Dance: Behind the scenes of Scottish Ballet’s new digital season

Sophie Martin, principal dancer with Scottish Ballet, in What Dreams We Have. Picture: David Eustace
Sophie Martin, principal dancer with Scottish Ballet, in What Dreams We Have. Picture: David Eustace
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Scottish Ballet’s new digital season allows the company to experiment and stay connected with fans around the world

For dancers, it’s just part of life – a daily routine that allows them those precious moments on stage a few times a year. “Company class,” as it’s known, builds and maintains technique, keeping them match fit for the next production. It may not be the highlight of their day, but as somebody who has had the privilege of watching such classes up close, I can tell you – it’s fascinating. Seeing bodies honed through years of training, minus the costumes and make-up that usually accompanies them on stage, is something all dance fans would appreciate – and now they can. Released and delivered online throughout April, Scottish Ballet’s digital season, Under the Skin, will bring audiences closer to the company and its work. The programme includes a live streaming of company class, and the chance to follow daily rehearsals as choreographer James Cousins makes a short piece in just one week.

“The concept behind the digital season is to show work you don’t usually get to see,” explains Scottish Ballet’s artistic director, Christopher Hampson. “And the various ways we’re producing that work, whether it’s film or art installation, really gets under the skin of dance and right behind what generates movement. With the filmed work, you really get to see the dancers up close.”

Dance may be at the heart of the digital season, but Hampson was keen to see other genres brought to the fore. To that end, he has worked with filmmaker David Eustace, poet Jackie Kay, digital artist Pawel Kudel and the wonders of 360 degree technology to encourage audiences to see dance differently.

“One thing that unifies all the projects in Under the Skin is the different artforms we’ve collaborated with,” explains Hampson. “My vision is that the other artform, which isn’t dance, is the primary one – and the artists use dance as a colour for their palette or a tool for their toolkit.”

Currently Scotland’s poet laureate, Jackie Kay was commissioned by Hampson to write a poem about ageing. In response to her words, Hampson choreographed a work for young Scottish Ballet dancer Mia Thompson, and Jill Ferguson, a member of the Scottish Ballet Elders company. The result is a short film exploring the connection between our younger and older selves.

“I brought Jackie in to spend a bit of time with the company before she wrote the poem,” says Hampson, “and asked her to reflect upon the memories that a body carries with it, the physical memory and muscle memory.

“I spoke to her about the work Scottish Ballet does with Parkinson’s sufferers and those facing the challenges of dementia, and just old age in general – because your body doesn’t do what it used to do, but it doesn’t mean you say any less with it.”

Two more short films will be released during the season. One is David Eustace’s haunting and atmospheric What Dreams We Have, shot at St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross with Scottish Ballet principal Sophie Martin. As Hampson says, dance in the film is “fleeting”, but Eustace has used it to communicate his vision, inspired by the poetry of 19th century African American writer Paul Dunbar.

The other short film, The Perfect Place, puts 360 degree technology in the starring role. Ideally watched via a smartphone, through Google Cardboard or the Samsung 360 viewer app (or by dragging your mouse on a computer), the film has been created in collaboration with the BBC, whose documentary The Making of The Perfect Place will also be released online.

“This season is about trying out all the new technology that’s out there,” says Hampson, “and The Perfect Place is a completely immersive film, so we’ve been exploring how you tell a story when the audience can look anywhere they like.

“But movement goes to the heart of one of our most basic instincts – if you see something out of the corner of your eye, you look. So we’ve played with that and I think we’ve succeeded, because I’ve shown the film to a few people and they’ve all done a 360 turn while they’re watching it.”

The works in the digital season will be drip-fed one at a time, with each project made available to view online. With the company about to embark on an extensive tour of the United States, Under the Skin is a way of reaching out to a global audience while still keeping the home crowd happy.

“Internationally, our YouTube hits are fantastic whenever we do online streaming,” says Hampson. “But while we’re on our US tour, it’s very important that we retain our presence nationally as well. So we’re able to get all of this out across Scotland – up to the Highlands and Islands and everywhere else. The great thing about digital is there 
are no borders, or very few, so it 
really helps us reach as many people as possible and share the work we do.” n

Scottish Ballet’s Under The Skin season can be seen at from 5 April