Joel Brown and Eve Mutso Dance 111

Joel Brown and Eve Mutso in 111, photo Susan Hay

Dancers Eve Mutso and Joel Brown talk to Ballet Position about 111, a duet combining their diverse yet complementary abilities

There are times when you come upon something that so subverts your preconceptions and expectations that you are left dazed and gasping for air.

One such was, for me, 111 (One Hundred and Eleven), a dance duet that seamlessly blends the very diverse physicalities of Eve Mutso, formerly a Principal Dancer with Scottish Ballet, and Joel Brown, a member of the inclusive ensemble Candoco Dance Company.

Set to a medley of music that segues from Penguin Cafe Orchestra, through Dawn of Midi, Julia Jacklin and Radiohead, 111 results from, in Eve Mutso’s words,

“Curiosity about how we can explore movement coming from such different backgrounds and techniques, and then develop a movement language which combines our own abilities and experiences, but also pushing our weaknesses to the next level.”

Joel Brown adds, “I’m interested in saying something a little bit more than presenting just movement. At the same time, I also do believe in movement for movement’s sake (…)

“So, it’s narrative in the sense of, ‘dear audience, I’m Joel, this is Eve, we enjoy doing this together.’   So, it’s framed with a relationship.”

It is one of the most intense, complete on-stage relationships you’re ever likely to see. When their eyes lock, which is often, they establish a climate of trust and intimacy so profound it sets your heart beating faster.

111 – Where it all began

Joel Brown and Eve Mutso met four years ago at a Glasgow joint workshop by Scottish Ballet, Indepen-dance (a company for able and disabled dancers) and Marc Brew Company.

Estonian-born Eve was still dancing with Scottish Ballet; American Joel, then a member of the physically-integrated Axis Dance Company, based in California, was a guest there.

There was an instant rapport: in Joel’s words, “we just got on.”

There’s a little more to it than that: in the opening sequence of 111, Joel recounts how he kept sending her little notes that started, “Eve, can I tell you something?” and always ended with an invitation to dance.

Four years on, the depth of their rapport is one of the many breath-taking aspects of 111, the new work they are taking to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe prior to a wide-ranging international tour.

The title is an in-joke: because of her ballet training, Eve Mutso’s supple spine seems to have 100 vertebrae, rather than the standard 32; Joel’s spine is fused, so he jokes he only has 11 vertebrae.

The sum of both comes to 111.

111 – The Challenges

Ballet Position watched a rehearsal in a bare London studio; and even without the benefit of full staging and atmospheric lighting it became clear what a powerful, entrancing work this is.

It starts on the floor downstage, then moves centre stage, where Joel Brown’s gliding wheelchair provides a focus for Joel and Eve’s dancing, arms interlocking, flowing and turning in a smooth perpetuum mobile of preternatural coordination.

The next sequence takes place within an aerial frame that looms upstage, where the two dancers hang, twirl and climb, in the process creating unexpected and exciting configurations.

Joel Brown, Eve Mutso in 111, photo Susan Hay

“You can see that frame as an exoskeleton,” says Joel. “You can see my two wheelchairs as exoskeletons, maybe… but we have our real skeletons as well, and spines are quite integral.

“We expose something about our bodies and I think maybe mine is a little more mysterious.”

He was paralysed at nine-years-old; but, coming from a large family of dancers and gymnasts, remained active in sport and dancing.

“When I kind of jokingly demonstrate how, if I shift a hip, then I’m able to rotate, it’s important, because it’s kind of funny, but also it’s true and it’s not too precious around disability.

“It’s the reality of my physicality; and I think it’s important for the audience to have a sort of understanding of my physicality.”

For Eve Mutso that frame represents a whole new challenge. For one thing, she used to be scared of heights:

“I’d never done anything aerial before, never had to adjust my body to these quite challenging, difficult ways of dancing and creating movement.”

The work ends with both dancers on the floor, Joel having jettisoned his wheelchair, both moving slowly, shifting their bodies in perfect unison, though it’s noticeable – and interesting – that Joel’s movement is a touch more fluid than Eve’s.

Joel: “One of my favourite feelings in that floor phase is this real connection between head and tail [laughs].

“I’m on the floor and I’m pushing on the ground, but I really feel that I’m moving my tail. (…) I think when you bring attention to your whole spine, you move in a more integrated way.”

There’s an undeniably erotic undercurrent to 111; but not deliberately so, says Eve:

“It’s about what different relationships can be on stage, in life; and also how communication can develop through the movement. You don’t have to touch somebody to feel a connection.

“I think every section is offering another insight into us as artists, as humans and as friends. We keep saying we all are boxed [in] in a way; so, it’s trying to take away the limits and use this set as a liberating place to function.”

111 – Edinburgh and Beyond

111 has been selected as part of the 2019 Made in Scotland programme, a curated showcase of music, theatre and dance performed during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Beyond that, an extensive international tour is planned; but it has to be built around the performers’ other commitments.

Now a freelance dancer and choreographer, Eve Mutso is going back to Estonia, the prodigal daughter returning to her first company, Estonian National Ballet, with whom she has re-established a fruitful collaboration since leaving Scottish Ballet.

She’ll dance the lead role of Blanche DuBois in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Nancy Meckler’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which she first performed to great acclaim with Scottish Ballet.

Eve Mutso as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, photo Andy Ross

Joel Brown, who settled on these shores four years ago, is a full-time member of Candoco Dance Company, the UK’s leading troupe for disabled and non-disabled dancers.

Joel Brown in Alexander Whitley’s Beheld for Candoco Dance Company, photo Hugo Glendinning

A versatile artist, Joel Brown is also a singer and songwriter, and will have a prominent singing and dancing part in The Lost Thing, a collaboration between Candoco Dance Company and The Royal Opera, which plays at the ROH’s Linbury Theatre over the Christmas period.

A musical reimagining of Shaun Tan’s beautifully illustrated book about a boy who helps a lost thing find its way home, it’s a show for all the family, a story about how we are all connected.

It’s a theme not a million miles away from Eve Mutso and Joel Brown’s 111

by Teresa Guerreiro

111 is at Emerald Theatre, Greenside @ Nicolson Square (venue 209), Edinburgh
Mon 19 – Sat 24 Aug
http://www.greensidevenue.co.uk/

The Lost Thing is at the ROH, Linbury Theatre
7 Dec 2019 – 4 Jan 2020
https://www.roh.org.uk/productions/the-lost-thing-by-ben-wright

 

The Strange Case of the Missing Choreographers...

Crystal Pite photo Georgia Straight

Does gender, rather than talent, determine which choreographers get commissions? We report on the state of an increasingly heated debate.                                 

Towards the end of her 10-year tenure as Director of Britain’s Royal Ballet, Dame Monica Mason was asked why she had never commissioned a work by a female choreographer.

This was her reply: “quite simply, I have not come across one that I felt was suitable. Choreography is not a gender issue – it is an issue of talent.”

Ouch.

Eat your heart out, Crystal Pite. Helen Pickett. Shobana Jeyasingh. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, et al.

Sorry, ladies, you’re quite good but… how to put this?… not good enough for the august Covent Garden stage. Too… “not classical” maybe? Too… contemporary? Not as contemporary, though, as Wayne McGregor, whom Dame Monica appointed Resident Choreographer at the Royal Ballet.

Go figure.

The debate on the continuing failure of top ballet companies both in Britain and across the world to commission new work from women choreographers has been flaring up regularly over the past 10 years or so.

Just last October Rambert held a one-day symposium on this question. That in itself was interesting. More interesting, perhaps, is that a very similar, if not identical event was held in 2009 at the initiative of Dance Umbrella and Dance UK.

That was meant to lead to changes and progress. In reality, nothing much seems to have changed in six years.

Just a few days ago a press release landed in my inbox. Edge, the London Contemporary Dance school post-graduate dance company, is touring 15 venues and six countries with a programme of new works.

All four featured choreographers are men.

And so the debate rages on.

Tamara Rojo, ENB
Tamara Rojo, ENB

Never one to miss an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet, English National Ballet’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo has stepped in with She Said, a programme of specially commissioned works by women choreographers for ENB’s Spring period. It will feature Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Yabin Wang and Aszure Barton.

This is how Rojo explained her decision:

“I had the idea for female choreographers four years ago before the current debate started. My original motive was simple: I had never done a piece by a female choreographer. In the theatre the dynamic of the piece is always from a male perspective.”

If you think about it, from its beginnings with its ethereal sylphs all the way to the modern-day fashion of women being manipulated and passed around the stage splayed crotch foremost, ballet has always obeyed a very male view of what women are, or should be like.

It seems that in the field of decision-making, the perspective is also very much male.

The immensely talented British-based Spanish dancer and choreographer, Avatâra Ayuso, has thought about this a great deal. Recently honoured with a nomination for the Emerging Artist Award in the 2015 National Dance Awards, she describes her attempts to get funding for her choreographic projects as a permanent struggle.

Avatâra Ayuso
Avatâra Ayuso

“The directors of the institutions who have the power to commission are men. Society is ready for half and half (…) but those that run the institutions don’t do enough research to find male and female choreographers. They just go with the habit of having male choreographers.”

She goes further:

“They don’t want to take risks! I think having a woman is also taking a risk, because they don’t know what we can do.”

Or as the American choreographer Elizabeth Streb bluntly puts it, “people like giving money to men.”

Despite the glaring omission of women from the forthcoming Edge programme of contemporary dance, gender inequality seems more acute in classical ballet than in contemporary. Women have, after all, played a key role in the development of the very concept of contemporary ballet, its themes and its language.

The roll call of female giants of contemporary dance is long and awe-inspiring.

Martha Graham, Letter for the World (1940) Pina Bausch, Haendel Suite
Martha Graham, Letter for the World (1940)                       Pina Bausch, Haendel Suite No. 11, Sarabande

Isadora Duncan. Martha Graham. Pina Bausch. Twyla Tharp. Lucinda Childs. Crystal Pite…Just a few names of out of a list too numerous to call in full.

But look at classical ballet.

Not even fact that ENB’s new crowd-pleasing and hugely successful production of Le Corsaire was re-choreographed by a woman, Anne-Marie Holmes, seems to have given major companies an incentive to follow suit.

Full kudos, then, to Scottish Ballet, for commissioning not one woman but two – choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and film director Nancy Meckler – to create its dance version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire in 2012.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Balllet
A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Balllet

It paid off. The ballet was nominated for the Olivier awards and won the Critics’ Circle Best Dance Production and the South Bank Best Classical Choreography awards.

Next on Scottish Ballet’s list is a new commission from Crystal Pite, and perhaps even more significantly a new piece from its budding in-house choreographer, the young dancer Sophie Laplane. Both will feature in the company’s 2015/16 season.

Defenders of the status quo look at such successes and argue that, in the words of (male) dancer and choreographer Akram Khan, “we don’t need more female choreographers for the sake of it.”

Or, as the Spectator ballet critic Ismene Brown put it, “I’m having trouble finding an anti-woman conspiracy in dance.”

To which The Observer ballet critic Luke Jennings, responded in characteristically trenchant fashion by pointing to “a gender imbalance so egregious, and of such long standing, that it shames the British dance establishment.”

Jennings argues that in contemporary dance “the more large-scale and high-profile the commission, the smaller the probability that it will be awarded to a woman.”

And he goes on, “In classical dance, female choreographers face even greater discouragement.”

The last time the Royal Ballet commissioned a female choreographer to create work for its main stage was in 1999 (pre-Dame Monica’s directorship, obviously…): Siobhan Davies’ A Stranger’s Taste.

This imbalance in Covent Garden is mirrored in some of the major international companies.

Women may have been Balanchine’s muses, but no new works for New York City Ballet bear the imprint of a woman choreographer.

And for all his protestations that he wanted to drag the Paris Opera Ballet kicking and screaming into the 21st century, Benjamin Millepied filled his first (and as it turned out his last) season in Paris with the works of male choreographers – McGregor, Peck, Wheeldon, Ratmanski… and more.

Here’s the problem. Talent is subjective. You can always argue, as Monica Mason did, that she couldn’t see enough of it to justify a commission.

In other areas that fall under anti-discrimination laws compliance is easier to measure. But how do you “measure” talent?

Nevertheless, there is clearly a predisposition on the part of those who commission to give men, rather than women, a chance to prove their talent. And a chance to fail and try again.

So, in the cogent words of Luke Jennings, “it’s time for dance to shed its institutionalised sexism, to rid itself of the whiff of privileged boys’ clubs and backstairs deals and join the artistic mainstream.”

ENB’s She Said will be an important step in that direction.

However, it will probably be judged almost exclusively in terms of gender; and that will, to a certain extent, obscure an objective assessment of the works’ artistic merit.

I would argue that it’s only when a programme on any dance stage – august or less so – is made up of works by both male and female choreographers and the focus of attention are the works themselves rather then the gender of their creators that a proper balance will have been achieved.

Avatâra Ayuso has been very active in the campaign for a level playing field for female choreographers. She welcomes the current debate:

“I think the issue should be out there. We’re not silly girls waiting for things to happen. No! No, no! It’s good that people get to know what’s going on. In fact, I have my own kind of survey that I normally do with people who are not dancers. I ask them, “so, was it a male or female choreographer?” They answer, “oh, I don’t know!” They don’t care. They just want to see quality.”

Teresa Guerreiro

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"That's so Scottish Ballet..."

Christopher Hampson, Artistic Director and Chief Executive Officer  of Scottish Ballet, shares his ambitious plans for Scotland’s premier ballet company.                               

A mere glance at Scottish Ballet’s website reveals the huge amount of civic pride invested in the company.

“Scottish Ballet is Scotland’s National Dance Company,” it reads at a time when nationhood is very much at the forefront of the country’s preoccupations.

The names on the Board read like a Who’s Who of Scotland’s industry and public life.  Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet clearly has a key place in Scotland’s identity.

Leading such a company is a challenge; but one which 42-year-old choreographer and former dancer Christopher Hampson is “excited” to have taken on.

Over martinis (“vodka, with a twist”) during one of his lightning visits to London, he talks about his vision for the company he took over three years ago.

“I want to make sure we’re present in people’s cultural make-up. (…) That sometimes means that you do re-look at things. At Scottish Ballet we have to ask how do we do a production today and for the people of today.”

That, he says, involves doing the classics “with a twist” – and that’s one of the reasons why he’s commissioned a new Swan Lake from choreographer David Dawson.

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David Dawson’s Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet Dancer Sophie Martin photo David Eustace

 

“My commissioning of David Dawson to do the work is really key, because although he is a very contemporary choreographer, his passion is ballet and he absolutely adores it to the point of obsession.  And in a way that obsession becomes abstraction and so you end up with so much more – it’s like a very concentrated classicism that you get with him, that he pushes, pulls, extends… that excites me.”

With the interests of his 36-dancers foremost on his mind, he goes on:

“What I’ve always seen with David is, when he works with a company, the dancers change after they’ve worked with him, their technique evolves and they get a richer vocabulary.”

Scottish Ballet’s Swan Lake “for the people of today” premiéres in the coming Spring; before that, though, Hampson is absolutely focussed on the company’s Christmas show: the UK premiére of his very own Cinderella, created for New Zealand Ballet in 2007.  That brings new challenges for his dancers.

“I expect my dancers to be able to be great character actors, to be great dancers classical and contemporary.

“I always leave room in any production for an artist to extend the character.  I mean, the Sisters [in this production] are principal dancers, Sophie Martin and Eve Mutso – they’re normally up there doing lead roles, so flip that around and they’re bringing their artistry to these Sisters.”

It is a work that can be seen on many levels – “it’s essentially about a girl grieving” – but within that he’s woven magic and fun, mapping a journey from darkness to light; and so, he says, it’s the ideal Christmas show for the whole family.

“It should be for children, it should be for adults, it should be for grandparents and aunties, and godparents, gay uncles… 

Scottish Ballet Cinderella dancers Bethany Kingsley-Garner, Christopher Harrison photo Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet Cinderella dancers Bethany Kingsley-Garner, Christopher Harrison photo Andy Ross

“If you’re taking your family out, you’re spending upwards of £150 on going to the theatre, you’re owed something, you’re owed an entertaining evening, you’re owed excellent values, professionalism, a great technique and fun, enjoyment.

A WIDE REPERTOIRE

The classics, though, are only a small part of Scottish Ballet’s extensive repertoire. 

“I think we’re one of the most prolific companies creating new work in Britain today. I think we punch way above our weight in terms of contemporary ballet and dance.  I think we lead in terms of versatility of dancers.

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Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling Dancer Remi Andreoni photo Graham Wylie

“In the last couple of years we’ve done Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling – we’re the only company in the whole world that he gave one of his ballets to! -, we’ve done Helen Pickett, we’ve done new stuff, we’ve done [company founder] Peter Darrell’s The Nutcracker, which is classical, but with new designs by Les Brotherston.

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Scottish Ballet in Peter Darrell’s The Nutcracker photo Andy Ross

“We’ve done Twyla Tharp, David Dawson… on and on it goes, and that’s not just one or two people, that’s my entire company have to do that.  You have to be really good to do it.

“My first year we did Hans van Manen’s 5 Tangos.  I like to think that we’re attracting the world – they’re coming to Scotland, it’s fantastic.”

A couple of international big name choreographers will be added to Scottish Ballet’s repertoire next season … but so far we’re sworn to secrecy.  Watch this space!

And Scotland is coming to the world, with international touring, most recently to China, Hong Kong and the USA, an increasingly important part of the company’s remit.

As a prolific and internationally acclaimed choreographer, though, surely the temptation to cram his company’s repertoire full of his own works must be irresistible?

“Oh, not for me, not at all!  When I got the job in 2012 it was such a relief  to take a step back, to know where my voice could work in a repertoire and to have the confidence to know where it can’t and others’ can. 

“One part of the job that I never knew existed, this joy, is commissioning other people, because I know how that feels: I can see the joy, the trepidation, the excitement in their faces – it’s great I’ve been able to facilitate that.

MENTORING NEW CHOREOGRAPHERS

He loves, too, to mentor budding choreographers from within the ranks of his own dancers.  One such is coryphee Sophie Laplane.  Hampson speaks of her with evident pride:

“Sophie was somebody who I could see kept ploughing this field but getting deeper and deeper, and that excited me.

“She obviously had an idea, she was going around it, but every time she went around it she produced something quite unique and new.”

So he gave her a few chances in galas, a performance in the foyer of the Edinburgh Festival, and finally her breakthrough: her own short piece – Maze – on the big stage.

Sophie’s career as a choreographer is now well on track.

REACHING OUT BEYOND THE BALLET STAGE

Hampson is on record as saying he wants to make his company relevant beyond the realm of ballet.  To that end, he’s brought the Education Department directly into the Artistic Director’s, ie his own, domain.

And he’s got a number of outreach projects under way.  One such, about which he talks with open emotion, is called The Close.

“This is working with young people that have been taken out of mainstream education (…).

“First, we just meet them (…)

“Then we bring them into the centre of a city and just take them to a theatre, not going in, (…) just getting them comfortable there.

Finally, they go into the theatre and watch a performance – most recently Krzysztof Pastor’s gritty, modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

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Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet Dancers Erik Cavallari and Sophie Martin photo Andy Ross

“Afterwards, me and a couple of the dancers, including Sophie Martin who played Juliet, went to the Q & A session, and this guy said, ‘I got a question for you’ and pointed at me, he said ‘why do you do any of this?’

“I said to myself, that’s the smartest question I’ve been asked in a very long time.”

Hampson talked about how vital it was, “how healing, and how important, how we can affect people, how we can look at things we can’t look at in life, how it’s a mirror on our lives, it can make us laugh, it can make us cry…”

And he likes to think that in 20 years’ time that young man will still remember the first time he went to a theatre.

Other projects include Scottish Ballet’s Creatives, giving people from within the company at all levels the opportunity to develop skills outside of dance, what he describes, with an impeccable French accent, as “la troisiéme scène,” what can be seen beyond the stage.

There’s also the Digital Season, which is about “engaging with people at the top of their field in many different sectors, photography, film, plastic arts, poetry – anything!” and bringing them in to use the company as their inspiration.

In 2019 it’ll be 50 years since the visionary Peter Darrell founded Scottish Ballet; celebrations there will certainly be, but for now they’re a closely guarded secret.

Christopher Hampson will not be drawn, but he’ll say this about Scottish Ballet at 50:

“I want us to be a diverse, strong, unique company, I want us to be recognisable.

My ambition for my time at Scottish Ballet will be, if people hear about a repertoire or hear about an initiative, they’ll say:

‘That’s so Scottish Ballet, that…’”

And with that he drained his glass and breezed off.

 

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