IT’S A unique way to celebrate the Olympics, bringing the finest dancers from three nations together for a star-studded show. Kelly Apter hears how it all came together.
Three nations, three dance companies, three new works, one show. For audiences, Dance GB is a unique chance to see some of Britain’s finest dancers perform pieces by three exciting choreographers. For the companies behind it, however, the road from original concept to final product has been littered with compromise.
This is hardly surprising given the size and scale of the teams behind this ambitious project. The logistics involved in staging and touring a show with just one of these companies is difficult enough, but when English National Ballet, National Dance Company Wales and Scottish Ballet hit the road together, it takes some serious planning.
Hopes to stage Dance GB in a big top-style tent in all three cities on the tour – Glasgow, Cardiff and London – fell through, with just the London performances now taking place under canvas. Likewise, the idea of one choreographer creating a work for all three companies, everyone using the same set, and each piece blending into the next, all proved impractical. But while this may have caused minor disappointments for the artistic directors, from an audience perspective, it couldn’t be better. Now, for the price of one ticket, we’ll get three distinct new works by three choreographers, each chosen by the respective artistic director because it’s right for their company. Former Rambert head Christopher Bruce was brought in for National Dance Company Wales, energetic Israeli-born choreographer Itzik Galili choreographed English National Ballet, while our own Scottish Ballet went for up-and-coming young talent Martin Lawrance.
“You have the initial idea, and then things change,” says Wayne Eagling, artistic director of English National Ballet. “Scottish Ballet and National Dance Company Wales were keen to have a new work they could keep in their repertoires, so the original idea of putting everybody together didn’t work for them. And then we talked about having one set designer, but Itzik had a totally different concept from Martin, and Christopher wanted to go his way. So we have ended up with three lighting designers and three set designers instead of one. But that’s the way these projects go, because practicality takes its place as well.”
English National Ballet was instrumental in getting the project off the ground in the first place, inviting the two other companies to get on board and create a Britain-wide production (sadly there are no dance companies of this scale in Northern Ireland). The dancers and choreographers have yet to meet, but all three artistic directors have had regular meetings and conference calls, to thrash out details such as a running order for the show.
“If you choose your partners wisely, then you know what to expect,” says Eagling. “I know both the other companies and the way they work, and although we’re creating the pieces miles and miles apart, there’s always been this idea that it would all slot together. Itzik’s style is very bold and in your face, so I asked him to make a rousing finishing piece. And he assured me that his new work, And the Earth shall Bear Again, will send the audience home excited.”
While English National Ballet will close the evening, Scottish Ballet has been charged with opening it. A former dancer with Richard Alston Dance Company, before becoming an increasingly well-respected choreographer, Martin Lawrance will get the ball rolling with Run for It. The decision to commission Lawrance, who is using a set design by Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Boyce, was very deliberate.
“What I’ve been trying to do during my time at Scottish Ballet is spot younger choreographers who aren’t known all over the world, and give them an opportunity to take the next step,” says artistic director Ashley Page. “And Martin is someone who I’ve been keeping an eye on as he’s been developing, and I felt that he deserved a chance to do something on a bigger scale with more dancers and a larger orchestra.” For Page, this is his last commission before leaving the company for pastures new. It must have been strange, therefore, not to be in sole charge of Scottish Ballet’s last show under his leadership. “Of course I didn’t have as much control,” he says. “And obviously we all had our own taste in choreographers, so it was never going to be the same kind of programme any of us would do on our own. But we’re all adults and we knew that we would have to relinquish that kind of complete control. There was no issue about that, no-one had a problem with it.”
Opting for a lesser-known choreographer may have felt important for Page, but the complete opposite was true for Ann Sholem, artistic director of National Dance Company Wales. She commissioned Christopher Bruce, who has created Dream for this small, but highly regarded contemporary dance company. “I felt very clearly that as the smallest company, and the contemporary company, it was important that we had a very established choreographer,” says Sholem. “Because it would have made us very weak if we had been the company that had the new, start-up choreographer. We needed to flip the coin and have somebody with gravitas, like Christopher.”
Despite regular contact, none of the artistic directors will see the work of the other companies until the first technical rehearsal. Given the depth of involvement they would usually have in constructing their own triple-bills, this has been a new departure for all of them. “Normally when you’re creating a show, you’re responsible for putting all the various elements together,” says Sholem. “You’ve thought about it and you know how one piece works against another. This time, it’s different, but it’s been great because I’m working with people that I trust 100 per cent, and I know that the work Scottish Ballet and English National Ballet come up with is going to be fabulous.”
Once the tour starts, all the dancers will come together for daily class, because as Sholem says, “sweating in a studio together is the only way they’re actually going to integrate”. It’s an image that brings home the physicality of dance, which is, of course, what Dance GB is all about – demonstrating in an Olympic year that dancers are some of our finest athletes.
“Wayne, Ashley and I agreed that the show would have some kind of Olympics overview,” explains Sholem, “So we gave each choreographer the option of whether they followed the Olympic theme in their new piece, or not. But we said it could also just be about dancers being very powerful, athletic creatures.”
In the end, both Lawrance and Bruce have embraced the Olympic ideal, peppering their works with sporting references, albeit in an abstract way. But all of the pieces, all of the companies and all of the dancers will show just how similar high-level sport and professional dance are, in terms of hard work and commitment. “I always say that being a dancer is like being an Olympic athlete,” says Eagling. “You train not just for the Olympics every four years, or the European Championships, but you have to be at that level of Olympic fitness every year as a dancer. It’s like running a marathon, but with a big smile on your face.”
• Dance GB is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 19 – 23 June.
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