Greats of choreography – passion of dance


Dance is as indefinable as it is intangible. It is an intrinsic, visceral experience with no other purpose than to explore the limits of human capability and freedom of spirit, an innate and inexorable desire. Dance and its many proponents have been at the fore of cultural advancement and expression for many millennia but it is only in recent times that dance has evolved into schools of thought and particular philosophical movements – each of these schools pioneered by its own protagonist, the choreographer.

Bold and defiant, choreographers have often captured the zeitgeist and prevailing feeling of the era – from Balanchine’s defiant ballets and Martha Graham’s first groundbreaking whispers of modern dance to the experimental contortions of Wayne McGregor and the pioneering vision of Christopher Wheeldon. Debra Craine, Chief Dance Critic at The Times, guides us through a brief history of dance.

What is it about dance that first interested you?
I think like most people I became hooked as a child. I had been taken to the ballet with my parents, and found it very exciting. I loved the fantasy of it, and the pretty frocks – not to be underestimated for a little girl. I started ballet classes a bit late, probably at nine or ten, and loved it to bits. I loved the discipline, the striving for perfection, and I continued with that for many years and also took up teacher training and studied dance notation. So it’s pretty much a lifelong love of dance.

What would you say it is that separates ballet from other genres of dance and how has it evolved over the last century?
It’s obviously unrecognisable now, although strangely enough the 19th century Russian ballets are still the most popular at the box office. So all these years later you’re still going to see Swan Lake,

Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Giselle – in its Russian form and La Bayadère. I think that’s because they’re based on very compelling stories, be they fairy tales or not, with wonderful music – Tchaikovsky’s scores for example are fantastic. At the beginning of the 20th century it was a big spectacle, the big narrative ballets, not based on reality. So there was a movement away from this kind of artifice, and also a move away from ballet’s very aristocratic roots, because after all it started in the courts of European kings.

At the beginning of the 20th century that kind of idea I think was no longer quite as valid and so ballet and dance started moving out and away from that kind of very posh opera house foundation. There were people like Isadora Duncan who were absolutely key in taking a very fresh spontaneous and emotional approach to dance. Also through the decade you had people like Martha Graham who completely upended ballet tradition; you went from having ballerinas in pink satin point shoes to very earthy dancers in bare feet, carving out these very dynamic heroic tales. Over the century ballet went, I think, from being maybe very prim and proper to opening up to outside influences. The rise of modern dance in America and contemporary dance in Europe paved the way.

Where did that stem from?
Contemporary dance? Well, modern dance was born in America, or at least fostered by Americans. Isadora Duncan, though American, performed a great deal in Europe. It has several roots.

Was contemporary dance a reflection of society at the time; people becoming a lot freer with desire for expression? Dance was becoming more democratic and more broadly based. It was also turning against the very rigid structure that academic dance is. You can’t study for one year and become a ballet dancer you know, as Natalie Portman proved in Black Swan (laughs). I think one of the points about modern dance was that you didn’t need this incredibly strict regime for the body that took ten years to develop.

So more people could dance, and they could dance more spontaneously, more the way they felt without being restricted by how it looked. The 20th century was a time to create, between the wars, when society was changing drastically and you had the rise of votes for women, women’s emancipation – that had a huge impact on dance. There were women choreographers like Martha Graham who certainly opened the doors. In the 1960s there was the birth of post modern dance and this is where people like Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Lucinda Childs, they all said ‘this really heavy-duty theatrical emoting that Martha Graham was doing is not for us – we want to strip dance down to its essence and anything can be dance: walking, running, jumping – all these things can be dance. Let’s take a new approach entirely.’

The body in motion is dance, which of course is an enigma to a ballet person who spends all these years training to sculpt the body into certain required shapes. So post modern dance opened the door to all kinds of performance art. It was massively influential. Really we are still feeling the effects of that today. When you go to see performances where anything goes, that’s a legacy of the 1960s revolution.

How do you think these early pioneers would feel if they came along and saw a performance by Wayne McGregor or the like?
They would think ‘my goodness how the dancers have changed’, because the dancer’s body is now much taller, leaner and longer. The dance looks very different now because the dancers’ body shapes have changed.

Weren’t they always lean?
They weren’t always tall and lean, certainly not. If you look at some of Diaghilev’s dancers, some of them were positively stout. The body type has changed hugely – don’t forget people have changed hugely. Women are taller. Balanchine, who is probably the most important choreographer of the 20th century, he liked his dancers very tall and thin and that actually fostered a whole aesthetic.

So today you do see dancers with these incredibly willowy physiques. I think that’s something Diaghilev would be surprised at. He would also be surprised at their incredible gymnastic capabilities. Dancers today are much stronger, more agile and the things they can do are amazing. The training has changed and I think they would be shocked at the degree to which dancers can be moulded into the most extraordinary shapes. Would Diaghilev like the choreography? I’m not sure what he would think.

He loved novelty and one of the reasons he was so incredibly important was that he pursued novelty at all costs and he was prepared to take risks. So he might think that people like Wayne McGregor today, they are taking risks, they’re thinking outside of the dance box and he might admire that. I think the music would horrify him generally, because one of the many qualities one admires Diaghilev for preeminent of his choreography has to be his understanding and love of music. He commissioned some of the most amazing wonderful landmark scores of the 20th century. His musical taste was second to none.

Which composers did Diaghilev work with?
Stravinsky – very important. He composed The Firebird, which for me was one of the most beautiful and important scores of the 20th century, but then came The Rite of Spring a few years later which upended everyone’s expectations of what music could be, and at the time sparked a riot in its opening night audience, who were outraged. It was music that they couldn’t count and couldn’t relate to. Yet you hear it today and the energy – it’s almost like the birth pains of modernism.

To me it is possibly the most exciting score I have ever heard, just because of what it represents. Diaghilev also worked with Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Erik Satie – incredible. He worked with French and Russian composers, who were all very important in their day. Today you probably wouldn’t be able to commission the most important composers in the world to write for dance, because I think another thing that has changed is classical music has really lost any interest in dance that it ever had.

Why would you say that is?
Ballet and music, ballet and opera particularly, grew up side by side in the opera houses of Europe, and in very early ballets the singing and the dancing were inextricably linked. Over the centuries music and dance have grown further and further apart and, I think, today the classical music world does not aspire to writing ballet scores. Now there are notable exceptions to this. Joby Talbot who has just written a score for Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland at the Royal Opera House, for The Royal Ballet, is someone who is really trying to bring dance and music back together, but I think when you speak to most classical composers today they really have no interest in dance.

Do you think it’s also because there’s also less energy being put into new ballets?
I think it’s just that the connection between dance and music was a very Russian and French idea – particularly Russian, and people like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich all were very happy to write for dance and wrote brilliant scores for dance. Which is why ballets like Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are still performed today, because of these majestic illuminating scores. However, as I say, that was a very Russian concept.

What makes a good choreographer?
I think what makes a good choreographer is someone who has vision, talent and language. A lot of choreographers might have vision and talent but they don’t have the language to realise it so I think it’s important you have something to say and the means to express it.

Language as in physical language?
Yes, as in movement vocabulary, and what is particularly exciting for choreography today is when you see someone who has a strong movement vocabulary and then allows it to be shaped and

influenced by other forces. Wayne McGregor doesn’t come from a ballet background and he makes some very fascinating and compelling ballets because he brings a contrary dynamic to the art form. So I think choreography needs and means opportunity and talent. There is no doubt that someone like Wayne McGregor and Mark Morris are bringing new people into dance.

Mark Morris is a very good case of someone who is inspired and driven by music – a tremendous knowledge of the scores that he uses brings a kind of pure joy to dancing. So when you see it, it hits you directly without going through any kind of filter. It’s quite simply, ‘I make dances, you look at them, you like them or you don’t.’ And they are beautiful and ravishing as he has done a lot to bring people to dance, as have Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon.

And Paul Taylor?
Ah well, Paul Taylor is part of the modern dance group that I was talking about earlier. Paul Taylor is extraordinary because he danced with Martha Graham – he is the link with the founding school for American modern dance schools, now that Martha Graham has passed away. Paul Taylor really is the last link. He is an absolute living legend.

What do you think it is about dance that has captured humanity for so many centuries – millennia even?
I think dance goes straight to the heart of what we are as human beings and even before we learn to speak we learn to dance. Movement is the very first thing we do and the very first way we communicate with the world. Most of us of course lose that initial ability to physicalise our presence in the world. As speech takes over it becomes our primary means of communication, but just look at body language, and how much you can tell about people through it. So that urge to move and express yourself is fundamental.

I think in a way we respond to dance at a level that is deeper than the way we respond to language or individual stimuli. There is something visceral, primordial even about our response to dance. Of course on another level, dance is often about incredibly beautiful people making beautiful moves and there’s a huge amount of pleasure to be had in looking at such beauty in motion. I think also dance has a way of expressing emotions very directly. Romeo and Juliet is a very good example.

You go to see Shakespeare’s play and Romeo and Juliet express their love for one another in flowery language. That’s great, I love it, but if I go to see Kenneth Macmillan’s Romeo and Juliet and a see the balcony pas de deux, I feel their love far more strongly than I ever would in a text based theatre. Somehow the rawness of the passion undefined and unrestricted by language hits you like a speeding lorry. You just feel the emotion so potently and that’s the thing dance can do that no other art form can do for me – that it can reach into your heart and grab it; you’re almost incapable of resisting it.

So I think that’s why people love ballet so much particularly, but I think in a lot of dance today the thing they respond to is the energy and the dynamic physicality which somehow reflects how we live today, especially those of us living stressed lives in urban environments.

There’s something about dance that reflects the way we live but also makes us feel better about it. Also, one of the other great things about dance, particularly abstract dance, is that you can go to a dance performance and because there’s no narrative you don’t have to think anything, so you can think whatever you like. You can go and watch this performance unfold and allow it to tap into whatever in the psyche needs to be tapped into.

What’s happening on stage doesn’t say to the audience that you have to feel this or that; it’s a tremendous liberation and no other art form, maybe besides classical music, can do that because most art forms are representational and narrative based. Another amazing thing when you look at dance is that the body is the instrument and so it’s very hard to separate the body from the choreography, it’s impossible. That’s also why people that go to the ballet will go to see Giselle ten times with ten different ballerinas because it looks different according to who the dancer is.

So is dance still as relevant as ever?
I think dance is more relevant because we’re living in a very visual age and I think that as people are more bombarded by images than at any time in our life, it makes it harder for text based art forms to find relevance. Since dance of course isn’t text based, then I think people are primed to accept it.

Contemporary dance as well has been really marvellous in thinking in terms of innovation and bringing new ideas into the art form. Very often I go to the theatre and I see a play and everyone around me is raving about the play’s amazing staging and mind blowing cleverness and I’ll say ‘we did that in dance five years ago’. So many of the new ideas in theatre have come from dance and I think dance doesn’t get enough credit for the very clever exploration it has undertaken in how to present something on stage.

by Debra Craine

From the Glass Archive – Issue Six

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