In Conversation With Pauline Mayers

Pauline Mayers is an Associate Artist at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Her solo show What If I Told You returns to WYP in February. I caught up with Pauline to hear more about the show and her inspirational journey as a woman of colour determined to make her voice heard.

One of Pauline’s earliest memories is trying to copy Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. But her true ‘love affair’ with dance began aged 13 when she and a friend signed up for contemporary dance classes. By the age of 16, Pauline was taking weekly dance classes costing £1 at the Weekend Arts College where she learnt from many world-class professionals. After completing a dance foundation course, she decided to audition for the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance.  In hindsight, Pauline says the audition was a ‘ridiculous thing to do’ because although she had lots of contemporary experience, she did not have the ballet foundation the other dancers did. Pauline says: “ I was determined to be the first dancer in the Rambert Company who looked like me!”

Pauline did become the first black student at the school, but only with the condition that she ‘worked every hour the universe would send.’ This involved getting up ‘at the crack of sparrow’s fart ‘ to travel across London, and getting home late each evening. Pauline reflects that her time at Rambert was both rewarding and difficult. Many of her teachers were convinced that ‘black bodies did not do ballet’, an absurd statement in itself which clearly demonstrated their ‘disconnect from reality’ at a time when one of the leading ballet companies was the all black Dance Theatre of Harlem. Despite spending a good proportion of her three years at Rambert in fear of being kicked out, Pauline completed the course and also became the first black British woman to teach at the Royal Ballet School.

After graduating, Pauline was unemployed for two years. Retrospectively she says this was more linked to the fact that: ‘my appearance was switching people off’ than the prevailing employment circumstances. Eventually, after being spotted in a class, the Janet Smith Dance Company finally offered her a place in a professional company. Two years later, after a successful audition, she joined The National Dance Company of Wales and in a series of firsts became the first black woman to do so.

Her move from Cardiff to Leeds was prompted by an offer to join the renowned Phoenix Dance Company. Unfortunately, after a year, the company took a break owing to inner turmoil, making all their dancers redundant. Although they reformed, Pauline wasn’t selected again, but in a move she sees as ‘unfair’ was offered the position of Education Officer. Despite the disappointment, Pauline chose to remain in Leeds, dancing in Opera North productions and even running her own dance company for a short period.

In what was to be the start of a ‘tumultuous seven years’, she ruptured her Achilles in 2005. After recovering, Pauline says ‘ It just felt like opportunities weren’t there anymore and not because of my injury’ – a fact she has since had confirmed by several people who wished to work with her and were dissuaded. Faced with so much negativity and prejudice, Pauline didn’t have time to ‘consider my own wants and needs’ and ended up in a downward spiral. She spent those seven years ‘fighting depression and debt’ and struggling with the feeling that ‘my love affair with dance had been brought to an end in Leeds.’ In Pauline’s lighthearted way she adds: ‘It wouldn’t have been so bad if I was rubbish – but I was good!’

In an effort to be kinder to herself, Pauline made the move from dance to theatre, and things started to move forward. After a formative workshop at the West Yorkshire Playhouse she found herself choreographing an event at Light Night just four months later. This led to collaborations with various companies, including work as Movement Director of Red Ladder.  Pauline says: ‘This was great, but deep down I’d always wanted to make a show that was indisputably mine.’ The seed for What If I Told You came from a workshop Pauline attended where, as one of a number of dancers, she was the only person of colour and the majority were ‘half my age’.  Many of the younger dancers introduced themselves by saying ‘I don’t know if I want to dance.’ This really had an impact on Pauline: ‘It made me so mad; I’d spent so much of my life trying to tell people ‘I’m a dancer’ and fighting to do the thing I love.’ When it was her turn to improvise a monologue, Pauline ‘went on a rant’ and the others in the workshop told her ‘That should be a show!’ Later on, when WYP approached her with the offer of £200 and a rehearsal space, What If I Told You was born.

Pauline says: ‘The show is about me and the sufferings I’ve been through. As a woman of colour I’ve realised the things happening to me are the same as what was happening in the 1800s and I’m fed up with it.’ Without spoiling the show for future audiences, Pauline aims to create a ‘safe space where the audience are in the moment with me,’ as ‘there’s no other way to experience first hand the pain of another unless you can somehow walk in their shoes.’ Drawing on the pain and rejection Pauline has suffered throughout her life, she helps the audience to become more than spectators. Each performance is followed by a koan, a Buddhist concept for ‘public thought’, ably led by Khadijah Ibrahim. The aim of the koan is to give the power back to the audience and to act as a form of ‘self-care’ after the intense performance experience. Pauline strongly believes that audiences are ‘discerning’ and ‘can come to their own conclusions on your work.’ She is not privy to the discussion but hopes it gives the audience time to discuss and reflect on the issues raised in the show. ‘It’s so important to talk about race and the koan provides that opportunity in a safe environment.’

For Pauline, the show was to be her ‘swan song’. She never expected it to receive half the attention it did. She even had plans to ‘go off and be a counsellor’ after finishing the first performance at WYP.  Putting a stop to those plans, What If I Told You has been featured in Vogue, Time Out and The Guardian, and in 2017 Pauline took the show to Edinburgh Fringe. In what Pauline now sees as a move of ‘innovative programming’ her show ended up at an Army Reserve. Although she found the reserve ‘disconcerting’ at first as ‘my very presence as a black woman challenges that arena’, with the help of the ‘amazing’ soldiers she felt that the show’s spirit of ‘compassion and intimacy’ managed to transform the atmosphere of the space. At the end of what has become an ‘extraordinary year’ What If I Told You was nominated for a prestigious Amnesty International Award.  If you haven’t seen the show, it will make its homecoming to WYP for an un-missable four night run in February.

Opening up personally, as she does in What If I Told You, hasn’t been ‘easy, as there have been points where it’s been a fair bit to reveal’ but it’s also been ‘ completely worth it’. Pauline is fed up with the way black female artists are ascribed an image – a concept she likens to the way female slaves were ascribed numbers and names.

Despite the awards and recognition, the best part of creating the show for Pauline has been ‘changing my image and being able to determine what that image was. If I hadn’t had so much opposition in my life, I question whether the show would have been made.’ Pauline’s focus on her own life and adversity is not without its frustrations.  ‘I’m fed up with the angry black woman trope. So many black female creatives are forgotten and ignored that it becomes the angst of the black woman that’s seen, when really there’s so much more to a person than that.’ Pauline is hopeful that the prominence of What If I Told You will help to open a space where black female artists are appreciated and treated as equals in the arts world. ‘If I’m still having to create safe spaces in twenty years time, this might all have been for nothing.’  

Pauline would love to be able to create a show around one of her many interests.  In her spare time she enjoys yoga, finding it a form of ‘self-healing’ after spending many years not ‘wanting to connect with my physical self.’ She also loves sci-fi, astrophysics and knitting (she even knitted the wonderful scarf she wore to the interview!). Pauline ‘will make a sci-fi piece’ in the future, perhaps even a ‘crochet sci-fi show where I sit on a knitted planet!’ Although that’s not in the works yet (can’t wait to see it if it happens!), Pauline is starting work on a second solo show and says: ‘ I’m dipping my toe into film installation’ in a collaboration called ‘Nameless’ with filmmaker Jax Griffin. ‘Nameless’ is due to be shown as a work in progress on the 24th May.

With such an inspirational past behind her, I couldn’t let Pauline leave without asking her if she had any advice for others who want to follow in her path. It’s easy to see why Pauline would have been suited to counselling in another life. With all the ‘crap people’ she’s met in life, she emphasizes the importance of ‘surrounding yourself with good people’ and to ‘never let anyone tell you your dream can’t be had.’ However, Pauline warns that you should ‘be absolutely sure that this is what you want as although there are great times, there are also dark times and the arts world is all-consuming.’ Most importantly ‘be kind to yourself because there’re enough people who will be hard on you, and if you need help, ask for it.’

Tickets for What If I Told You are available from WYP here

The show runs from 13 to 17 February.

and for Nameless here.


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