The best of Dorset in words and pictures

From ant to iguanodon

David Callaghan looks at the work of Emerald Ant, a rather different Dorset arts company

Iggy at the Lyme Regis 'Nature Rocks' festival

Iggy at the Lyme Regis ‘Nature Rocks’ festival (photo: Sarah Butterworth)

On one level it’s a gaggle of eccentrically dressed actors pretending to chow down in the belly of a dinosaur, but on another it’s an introduction to notions of evolution, extinction, science and discovery. Whatever it is, it looks like a lot of fun.
Created by Dorset-based arts company Emerald Ant, The Iguanodon Restaurant debuted in Lyme Regis over the summer and is a street theatre performance enacted in the stomach of a life-size model of an iguanodon. It’s based on the famed ‘Dinner in the Iguanodon’ that took place at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve 1853 when several noted palaeontologists and men of science dined inside the mould of the iguanodon discovered by Gideon Mantell who had been inspired to some extent by Mary Anning’s discoveries at Lyme Regis.
‘It’s certainly a draw,’ says Emerald Ant’s artistic director Sarah Butterworth, ‘it’s very difficult to ignore a life-sized iguanodon at an event. He’s called Iggy and he’s always surrounded by kids wherever we go.’

Sarah Butterworth, the founder of Emerald Ant (Photo: Ian Robins)

Sarah Butterworth, the founder of Emerald Ant (Photo: Ian Robins)

The production, which has been funded by Arts Council England and a host of partners including the Jurassic Coast Team and Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, is an imaginative blend of arts and science, precisely the kind of thing has fuelled Emerald Ant’s growing reputation for creating large scale, outdoor arts projects from street theatre and carnival procession pieces to installations, lanterns and giant costumes. There’s always a story to tell and always something new to learn.
‘We work with experts – geologists, palaeontologists, archaeologists and natural history experts,’ says Sarah. ‘Iggy was created with palaeontologists at the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs who helped in researching and writing the show. We had lots of meetings at the Natural History Museum and got a grant from the Palaeontological Association, which meant that I could visit the fossil sites and talk to people who live on modern streets about the discoveries that were made on the land. Often I found the older people knew about it, but younger people were surprised by what had happened beneath their feet.
The Iguanodon Restaurant tells the story of how the Victorians found these objects they didn’t understand – fossils – and how by investigating what they were and where they came from they arrived at theories of evolution and extinction.’
All of which takes learning a long way from a dusty text book in a stuffy classroom, something that Sarah is just as ardent about as her art practice. For another recent Emerald Ant project school pupils from Amman in Jordan and their counterparts from Carter Community School in Hamworthy worked together to create an artwork at Clouds Hill, the home of TE Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia.

Pupils from Jordan and Hamworthy worked together to create  this artwork at Clouds HIll

Pupils from Jordan and Hamworthy worked together to create this artwork at Clouds HIll

‘The Jordanian children knew quite a lot about Lawrence and greatly admired him, which is perhaps surprising given the history. Interestingly, none of the local children had ever heard of Lawrence. I think it’s a shame that schools are so focussed on delivering the curriculum there are few opportunities to explore local heritage that they’re able to go and see for themselves as it creates a completely different learning memory.’
The National Trust volunteers at Clouds Hill expertly enlightened the Carter pupils about Lawrence on a visit to the house and a soldier from the Bovington Garrison was able to speak to the children about his experiences of serving in the Middle East. The Jordanian children swapped stories of their everyday lives with those from Hamworthy and drew pictures of their local citadel which the Carter pupils turned into a dance performance and an illuminated artwork that snaked its way up the banks surrounding
Clouds Hill.
‘This kind of international school linking is something I’m very passionate about and am keen to explore further with Emerald Ant,’ says Sarah, who worked on restorative arts projects in Bosnia and Kosovo from 1994, in the immediate aftermath of the war in the Balkans, and in 2004 in Iran after the Bam earthquake in which up to 43,000 people lost their lives.
‘The world is being made much smaller by technology and instant communications and yet, somehow, there seems to be more polarisation than ever and I’m not sure why. What I saw working with local teams in Bosnia and Kosovo, and in Iran, was how creative activity can help prepare children that have seen terrible things to return to some kind of routine. We weren’t doing art therapy, but we had some amazing outcomes. There were local psychologists and social workers on hand and although we encountered a fair degree of scepticism from the authorities we also saw how some of the teachers and carers of those children also benefited from the work we did.’
Ten years ago Sarah returned to Dorset – she was born in Netherbury – to pursue projects that are rooted in the county’s rich landscapes and history. She worked on ‘Battle for the Winds’, the opening ceremony for the Sailing Olympics in 2012 and made flying Zeppelins for Weymouth’s Victorian Night. Two years ago she created White Hare, a giant chalk painting on South Dorset Ridgeway for the Inside Out Dorset festival and a 45-foot seahorse carnival costume to raise awareness of the use of seahorses in traditional medicine, a project run by SeaLife centres.

White Hare leaps across the South Dorset Ridgeway at Littlebredy

White Hare leaps across the South Dorset Ridgeway at Littlebredy (photo: Sarah Butterworth)

‘I also had a lot of fun researching and making three habitat hats as a commission for Dorset Wildlife Trust to highlight Dorset’s marine, woodland and grassland environments. They are taken to events and people are invited to put them on their heads and talk about the flora and fauna in each habitat.’
But perhaps her best-known creation is Horace the Pliosaur, a 35-foot, 135 million-year-old sea lizard from the Jurassic Ocean, whose tummy houses a cinematic adventure packed with slimy surprises. Horace has been touring festivals and shows since 2013 in Emerald Ant’s definitive amalgam of art, engineering, film and live entertainment.
‘Everyone loves Horace,’ says Sarah, with just a hint of pride. ‘Like Iggy, he was made with expert advice from a palaeontologist although we did take quiet a bit of artistic licence, especially with his big, bulging eyes. The engineering is by Mike Pattinson and the film inside is made by Forkbeard Fantasy, a great influence on my work. Students from Arts University Bournemouth always get involved in the making too. Horace has been to festivals like Glastonbury and the Larmer Tree and he’s always a hit.’

Horace the Pliosaur and Joe

Horace the Pliosaur and Joe

Although Sarah has worked under the Emerald Ant name for some years more recently it has been reconstituted as a community interest company of freelance artists and performers. Together they initiate and accept commissions to work in partnership with heritage organisations and museums in creating visual and performance art projects.
‘Nearly all our work is born in Dorset and most of it is made here as well – I have a workshop in a former dairy on a sheep farm. We’re very fortunate in Dorset not only to have such a wealth of inspiration all around us, but also to have a really good and dedicated arts support network. It means we always have somewhere we can go to for advice and support and a lot of the people at the Arts Development Company have been in their jobs for some time. The structure that brings is so important.’
And there is much to support – from the headline-making art scene in Bridport and the ever-more inclusive Dorset (and Purbeck) Art Weeks, to Bournemouth’s annual Arts by the Sea and the biennial b-side and Inside Out festivals, as well as a host of smaller jamborees across a range of art forms, the arts in Dorset seem to be in
rude health.
‘Years ago I worked as Arts Development Officer in Weymouth,’ Sarah recalls, ‘and it was tough, but it’s slowly coming around. I think the BID is trying really hard and there was a lot of focus on Weymouth during the Olympics that provided some new opportunities. Actually, as I found working overseas, I quite enjoy encountering scepticism. I like the challenge of winning it round and showing what can be done.’
The Iguanodon Restaurant was on tour through the autumn culminating in performances at Yorkshire and Lewes Fossil Festivals and Sarah is talking about the creation at the Festival of Geology at UCL this month. Emerald Ant will also have a hand in lantern parades over the winter months before turning its attention to new projects for next year.
‘I like the idea of lesser-sung heroes because they can lead you to more interesting places,’ says Sarah. ‘We did a project in Bridport about Doctor Roberts* and his experimental medicines that was fascinating. We’re also having some thoughts about the naturalist Alfred Wallace who played a leading role in developing the theory of evolution. It might be something for Dorset Wildlife Trust, but I’ve also got an idea to do something with bluebells – about different species and where they grow – which would make a lovely bluebell parade through the woods around where I live near Maiden Newton.’
www.emeraldant.com

* Giles Roberts (1766-1843). Born in West Bay, he opened a shop in West Street in 1788 licenced to draw blood, extract teeth and cauterise wounds. He studied at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals and returned to Bridport where he opened a laboratory and gave science lectures. His ointment, ‘Poor Man’s Friend’ was sold as a cure-all and in 1805 he opened a shop in East Street. In 1807 he was made Medical Attendant to the Poor, providing free consultations to the needy and campaigning for better public health. His potion continued to be made until 1946.

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