How Map of Stars came about
Map of Stars began as a dream. In 1997, Pegasus Theatre commissioned a music theatre piece for International Women’s Fortnight from a musician friend of mine – Danu. Danu worked with myself and Jeannie Donald, the Butoh dancer, to produce Kissing the Ocean, Kissing the Earth. A few months after the piece was performed, I had a dream that I was in a medieval library surrounded by gold-lettered, leather bound books. A man dressed in the clothes of an Elizabethan scholar (like a Hans Holbein portrait) was standing at a table, bent over a map showing the constellations of the stars. On the table near him was a telescope, a quadrant and other mathematical and astronomical instruments. Suddenly Danu appeared in the library and said to me “What are you going to work on next?” I replied, “It will be something about astronomy and the stars.” A few days later, Danu appeared on my doorstep (in real life!) and gave me a book called Echoes of Ancient Skies in which I found stories about Royal Astronomers in ancient China, sophisticated Aztec and Mayan star-gazing systems, and Inca star worship. Jeannie and I worked on some initial ideas, talked them through with our friend, Stephen Mottram, and started to produce a poetry and dance performance which first saw light as the mysterious, other-worldly Butoh piece called Egg, performed at Pegasus Theatre as part of an evening of Butoh performed by Café Reason. This was in 1999.
The next stage was when the Oxford Literary Festival commissioned a 40-minute millennium poetry piece for April 2000. The piece took shape, looking at aspects of time and how points in history, separated by thousands of years, might reverberate against each other. I performed this with tai chi teacher and dancer, Caroline Merry, and drummer Ed Hawkesworth of Red 2. The ‘story’ as such was about the Chinese Emperor in 2000 BC who orders his Royal Astronomers to “tread the star map” in order to gain knowledge of the future to enhance his own power. The astronomers make fire beacons on the hillside which mimic the patterns of the constellations in the kai thien (heavenly canopy), then dance themselves into a trance state to receive wisdom, as shamans have done throughout history. The astronomers dimly realise that dancing the star map in 2000 BC is affecting astrophysical forces and balances in 2000 AD. The piece alternated between ancient Chinese culture and philosophy and the modern ‘street’ idiom, expressed in rap and percussive beats. The venue at the Oxford Union was packed, the piece had a fantastic reception, and I was delighted when Yasmin Sidhwa asked me to develop it into a full length play for the Oxford Youth Theatre.
The next challenge for me was to turn the abstractions and metaphors of poetry into a play with a relevant contemporary story for young people. While writing the script, it was the modern story I struggled with – trying to develop believable characters and a strong plot line for a very specific age-group, 14 – 25 year olds. The poetry sequences in the ancient worlds, and Pegasus’s poetry always came easily (thanks to my son, Tom, for the suggestion that Pegasus be made into a character who linked the real world with the dream world.) A storyline about drug-taking was included, as this is so much a part of modern life in any big city – certainly Oxford. Yet I didn’t want that to dominate – as someone pointed out, a musical is hardly the right vehicle to explore such issues.
What emerged finally was the struggle between the idealist and the realist, the dreamer and the ‘doer’. Perhaps this is a conflict we all have to face at some time, in the process of growing up. For myself, it has been a long, winding and fascinating journey. At the end of it, I remain convinced that there is far more mystery and wonder in the universe than any merely scientific explanation can account for. I believe that the past is still powerfully alive and full of wisdom, if we would only stop to listen to it. I believe we can access important truths through dreams, intuition and creativity. And that we must all start paying attention to nature, and to the subtle, sensitive, unseen worlds around and within us if there is to be any future for our small but precious planet among the billions of galaxies in the universe.