High in the Cairngorm Mountains, a remarkable artwork was performed over four days. ‘Into the Mountain’ is a unique response to ‘The Living Mountain’ (1977) by Nan Shepherd, a lyrical text describing a sensuous exploration of the Cairngorms. Through a rich fusion of dance, music, literature and walking, the performances invited audiences to explore more-than human connections with mountain environments and ecologies.
‘Into the Mountain’ was developed over the past six years by artist and choreographer Simone Kenyon. Informed by the ecologies of the Cairngorms, the project celebrated women’s relationships with Scotland’s mountains. Kenyon’s rigorous approach was key to the project’s success. Every aspect of the performance was underpinned by meticulous research and guidance from professionals working across many disciplines, including ecologists, land managers, artists and academics.
Each performance was open to just 30 audience members, who were guided in small groups into the site. We were prompted to ‘open’ our senses while we walked, tuning into the mountain and our bodily responses through exercises led by our group facilitator, Safi. After climbing up through Caledonian pine forests, we reached a remote spot of moss and heather under Meall Tionail – Gathering Hill. There, we sat with other groups, waiting expectantly. As the rain came in, three members of the choir stepped forward and called up the mountain.
A call returned through the mist as five gold-foil blankets appeared like beacons, revealing the dancers scattered around the hillside. The choir began to sing haunting notes, carried on the wind, mingling with the mist. The abstract a capella score was composed by artist Hanna Tuulikki, who was intrigued by Nan Shepherd’s sense of sound on the mountain. Tuulikki and Lucy Duncombe led the choir of local women through an evocative and moving sequence that accompanied the rhythmical dance performance.
When the dancers left their stances, they tumbled down the mountain, leaping through the heather, expressing the joy of movement. From distant specks on the hillside, they soon joined us, red-faced and squelching through the bog. The performance zoomed in: the dancers removed boots and socks, exploring the earth barefoot, rolling balls of moss and heather between their fingertips.
The performance concluded with a mesmerising sequence. The dancers clustered in a group and leant backwards to take in mountain and sky – bending so far that they fell backwards onto the wet ground, before rising and repeating the movements again and again. This, one audience member suggested, was the annihilation of ego.
‘Into the Mountain’ is a subversive achievement. Choosing to site the performances in one of the harshest environments within the UK is a bold move. The knowledge, skills and stamina required to navigate such places can lead to a dominant masculine culture. ‘Into the Mountain’ subverted these tropes by ensuring that every member of the team – from mountain leaders to dancers, singers to mini-bus drivers – were women. Kenyon, a true collaborator, has created a unique space for women to contribute to a profound, collective artwork. The mountains will echo.