Costume drama - Michael Howells interview
Rambert associate designer Michael Howells blurs the line between stage and catwalk, writes KELLY APTER
THE AWARD-WINNING CATWALK sets of Michael Howells have been graced by Versace, Dior and Galliano, while his production design credits include feature films Emma, Nanny McPhee and An Ideal Husband. Yet he's never happier than when tucking into a bowl of pasta and chatting about dance.
As associate designer of Rambert Dance Company, Howells is charged with making the dancers look good, without stealing their thunder – a task he more than lives up to with Rambert's stunning new work, Eternal Light. When I meet him backstage at Manchester's Lowry Theatre, his latest creation has just had its first outing. Audiences were treated to a beautiful blend of breathtaking dresses which move with the dancers, and dramatic crucifixes embedded with hundreds of Swarovski crystals, that descend from above. Along with Mark Baldwin's choreography and Howard Goodall's incredible score, Howells' set and costumes have conspired to make Eternal Light one of the most beautiful pieces of dance I've seen in a long while. So, how was it for him?
"I love working with Mark," says Howells. "He's an extraordinary person and Rambert are such a wonderful company. There are no egos here, it's a real family. You hear that kind of thing said all the time, but at Rambert it's really true. A lot of Eternal Light was designed over a bowl of spaghetti – Mark and I would cook something and talk about the show, which was a lovely process. It's not all formal meetings here – that's quite rare, actually."
With their long trains and angel-like arms, Howells' dress designs suggest a sense of grandeur, spirituality and fluidity. In keeping with the rest of his designs for the show, however, it's all open to interpretation. "Nothing is definite," says Howells. "A thousand people who saw Eternal Light tonight will go home with a thousand different ideas, and I think that's quite exciting – to give memories to people."
Looking good is one thing, being able to move is another – as Baldwin found when Howells' designs became reality. "One dancer put on a tiara and dress Michael had designed and the choreography had to be utterly modified," recalls Baldwin. "It's the first time I've actually made choreography for a dress."
When Rambert's associate orchestra, London Musici, suggested commissioning a requiem for its 20th anniversary, Baldwin was reticent about choreographing to it. "The idea of doing a requiem rather frightened me," he admits. "In that it would come across as such a Christian thing – not that I've got anything against that. But I wanted to do something secular enough to reach everyone, and if they were interested in spirituality that would be fine, too. So I chose someone to design it who's outside this field."
Baldwin's initial fear soon gave way to excitement, as the collaboration began to take shape. Howells' designs formed the perfect backdrop, while out front in the orchestra pit, Goodall's new requiem quickly became a force to be reckoned with. Best known for his TV themes for Blackadder and Red Dwarf , Goodall is also an accomplished choral composer. Between them, the collaborators came up with the idea of a requiem unlike any other.
"Requiems are usually written for somebody who's had a full life," says Baldwin. "But there are no requiems for young people or the living, which is what this is – and we also wanted to reference the rainforests, because a lot of the dancers are very concerned about the environment." Rambert's dancers are some of the best trained in Britain, but even they had to adapt to performing to the sound of a full choir. "It's challenging for them and they have to listen like crazy," says Baldwin. "But generally speaking, they've been very excited about it. Because singing and dancing are actually very close to each other – they're both things that the human body does very well."
One of the nicest aspects of the Eternal Light tour is the choir responsible for delivering Goodall's score. Each city provides its own, and in Edinburgh we'll see and hear 50 representatives of the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCoS). Aged between 16 and 24, the singers learned Goodall's requiem during their residential workshop in July. Mixing Latin and English, the music and lyrics are at turns soft and vulnerable, then fast-paced and ominous. How did the young choir take to Goodall's score?
"We've enjoyed it very much," says NYCoS Choir Master Christopher Bell. "Certain aspects of the piece are very accessible and others are more challenging. But it was great to be able to get our teeth into such a substantial work." Hugely respected both at home and abroad, NYCoS is no stranger to large crowds, but teaming up with Rambert will be a whole new experience. "It's very different for us," says Bell. "We've done straight concerts, we've been involved in TV, played at the Proms and done concerts in Chicago and Europe, but we've never worked with dancers before. So we're enjoying the prospect of being part of this performance."
Performed alongside Siobhan Davies' Carnival of the Animals and Andr Gingras athletic and hugely crowd-pleasing Anatomica # 3, Eternal Light captures the very essence of Rambert. All the elements coming together to produce a truly entertaining night at the theatre.
"I'm interested in giving people a good time," says Baldwin. "And it all goes back to the traditions of Madame Rambert, who started the company. The idea that you introduce a choreographer to a designer and a composer, and together they make something stronger than they could individually – that's the basis of all the work we do here."
• Rambert Dance Company, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 29-31 October, 0131-529 6000, www.eft.co.uk
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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