Rambert2 - Carving New Paths in UK Dance

Rambert2 photo Johan Persson

As Rambert puts the final touches to its exciting new project, Ballet Position talks to the three masterminds behind Rambert2

The words “Rambert” and ”pioneering” have a habit of going together. Rambert is the UK’s oldest dance company, having given its first performances in 1926.

Now Rambert is about to unveil another first: Rambert2, the first junior company attached to a UK repertoire company. And as if that wasn’t enough, this will the be first junior company anywhere to have an MA in Professional Dance Performance as an integral part of its programme.

Rambert2 will bring together 10 young dancers from around the world for one year, during which they will tour extensively, engage with schoolchildren and work towards their post-graduate degree.

The idea for a kind of transition stage between school and a fully professional dancer’s life had been in the air for a while; but shaping it into Rambert2 was the work of three people: Amanda Britton, Principal and Artistic Director of Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance; Helen Shute, Rambert Chief Executive/Executive Producer; and Mark Baldwin, Artistic Director of Rambert and Rambert2.

Amanda Britton, photo Rambert School; Helen Shute, photo Agata Stwora; Mark Baldwin, photo Christ Nash
Amanda Britton, photo Rambert School; Helen Shute, photo Agata Stwora; Mark Baldwin, photo Chris Nash

In her office on the first floor of the bustling Rambert School, sited in an old vicarage in the leafy outskirts of London, Amanda Britton professes herself “excited” at the new project and “confident” in its success.

“Mark Baldwin and I, we danced together in Rambert for many years, (…) so we know each other well, we work together very well and for a number of years we’ve been working on (…) projects to bring Rambert and Rambert School closer together.

“He does take graduates from the school from time to time, and so he understands the leap they need to make to get from third year to Rambert company.”

That “leap” is more than just one of technical proficiency. All three masterminds of Rambert2 stressed the importance of thinking dancers, who are, in the words of Mark Baldwin, “mentally agile”:

“In my day we flounced in, put our hands on our hips and said, ‘what’s this all about, then?’ and then did it. Now they really are co-creators (…) Now the choreographers explain a lot more what they need, what they want.

“It’s a different kind of task when you’re a co-creator (…) you’re involved in the concepts, in the musical concepts, how the score looks on the page, how it sounds,(…) how the choreographer wants you to tell a story or grapple with abstract ideas, (…) those things are very mixed today, so it’s a bit more complex.”

Rambert2 – the Academic Component

The MA in Professional Dance Performance will be validated by Kent University; Amanda Britton wrote it.

“On paper there are five modules: three of them, including one very big chunky one in terms of its credits, are studio-based, performance-based, and two are theory-based. And there’s a dissertation module at the end. That can also be part-theory, part-practice.”

When not on tour, Rambert2 will share Rambert’s swanky premises on London’s south bank with its airy, state-of-the-art studios.

Rambert Studios, photo c/o Rambert
Rambert Studios, photo c/o Rambert

Rambert2 – The Financing

Rambert2 dancers will each be paid a bursary of £15,000, which is the net equivalent of the London Living Wage; the MA itself should set them back £3,000, but Rambert will absorb half of that, and Helen Shute says it may be possible to provide further support in cases of special need.

Organising finance for the project fell to Helen Shute, as Rambert Chief Executive. She calculated the box office potential and then approached the Linbury Trust, already one of Rambert’s financial backers. Once the Trust’s interest had been piqued, ‘it was a very easy decision for our board to move some of the Arts Council core funding into the project.”

The Arts Council grant involves a requirement for touring and outreach programmes. Rambert2 will tour the UK extensively, reaching, Helen Shute calculates, “25,000 more people every year” than Rambert currently does.

“They can tour where we can’t go because we’re too big,” says Mark Baldwin – Rambert comprises 20 dancers.

“They can do church halls, they can do school halls. My background is street theatre – I always think we should get out there in the street as well, in plimsoles or trainers, and so they’ll be able to do that.”

That’s because, Mark Baldwin notes,  Rambert2 won’t need all the high-tech props that the public expect of an established company like Rambert.

“We have loads of lights, we are the full experience; [Rambert2] will add to the experience, spread the word and open up the boundaries: it’ll stop the boundaries limiting what the company can and can’t do.”

Rambert2 – The Schools Programme

A key component of the work of Rambert2 will be in schools with children aged primarily 14, 15, 16-years-old. Not only will the young dancers be teaching exam-based workshops, but they will regularly perform Kamuyot, a work created by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin specifically for non-theatre spaces and teenage audiences.

Rambert2 will start work in July 2018 and launch at Sadler’s Wells in the Autumn with a programme of works by three carefully picked – and very diverse – choreographers: Spaniard Rafael Bonachela, Israeli Sharon Eyal, and former Alvin Ailey dancer Benoit-Swan Pouffer.

Rambert2 – Building on Rambert’s Diversity

Diversity is one of Mark Baldwin’s pet subjects. He is proud of Rambert’s inclusion of 41% black, Asian and minority ethnic dancers – “I think it should be more! “ – and says those choreographers answer all of Rambert2’s key requirements.

[Benoit-Swan Pouffer] is a black guy from Alvin Ailey who brings his embodied knowledge from his time with Alvin Ailey, and his background as a French black man to the table.

“Sharon Eyal worked in [Israel’s] Batsheva [Ensemble] with Ohad Naharin for all those years; her embodied knowledge is really what we’re talking about, the knowledge that the dancers are aware of from being students onwards.”

At the moment Rambert are being “inundated” with applications from all over the world: auditions will take place in February 2018. Naturally, Amanda Britton has high hopes for students from her own school, but she stresses,

“it’s going to be very international, it’s a completely open process. Many of our students want to audition, so I’m hoping some of them will get through, but we’ll have to see what the standard is.”

For now Rambert is assured of financing for three years. There’s an awareness that the current format is a pilot and subject to change; but Britton, Shute and Baldwin all feel the potential for success is there.

As Helen Shute puts it, “I think we’ve certainly laid the ground for something that has a huge future.”

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by Teresa Guerreiro

For more information see www.rambert.org.uk

 

Kim Brandstrup: The Marriage of Dance and Film

Kim Brandstrup photo Henrik Bjerregrav

Fresh from winning Britain’s National Dance Award for Best Modern Choreography, Kim Brandstrup discusses his love of dance and film.

Kim Brandstrup picks his words carefully. As carefully, in fact, as he lights upon the telling details that will bring his choreography to life.

It’s to do with his early training in, and continued love of film.

“My way of seeing is through a camera and probably I see close ups, how somebody attacks the music, where the gaze is, that slight hesitation before we move… All those little things are what I look out for.”

“Detail” is one word that recurs in our conversation, whether it focusses on dance and dancers, film, opera or theatre, where the Danish-born choreographer is in great demand.

We talk at London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theatre during a break in rehearsals for the stage adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, for which Kim Brandstrup is Movement Director.

That choreography award, then. It was for his reading of Schönberg’s Transfigured Night for Rambert, a piece which The Guardian described as “superbly constructed, inventively musical, beautiful and profoundly humane.”

And yet, Brandstrup hesitated before taking up the commission.

“I was slightly apprehensive about the music’s emotional expressivity, I thought it may be hard to match. There are so many layers in it…

“But then I always found when you give yourself to these masterpieces suddenly they yield something completely unexpected. And it certainly did.”

He was uncertain, too, about the 19th century poem that inspired Schönberg.

“This woman who’s pregnant but she is terrified of telling her partner that it’s another man’s [child], but miraculously this man totally forgives her. And of course, I can see that being a beautiful idea at that time, but now it seems a little bit idealised.

“I think my take on it was (…) to try to find out the cost of that narrative, that it must not have been easy to forget, there must have been lack of trust, unfaithfulness.”

His narrative is, therefore, ambiguous; or, more precisely, the end…

“… is not completely transfigured.”

This commission from Rambert Director Mark Baldwin was special for Brandstrup for another reason:

“For the past ten years I’ve been working almost exclusively with ballet dancers. There’s something in that re-encounter with contemporary dancers that made it possible. I thought it was interesting to explore this territory with a contemporary language.”

Contemporary dance is where Brandstrup first developed his unique choreography. He moved to London in the late 1970s to study dance after obtaining a film degree by the University of Copenhagen, and took class at The Place – “where at that time they had formidable teachers” – before setting up his own company, ARC, in the 1980s.

“At that particular time, 80s and 90s, narrative work in contemporary dance was practically non-existent (…) And I wanted to explore that. And, of course, all those narrative works were much more related to my film training. At that time it was only through having my own company that I could do those experiments.”

ARC Crime - Elegy - History
ARC                    Crime                                                           Elegy                                                                  History

A narrative thread runs through all of Brandstrup’s works.

“My way of watching dancers is always to say, where did they come from, where do they go now (…) Whatever somebody does will embody a kind of intent, and that’s what I’m sensitive to and what I look for – it’s that strange kind of poignancy and alertness of going or being on the move.”

“Coming out of the past and projecting into the future” through movement and stage presence, or “tridimensionality” as he calls it,  is what Brandstrup looks for in dancers. Favourite interpreters include Irek Muhamedov, Zenaida Yanowsky and Alina Cojucaru, on all of whom he’s created work. And since 2015 Sara Mearns, New York City Ballet principal.

A question about Mearns yields the first moment when words fail Brandstrup.

“ Well, Sara…. I just saw her…. and I mean, what can I say? …. She’s a theatrical being, who lives on stage; there’s a tridimensionality to her presence that is fantastic. And she’s fearless!”

They came together when Brandstrup was invited by the NYCB Artistic Director, fellow Dane Peter Martins, to choreograph Jeux on Debussy’s score.

Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, Sarah Mearns with Amar Ramasar photo Paul Kolnick NYCB
Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, Sara Mearns with Amar Ramasar, photo Paul Kolnick NYCB

“We think that Balanchine is the great purist of form, abstract, that it’s the technique and the music that guides it rather than the narrative; but, of course, what we sometimes forget is that they also have Robbins, and that made me think I could tap into that vein.

“I had a great time there and I was astonished at how quick they were. You had to step up your game; and they would give you something at the end of each period.

“You’d get half-an-hour for a solo, you’d get an hour for duets and you’d get, if you were lucky, an hour-and-a-half for full corps. But even at the end of half-an-hour calls somebody would perform something for you, so it made the whole process very quick and very playful.”

The dancers, too, relished the novel experience. Sara Mearns was quoted was saying she found the whole process “liberating:”

“We realised, we are out of our comfort zone, but we are really free. He is directing us, but he will let us go where we want with the movement.”

I’m beginning to get the essence of what makes a Kim Brandstrup work. A narrative thread. Powerful, though understated feeling expressed through movement, rather than “histrionics” (“if you start pulling faces, you really lose your audience”), immersion in the score. And, of course, “detail.”

That’s why he so enjoys working with the Danish Royal Ballet, for whom last Spring he created a full length work, Shaken Mirror (Rystet spejl) – his fifth for the company.

Shaken Mirror, Dancers Sebastian Kloborg and Ida Praetorius, Royal Danish Ballet
Shaken Mirror, Dancers Sebastian Kloborg and Ida Praetorius, Royal Danish Ballet

“Looking across the ballet landscape there is great subtlety in the Danish tradition. I suppose because it was a small theatre and it preserved that quality of detail in the dancing and especially in the mime that I felt I could tap into.

“Also, I think it’s very important that the mime and the acting is never detached from the music, I mean, it was part of the choreographic fabric.”

Shaken Mirror takes its inspiration from the poetry of Brandstrup’s friend and contemporary, Søren Ulrik Thomsens. Here, too, he hesitated before plunging in- “I am always reluctant!” – but finally took the poetry as a starting point for a reflection – a shaken mirror – on a myriad of relationships between men and women.

As in all of Brandstrup’s works we are left with a sense of yearning, a suspended breath.

“Things change, disappear and you remember them and you try and hold them. (…) Choreography is a way of trying to pin down a moment, to recreate it… but of course, it will go away… I mean, it’s not necessarily sad, it’s just how it is.”

Having just celebrated a “significant birthday” Kim Brandstrup is on a roll: last October, an award from Denmark’s Wilhelm Hansen Foundation joined a growing collection that includes an Olivier and an Evening Standard Award, marking particular stages in a considerable body of work.

He has a major dance project underway for 2017, but so far we’re sworn to secrecy; NYCB are reprising Jeux in the Spring; Britten’s opera Billy Budd, on which he worked with Director Deborah Warner in Madrid last year, is embarking on an extensive tour; and he’s going back to his first love, film.

The film of Brandstrup’s Leda and the Swan, created in 2014 for Britain’s Royal Ballet, received critical acclaim. Now he’s putting the finishing touches to another film.

“I’ve done what I call three small portraits of three dancers. It’s basically them listening, marking and doing a few phrases of something that I keep track of very closely. I’m editing at the moment. It’s exciting and I managed to get Carlos [Acosta], Alina [Cojucaru] and Zen [Yanowsky] to do it.

And, of course, what he is trying to grasp “is the detail of what the dancers do.”

In the end, Brandstrup feels, detail is what keeps the audience watching:

“You’ve got to create a particular kind of concentration and emphatic watching of the detail in the audience. They have to lean forward and say, ‘what is this? what is it?’  (…) I feel less is more and you mustn’t lose the depth of the image and the depth of movement.”

Teresa Guerreiro

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Hubert Essakow: From Obscurity to Light

Actor Sara Kestelman, dancers Jordi Calpe Serrats, Lukasz Przytarski, in Ignis photo The Print Toom

As he prepares for his first major international commission in Düsseldorf, Hubert Essakow talks about life as a freelance choreographer.

Call it serendipity.

Had the great Lynn Seymour not been friends with Hubert Essakow’s favourite actress, Sara Kestelman, he may never have made it to Düsseldorf.

But they were friends, and Lynn Seymour came to see Kestelman playing a speaking role in Essakow’s Ignis at London’s Print Room.

Essakow takes up the story:

“She loved it and immediately said to me, ‘I think you’d work really well with this company in Düsseldorf.’

The company is the 45-strong Ballett am Rhein, described by Die Welt newspaper as “Germany’s most exciting dance company” under its dynamic director, Martin Schläpfer.

“Lynn had just been there to stage [Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of] Isadora [Duncan] and got on really well with the Director. She said, ‘I’m going to contact him; I think you’ll work well together.’

Lynn Seymour was right, and the result was Tenebre, which will have its première in Düsseldorf on 28th May.

Stephen-Wright-photographyt-Ballett-Rhein-blog
“Responding to what it means to be human” Hubert Essakow photo  Stephen-Wright-Ballett-Rhein-blog

“It’s taken from a couple of pieces of music by Bryce Dessner. He’s an American contemporary composer and wrote Tenebre for the Kronos Quartet.

Tenebre is a ceremony that happens at Easter to signify the death of Christ and so the extinguishing of light. But Dessner’s reversed that process, so he goes from darkness into light.

Essakow’s own Lighting Designer, Mark Doubleday, is working on how much and how little light the stage can take to illustrate that process; and the choreographer is keen that the costumes should add an extra dimension to the work.

Tenebre also means “shadows”, so I love this idea of a shadowy environment, the obscurity, the Delphic quality, strange, unknown feelings, getting to be something that’s – what is the word? – transcending. “

Martin Schläpfer gave him creative freedom with just a couple of stipulations: that he should use the theatre’s own orchestra live, and employ as many of the company’s dancers as possible.

Essakow had only ever worked with small groups of dancers; this proved a challenge.

“There is a sort of narrative running through, of three main couples who go on this journey from darkness to light.  So I had to choose some soloists, and they’re a company of soloists really, so the choice has been really difficult.”

Essakow’s Path to Düsseldorf

Hubert Essakow has been choreographing for a while, but his stage career started as a purely classical dancer, first in his native South Africa and then as a member of Britain’s Royal Ballet for 10 years.

He says he always felt the pull of choreography, but for a long time didn’t have the means to create his own work.

“We were never really taught that at school. In the Royal Ballet there were never opportunities.  Now there are loads of opportunities, but then it was always the same people choreographing.”

The breakthrough came when he joined Rambert.

“The environment was right. It was very creative!”

Once his creativity was unleashed his very first piece was a riot of experimentation – and provocation.

It was called What Rainbow?

“My partner at the time was a composer. He was quite a controversial composer, quite avant-garde and he based the lyrics on porn, he’d taken a lot of porn trailers from the 70s, so it was incredibly controversial! There was a song that my partner had put together, which was incredibly rude.”

He laughs, still relishing the memory of the piece’s impact and the fact that some of the audience walked out in shock.

His next piece was inspired by Britney Spears, who at the time was having a very public breakdown.

“It was a car crash,” he states candidly. “But somebody from the BBC saw it and we actually made it onto BBC News, because it was so topical at the time…”

More laughter, this time slightly sheepish: “I’m not sure it was quite Rambert’s style, to be honest. I think it was just me wanting to be different, theatrical.”

As he experimented, Hubert Essakow gradually found his voice. His choreographic language is a harmonious blend of classical ballet and contemporary dance with something very much his own thrown in.

No longer interested in simple provocation, he now seeks inspiration in weightier subjects. His latest piece, Terra, is the final part of a trilogy based on the elements, the previous ones being Flow, for water, Ignis for fire.

Flow pic The Print Room Ignis pic The Print Room
Flow, dancer Kieran Stonely photo Hugo Glendenning          Ignis, dancers Jordi Calpe Serrats , Lukasz Przytarski photo The Print Room

Ignis was about loss, fire, and betrayal… I’m quite drawn to darker and intense feelings. I like human feelings… somehow to map out our journeys as human beings, and that’s the great thing about dance: it can talk in a language that’s quite instinctive, not intellectual.”

Terra was ultimately about “survival;” but more than that it pointed to very topical concerns: migration, ecology and the search for a home in our common planet, our mother earth.

Terra photo Hugo Glendenning
Hubert Essakow’s Terra dancers Luke Crook and Benjamin Warbis photo Hugo Glendenning

“Music is the big thing. (…) But with Terra, because I was working with Gareth Mitchell [sound designer at the Print Room] for the sound, I wanted as little music as possible, because I think dance can exist without music.”

Like all of Essakow’s pieces, Terra used the spoken word, in this case an especially commissioned poem by the Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, snatches of which were skilfully blended in the work’s sound architecture.

Beyond his need to experiment, the inclusion of the spoken word is to some extent dictated by the conditions in the Print Room, now based at Notting Hill’s Coronet, where Hubert Essakow is Artistic Associate.

The Print Room is small and intimate: “it’s not like a dance space, it’s more like a theatre space.”

It is, in fact, a unique and inspirational space. The Notting Hill Coronet started life as a Victorian playhouse.  Its stage hosted the likes of Sarah Bernhardt. In its Belle Epoque days it was a regular haunt of royals and bohemians.

The Coronet
The Coronet

For most of the 20th century, though, the Coronet was a cinema, and it slowly fell into disrepair until it was taken over by The Print Room in 2014.

It’s now in the middle of a five-year restoration project aimed at returning it to its full glory.

In many ways it’s been a perfect setting for Hubert Essakow’s work; and the support of the Print Room has been crucial in his development as a choreographer.

So far, though, choreographing has not provided a living wage; and Hubert Essakow does a lot of teaching on the side. The Düsseldorf commission is a step in the right direction, but should his choreographic work take off, he would still like to continue teaching.

“I think choreographers should be able to teach. Balanchine took company class – that’s how you get to know the dancers. In Germany, Martin Schläpfer teaches the company. I do enjoy teaching, passing something on that might help in some way.”

We’re back where we started: Düsseldorf, and what Essakow stresses was Lynn Seymour’s “incredible generosity” towards him.

“She said to me, ‘Ashton and Nureyev were so generous to me, it’s great to have the opportunity to be generous in my turn to someone else.’”

Hubert Essakow hopes one day he, too, will have the opportunity to show generosity to the next generation. He can think of no better way to repay Lynn Seymour.

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