosaic side to the two-week project.

“Of course, facilitating this level of creativity requires an amazing level of organisation,” he says.

In numbers

98% of graduates are in work or further study six months after leaving Trinity Laban

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