15/03/2012

Whites and Bells



John Connors reviews the documentary Way of the Morris
When a documentary opens with an invented creation myth involving a dancing fox and read to us in the sumptuous tones of Donald Sumpter and animated gorgeously by Elliot Dear you know you’re in for something special. Rather than explore what some might consider the `weird` world of Morris dancing either for laughs or some outsider’s attempts to understand it, writer / co-director Tim Plester’s beguiling film approaches the subject from a different angle.

It’s a personal angle as he was brought up in the village of Adderbury whose bucolic greens and surrounding countryside make it seem like somewhere from another time. His father was part of the village Morris Men who were revived in 1975 after a hiatus of almost sixty years yet Tim himself has never danced and lives in London as an actor, director and writer. Now, he and co-director Rob Curry take their unobtrusive cameras to the heart of the modern Adderbury Morris Men interspersed with Super 8 footage of older revels while interviewees also include Billy Bragg and Fairport Convention’s Chris Leslie.
This approach gleans remarkable results because we see and hear the villagers talking about the traditions, what they mean and how the dances work before we see one moment of actual dancing. Once we do, it no longer looks in the least bit silly- as it otherwise might to city folk like us- because we are already there, we already know these men. We see how it is a vital part of their community and the crowds of all ages that dance days attract.
Plester and Curry imbue an elegiac nostalgic hue that sets the scene superbly; lone Morris Men are seen at odd angles, beautiful sunsets caress the landscape, bustling crowds of locals watch and the Morris Men themselves offer hints and tips. A fantastic musical score- part folk, part tribal – underscores the early theme that Morris is both an imported variation of something that originated in Africa and also an elemental kind of thing. Then again, as Plester explains, nobody really knows its true origins which make it all the more mythical. The film’s strap line calls it “the dances of our ancestors”.

Plester- who wrote and speaks the lyrical commentary- does not shy away from the detractors nor does he try to over romanticise what he believes is something primal at heart- and also something that is fun. In the very first sequence of dancing for example, the fool is dressed as Darth Vader! Yet as the film progresses, a larger more poignant story comes into play.
During the First World War, all of Adderbury’s Morris Men went to the front but only one returned and the team was never revived until 1975.Now, they are travelling to The Somme to pay homage to their never forgotten ancestors and we follow them there for the final portion of the film. It seems too that making the film and travelling with the villagers to the memorial has re-awakened something in Tim Plester himself. Will he don the whites and bells to finally join in with the Adderbury Morris Men after all these years?
With stunning visuals, superbly worded narration, the personal connections of the writer and the characters of the Morris Men you have excellent contents which the World War One connection only adds an extra layer but the way that Tim Plester has woven this together is just brilliant. An hour scarcely seems enough time to do justice to the richness that emerges. You don’t have to like Morris to watch it but if you watch it, then you might just find you do.
Way of the Morris is available to buy on DVD now
See the trailer here: http://youtu.be/SRV1mW35FlI
For more info visit http://www.wayofthemorris.com/



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