Ruth Brill – Leap Into The Unknown?

Ruth Brill in rehearsal, photo by Dasa Wharton

Ballet Position meets Ruth Brill as she prepares to swap her pointe shoes for life as a full time choreographer

Ruth Brill is a vibrant bundle of energy, which is just as well – when we met, she was simultaneously touring as a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet, overseeing the company’s new production of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, which she choreographed, and regularly commuting to London to put the budding dancers of London Children’s Ballet through their paces in her new version of the much-loved classic Ballet Shoes.

Ruth Brill rehearsing with London Children’s Ballet, photo Tina Francis

Oh, and there was also the ‘small matter’ of planning her forthcoming July wedding.

Not to mention making the necessary arrangements for life as a full-time choreographer: her very last performance as a dancer with BRB will be when the company visits London at the end of June.

And yet, she seemed unfazed; rather, she clearly relishes the pressure. When I pointed out that other brides-to-be would be falling apart with nerves at this point, she just laughed:

“We’re being very very efficient. Between [lawyer fiancé] Simon and I, we have evenings when we just try and blitz a few things. I mean I’m naturally quite a planner in life, and we both have the perspective that it’s going to be an exciting, wonderful time with everyone there, but it’s one day.”

Nevertheless, Ruth acknowledges that there’s only so much she can do; and this is why, at the early age of 30, she’s decided to stop dancing altogether.

“It’s been such an exciting year, and I’ve had so many exciting opportunities that I’ve grabbed with both hands, so it’s been a very very busy schedule, I haven’t had days off at all, kind of juggling everything, so I think something has to give.

“And there’s no doubt in my mind, it feels like the right moment. I’m really content with what I’ve done as a dancer, I’m still loving the stage and I always will, but being part of a touring company is hard, and I think I have more to give on the other side of things now.”

Ruth Brill is already an experienced choreographer, having created works for BRB – Rhapsody in Blue (2014), Matryoska (2015) and Arcadia (2017), the latter her first main stage commission.

Outside her home company, she has created a wide range of work including flash mobs for Birmingham Weekender Festival and the Rugby World Cup.

Ruth Brill – The Early Days

“I’ve always really enjoyed choreography, from the very beginning at my local Judith Wilson School of Dance in Penshurst village hall. There we would do a full show and then the following year we’d do a choreographic competition.

Ruth Brill (c) Richard Battye

“So, every other year I was making work, I’d spend time at my friends’ houses choreographing things; I continued at Tring [Park School for the Performing Arts], I won a choreographic cup there (…)

“The interest was always there, but when I joined English National Ballet, my focus was on dance: I wanted to prove myself as a dancer in other people’s choreographies.

I was always doing the extra things, but I wanted to dance. I promised myself, next year I’m going to choreograph a piece, but then the following year that I’d made that promise to myself [2012] I moved to BRB and just had to take part in the first choreographic workshop there.”

 

As a full-time choreographer, Ruth Brill will be catapulted right into the current debate on the perceived scarcity of women choreographers. So, naturally, I wanted to know where she stood on this debate.

“Personally, I have never felt discriminated against, and thankfully not pro-discriminated either, because I’ve got my opportunities not because I am a woman but because of the work.

“I think I’ve been lucky enough to have brilliant opportunities at BRB to create and develop; and actually Peter and the Wolf is in a bill of three female choreographers, [Un]leashed (…) so I think the climate is really shifting.

“I think it’s a really good time to be a female choreographer, because I think we’re pushing forwards and it’s being talked about, which is brilliant, because then the balance will be redressed.

“I mean, you can see that the majority of those leaders and creative people at the moment are men, but then I think back to those people in the past, a lot of those pioneers were women, so I think the tides are changing and I am more than happy to fly that flag and inspire other people.”

On this point, she notes that although it was the outgoing BRB Artistic Director, David Bintley’s idea to turn Peter into a girl in Peter and the Wolf, she was happy with to go along with it:

‘We shifted [the setting] into a present day urban setting: it’s kind of a recreational ground, basketball court, with a scaffolding tower at the back, therefore all the characters are modern day, personified characters.

“I sat down with David and discussed which dancers in the company could play Peter, and actually the dancers’ names I could live with, four out of five of them were girls.

‘So, it felt right to have Peter as a girl (…) it is important that we do put females at the centre of things at the moment.”

Laura Day as Peter in BRB’s Peter and the Wolf, photo Andy Ross

Ruth Brill – The Future

Ruth Brill has plenty of choreographic work in the pipeline already; some things she won’t be drawn on yet, but many others have already been firmed up:

“I’m going to be hopefully doing more for London Children’s Ballet, I’m being interim Artistic Director of National Youth Ballet between July and September and choreographing a new work for them, which will be a very high energy pure dance piece, because I’ve been doing lots of narrative recently (…)

“Then I’m doing the English Ballet Theatre choreographic lab, so I’m doing a couple of hours’ worth of creation and exploration at the end of the summer, and then we’ll see if that develops into something else.”

And not only that: Ruth Brill has her eyes on other forms of theatre.

“I love the ballet world and the ballet bubble – that’s home for me – but I’m also excited to branch out and get some different experience, whether that’s movement direction or working in musicals… I’m kind of an all-rounder!”

With her talent and seemingly inexhaustible energy we’re quite sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from Ruth Brill very soon…

by Teresa Guerreiro

Ruth Brill’s final performance as a dancer will be in Hobson’s Choice at Sadler’s Wells on Saturday, 29th June at 19:30

So You Want to Become Choreographers?

Peggy Olislaegers in the studio with Dane Hurst, photo Stephen Wright

With fierce competition on for places in Dutch National Ballet’s Choreographic Academy, we ask what can the budding choreographers  expect?

Aspiring young choreographers have a chance to find out whether they have it in them to become professional dance makers, should they be lucky enough to gain a place in Dutch National Ballet’s Choreographic Academy, which takes place in June 2019.

They will work with the dancers of the Junior Company in a series of creative workshops, which should provide them with a solid basis for future work.

Among the professionals helping and guiding their work will be the Dutch dramaturge Peggy Olislaegers – except she doesn’t like the designation “dramaturge,” if nothing else, she told Ballet Position, because “dramaturge” means different things in different countries. So, how does she describe herself?

Peggy Olislaegers, photo Sophie Knijff

“I am a full time Artistic Ally to choreographers and artistic directors in several countries in Europe. People gave me the title ‘dramaturge’, but everything that I know I developed in practice; I’m not trained in the context of university, I’m trained in the context of studios, theatres and companies. I prefer Artistic Ally.”

You would definitely want Peggy Olislaegers as your Artistic Ally. A small bundle of energy, behind her owlish glasses are sharply intelligent eyes, and she speaks with the kind of passion that results from a restless and inquisitive mind always ready to stimulate new questions, new fields of inquiry.

So, when we spoke at the London home of Rambert, where she regularly works on choreographic creation with company dancers, Ballet Position asked Peggy what was her first injunction to aspiring young choreographers.

“First continue dancing, please, because I think in the broader sense we need choreographers with embodied knowledge, who can do physical research, next to the more traditional conceptual, intellectual research.”

Choreographers’ ‘Embodied Knowledge’

The notion of ’embodied knowledge’ resonates absolutely with the choreographer Juanjo Arques, whose ballet Ignite, inspired by Turner’s painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, wowed Sadler’s Wells in the Spring. Now a well established dance maker, Arques has worked with Peggy Olislaegers and will be involved with the forthcoming Choreographic Academy.

Juanjo Arques at work in the studio, photo Ty Singleton

“As a dancer I had the opportunity to dance different dance codes and styles, from classical repertory ballets to contemporary choreographers from our times. This allowed me to learn how to use my body in different ways, analysing movement from different perspectives and discovering endless possibilities to create dance forms.

“Muscle memory allows my body to remember and store movements that I reuse when I create new works. It is like a library and toolbox that I use to create new steps, sometimes consciously and sometimes intuitively. This knowledge is the key to develop a personal movement vocabulary.”

So, choreographers need to know their bodies and start from their bodies; or, as Peggy Olislaegers puts it,

“they need to feel urgency, and that urgency can be a physical one: I want to go into the studio, and I want to start moving and understand the kind of movement I want to bring across.”

The Choreographers’ Quest

Olislaegers stresses, though, that having an inquiring mind is equally important.

“If you are a dancer, and you want to become a choreographer, you need to have the opportunity to change perspective (…) A young choreographer needs to start from a clear question. That question needs to be related to clear curiosity.

“So, to give you an example, you want to create a work about patriarchy, and you are a ballet dancer, say. Well, study the physical parameters in a pas de deux: who steps into whose space (and just that element is already enough to explore!), so, who steps into whose space in order to be lifted? Is it the man coming to the woman in order to lift her, or is it the woman stepping into the space of the man and allowing him to lift her? There’s a difference.

“That’s a kind of awareness, a kind of tuning that will question spacial projection, that will question details in the construction; and before you know it for us, the audience, that will question the relationship between a man and a woman.”

Luke Ahmet

Luke Ahmet is a Rambert dancer who’s worked with Peggy Olislaegers and found her insistence on inquiry very helpful.

“When I choreographed things, especially earlier, I was very step driven; and then after working with Peggy it really did broaden my way: I had to build my language rather than going straight in with steps and not really exploring to its full potential what would come out, as well as my [initial] intention.  Sometimes it could open up many different things, more questions, until I could really define it and establish something that I was really happy with.”

Next, choreographers need to be able to work with dancers; so, how to communicate, how to lead, how to embrace their dancers’ own embodied knowledge is important.

Choreographers and Leadership

Budding choreographers need to ask themselves, as Peggy Olislaegers puts it, “what kind of leadership is it what I would like to embrace.”

“You co-create with the performing artists in front of you, so that happens more and more in dance, but the core thing is, there’s just one author.

“First of all, it’s crucial that as a choreographer you are able to really see a proposal and then take a proposal further; if the co-creation is a dancer using his or her body knowledge, you as a choreographer seeing that, taking it further, that’s for the dancer beautiful because then the dancer is challenged to use that which is already there, to take it into different directions.”

That kind of communication does not come naturally. English National Ballet (ENB) First Artist, Stina Quagebeur “started creating solos based on things that I had seen in the theatre by the time I was 7,” and has kept choreographing throughout her dance career.

Stina Quagebeur in Akram Khan’s Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo

Stina is currently working with ENB colleagues on arguably her most significant commission to date: the one-act ballet Nora, inspired by Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, to be performed in the Spring.

“In the first couple of years I had to learn how to communicate with the dancers. You might have a great idea in your head but you need the skill to be able to explain it to a group of dancers. (…) The most interesting time in the studio is once you have created the bulk of movement vocabulary. Then you have to start assembling it in the right order and that’s when it becomes narrative.”

Luke Ahmet puts the relationship between choreographer and dancers this way:

“Giving some of the power back to the dancers,  not just being a tool, really allowed me to explore my choreographic style.”

So, a lot to take in for those hopeful young choreographers; but they are doing it at an exciting time, a time when, says Peggy Olislaegers, there is a fertile dialogue in both ballet and contemporary companies about where dance goes next.

“I think people are reflecting a lot upon the variety of dance languages that dancers seem to connect to more and more, I think we talk a lot about the competences in order to be co-creative with the choreographer, I think we talk a lot about a variety of body types on stage, a lot of questions are there. Each company is embracing that in a different way, which is good.”

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by Teresa Guerreiro

The Two Faces of English National Ballet

ENB, Tamara Rojo as Frida Khalo in Broken Wings, photo Laurent Liotardo

With English National Ballet mired in allegations of unacceptable workplace practices, Ballet Position goes behind the scenes to find out more

Over the past five years English National Ballet (ENB) has burnished its public image to a peak of gloss and glamour. The company is dancing with verve and assurance, and the visionary and bold programming developed by its Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo, has won her a loyal following, plaudits and honours, including a CBE for Services to Dance.

The public success of the company is a given, something that its staff recognise and appreciate. It comes at what price, though?

Scratch the surface and a very different image begins to take shape. It’s not pretty, glossy or glamourous. The word that best describes the climate inside ENB today is “toxic.”

Fear and Intimidation

In an article published on 27 January The Times lifted a small corner of the veil to expose an alleged culture of fear and intimidation at the company.

Rumours of bad human relations and plummeting morale had been circulating for years, seemingly validated by a staggeringly high turnover of staff year after year. “I have never seen brand new people come into a company and within two years leaving at the rate they are now,” a seasoned observer told Ballet Position.

Fifteen dancers left the company last summer alone.

And yet the The Times report was the first time allegations of unacceptable managerial conduct in the company came out into the open.

Ballet Position wondered why. Why have people with compelling stories to tell not spoken out before? Or sought redress in-house?

We talked to twelve ENB dancers past and present, as well as support staff, and had sight of relevant documents. And the answer we consistently got was “fear.”

“I’ve been wanting to talk about this for so long, but was so afraid,” said one.

It is hard to comprehend, let alone describe, the palpable sense of fear common to the sources we approached on a strictly confidential basis.

Think about it: fear, all-pervasive and paralysing… in a publicly subsidised company… in 21st century Britain…

Equally striking was the eagerness with which accounts that had been churning inside came pouring out once people had been assured of absolute confidentiality. Striking too, that as they spoke to Ballet Position and relived their time at ENB, many of those who are no longer there still broke down and cried.

“I was so depressed, I still cry remembering it,” said one former dancer.

“I am so glad it’s all coming out at last,” said another, a sentiment echoed by most of those we spoke to.

Destabilising Behaviour

The stories we heard were remarkably consistent. They told of a style of management that relies on bullying, psychological pressure, rudeness, public humiliation and “an absolute lack of empathy.”

These allegations are laid firmly at the door of the Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo – described as someone with “no people management skills” – and the Assistant Artistic Director, Loipa Araújo.

Their behaviour is described as “entirely destabilising.”

“Tamara comes into the studio and the atmosphere immediately changes: you don’t know whether she’s going to start screaming or give us the absolute silent treatment.”

“Surely it can’t be right to stop a rehearsal, or class, single out one person and tear that person apart in front of everybody else.”

To a dancer mid-class: “Look at you! What the f*ck have you been doing?”

Displease the AD or AAD and you become a non-person, totally ignored in class and rehearsal.

“I don’t think Loipa ever addressed a single word to me; no corrections in class – nothing.”

The psychological effect of this kind of treatment is profound: “traumatised” is the word used by more than one of our sources.

Then there is the pressure to dance even if injured. Told by the Artistic Director that asking for more recovery time after a serious and extremely painful illness revealed “lack of commitment to the company” one dancer told us “I felt I had to hide my condition… I danced out of fear.”

And there are consistent reports that the advice provided by in-house medical staff has been simply ignored or overridden.

If someone falls out of favour, we’re told, their life is made so miserable they end up leaving; some
abandoning the profession altogether.

“I didn’t finish my career the way I would have liked,” a former ENB dancer, who resigned when the psychological pressure became unbearable, told us. “I knew I had to stop dancing some day, but I felt I had another three or four years of dancing in me.”

Decisions that affect the lives of dancers are described as capricious and arbitrary. One older dancer was granted a restricted amount of unpaid leave to pursue interests that would help him develop a post-dancing career; only to be told at the last minute it wasn’t possible after all.

He, too, resigned; but because he fought his corner all the way, now he’s not even allowed in the building.

Roles are given and then taken away with no explanation. One day you’re told you’ll be doing a solo, only to hear the next day you are second cast corps after all.

Feedback “is non-existent or entirely negative,” sometimes given mid-performance.

The result is that dancers’ confidence is totally shattered. “I was constantly told I wasn’t good enough, but had no feedback to improve. I ended up on anti-depressants.”

And this from another dancer who used to enjoy performing: “I don’t want to be on stage terrified that something is going to go wrong.”

Conflict of Interests

Then there is the personal relationship between Ms Rojo and one of her subordinates, Lead Principal Isaac Hernández.

Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernández
Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernández

 Personal relationships between managers and their direct subordinates are problematic at the best of times, bordering on the unprofessional and unethical.

This is so when they are conducted discreetly; it’s even more so when they are flaunted, as is the case with the Rojo/Hernández liaison. We have reason to believe Ms Rojo is fully aware of the conflict of interests involved; and yet we’re told Mr Hernández’s has become “cocky,” and shows off his special status by, for example, rolling in late for class and leaving early; or sitting in to observe the women’s class for no apparent reason.

“It makes people feel very uncomfortable,” we were told. And his presence “stops dancers talking freely among themselves.”

”He’s like a second pair of eyes ready to report back” to the AD.

That Mr Hernández is brought into the Spanish language huddle of Tamara Rojo and Cuba’s Loipa Araújo, in which non-Spanish speaking dancers naturally have no part, contributes to the sense of exclusion and mistrust, which now seems to afflict a considerable section of the company.

“I Felt Completely Alone”

Tamara Rojo and Loipa Araújo are not working in a vacuum, though. English National Ballet has an Executive Director, currently Patrick Harrison, and a Board of Trustees, currently headed by Justin Bickle. It is recognised by the stage trades union Equity, under whose rules it should operate. It is also a recipient of considerable public subsidy in the form of annual Arts Council grants.

Oh, and there is an in-house Human Resources (HR) department…

Were none of them aware of these problems? We’re told the dancers fill in annual anonymous “employment satisfaction forms” and certainly last year many used them to make their grievances abundantly clear. To no avail, it seems.

The view among some of our sources is that Equity is ineffectual. So, having been unable to get the Ballet Rep to answer our repeated phone calls, we emailed Equity’s Press Office a series of detailed questions. We received the following statement:

“We are currently working with our members to resolve a number of issues at the ENB, but those discussions are confidential. We have not got any further comment to make at this time.”

Good enough?

As for the Arts Council, which subsidises ENB to the tune of £6.2 million per year, a spokesperson told us it “was not aware of any allegations of improper behaviour in relation to ENB,” prior to The Times article, but added:

“…ensuring that staff, audiences and participants are able to work and experience arts and culture in a safe and secure environment must be of paramount importance to arts and cultural organisations.”

However, having been prompted by the report in The Times to seek a meeting between senior Arts Council and ENB members, the statement goes on, “we are satisfied that ENB has appropriate policies and processes in place to handle grievances, complaints and conflicts of interest, and that it takes its responsibilities in this regard very seriously and have not asked them to investigate beyond the actions it is already taking.”

ENB – What Now?

So, back to ENB.

Ballet Position sent two lists of detailed questions to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Justin Bickle, and the Executive Director, Patrick Harrison, via the ENB Head of Press.

Among our questions: were they were aware of the allegations of a climate of fear and intimidation at the company as a direct result of the AD and ADD’s style of management; and what action did they propose to take to deal with these serious problems?

We received a statement that does not directly answer any of our questions. After stressing the company’s artistic success over the past five years, the ENB statement notes the introduction of

“significantly increased medical provisions and clearer and more generous reporting lines for
dancers and more training for their managers.”

We are unclear as to the meaning of “clearer and more generous reporting lines.” Furthermore, all our sources are unaware of any improvements in management as a result of “more training.”

The statement goes on to say, “We are committed to providing a safe environment, free of harassment and bullying of any sort, and we respond to any specific concerns that are raised.

“We have well-established staff policies addressing whistleblowing, safeguarding, grievance, bullying and harassment, and conflict of interest.”

Ballet Position remains unclear as to what those policies are; and wonders why they appear not to have been implemented.

The statement concludes: “…we will continue to work with our recognised unions, board and staff to ensure feedback is listened to and any concerns are addressed. 

“We are open-minded about finding the most effective ways for staff to raise concerns, and a series of meetings are planned with all staff and dancers now the company is back from its mid-season break.”

A Cry For Help

Here’s the thing, though: staff have raised concerns anonymously in the “employment satisfaction forms” and told us they saw no results, no improvements.

In the present climate of fear, for an individual to follow the company grievance procedure is seen as career suicide. “You will find yourself before the AD, stating a grievance against her…”

Our sources told us they do not trust the company to hear their grievances in good faith and act on them. Nobody trusts HR to act as an impartial arbiter between management and staff.

Talking to the press, then, is a last resort, a cry for help – because there’s only so long you can go on dancing on the edge of fear.

by Teresa Guerreiro

Irek Mukhamedov - A Life Renewed

Irek Mukhamedov and Viviana Durante in MacMIlan's Manon, The Royal Ballet, photo ROH

As the stage lures him back once again, Irek Mukhamedov talks to Ballet Position about “performing, acting, interacting, being alive.”  

A dancer’s career is cruelly short. Actors can act into their 80s (look at Maggie Smith, Judi Dench), singers sing well into old age (Josephine Barstow currently hitting the top notes in the National Theatre’s production of Follies). Dancers, though? Theirs is the cruellest profession. And even years after leaving the theatre very few dancers ever stop craving the stage.

Irek Mukhamedov
Irek Mukhamedov

For 57-year-old Irek Mukhamedov, it’s “being on stage that’s actually quite rewarding; and it’s a kind of atmosphere, it’s a kind of the music, acting comes with the music and you live new life, maybe little bit renewed.”

We spoke in London at the end of a day when Mukhamedov had been coaching dancers at English National Ballet, where he is Guest Ballet Master. His modesty and courtesy are disconcerting in someone who reached the stratospheric heights of his career; his fluent, but accented English, peppered with the quirks of his Russian mother-tongue, is its own kind of music.

As well as coaching at ENB, Mukhamedov was preparing to return to the stage in a piece tailor-made for him by Arthur PIta for inclusion in the second iteration of Ivan Putrov’s Men in Motion, a showcase for male dancing.

“It’ll be a one man show approximately 10, 12 minutes, me on stage talking, a little bit of playing music, a little be of dancing. It’s a kind of old man remembering the past. (…)

“It’s based on classical, but I’m not the prince anymore.”

Mukhamedov – The Royal Ballet Years

What a prince among dancers he was in his heyday, though! When he joined the Royal Ballet in 1990, fresh out of the Bolshoi, he brought with him the breathtaking technique required for the heroic Soviet roles in which he’d been typecast; but London added further depth to his dancing.

“I can act. I thought I could be romantic, but coming to Royal and working with Kenneth [MacMillan] on his ballets, it actually opens up even more, to become even more romantic, I understood even better Giselle after that, so I became even more dramatic, became real actor.”

Kenneth MacMillan immediately spotted his potential. The very year he arrived at the Royal Ballet, MacMillan created a pas-de-deux for Mukhamedov and another of the choreographer’s favourite dancers, Darcey Bussell, to mark the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday.

That was the genesis of Winter Dreams, MacMillan’s take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell in MacMillan's Winter Dreams, photo ROH
Irek Mukhamedov and Darcey Bussell in MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, photo ROH, Leslie Spatt

There’s a general consensus that Mukhamedov was the perfect vehicle for Kenneth MacMillan’s ballets, in particular his darkest, most complex works, where depths of human behaviour were plumbed in roles such Mayerling’s unhinged, drug-addicted, mother-fixated Habsburg Prince Rudolf, whose life would end tragically in a murder-suicide pact. Rudolf is Mukhamedov’s favourite MacMillan role.

“It’s so demanding, demanding from beginning to end, and you had to be Rudolf, you cannot be yourself even one second, even in interval, you have to be continuing with Rudolf, otherwise you lose the plot, you lose the momentum, you lose that growing role – the role grows from beginning to the end. If you switch off, it’s very difficult to come back.”

Irek Muhammed and Viviana Durante in MacMillan's Mayerling, The Royal Ballet
Irek Muhammed and Viviana Durante in MacMillan’s Mayerling, The Royal Ballet, photo ROH

Mayerling predates Mukhamedov’s arrival at the Royal, but one role that was created on him was that of the Foreman in MacMillan’s last – and most controversial – ballet, The Judas Tree. I wanted to hear Mukhamedov’s take on the piece and on the controversy itself.

“We talked to Viviana Durante, this work was created on both of us (…) when it was created we never ever went into a situation, ‘oh, because it’s rape we have to think about it.’ No.

“It was just simply telling the story, telling the story of one of the evenings, and the boys from a working site are enjoying themselves and this is the girl that destroyed all, but at the same time she had to be destroyed too. But she’s still alive! So, that’s kind of idea (…) and of course it’s a Kenneth MacMillan, we didn’t say, ‘well, we’re doing Romantic ballet’”.

Interviewed about The Judas Tree when first asked to dance The Foreman a few years back, Carlos Acosta said, “it messes with your head!” Did it mess with Mukhamedov’s head, I wondered?

“No, not really, it’s not messed, it’s just you go into the role, into the character. It’s very difficult afterwards to smile immediately, I can only be back to myself by next morning. With Prince Rudolf, that took even longer, because there’s even deeper to go.”

Mukhamedov – After the Royal

Mukhamedov was let go by the Royal Ballet in a staggeringly ungracious way in 2001. He seems not to bear grudges, though, and has returned to coach the current crop of Royal Principals, most recently for the programmes marking the 25th anniversary of MacMillan’s premature death backstage, while Mukhamedov was dancing Rudolf.

Equally, he’s back coaching at ENB, even though his full time association with the company ended in the summer.

In the studio I’m told Mukhamedov is a very hard taskmaster towards both dancers and pianist. Is that true?

He laughs. “Well, this comes with the job. We can be a little bit relaxed, but when we do, we have to do, otherwise the body will never remember. The mind will understand probably, but the body must remember!”

"A hard task master" - Mukhamedov in the studio with ENB's Cesar Corrales
“A hard task master” – Mukhamedov in the studio with ENB’s Cesar Corrales

There is perhaps one grudge he bears. After his abrupt and rather acrimonious departure from the Bolshoi, amid the upheaval caused by the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he never went back.

“I think Russians are hard people, they probably ‘knew,’ like I ‘knew’ when Rudolf [Nureyev] left, I learned afterwards he is actually traitor, he defected, he betrayed our country, so probably the rest of the people think, me too, I’m a traitor, I betrayed the country and everything. But in the end we continued [carrying] the Russian flag of ballet up high, not hating Russia.”

Nor was he asked back. As he is keen to point out, when they left the Soviet Union his wife Masha was pregnant with their daughter, Sasha. So, Mukhamedov’s own family started in the UK.

Asked about Sasha Mukhamedov, now a Principal with Dutch National Ballet, he tries (and fails) to sound as though he’s not bursting with pride…

“I’m very happy for her success and her progress whatever she’s doing. A lot of things is in the genes. She’s just done Mata Hari, (…) she was very good acting, technician, dancer and all this, so it’s good.”

There’s also a son, now 21, being coached by his mother in her private teaching studio in France, where the Mukhamedovs now reside.

Mukhamedov – The Future

So, after an illustrious dancing career, and spells as Artistic Director in Greece and Slovenia, as well as the occasional return to the stage, what’s next for Irek Mukhamedov?

“So far I’m freelance, I’m enjoying myself, I’m travelling a lot. I started as a freelance from August, so I’ve been in Uruguay, I’ve been in Korea, I’ve been with the Royal Ballet and now ENB.”

Next it’s Amsterdam, where he’s looking forward to seeing his daughter. Any thoughts of retirement?

“No, no, no, no way!… I don’t know, [only] if somebody eventually say, I don’t need you anymore…”

They’d be fools to…

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by Teresa Guerreiro

Men in Motion is at the London Coliseum on 22nd and 23rd November at 19:30

Laurretta Summerscales: becoming Juliet…

Laurretta Summerscales in English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, photo Laurent Liotardo

ENB Principal Laurretta Summerscales talks to Ballet Position about her favourite roles and the current  phase in the company’s history.

Juliet is one of Lauretta Summerscales’ favourite roles. Juliet, that is, in the Rudolf Nureyev production of the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet. Nureyev’s 1977 ballet on Prokofiev’s complete score is the version danced by Laurretta’s home company, English National Ballet, for whose predecessor, London Festival Ballet, Nureyev created the work.

“Oh, I love Juliet!” she exclaims, and her face, already animated throughout our lengthy conversation, lights up further. “This is the only version of Romeo and Juliet I absolutely love.”

Nureyev himself described his Juliet as “passionate, willing and more mature than [Romeo] is.”

Lauretta: “You can see the transition as she turns into a woman – she realises what she wants and then she’s put into a situation where she has to choose between two sides, but she loves them both, doesn’t understand it. She’s, like, caught in a trap.

“I see her as a very strong character, so that’s why I can act her quite easily because she’s strong, even though she’s not toughened, harsh; but she knows what she wants and she’s very strong against everybody.”

Judged by many to be the balletic version of Romeo and Juliet closest to Shakespeare’s original, Nureyev’s ballet doesn’t stint on the bawdiness and violence that characterised Renaissance Verona. And he introduces some changes that intensify the dramatic effect.

“This is the only version (…) where she actually sees Tybalt dead. In all the other versions that I have seen you never have the chance to show the audience your emotions, what you go through!

“You have seen Tybalt dead and you have love for him and you have love for [Romeo] different types of love… this complete torture of two sides… and also you have a go at him saying, “how dare you do this?” and at the same time you love him.”

Throughout, though, and this seems to be the clincher for Lauretta Summerscales, “she’s quite calculating, thinking about things, thinking about “should I, shouldn’t I?” she’s scared, but you can see that she hasn’t lost control.”

Laurretta Summerscales
Laurretta Summerscales

As she gestures to signify her enthusiasm for this role, the tell-tale sparkle of diamonds flashes from the ring finger of her left hand. She is engaged to fellow Principal Yonah Acosta, with the wedding booked for the very first day of their summer holiday, post Romeo and Juliet.

The natural question, then, is, would she like to establish a regular stage partnership with her life partner?

“It would be great to do Swanilda and Franz [in Coppelia] because there’s a bit of feistiness, and we’re like that naturally, so I would love something like that because I would just have so much fun with him on stage.”

‘Feisty’ is definitely one word you would associate with Laurretta. It’s also a word that applies very much to ENB’s Director since 2012, Tamara Rojo. Does that create problems?

“I find we’re both quite feisty. I think it’s more because I’m pushy and I think I annoy her sometimes, which is understandable.

“It’s difficult, because as a dancer you don’t want to be seen that you’re laid back or that you’re super confident and you expect everything. I always want to show that I am always wanting more, I don’t want anybody to see me as big-headed (…)

“So, I never want her to think badly of me, so sometimes I’m like, ‘Im here, just to let you know.’  I’ll bet she’s gonna say, ‘go away, leave me alone.’  I don’t know that for sure, but that’s the impression.”

Big-headed is definitely not the impression Laurretta Summerscales gives. On the contrary, with her open smile and willingness to engage, she comes across as disarmingly unpretentious. Strong-willed, though; and intent on widening the range of her roles.

Brought into the company after only two years in the English National Ballet School, her progress up the ranks has been fairly swift, and promotion to Principal came, aged 25, in January 2016.

A strong dancer with a powerful jump, and appearing taller on stage than she is in real life (at 5ft 4 or 1.62 m she’s well within a female dancer’s average), she has tended to be typecast as, say, Medora in Le Corsaire, Odille rather than Odette, Myrtha rather than Giselle.

And yet, she gave a good account of Giselle in her debut in the role last Winter.

Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales as Giselle, photo Laurent Liotardo

“I want to be able to be versatile and feel I can bring a bit of this, a bit of that, I’m not in a box. I don’t like to be in a box, I have this thing, ‘no! no box!’” (Laughs)

Versatility has to be the name of the game under Tamara Rojo’s ambitious plans for English National Ballet. The company’s repertoire now includes work by contemporary choreographers such as Akram Khan, Russel Maliphant, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and China’s Yabin Wang, in whose complex reading of the Medea myth, M-Dao, Laurretta starred.

Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo
Laurretta Summerscales in M-Dao by Yabin Wang, photo Laurent Liotardo

Another coup for Rojo was the acquisition of MacMillan’s seminal work, Song of the Earth, choreographed on Mahler’s haunting Das Lied von der Erde, where Laurretta would be eager to dance the central role of The Woman – though she has no idea yet whether that’ll come to pass.

There is actually a lot ENB dancers don’t know about Rojo’s overall plan for the company.

“I understand she wants to push the company up there, to be different, to grab people’s attention, but what her plans are for the future, like what ballets and stuff, no. We may have an idea, rumours, there’s always rumours, but you never know because things do change like this” – she clicks her fingers – “so until you see it in black and white… but that won’t be shown to you until literally a month before.”

Laurretta is understandably reluctant to be drawn on internal company politics; but pushed about the Director’s accessibility to ideas or even suggestion from below, she will say this:

“When she’s a dancer, in dancer mode, you can talk very freely, but when she’s a director it’s a very different dynamic.”

She is much happier talking about her ambitions for the future, the roles she’s got her eye on beside that of The Woman in Song of the Earth:

“Definitely La Bayadère, I’d love to do both Nikiya and Gamzatti, but I absolutely love Gamzatti, especially the last solo – it’s really difficult in the red dress, it’s beautiful!

Don Q, for sure – I feel like I can really just explode on stage. Elite Syncopations I’ve always liked because of Darcey Bussell.

“And the last one that I’d like to do is Sleeping Beauty. The Act II solo – I like the challenge, it’s such a long solo, it needs so much control…”

More immediately, Laurretta Summerscales is reprising the role of Juliet during ENB’s forthcoming stint at London’s Royal Festival Hall; and then, of course, there is the small matter of her own love story to attend to come the first day of the summer holiday and her wedding to Yonah Acosta.

by Teresa Guerreiro

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ENB dance Romeo and Juliet at the RFH, 1 – 5 August 2017. Laurretta Summerscales dances Juliet with Paris Opera’s Josua Hoffalt as Romeo on 4 August at 19:30

Dominique Mercy and Life After Pina Bausch

Dominique Mercy photo Bettina Stöß

Dominique Mercy, veteran of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, talks to BalletPosition about her legacy and plans for the company’s future.

Dominique Mercy is an extremely engaging man, whose easy smile always starts in his pale blue eyes. A dancer all his life – he is now in his mid-60s – his soft-spoken words, where his native French blends seamlessly with a light German accent, are complemented by a graceful and animated body language.

As a dancer, he was mesmerising.

He has much to be proud of. He was a key member of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch for most of his career, except for a brief hiatus in the mid-1970s; French-born, he is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and was awarded one of France’s highest honours, the Légion d’honneur, in 2013.

And in 2002 he received a New York Dance and Performance Award, a Bessie, for his role in Masurca Fogo, a piece inspired by the sunny cross-cultural mixture of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon.

And yet Dominique Mercy is remarkably modest and unassuming. Asked about his Bessie, he laughs shyly.

“I didn’t expect it. Pina and the company had already won; and unexpectedly I suddenly heard that I had this award, specifically for the second solo I had in the piece, which is a solo I like very much.

“It was the first one for which Pina asked me to do something on a specific music. (…) Normally everybody just got busy with his own material and tried to construct something and then finally when she agrees or after she worked with it, then we look for the music.

“But because in the piece before I had done a solo with the same singer – it’s a fado – and she knew I liked very much this singer, she gave me this piece of music to do something.”

Very early into our conversation, there comes over me the palpable sense of another presence in the room. Pina is there, invoked again and again, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with profound sadness, sometimes even in the present tense.

I begin to understand why the French magazine Paris Match once described Mercy’s mission as “to perpetuate the soul of Pina Bausch.”

Life After Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch photo W. Krüger Pina Bausch Foundation
Pina Bausch photo W. Krüger Pina Bausch Foundation

Pina Bausch’s untimely death in June 2009 left the company without its founder, choreographer and leading light.

And what has gradually become clear is that deprived of her strong personality and unwavering direction, the company felt rudderless. Orphaned.  So they just huddled together.

“I think it was very important for us as a company to keep together taking care of what she left us.”

Once the the initial shock had been overcome, Mercy and Robert Sturm, another company stalwart, where appointed co-directors, charged with keeping a company still in the grip of unspeakable grief going – somehow.

Almost immediately they were submerged in an avalanche of requests from companies all over the world to perform works which Pina Bausch had so jealously kept within the confines of Tanztheater Wuppertal and her own control.

“It was an invasion of demands and we really first put off everything because it was for us just unthinkable [to say], ‘OK Pina is gone, let’s just spread the work around the world.’

In Pina Bausch’s lifetime only one company had performed a work created by her for Tanztheater Wuppertal, when Paris Opera Ballet were granted permission to stage her seminal work, The Rite of Spring.

Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring

Tanztheatre Wupertal, The Rite of Spring photo L. Philippe
Tanztheatre Wupertal, The Rite of Spring photo L. Philippe

It happened because Pina had formed a relationship of trust with the then Director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Brigitte Lefèvre, who had twice invited Tanztheater Wuppertal to perform at the Garnier.

“When she was asked to do it the first time in 96/7, because she liked this house she was pleased and honoured with the idea to try to do a piece with another company; and so we did this and [Paris Opera Ballet] stayed the only company for a long time.

“In fact we almost did it with another company with Pina (…) but she got really anxious and decided not to do it because she was afraid there wasn’t a lot of time nor really what she thought she needed to achieve the work.

“I think this experience made her not want to… because she’s been asked quite often and also with other pieces, and she wouldn’t say ‘No,’ but she wouldn’t say ‘Yes’ somehow.”

Life goes on, though; and in March this year English National Ballet (ENB) become the second company to perform Pina Bausch’s 1975 Rite, considered by many the definitive reading of Stravinsky’s masterpiece.

It’s performed on a stage covered in soil; and Dominique Mercy has danced in it often.

“It’s a real experience when you sit out there looking at it, but it is a real experience when you dance it – I tell you!

“It’s really telluric and so strong, so emotional and also the fact that it happens on this earth with this physicality, it’s quite amazing because we’re all there and have this increasing energy – it’s just amazing!

“So, for me as a dancer I think it was the strongest. (…) There is a very specific choreography with a pattern (…) but there is something which is so naturally a match with the music, with this sort of ritualisation between those young men and women, there is something which is so obvious somehow, which just gets you, whether you’re out looking at it or dancing it.”

Now that the company is beginning to let go a little, Mercy is looking forward to ENB’s performance.

“I think it’s beautiful to have the possibility to see such good companies do Sacre [Rite] in their own way. It’s the same piece, but I think they have their own way to do it.”

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: The Future

And so we move on to the future of Tanztheater Wuppertal. For the past seven years it’s become a faithful repository of Pina Bausch’s body of work, touring almost incessantly in a continual ritual of remembrance.

Now, however, there are signs that the extended period of mourning is over and the company is about to enter an exciting new phase.

For one thing, a new Director from outside the company has been appointed: Adolphe Binder, formerly Artistic Director of Göteborg Ballet.

Eager young dancers are being phased in all the time.

And the company is about to take up residency in Wuppertal’s main theatre, the Schauspielhaus.

“It has been closed now for many years, and there was a big political conflict about this house, which is a beautiful house; [but] finally [the civic authorities] agreed to make this house an International Pina Bausch Dance Centre.

“So, of course, that will be a place for us, but also to invite eventually a company-in-residence or to have a creative process, with the [Pina Bausch] Foundation being involved.

“So, we needed a person who would be able to lead the company, but also to have an overview of where everything goes, and also to have enough knowledge and interest to invite new choreographers for the company.”

For Dominique Mercy, though, there is still the need if not “to perpetuate the soul of Pina Bausch” – he says with characteristic modesty he doesn’t want to sound pretentious! – at the very least “to keep her work alive.”

You sense Pina Bausch would approve.

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Teresa Guerreiro                                                 

ENB’s Rite of Spring is at Sadler’s Wells 23rd March to 1st April.

Susan Robinson: For the “Pure Love of Dance”

ENB principal Laurretta Summerscales, Alumna of the Susan Robinson School, photo Laurent Liotard

Susan Robinson, ballet teacher extraordinaire, on how she transmits her “pure passion for the art” to successive generations of dancers.

On the last night of English National Ballet’s London Christmas season, Laurretta Summerscales received a rapturous ovation for her sparkling portrayal of the slave girl Medora, a lead role, in Le Corsaire.

Better was to yet come, when the ENB’s Artistic Director strode onto the stage, microphone in hand, to make a very special announcement: Laurretta Summerscales was being promoted to company principal with immediate effect.

The news was received with jubilation in the London Coliseum and beyond, perhaps nowhere more so than in a quiet corner of leafy Surrey, in the home of Laurretta’s first ballet teacher, Susan Robinson.

“She was driven,” Susan recalls of the young Laurretta, who started coming to her school as a six-year-old.

“We used to have an exercise, eight sautés, and it had to be in canon in fours. She was not a jumper, and she got her knickers in a twist about this. But later her mother told me at three in the morning she went into her parents’ bedroom and said, ‘I can do it now.’

This “passion for the art” is what Susan looks for when children first come to her. That and, of course, musicality, “being at ease with the music.” 

Lauretta again: “In her first class one of my pianists said, ‘oh, she’s very musical this little girl.’

We talked in her cosy living room in Byfleet early one Friday afternoon, before she started a full schedule of classes in the Methodist Hall, the biggest of her three studios, just a stone’s throw away.

Small CloughieWe did so under the watchful eye of Cloughie, her splendid ginger tom, named after the quasi-mythical manager of Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough.

Susan is a die-hard Forest fan and proudly points to the club shirt she’s wearing.

With Susan Robinson,  an irrepressible and extraordinarily vital character, surprise follows surprise follows surprise…

 

Teaching came to her almost by accident, when her dancing career in Germany was cut short for family reasons.  Back in Britain, a tentative start as a freelance teacher awakened a semi-hidden vocation.

“I received quite a few compliments and I thought, “well, I think I can do this.”

Just to make sure, she consulted Barbara Fewster, whom she describes as “an amazing teacher,” whose opinion she absolutely respected.

“She said to me, ‘go and find a place where there isn’t any recognised ballet school, and maybe you’ll find some stars for us.’  But she said, ‘I doubt it, because talent is very very rare.’

So Susan Robinson found a niche in Byfleet, where just over 40 years ago she started her school with two students and now has around 280 in what’s widely acknowledged as one of the top non-vocational schools in the UK.

That she is a natural teacher became absolutely clear as I watched her first class of the day for six and seven-year-olds.

teaching small

“There’s a right way of doing it and there’s a wrong way. Just the small things: making sure their hair is in a bun, making sure that they’re not scruffy…There’s a rule and we’ll have fun, but you don’t step over that because otherwise what’s the point?”

She feels it’s important, too, that beyond learning the technique children are able to express themselves and acquire a feel for the stage.

“My idea is that they come off the streets, we try to give them a sense of performance – we have a biennial show, and I do take a small performing group and we do lots of charity work; and so the children have the opportunity of me putting up a cameo role that suits their personality, brings out their best and gives them the confidence.

Class was a mixture of fun and discipline, and her 14 little pupils were engrossed throughout.

Montage Monday

She teaches the standard syllabus; but beyond that, “when they are eight or nine I yank them out for another class which is non-syllabus and it’s my idea of what training a classical dancer needs to be”

It works. Nowadays, when visiting companies need children for productions in London they come to the Susan Robinson School.

It’s been like that since the time, many years ago now, when Moscow’s Bolshoi first came calling:

“They wanted an open audition for children to be in The Sleeping Beauty, and we went up to the old Studio Centre and the Russian Ballet Mistress was there. Our school uniform is navy blue with a pink belt, and I think it was my proudest moment when she said, ‘if you do not have navy blue leotard with a pink belt, please leave.’

She laughs with pure pleasure. And adds: “so, we had 12 dancers in and of those four went on to become professional dancers.”

Natalie Dodd, photo c/o Mark Bruce Company
Natalie Dodd, photo c/o Mark Bruce Company.

Students leave the Susan Robinson school at 16, and if they want to pursue a dancing career must then enrol in a vocational establishment.

The roll call of her alumni dancing professionally is impressive indeed.

With the school offering jazz, tap and contemporary dance classes as well as classical ballet, the students’ options  are quite open.

Susan Robinson alumna Natalie Dodd – “she’s a very tall girl, beautiful!” – has just joined the Mark Bruce Company as an apprentice and is dancing in its high octane The Odyssey, currently touring the UK.

 

 

Hannah Bateman, another “old girl,” is a Leading Soloist with Northern Ballet – but only because she had the grit and determination Susan so admires.

Hannah Bateman as La Fèe Luminaire in Beauty and the Beast, photo Bill Cooper
Hannah Bateman as La Fée Luminaire in Beauty and the Beast, photo Bill Cooper

“Hannah was in a state school and they interviewed her for a future career and she said, ‘I want to be a ballet dancer.’ And they said, ‘oh don’t be ridiculous, Hannah, we think you’re quite handy with your hands, perhaps you could be a plumber.’”

She still laughs heartily at the memory. In fact, Susan Robinson laughs often, be it for sheer joy or simple mischief.

Miss Hope

She keeps an iron grip on her school, her life’s work. She trains her own teachers: “they’re old girls.”

When I visited, Hope Roberts was going through the first stages of her training with “Miss Susan,” which she will complement with a recognised teacher’s training diploma.

Hope trod the boards with the Bolshoi as one of the child extras in the Russian company’s The Sleeping Beauty, but decided teaching was her calling.

Obviously, not all of Susan Robinson’s pupils go on to become dancers or teachers. Still,

“I always say, if you never dance a step, it’s not wasted, because you’ve been with like-minded girls and boys, you come through puberty in a very healthy way and just get on with life. And I think the camaraderie that the girls have, the friendship they’ve spawned, they’ve kept.

“I like that about them, because they’re nice human beings and it really matters not whether they danced or not. With us here they did dance, and they danced with joy.”

Susan Robinson personifies the joy of teaching. She has a second studio next to the Methodist Hall, and as well she had a smaller one build in her own back yard, in what was once a garage and subsequently a vegetable patch.

“When I’m in my 80s perhaps I’ll be able to take a private lesson or coaching here and dodder around on a stick.”

Perhaps; but at the end of an inspiring afternoon, the image of Susan Robinson doddering around on a stick is really quite impossible to conjure up…

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