ghost peloton at waides yard, leedsBack
There were times, or stretches of time, as illuminated bicycles zipped by in kaleidoscopic formations during the Ghost Peloton on Friday night, when I didn’t know where I was.
I didn’t feel like I was in Leeds, but I knew I hadn’t left Leeds. That’s part of what we’re getting as old spaces close – like Tetley’s – and new spaces open up – like The Tetley. You couldn’t have stood with three thousand other people in grandstands watching a choreographed bikes and lights and films show in Waides Yard before this summer; you’d only have gone there to move some beer barrels, and I’m not sure it was even called Waides Yard then. It was just the place where Tetley’s kept their barrels.
That’s how NVA, who organised the event with Phoenix Dance Theatre and Sustrans, make their impact. They make “powerful public art articulating the complex qualities of a location through collective action,” and at Waides Yard they succeeded, by making the Leeds background fall away so the city could reappear with a European aspect.
This was, after all, part of Leeds and Yorkshire’s response to hosting the Grand Départ, which could have gone two ways: either along the path of traditional flat cap resistance, or along the path that has actually been taken, the path that guided the cycles looping around the brewery yard over the weekend – the path that embraces Le Tour as a bridge to the continent.
Part of what made watching the Ghost Peloton feel so unlike being in Leeds was a sense that, while Leeds hasn’t seen anything like it before, this was the kind of public art that one imagines happens as standard across Europe all the time. Music a la Kraftwerk, lasers a la Jean Michel Jarre, weather a la Barcelona; and as the twilight turned to night, even the terraced backs of the Leeds Dock apartment blocks looked like well behaved pieces in the darkening skyline of a modern European city.
Then the dancers rode into the newly formed arena, one at first, then another, then six, then thirty; and time and place slipped away. The LED lights that defined each bike and each body suit were developed by NVA to be remotely and individually controllable, and as the peloton continuously broke, reformed, spread and contracted, the riders dissolved into shifting patterns of light woven in concert – choreography, radio, light and space.
There was no single dramatic moment, and the consistent tension was immersive; rather than be sensational or spectacular, the Ghost Peloton offered sensation and spectacle that stretched you beyond the visible yard and beyond measurable time. I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted. I couldn’t be sure where I was while it happened. I haven’t forgotten it.
That dreamlike feeling of dislocation is what I’ll take away from the Ghost Peloton, and I loved it; Leeds is Leeds, but sometimes it’s good for Leeds not to be quite so completely Leeds. That was surely the point of bringing the Tour de France here in the first place, and of taking the Grand Départ to the next level by not settling for two or three days of intense cycling, but by expanding the experience into a 100 day art festival.
I can’t think of another event I’ve attended in Leeds that has had such a European atmosphere, and while the Yorkshire Festival is a celebration of all things Yorkshire, the Ghost Peloton made of it a celebration of Yorkshire and Leeds’ growth beyond our borders to an international stage.
It grew by keeping it local at the same time, with Phoenix, NVA and Sustrans using local volunteer cyclists to provide the tightly rehearsed skills that were at the heart of the complex choreography and coordination. The Grand Départ might be a touring export of continental excellence, but the Ghost Peloton was an embedded Leeds-born but not Leeds-restricted event on exactly the scale that was promised when Le Tour was brought to Yorkshire.
As we filed out of the arena I could see into one of the old buildings from the yard’s brewery days. There, lined up in racks, were the ghost bicycles. The riders were gone, but the lights on the bike frames still shone brightly.