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Mixing it up: a dozen years of Deer Creek through one member's eyes

by Alan Winston
First printed in the American Morris Newsletter, Volume 22, number 1 (May-June 1999)

Opinions differ on whether Deer Creek, the Palo Alto, California, men's team, was founded for the Christmas Revels. Opinions may differ on various points in this article, and I do not claim that my current position as squire of the Deer Creek Morris Men makes my opinions in anyway official. What I recall, in any case, is that the team started in August of 1986, and was drafted for the first San Francisco Bay Revels shortly thereafter - like September.

Bruce Hamilton had founded the team to do Sherborne, specifically his interpretation of the Bouwerie Boys version, as taught by John Dexter. Recruited for the first San Francisco Bay Revels, we immediately found ourselves learning instead the Upton-on-Severn Stick Dance - all right, the Chingford Stick Dance - the Sleights Longsword Dance, and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, with only about three months to do it, and some of us (like me) with no morris

background at all.

That couldn't be described as boring.

Starting the following January, we commenced Sherborne, and stayed with it more-or-less exclusively, except for the Revels, for several years. Revels called variously for the Kirkby Malzeard and Papa Stour longsword traditions, about twelve bars of Longborough, and the Lord of the Dance Jig, which is a medley of Cotswold styles. Once we had ready access to a set of horns, about 1988, we started doing Abbots Bromley in the pre-dawn gloom of May Day. One year, we were kitted up, carrying our horns, ready to start. Our recorder player lifted his instrument to his lips, drew breath to play, and the air was suddenly rent by the sound of a bagpipe. Yes, a random bagpiper had thought this would be a good spot to welcome in the Spring, with no knowledge of our having been there for years, having a park use permit, etc. He didn't make any trouble once we explained the situation to him, but the air of mystery normally evoked by the "woo-woo" Abbots Bromley was not achieved that morning.

In 1989 Deer Creek and Mayfield Morris joined to host the third California Ale, the PterodactAle. Two years later, the two teams plus Fool's Choice ran the PterodactAle Ptoo!. I was co-Alemaster both years, and found it a rewarding and interesting experience. That first year, I personally achieved some level of adequacy in Sherborne, which was a great relief.

The team almost immediately decided that we should no longer focus exclusively on Sherborne.

The process by which we set general direction is quite democratic. At our roughly semi-annual AGMs, we discuss what we've been getting out of the team, what we'd like to get out of the team, and where we'd like to go. Questions like "who shall be foreman?" are settled by vote. The fore then has artistic authority; we certainly don't vote on how high the knee will go in Sherborne.

Why broaden focus from Sherborne? We'd plateaued. We were plagued by issues of quality of movement and similarity of movement, with some dancers who were individually excellent but never really coalesced into a single team movement style. I suspect this problem may be known to other teams. The corner-crossing dances in Sherborne cover this up somewhat, since often only two people are moving, and audiences tend to look for the height of the jump rather than the uniformity of motion.

If memory serves, we adopted Bampton in the style of the Binghamton Morris Men, as taught by alumnus Dan Pellegrini. This was put forth as a "resting tradition," and I certainly found it less exhausting than Sherborne. Practices were split between Sherborne and Bampton. A relaxed single-step tradition complemented the sky-high Sherborne very well. In theory, we'd also be able to spare more attention to make the lines straight and to synch up with other team members. We paid considerable attention to Bampton, and probably the high point of our Bampton experience was dancing the Binghamton Stick Dance on the steps of the Parliament Building in Victoria, BC, as our show dance for H'Ale Victoria. That was a high point of any kind of morris performance, since the landing made a perfect stage, the steps made excellent seating, and thousands of spectators actually stayed and watched a lot of dancing. The weather was perfect - clear but cool, even crisp - the setting was wonderful and the energy superb. The dancing was good too. But I digress.

After this high point in, I think, 1991 we put Bampton on the back burner - where it has pretty much remained, although the dances come out every so often - and started dancing Ducklington. I am not entirely sure at this juncture why we put Bampton aside; perhaps we were looking for a more-macho dance. I think we may have felt we didn't have much more to learn with Bampton. Finding the supply of Ducklington dances inadequate to fill our sets, we invented at least one: Idbury Hill, which I recently saw Bridgetown Morris dance in Portland. As a tradition trading off with Sherborne, Ducklington is not so restful as it might be, and it doesn't give the audience as much visual relief as it might. It does have my personal favorite Cotswold dance, Jockey to the Fair, which I really love dancing.

This was the point at which it became hard for several people to keep track of what we were doing. It wasn't uncommon to see three different traditions during the first half of foot-up, although we were usually together by the second half.

Somewhere in here, we lost Bruce as fore. Fores and practice leaders were Dan Pellegrini, Bob Fraley, and others. We focused largely on Ducklington through the mid-90s, continuing to dance Sherborne and Bampton out, but not really working them hard in practice.

Dave Macemon became Deer Creek's fore for Sherborne in 1996 for the 96/97 season. He was faced with a melange of styles, and a wide assortment of small details about which different people had authoritative - in the senses both of being strongly-voiced and of having at some time been "correct" - but contradictory answers. He set about molding a new Deer Creek Sherborne style, a process which included breaking various things we thought we knew. Shufflebacks are still broken. We'd seen and been really impressed by Hammersmith at a Los Angeles ale, and Dave added their Lass of Richmond Hill to our Sherborne repertoire. Opportunity then called Dave to a new life in Oregon, leaving our Sherborne in some disarray.

At the same time we'd started to work up some border dances. We started with a commissioned workshop from Jim Morrison, and one of our dancer/musicians, Dave Fouquet, was inspired to pursue other border material, starting with printed sources. We'd spent the summer of '96 learning Four Lane End, and in the 96/97 season picked up Seven Hand Reel, which made a big impression at May Day that year. It then went into some disuse, since it called for seven dancers and we could rarely find that many at once.

Our border kit at this point was assorted Hawaiian shirts worn unbuttoned over the same white trousers we used in our regular kit. The trousers were themselves a change from the baggy white knickers we'd used for nearly ten years; they had replaced the tight slate-blue knickers used in our first season.

A significant part of the motivation for adopting border was the idea that we could loosen up our team persona, which has tended to be quite introverted. Individually, we can be wild and crazy guys, but the gestalt has been intellectual and inward-pointing. This has changed somewhat with the addition in the last four years of several guys who'd been involved with Renaissance Faire performance groups, who have more experience and willingness to engage the crowd. As it worked out, we managed to produce some intellectualized and introverted border dances.

At the AGM commencing the 1997-1998 season, we decided to keep up and expand our border. Dave had some ideas for original dances, and wanted to see us maintain a winter season for border. He was elected "border gizmo." In the absence of Dave Macemon, we didn't feel we could continue Sherborne as a primary tradition - our fore candidates weren't familiar enough with what Dave had been doing that we could build on it. We'd discussed dropping Cotswold altogether, but nobody felt entirely comfortable with that.

Bruce Balan, who'd danced with Sunset Morris in Los Angeles until moving to the Bay Area, proposed that we take up Brackley. His argument, which the team found convincing, was that the relatively unspectacular Brackley would compel us to focus on the issues of moving together, as a team, that we had been battling with for so long. If we once had a handle on that, the skills would be portable to other traditions.

We now have a border repertoire of six dances. We've split our season so that the fall practices focus on border, with brush-ups on Brackley, and the spring will focus on Brackley. We've done some exclusively border stands, and Four Lane End (with Ric Goldman's choreographic tweak to allow the dance to kill the Green Man) was featured in the 1997 Christmas Revels. We liked the rag vests they dressed us in so well that we changed our border kit from Hawaiian shirts to rag vests. This year, we did longsword practices for the benefit of the Revels, and finally decided to try keeping up the longsword during the rest of the year.

This last Christmas Eve, we performed as part of a non-sectarian Christmas Eve service. We did Sleights Longsword, Four Lane End (border), Simon's Fancy (Bampton) and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.

I think - and this is just my personal opinion - that this is the direction we'll be aiming for in the future. Instead of trying to keep up a lot of Cotswold traditions, we'll try to get good at some very different kinds of things, which can really complement each other in different ways.

All in all, we continue to live in interesting times.

AFTERWORD

Reading over this retrospective exercise resembles, in some ways, watching a slow-motion videotape of a pinball game. The ball hits a bumper and changes direction completely; hits a gate once and bounces off but finds it open the next time it hits. Several people have had visions for the team, which have met with various degrees of success. It's something like strategy in pinball. There may be some target you'd like to hit, but what actually happens depends on timing, gravity, luck, and just how much and how effectively you can jiggle the table without tilting and losing the ball altogether. More than one squire and more than one fore has used the metaphor of herding cats to talk about trying to manage this team.

This isn't altogether a bad thing, I think. That we develop policy in meetings means that members feel some ownership of the direction in which we go, which is good. Our not-too-rigid structure has enabled some members to grow artistically: expand from dancing to playing music as well; become fores and put forth their own visions. We've traveled to distant ales and had marvelous experiences there; we've had the experience of totally nailing some dances, and we participate in a May morning festival that's a community tradition with between one and two hundred people in the audience.

On the other hand, the lack of coherence that probably comes from too many different opinions with equal weight has caused some discomfort for dancers and fores alike. We tend to be reactive, asking each year what we can do with the material on hand, not, usually, aiming the team toward a distant goal and working to get there. It's hard to keep focus, and we struggle with questions of commitment. Strangely, our pattern has been to have good attendance at practice and not be able to get full sides for gigs.

I suspect that our situation is not uncommon. Our challenge will be to keep Deer Creek interesting and rewarding to its members, preferably by giving us that feeling unlike any other of dancing very well as a team: still individuals but connected by intangible links that let us move as one.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Eric Goodill and Bruce Hamilton for checking my recollections. Any errors that remain are certainly my own.

2000 Alan Winston, American Morris Newsletter

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