With less than a month to go until the premiere of Tom N Rob: Break Free, Bethan Ball has been busy dropping into rehearsals, chatting with the people supporting and partnering with Tom Bright and Rob Hemming, and of course catching up with the mischievous duo themselves…

As I walked into Tom and Rob’s rehearsal room at Sense TouchBase Pears on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon, I was immediately struck by the laughter and playful atmosphere. It was clear that they understand each other innately and it was a joy to witness. Hardly any words were spoken and yet so much was communicated between these performers; they connected without the need for words. Movements and sequences were devised, rehearsed and honed with a joint understanding; two dancers totally on a level with one another.

During a well deserved break, Tom and Rob reflected on why their partnership works so well.

Moving is my favourite thing to do.’ said Tom. ‘I smile so much when I dance. We work together as a team. I give my ideas, and Rob gives ideas and we then we make shows. It’s the best! ’ The smile beaming across Tom’s face was hard to ignore; he truly is thriving in this environment.

‘We hit it off instantly’ explained Rob. ‘We have a very similar sense of humour, but we express it in different ways, which makes for a playful, joyful partnership. We have only known each other for just under a year, but since working together more intensively, we are quickly establishing a practice together. We begin each rehearsal with structured improvisation, focusing on getting into our bodies individually. After a while, we are able to find each other’s energy in the space and then we allow it to escalate; and that’s how the creation of the material begins. We don’t have an ideal aesthetic that we are aiming for, we simply start from who we are and where we are at. We both have genuine ownership over everything we do – both in rehearsals and on stage.

Tom has an openness and natural ability that I have never encountered before. Because of Tom’s creative spontaneity, every show is slightly different, and this is fantastic because it keeps it fresh. Skills such as improvisation can take classically trained professional dancers years to master, but Tom is so free in his body that he doesn’t question things; he just responds. When he lifts me, he is more physically stable than many other dancers I have worked with, and this is because he is not worrying about technique, he is just simply responding to what his body can or cannot do.’

Open Theatre are working as partners with Tom and Rob on this exciting venture. Richard Hayhow, Director of Open Theatre said:

Dancer and performer Tom has been part of Open Theatre for 17 years now, but it’s been quite amazing to witness his growth recently as a performer and choreographer working alongside Rob. Rob equally has thrown himself so authentically into the process and it’s been a real privilege to watch their partnership develop over the past year. Within Open Theatre we talk a lot about the ‘Space Between’ – in essence where two artists from different backgrounds and creative practices discover the ‘space between’ them – a source of inspiration and innovation that neither could access on their own. Tom and Rob connect so completely across difference and have created a piece of work that is funny and serious, moving and outrageous, and at all times is totally accessible and real to every kind of audience.’

Tom and Rob have also hugely benefited from the backing of Birmingham Dance Network (BDN), the go-to support network for independent dance artists, choreographers and practitioners in the Second City. Rebecca Randall, Associate Director of BDN shared:

‘We first saw Tom N Rob perform at BDN’s Community Introducing… in July 2019. As soon as we saw their application we were very excited about the potential of this project and have since programmed the duo at BDN’s Introducing… stage at Birmingham Weekender. They will also be co-leading a class for professional dancers as part of the Birmingham Pro Class scheme.

We can’t resist well executed dance with a touch of comedy, and Tom and Rob have created an incredibly entertaining piece of work which audiences will love. It is the relationship between the two artists which makes this work distinctive and unique.’

The charity Sense has also been closely involved with Tom and Rob’s journey. Stephanie Tyrrell, National Arts Manager of Sense said:

I was immediately drawn into Tom and Rob’s performance as they had great energy and a fantastic dynamic! Everything about their approach was fully inclusive, high quality and good fun – they definitely left the audience wanting more…

We wanted to support Tom and Rob as their work falls directly in line with Sense’s inclusive arts plan: ‘Space to be Different 2019-2022’, which is all about creating an equal platform where everyone has the time and space to take part in high quality arts programmes. Our support to Tom and Rob has included access to our rehearsal studios (with semi-sprung floors), sound equipment, and indoor plants! Our performance studio has large windows at the front, so anyone walking past can see them in action – we’ve had loads of comments from staff at Sense about their work, and members of the public have enjoyed engaging with them. Tom and Rob’s work is distinctive and important for the sector as it explores the relationship between performers with and without a learning disability, and how this practice can be developed from a participatory level to a professional standard. We hope to have the duo here in the near future as we also see this production as an opportunity to diversify what’s on offer for the people we support.’

The premiere of Tom N Rob: Break Free will be taking place at 7pm on 12th March 2020,in the Patrick Studio, at Birmingham Hippodrome, a supporter of the project. Chris Sudworth, Director of Artistic Programmes said:

Birmingham Hippodrome have had a long-standing relationship with the excellent work of Open Theatre and we are extremely proud to have them as one of our Associate Companies.’

Fiona Allan Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Birmingham Hippodrome said:

By building on our existing work with Open Theatre, we hope to challenge prejudices around the skills and capabilities of young people with learning disabilities, and the nature of audiences who can engage with their creative work.’

If you haven’t yet got hold of a ticket, grab one now to avoid disappointment. Book here

https://www.birminghamhippodrome.com/calendar/tom-n-rob-break-free/

If you have any queries, please contact Bethan Ball at bethan@opentheatre.co.uk.

Tom N Rob: Break Free is a captivating duet of comedic dance theatre, created by talent and friendship in its purest form. This new piece explores what two can do together, that neither can do on their own. The duo’s hilarious performance and choice songs (that will get you dancing in your seats) will ensure that this piece leaves you smiling!

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Photo Credit: Anastasia Jobson