Photo of Missing by physical theatre company Gecko


Beyond borders: Amit Lahav and Gecko

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Where is the love? A scene from Missing, by physical theatre company Gecko. Photo: Robert Golden
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Gecko’s Amit Lahav talks to Daniel Pitt about straddling genres, insularity and internationalism in British theatre – and being pummelled with love

On Friday 13 March 2015, physical theatre company Gecko were mid-run for their celebrated show Missing at London’s Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) when the company’s lighting designer, working on set in preparation for the evening’s performance, noticed a fire. He raised the alarm and the venue was evacuated – but the fire caught hold, completely destroying the roof and main hall of the beautiful heritage building, along with the entire set of Missing.

Amit Lahav, Gecko’s artistic director, had been in a café across the road. He tells me he remembers kneeling on the pavement, thinking: ‘It’s all over.’ All his touring belongings – laptop and all – were inside BAC, and the show was due to tour to Mexico as soon as the London run had finished. But then, in this moment of crisis, the director’s skills kicked in. ’As a leader, what the hell do I do?’

The days that followed, Lahav says, turned out to be one of his ‘favourite weeks of life’. There was a huge public outpouring of love for both BAC and Gecko. They were ‘battered with love – and pummelled – battered and pummelled’. The overwhelming support promised them that ‘you are not going to fall to your knees’ over this. The support came from the theatre industry in the form of crowdfunded cash donations from individuals, as well as contributions from organisations including the National Theatre, who donated their facilities to re-build the set in just eight days, in time for the Mexico tour to go ahead. The company wrote the names of everyone who donated to the crowdfunder on the back of the set, and those names remain there as a reminder of the love (and money) that Gecko received, whenever the show is toured.

Much is made of crowdfunding as a funding stream for the arts, but this was a unique case, and the kind that you’d never, ever want to engineer; nor does Lahav see crowdfunding as a magic fix for the future of arts funding. Nevertheless, it was an extraordinary, heartfelt show of support for a company loved not just by their industry friends and the younger companies Lahav has supported coming up, but by audiences around the UK and, unusually for a British company, around the world.

Photo of Missing by physical theatre company Gecko
Photo of Georgina Roberts in Missing by physical theatre company Gecko
Photo of Institute, by physical theatre company Gecko
Photo of Institute, by physical theatre company Gecko
Photo of The Wedding, by physical theatre company Gecko.
Photo of The Wedding, by physical theatre company Gecko
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Lahav talks a lot about relationships: it’s human connections that have made his work speak to audiences across the world. Lahav’s unique blend of narrative dance and theatre has made them one of the UK’s most successful international performance exports. They have just finished a tour of East Asia with Institute (2015) and The Wedding (2017), and are just back from presenting Missing in Thessaloniki Forest Festival, Greece: three different shows touring at once. Missing (re-)opens BAC’s Phoenix season from 6 September, celebrating the refurbishment of the beautiful Grand Hall, before heading off to York Theatre Royal, Nottingham Playhouse, and then to Valencia, Spain.

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Whether it’s called theatre, dance or physical theatre, for Lahav is just a matter of marketing, not of art

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Gecko plays both dance and theatre festivals internationally, and make their work with regular Ipswich hometown production support from both dance house DanceEast and the plays and musicals-focused New Wolsey Theatre. Whether it’s called theatre, dance or physical theatre, for Lahav is just a matter of marketing, not of art. Lahav comes from a theatrical background, having trained at London’s Rose Bruford College, but all the performers that he currently works with are ‘world class contemporary dancers’. In terms of technical set-up, Lahav concedes that Gecko probably produces theatre rather than dance, but we agree that part of the reason they are so successful internationally and in straddling both forms is that Gecko shows tend ‘not to hammer in the narrative – it’s an experiential thing.’ They use a multitude of snippets of languages, hinting at narrative to provide just enough for the audience to see their work as a ‘mirror that you see yourself inside’, but leaving space for interpretation. It translates across borders, cultures and language boundaries by never fully translating, because the meaning is never entirely clear. In that context, they draw on dance – a form that I love because of its abstract freedom of interpretation and uncertainty, particularly considered alongside British theatre, which is unfortunately still too hung up on text and narrative.

It’s telling then, that many of the UK’s most interesting companies find wider success abroad. Lahav namechecks Complicité and DV8 Physical Theatre as comparisons: international ensembles garnering international acclaim and touring the world, straddling the borders of theatre and dance, and always eschewing the British ‘stiff-upper-lip’ acting tradition. The UK’s current performance ecology, Lahav believes, favours the export of great hyper-naturalistic, solo Hollywood-style actors, rather than expressive and innovative ensemble touring theatre. In this era of insularism, it’s even more vital that companies like Gecko are exporting contemporary internationalism from Britain and connecting with audiences across the world.

Lahav is also famous for never considering his shows to be finished. He’s always changing parts, re-choreographing, to ‘strengthen, clarify or even de-clarify’: if a scene has begun to mean something too fixed, then work needs to be done to allow space for interpretation again. He changed two sections of choreography in Thessaloniki recently, and there’s another couple more that he’ll be ‘making completely new for BAC’, to ‘clean the metaphors’ and ‘not make it singular’. This might sound like directorial tyranny but he assures me that the performers like it – and I can see why, with such extended touring schedules. Whether Lahav is in his shows also varies: Missing was made with him performing, before he stepped out for future tours, but he’ll be back on stage again for the forthcoming, homecoming BAC run and ‘can’t wait’.

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Portrait of Amit Lahav, artistic director of physical theatre company Gecko
Amit Lahav, artistic director of Gecko

Looking to the future, Gecko are in the early stages of the long R&D process for a new show, plus a new collaboration with Mind The Gap, England’s largest learning-disabled theatre company, creating an integrated cast – an exciting step to explore the stories that all of our bodies tell. But in the short term, unsurprisingly, Lahav can’t wait to get back into the beautifully refurbished Great Hall and to meet the audiences, myself included, that missed seeing Missing last time round. ‘I’m massively into it. It’ll be a real celebration, a two-week party’ for a company and a venue that are both deeply loved, and whose fates have been both sadly and joyously intertwined.

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Missing is at Battersea Arts Centre, London, 6–15 September 2018, then touring.

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