Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The story in brief

We Can Dance, We Can Swing is a community music work about the women who worked in Dundee’s jute industry in the 1930s. As mill managers tended to lay off boys as their wages were higher than those of their female counterparts, women dominated the work floor. It thus happened that millgirls went out to work, while their husbands stayed at home to look after the family. At its height, up to 50,000 people were employed in Dundee’s jute industry.

The music starts with the millgirls being out in town, dancing and sharing the latest gossip. Eventually, one millgirl steps forward to remind her friends of the other side of their lives, the unhealthy conditions and the difficulties many of them face in feeding their families. The mood changes and the girls unite in a chorus expressing their demands for better pay. Having the confidence to speak up for themselves, the millgirl then puts the girls’ case to the mill manager. In the epilogue, a narrator talks about Mary Brooksbank, one of the woman who in the 20th century raised her voice against the mill management, after which the millgirls reflect on the legacy of the jute industry for their own lives.
We Can Dance, We Can Swing, the libretto and music of which are written by Petra Vergunst, is a five-movement work for narrator, choir and ensemble. The choir music is stratified to allow singers with little musical experience to sing in unison and singers with more musical experience to sing solo and harmony. The accompaniment is scored for flexible ensemble, consisting of one instrument in the upper range (e.g. flute), two in the upper middle range (e.g. two violins), and one in the lower range (e.g. cello). The millgirls and mill manager are given their own musical theme that can be distinguished throughout the work. The theme for the millgirls is used in a flexible way to express the jolly, reflective and confident moods in the work respectively. The theme for the mill manager contrasts this.

It is hoped that the workshops in the memory sharing weekend on 25 and 26 August will generate material to fill in the storyline in more detail.

The words and music of We Can Dance, We Can Swing can be listened to at the blogs Friday Night and Still A Young Girl. More blog posts with music will follow.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

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