Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

44: In Memoriam Cengiz Saner

cengiz saner

RIP Cengiz Saner

It’s with a heavy heart that I have to record that Cengiz Saner died last month after a short illness.

Cengiz was one of the most valued members of the Grand Union team throughout most of its history. His main role was as the ever-patient stage director of our big participatory shows, full of energy and infectious enthusiasm, a master of all the technical disciplines of production and live performance, and always sympathetic to the needs and demands of our idiosyncratic bunch of performers of all ages, whether amateur or professional. We shall all miss him.

He was also an imaginative artist in his own right – a versatile actor of great charm, an impressive physical performer, a beautifully expressive mime and very musical. He later made a name as a movement director of opera, and in this capacity worked in many parts of the world.  He also had a lovely sense of mischief (I can still see his pixie face, one musician wrote).

Cengiz was born in Ankara into an old Turkish military family, but came to England originally to train at RADA, which is where I first met him around 1970. We worked together in several theatre productions around the country, and he was married to my late sister for twenty years. He was therefore himself a migrant or exile, with a natural empathy for those Grand Union regularly works with. It was through Cengiz we made such close and productive relationships with North London’s Turkish community, and worked with the well-known singer Sabahat Akkiraz and her baglama-playing brother Cemal (see Post 7 and Post 19),

I personally owe Cengiz a great debt of gratitude throughout our long friendship and artistic collaboration; and I value equally the unstinting contribution he made to Grand Union’s work.

He mainly directed the shows, as I say – and took on the thankless task of sorting out dressing rooms! – but he occasionally made an appearance himself. Some of his ‘roles’ were quite fanciful, but unfortunately not documented on film. In On Liberation Street, however, he acted as a kind of narrator, introducing the main episodes in the show. Here he is placing three very dramatic events of the early seventies in context – which also give an idea of the scale and range of Grand Union’s work, in whose creation he played such an important part:

As it happens, these extracts feature Chilean musician Vladimir Vega, another Grand Union stalwart, who died almost exactly two years ago (a tribute to Vladimir can be found at Post 26). They are taken from the original performance of On Liberation Street in Leeds, commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War (highlights from a later performance at the Hackney Empire can be found here). It’s a reminder also that the experience of the performers is important to Grand Union shows, which often deal with big themes – in this case, the aftermath of upheavals that shook Chile, Bangladesh and Angola in the early seventies, a generation after the war.

Other tributes…

Through these large-scale projects – all quite emotionally charged themselves – so many people were well acquainted with Cengiz; all were devastated by his death, and wrote to me very movingly of his life and work, and their love for him. Here are just two from long-standing members of the company.

I don’t really know what to say, I can’t really believe he has gone. It seems like only yesterday that he was jumping around the stage at the Hackney Empire doing his thing with all his seemingly usual energy. I will remember him as a force of nature who came into my life when I was first with Grand Union doing ‘Strange Migration’. Tony brought him to heighten the drama and I will never forget his directions and his pre-show warm-up. This was always enjoyable, but seemed to get longer and longer, incorporating everything from Yoga to contemporary dance, and often seemed to last as long as the show itself! – Gerry Hunt, multi-instrumentalist and founder-musician, Grand Union Orchestra.

I was shocked, of course, to learn of Cengiz’ illness, not least because he always seemed fit as a flea. From what blue these things descend, who knows. Hearing from you that he had died, I was surprised by tears. Looking back, what struck me was how ridiculously pleased I always was to see him. Your word – ‘genial’ – sums him up perfectly. In Cengiz geniality was much more than a talent, more than a virtue, and neither a disposition nor a temperament. It amounted to a gift; the type of gift that gives itself, so that he was not only genial in himself but inspired the like in others. Genial, generous, genuine – such he was. A Gentleman. – David Bradford, lyric-writer for most Grand Union shows, and a collaborator even before that.

…and a musical send-off:

This is the finale of the last show Cengiz directed for Grand Union, Undream’d Shores at the Hackney Empire in November 2014. It is based on the chants of Eleggua, guardian of the cross-roads, the Yoruba orissa (a frequent guest in these blogs – see Post 43 and Post 3) who also eases the journey between life and death. It is joyous, upbeat and liberated, as Cengiz himself was, so let it stand as his memorial.

One comment on “44: In Memoriam Cengiz Saner

  1. Harry Porter
    November 25, 2016

    I believe Cengiz was also the voice of the Sheriff of Nottingham (which in this case was a life sized animatronic model) in the now-closed tourist attraction ‘The Tales of Robin Hood’ in Nottingham.

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