Category Archives: Interview

Colour

Olivia Goldhill and Sarah Marsh of the Guardian recently posed the question “where are the black dancers?” in reference to classical ballet companies. I immediately thought “well there is Carlos Acosta….and Misty Copeland…..Junor Souza…….Eric Underwood”, and my list quickly fizzled out. The black dancers are out there, they just aren’t given the roles and are thus not visible.

When Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams created the iconic pas de deux in Balanchine’s Agon in 1957, the visual impact was heightened immensely by the fact that he was black and she was caucasian. 50 or so years on, the pairing of Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor’s Infra seemed to hold the same allure. Why? Because we’re just not used to seeing it.

Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in Agon

Some parties still argue that ballet developed in Europe in the latter half of the last millenium and everyone involved was white, and through the centuries we’ve become conditioned to expect a certain look, and when we’re confronted with something else we somehow, automatically, think it’s “wrong”.

In the sporting world no one raises an eyebrow when the entire field in the mens 100m sprint is of Afro-Caribbean descent – that’s because these gentlemen are simply faster than runners from a different ethnic background. This cannot be said for dance, where your place in the corps de ballet might depend on the colour of your skin and not your talent.

As I have mentioned above, some black dancers have made their mark in the classical ballet world, but the fact that companies have existed and continue to exist, like Ballet Black in London and Dance Theatre of Harlem, to employ dancers from ethnic minorities (in a dance-sense), speaks volumes.

I’m not just trying to fly the flag for racial equality here – the present situation poses problems for future generations of both dancers and audiences. Ballet already suffers from the curse of being seen as elitist. Until dancers of all backgrounds are working at a visible level in high-profile companies, ballet will remain in its Ivory Tower. That the “look” of a work might suffer because of the lack of ethnic uniformity in the corps de ballet is rubbish – and the longer ballet companies maintain this stance, the less relevant they will become. An artform can only be relevant if it is reflecting the times in which it exists – so the sooner we see more different shades of skin on stage, the sooner ballet can start it’s uphill struggle towards being a contemporary artform again.

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Re-imagining a Classic: Morgann Runacre-Temple Q & A

Morgann recently choreographed Scheherazade and 1001 Arabian Nights for National Ballet of Ireland. Working outwards from the fate of the eponymous heroine, it encompassed three of the tales from the Arabian Nights: Aladdin, Sinbad and the Little Hunchback. The resultant ballet was an intricate work, weaving between the tales and the frame story: a far-cry from the oriental pastiche of Fokine’s original ballet.

Tackling a narrative ballet is a challenge in itself; re-imagining an existing ballet, especially one with such a weight of history attached, is especially difficult because of the expectation it inevitably carries with it. Dance Dialogue spoke to Morgann recently about her views on story ballets and re-imagining the classics.

KIeran Stoneley and Jack Jones in rehearsal for Scheherazade (Photo: Mikah Smillie)

Dance Dialogue: As a choreographer, what is the attraction of narrative work?

Morgann Runacre-Temple: Characters and how they inform movement and generate ideas. I find how people behave and their body language endlessly fascinating and fun. A narrative also provides structure to move the piece forward and I love the challenge of solving how to tell a story.

DD: What attracted you to Scheherazade in particular?

MRT: The character of Scheherazade herself and her relationship with the king; the idea that stories can change people. Also the window into the theatrical Arabian Nights stories themselves which I think are rich pickings for a ballet! The abundance of fantastic Russian Orientalist music written around the time of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is perfect for an Arabian Nights ballet.

DD: Did you draw on any aspects of the original ballet?

MRT: The music.

DD: Did you have any reservations about tackling such an established and widely-known work?

MRT: When you say ‘I’m going to make a new….’ there are reservations – people come to see the show with ideas and expectations based on what they know, and with that brings a pressure to deliver.

DD: How did you approach reconstructing the libretto?

MRT: I started by researching the Arabian Nights tales themselves, finding characters, images and ideas that I thought would work in a ballet context. I knew pretty quickly which stories I wanted to include, but there was a lot of editing.

DD: How did you find working with the score?

MRT: The score was a real challenge! It’s a big sound with lots of tempo and time signature changes: I learned a lot.

DD: What direction do you think narrative ballet is going?

MRT: I think that stories will always be told and will always engage, and that ballet is a wonderful medium through which to tell stories because it can be incredibly succinct and clear. Audiences will always want to engage with characters on stage. I think it’s going to have a renaissance.

DD: You also do non-narrative work; what is different in your approach?

MRT: All the non-narrative work I have made so far has always started from what I would consider a narrative point: a relationship, a character or a series of situations.

DD: Are there any choreographers from whose work you draw inspiration?

MRT: Many! Matthew Bourne, Wayne McGregor, Kenneth Macmillan, Matthew Hart, Hofesh Schechter….

DD: Can we expect a Rite of Spring any time soon?

MRT: No plans at the moment; I’d definitely have to learn to count!

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Notation: writing ballet

For most musicians, particularly those of a classical bent, reading and interpreting a score is one of the first things they will have learned. The written manuscript is our only detailed way of recording instruction for how the composer intended the music to be performed. A system of recording also exists in dance, called dance notation; if you don’t recognise what is going on in the schematic below, fear not, neither do most of us. For anyone that’s interested, it is a fouetté (obvious, no?)

Source: http://linus.it.uts.ed.au

Dance has traditionally been passed on through those dancers who learned the steps from the choreographer, to their students and so on: it is essentially an oral history. In recent years, video has been employed to record dance. However, video cannot guarantee the fidelity of the performance; who’s to say that their every step, gesture or angle of the head is exactly how the choreographer intended? If there was a notated movement score, the exactitude of the work could be scrutinised, not just from scrutiny’s sake, but to ensure that the clarity of the original work doesn’t become vague.

There has always been a problem in the dance world with choreography, indeed entire ballets, being lost. If the steps are living only in the memories of the dancers on whom they were created, a ballet can become extinct in the space of a generation. Videos of performances or rehearsals, while useful, can never fully capture a work, getting hold of execution rather than intention in most cases.

Having been through the ordeal of ballet school, with all its trappings, I can honestly say that I have never encountered a notated score. Sure, the resources were there if I were taken with a desire to learn more about it (which I wasn’t), but learning to work with a score or even create one, wasn’t on the syllabus.

Aside from the fact that most institutions don’t teach notation, there’s the issue of there being no unifying format for it either. When Nicholas Sergeyev brought the classics out of Imperial Russia early in the 20th century, they were in some manner of sketchy notation which was particular to the theatre from whence they came, with surely very few possible interpreters around today. Labanotation and Benesh Notation are the two most obvious ones in use today, but most of their employment seems to be as an academic exercise than an archival resource.

People love to refer to the ephemeral nature of dance, that it exists for the moment it is being danced and then it is gone. But why should it be like this? Video and word-of-mouth can get a ballet on stage, for a while at least, but maybe the toil of notating a ballet is the only way we have of recording not just what the ballet looks like, but what it was intended to look like.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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Strange Bedfellows: Ballet and Contemporary Dance in Ireland

Ballet and contemporary dance in Ireland operate as two distinct entities, having two very different audience cohorts: the former has a loyal following of those who grew up with the established classical ballets and the latter a more curious breed, interested in broader artistic enrichment. Can these two disciplines operate and even interact? Or has the chasm between them widened to such an extent that both groups are effectively alienated and on very different paths?

Ballet has a rich history in Ireland, reaching back to the Abbey Ballet School in the 1920’s, led by Ninette de Valois, a Wicklow native who toiled her way to establishing what is now The Royal Ballet. There have been many bumps in the road which now sees two companies, the National Ballet of Ireland (formerly Ballet Ireland) and Cork City Ballet, operating in a professional, if part-time capacity. The intervening years saw companies such as Dublin City Ballet and Irish National Ballet grow and flourish, only to be met with successive funding cuts, ultimately spelling the end. At one point Irish National Ballet even graced the stage of Sadler’s Wells. The legacy of the various growth spurts in Irish ballet is a wide network of ballet schools, which produce a plethora of young talented dancers, further fostered by Arts Council-funded youth companies such as Irish National Youth Ballet and Youth Ballet West. The net effect of these various enterprises is a loyal audience for ballet in Ireland. The lack of a permanent professional ballet presence in the country means the drop off between enthusiastic hobbyist and aspiring professional is drastic.

Contemporary dance too has a long back-story, from pioneers such as Erina Brady promoting an innovative dance voice in Dublin. The movement has since been there, taking influence from imported and homegrown talent. The main voices in today’s contemporary dance scene were borne of the 1980’s obliteration of funding for the various ballet companies: John Scott, David Bolger, Michael Keegan-Dolan, Liz Roche to name but a few. In the wasteland that was the aftermath of a funding haven, these fertile young minds set in motion what is now a mature modern dance community. Ballet’s loss was contemporary’s gain.

Somewhere along this timeline ballet and modern dance in Ireland diverged. Many of the protagonists were from similar training backgrounds, but in the tumult of the late 80’s and early 90’s, these two communities drifted. While contemporary dance flourished, ballet once again floundered: between the end of the Dublin City Ballet and Irish National Ballet and the arrival of Ballet Ireland as it was at the time,  Alan Foley’s Cork City Ballet bridged the gap for part of the time. Once ballet found its footing again, the contemporary dance bandwagon was well on its way.

Both disciplines have suffered equally at the lack of vocational training offered here. Historically, any dancer with aspirations of a professional career have travelled abroad and, given the lack of opportunities, many have stayed away, career advancement being easier to achieve elsewhere. That is not to say that Irish companies must have national talent to stay afloat; the prevailing attitude among dancers is “have job, will travel”.  This is one area where the two communities could work together – the furthering of a national dance training centre: no dancer or teacher could nowadays contemplate a balanced training without voices from both classical and contemporary ends of the spectrum.

Public funding is indispensable in a situation where there’s no culture of private arts patronage; as is the case in Ireland. After the contemporary dance boom, it was very hard for ballet to attract funding because in order to guarantee audiences they had to stage productions of established, recognisable works; for funding decision makers, established and recognisable aren’t exactly buzz-words.

In the wake of such brave moves forward by our contemporary dance companies, for example Coiscéim Dance Theatre and Fabulous Beast, ballet might seem to some an anachromism, but the two will always inform and reference each other, even if it’s not deliberate. The cross-over between the disciplines isn’t much in Ireland. Look back half a century and Martha Graham and George Balanchine were collaborating on Episodes – although artistically poles apart, the pair recognised and honoured their common background: dance. This broad interest and crossover needs to be encouraged and actively promoted, the result may prove more symbiotic than the idea might suggest.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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