Father and son dancers bringing shows to Scotland

Scenes from Dracula and Rooster. Picture: Contributed
Scenes from Dracula and Rooster. Picture: Contributed
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FOR THE first 17 years of his life, Mark Bruce was surrounded by creativity. Dancers, choreographers, visual artists, set designers, composers – and whoever else happened to be hanging around the hotbed of talent that was Rambert Dance Company in the 1970s and 1980s.

So, with hindsight, it’s no great surprise that he followed in the footsteps of his father – one of Britain’s foremost choreographers, Christopher Bruce. At the time, however, Christopher and his visual artist and set designer wife, Marian Bruce, were a little taken aback. Although still a teenager, Mark had missed some valuable years getting his body in the right condition.

“Quite out of the blue, at the age of 17, Mark announced that he would like to dance,” recalls Christopher. “At first, Marian and I tried to dissuade him, explaining that it was a little late for him to adapt physically. However, he was adamant. So we did what we could to support him through his training and early career.”

Many parents would have reservations about their child entering the dance world – a career filled with wonderful possibilities but also strewn with challenges. Mark well recalls the day he voiced his intentions.

“They couldn’t believe it and thought I was joking,” he says, “because I hadn’t shown any interest in it up to that point. But then they said ‘well, get it together, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do’.”

They needn’t have worried. By 1991, Mark was running his own company and choreographing highly distinctive work – the latest example of which, Dracula, will play at Tramway in Glasgow this month.

But while the term “like father, like son” might apply to their career choices, choreographic comparisons between Christopher and Mark are difficult to draw. As the proud father says, Mark watched, learned – then found his own way.

“All my children grew up watching me perform and I think those early theatrical experiences, and my wife, Marian’s work, all helped form Mark’s direction,” says Christopher.

“But he very much has his own point of view and vision, which is influenced by all the other art forms that engage him: cinema, music, literature and the fine arts.

“He has digested all these influences, and many more, and gone on to create his own individual voice, which I very much respect.”

Now, as choreographic peers, the two men have a different relationship – one where they show an interest in each other’s work, rather than passing on skills and knowledge – although even at the start, it was never a case of teacher and pupil.

“He didn’t ever really sit me down and teach me about choreography, I just absorbed it from watching,” says Mark. “And now, we don’t discuss our methods or anything like that – we’re too busy doing it. If we’re both working on new pieces, he might say ‘how many minutes have you done?’ and I’ll ask him the same question. We’re quite practical about it.”

One of the most pivotal pieces in the history of Rambert Dance Company was Christopher’s 1977 work, Cruel Garden. As a young boy, watching such theatricality at close quarters, Mark was soaking it all up – whether he knew it or not.

“I had an amazing childhood – but at the time you don’t know any different,” says Mark. “The Rambert company during that period was full of the most incredible artists, and I think the theatrical work going on there had a huge influence on me subconsciously.

“I grew up playing on the set of Cruel Garden, sitting in the wings watching these shows and being surrounded by these people – so you inherit a legacy without even realising it. And there are a lot of the traditions of Rambert in the 1970s and 1980s in Dracula.”

Mark’s love of Bram Stoker’s late 19th century novel goes back to much the same time as Cruel Garden. So his dance theatre version of the gothic classic has had a lengthy gestation period. “I first read Dracula when I was about ten, so I’ve lived with it a long time, and always been captured by it,” he says. “I think what makes the book so tantalising is that it’s very forbidden. If you try to modernise it, it doesn’t work, because those taboos aren’t in place any more.”

With so many versions of the story in existence, on paper, film and stage, Mark took both the original novel and the 1890s zeitgeist as his inspiration.

“It was about going back to the time it was written in, and really feeling that,” he explains. “The ‘penny dreadfuls’ and all those magazines, the fears and taboos – and how science and religion were beginning to be at odds with one another.

“I love the movies, but it’s not as if the films nailed all the things I feel are in it. My version isn’t just a re-hash of what I’ve already seen.”

Mark isn’t the only one who went back in time to create his piece. Within a few weeks of Dracula arriving in Glasgow, Rambert is bringing Christopher’s Rooster to Edinburgh.

Arguably one of the most accessible and exciting pieces of contemporary dance ever created, Rooster breathes dynamic movement into a soundtrack of Rolling Stones hits, including Paint it Black and Sympathy for the Devil. Recently revived and back out on the road, the piece has been thrilling both audiences and dancers.

“I’d lived with that music since I was a young man,” says Christopher. “And listening to it again in 1991, when I created Rooster, I thought ‘these songs are still great.’ It’s also about my youth, and about my wife and I dancing to those tracks nearly 30 years before – so it was a nostalgic re-visiting of the 1960s and 1970s, and a celebration of the time.

“I always worry when I revive an older work, and think ‘oh no, it’s probably past its prime.’ But I’m relieved to see it still works – and that I can walk into a studio with dancers young enough to be my grandchildren, and still have them enjoy doing my movement.”

•Mark Bruce Company: Dracula, Tramway, Glasgow, 30 October until 1 November; Rambert Dance Company: Rooster, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 27–29 November