The Art of Choreography
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Frederick Ashton did it by delivering a sharp poke in the ribs with the index finger of his right hand. Kenneth MacMillan sat broodily in a chair centrally placed under the barre in the rehearsal studio. Recently I watched Matthew Bourne stalking around the dancers, two assistants in his wake, instructing two or three dancers at a time.   People make dance in many different ways. Not long ago, I was watching a DVD of Steptext by the renowned avant-garde American choreographer William Forsythe. Seeing the dancers performing their unlikely contortions, my perplexed colleague asked me what choreography actually was. How on earth could someone imagine that shape and then ask a dancer to move like that? How is dance devised so that we see ‘spontaneity’, seemingly improvised dance, but in reality something minutely analysed and endlessly rehearsed and repeated?

Everyone had the same reaction when my dance career ended. I suppose you’ll teach – or choreograph? Teaching is something that you can be taught to do, but choreography is altogether different. I had danced so much bad choreography over my thirteen years with The Royal Ballet that I just couldn’t risk joining the massed ranks of third-rate choreographers. To be confronted by blank faces, shrugs and half-hearted attempts (and even the very best choreographers face that every day in the studio) would, I decided, be soul-destroying. Sure, twenty years of dancing meant I could serviceably have strung steps together to music, like improvising tunes on a piano, but there’s more to good choreography than mere steps. Randall Jarrell once said that a great critic is rarer than a great poet. There are many steps in ballet vocabulary and there are many great dancers, but there are only a handful of great choreographers. To a greater or lesser degree I worked with three of the colossi – Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and – for Americans the closest to God a dancer can get – George Balanchine. Actually, I only worked with Balanchine on one of his ballets, Liebeslieder Waltzer, and then only for a week, but that’s  enough for bragging rights.

My most vivid memories are of creating work for Ashton and MacMillan. Beginning work on a new ballet – choreographing it – starts the way of most ‘art’, with the clichéd blank canvas. The choreographer’s only tools are the dancer’s body, the music and the narrative. Kenneth MacMillan, one of the most innovative and original dance makers of his generation, asked me to create the role of one of Isadora Duncan’s lovers in a new ballet he was choreographing. I was also chosen by Ashton – Sir Fred – along with five of my male colleagues, seven women and the greatest male dancer in the world at the time, Mikhail Baryshnikov, to create Ashton’s last, highly successful ballet, Rhapsody.

In the classical ballet world, it’s hard to find two more contrasting approaches. Ashton, all nerves and chain-smoking, MacMillan cool and distant. In the studio their working methods, like their choreography, seemed polar opposites. Ashton worked alongside a repetiteur, using him as a sounding board for ideas, for reassurance. The dancers were mostly to move as a unit, a corps de ballet of six, and much of the process was to ensure we danced as a unified body not six individual men. Ashton had a special love of ‘epaulement’ – the use of the arms and head in ballet – so Sir Fred spent much of the time shouting, ‘bend, bend, more, more’.

With MacMillan you often worked alone, long pauses punctuating bursts of creation. In Isadora, I was dancing a solo role, so there were no concerns about ‘synchronised’ dancing. This was going to be a highlight of my dance life; a leading role, made on me by a master. It doesn’t get any better. Like the Benefits Supervisor Resting [1994] sprawled naked on Lucian Freud’s canvas, you’ll be scrutinised more closely than ever before, you’ll feel just as vulnerable. And it will be thrilling, terrifying.

Before the process begins you know the kind of movement MacMillan likes. You’ve danced lots of his stuff before. Often counter-intuitive, technically demanding steps that throw you around the studio. Nothing simple or uncluttered. Each movement infused with meaning (even if often the meaning is only apparent to the  choreographer). He knows your strengths and weaknesses. He’s seen you in ballet class many times, knows what you can and can’t do, he’s watched countless pas de douzes in Swan Lake. Now he’s going to up the  ante and push you very hard – physically and emotionally. Over the next six months you’ll suss out the best time to suggest a movement, when to improvise, when to back off and let the choreographer dictate  exactly how he wants your body to respond to the music. In this sauna-like dance studio we have to make a solo and a pas de deux that defines Isadora’s beach-boy lover. With MacMillan it isn’t just about the beauty of the line – especially not about beauty and line – but much more about illustrating the psychology of that particular moment in a character’s life.

There’s a dance vocabulary that’s deeply ingrained in your body (it takes eight years to train a professional dancer), your muscle memory knowing exactly how it should work to perform a certain step or sequence. The lexicography of steps is the simple part. The hard bit – for the creators – is often the linking material; how to get from one step to another. In great choreography, like a Cotswold dry-stone wall, the cement that links the steps  together is hardly there; you can’t see the joins.

The story is told using a combination of ballet steps and naturalistic movement. For example, how do you show the deep personal flaws that make Rudolf in MacMillan’s Mayerling murder his lover and then kill himself? What sort of steps do you choreograph for a pathological killer? The trick is to find that elusive path between grands jeters and glissades, and natural movement – not too many steps, not too much normal ‘everyday’ movement. Today, extended mime scenes have long since disappeared, but some ballets are still frequently guilty of resorting to mime that ‘carries a narrative’ – a narrative only experts with ten years experience can make head or tail of. The ballet is happily trucking along when suddenly it grinds to a halt for an incomprehensible semaphore dialogue between characters – semaphore that is supposed to help tell the story.

Matthew Bourne’s talent lies in being able to tell dramatic stories using everyday movement with only a sprinkling of ballet. The opening scene in Car Man in a car repair shop springs into action, everyone  ‘driving’ a car, changing gears, sliding under floorpans, leaning into bonnets. Actions that tell as dramatic a story as MacMillan ever did but using just a splash of traditional ballet vocabulary – a freer  approach, a more liberated style.

Initially, in those first tentative rehearsals, both parties circling each other warily, it’s hard not to try too much. I am hearing the music for the first time but the choreographer has heard it a thousand times already. This is the early stage where the difference between choreographers is most obvious – either they know every step they want, or they spend their time squeezing them out of you. Sometimes it’s a combination but choreographers tend to fall into one or other of those camps.

With MacMillan’s Isadora it’s quickly obvious that it isn’t going to be the usual ballet fare; no sweeping arabesques and grand jeters, it’s much more primal than that. The first sequence doesn’t have a single recognisable ballet movement in it. My head is already spinning. All that stuff we kill ourselves perfecting every day in class – none of it is actually going to be used. The trick – or art – for both of us is to allow my brain to access my training – posture, turn-out, pointed feet – while liberating my body to perform the steps as  ‘naturally’ as possible. I’m a boy on the beach, not a ballet boy on the beach. Like many art forms, repetition is fundamental in ballet.  Every day, you take class, doing the same sequence of steps, and you’ll do that every day of your working life. Like an Olympic diver – up the steps, off the board, out of the water. Every athlete and every dancer uses muscle memory to perfect their technique. In Isadora, MacMillan and I have to ally that accumulated memory with the formation of a believable character.

You share the pain of the ‘writer’s block’ that inevitably occurs at some point in the process. ‘How many more bars are there? Oh God, are we only there…’ is a lament I heard many times. Is it your fault? Is one simply not inspiring enough? How do you respond? Do you offer more steps, a break and a chat to crack the problem, a cup of tea? Usually, the rehearsal’s abandoned and we return the next day hoping for fresh  inspiration.

Even to me, ballet sometimes seems the silliest of all performing arts. All that gurning to the back row of the amphitheatre projecting  – as you are taught – to someone 40 rows away. Those arm gestures that dancers call ‘mime’ and nobody understands; all that make-up so the features can be seen clearly past the footlights – way too much  artifice. MacMillan hated all that and made choreographed movement as naturally as possible given the constraints of the unnatural ballet language.

An aspect of MacMillan’s craft was his use of intimate knowledge of his star dancers. He fed off company gossip and adored hearing about it. Steps and sequences were imbued with these personal psychological insights. Often without knowing it, his principal dancers were dancing a secret inner narrative, their brilliant techniques and strange lives making stories come alive to an audience largely unfamiliar with classical ballet.

Ashton was much easier to understand. He wanted beauty and clarity, something that looked as though it could only have worked with that piece of music, that design, those dancers. Somehow one had to satisfy both these approaches – the fun was in keeping them both happy.

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