Interview: Martin Boyce on his set-designing for Scottish Ballet

TURNER prize-winning Martin Boyce is revelling in the space he’s created for Scottish Ballet’s Run For It, writes Susan Mansfield.

TURNER prize-winning Martin Boyce is revelling in the space he’s created for Scottish Ballet’s Run For It, writes Susan Mansfield.

There is a distinguished tradition of artists designing for ballet, from Picasso and Matisse working with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes to Michael Clark’s collaborations with Sarah Lucas and Peter Doig. So, Martin Boyce is in good company. The man who last year became the third consecutive Glasgow artist to win the Turner Prize has designed the set for Run For It, a ballet by ­Martin Lawrance which is now part of Scottish Ballet’s triple bill autumn season.

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He describes the experience of seeing the work premiered by the company (as part of Dance GB during the Cultural Olympiad) as “fantastic”. “It’s a bit like doing an exhibition – when you’re installing, it’s just stuff, and then as you get closer and closer to being finished, something transforms: it’s turned into art. The audience brings so much to the situation as well, so to be in the packed theatre and see it in action was really amazing.”

Boyce’s studio in the Mercat Building at Glasgow Cross is a place of quiet industry. One assistant sits in front on an immense iMac, while another is folding waxed paper leaves, first used in Boyce’s show representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2009, and since shown in Berlin and New York. She lays the completed leaves on a version of a jagged Jean Prouvé library table, one of Boyce’s Turner Prize works.

Boyce’s work is inspired by modernism, classic designs like Eames shelving units, Jacobsen chairs and futuristic architecture by the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Oscar Niemeyer. But it has the melancholy of a modernism which has aged: objects designed as utilitarian are on the one hand worn and graffitied, on the other fetishised and collected. He creates urban and suburban spaces which are all but forgotten, inspired by glimpses at night from the windows of trains. The Scottish Ballet set, a pillar and intricate ceiling of folded
geometric shapes, was inspired by the futuristic design of the Communist Party headquarters in Paris by Brazilian architect Niemeyer.

The project began two years ago, when Boyce, along with fellow artists Katy Dove and Victoria Morton, were invited to take part in a series of workshops at Scottish Ballet. “It was very open. I spent a lot of time sitting in on rehearsals and talking to the choreographers. At every turn, all my preconceptions of ballet were blown out of the water. The sheer physicality of it, the strength and control – being up close to the dancers you really appreciate that. Any notion of ballet being some sort of fey activity was soon gone, it is incredibly demanding, for the body and the mind.”

The music used in the workshop, by Steve Reich, made Boyce think of pointillist painting – “it was very episodic, very percussive” – and then of the ceiling of Niemeyer’s domed conference room, “which is made up of these individual aluminium fins, with all the light coming from behind it. The whole building is very sci-fi, the lobby space has this undulating green carpet, it looks like this amazing landscape”.

Boyce was asked to adapt his set for Run For It, a high-energy work inspired by athletics, using music by John Adams. He also went on to make a ceiling as part of his Turner Prize show. The Scottish Ballet work, however, needed to function not only as a sculpture, but to meet the demands of performance: open access from the sides, lighting from below as well as above. Boyce’s original idea, that it could be raised and lowered, had to be ditched because one of the Cultural Olympiad performances took place in a tent. But in the end he was pleased with the result. “Now I like the subtlety of what can be done with the lighting. It is all about what the dancers are doing. While, of course, the set brings a lot to that, at the end of the day it’s there to support the dance.”

It’s Boyce’s second big collaborative project in as many years. He has also been working with composer Raymond MacDonald and filmmaker David Mackenzie in a ongoing collaboration supported by Creative Scotland’s Vital Sparks Fund. The first part of their work, Scarecrows and Lighthouses, was performed at Tramway in February, combining film, sculpture, improvised music and spoken word. The second part was earmarked for October but has been postponed due to the busy work schedules of all involved.

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Boyce says the process of experimenting together, during a stay in Lebanon at the iconic Palmyra Hotel, Baalbeck, took all three into new areas.

“We did all sorts of things: improvised acting sessions, improvised music using little trinkets and things that were in the rooms of the hotel. I guess we all felt comfortably outside of our comfort zone.

“For me there’s always a collaborative element because there are always other people involved in making the work, but I am completely in control of the outcome. I never had myself down as a control freak, but you’ve spent the last 20 years fine-tuning your interests, the things you’re drawn to or inspired by and your reference points, and then to have two other people bringing all their 20 years of baggage into the mix …” he pauses, thoughtfully. “It’s kind of exciting.”

As this year’s Turner Prize exhibition is unveiled at Tate Britain next week, with Glasgow’s Luke Fowler hoping to make it four-in-a-row, Boyce will be recalling his own moment in the spotlight a year ago. Artists who have won the Turner tend to be either elated or traumatised by the experience: Boyce had a great time. “There was nothing bad about it. The press were quite supportive of it, which helped. A lot of my anxieties about what I was going to step into went quite quickly. Winning it was just the icing on the cake.”

Next year, he has exhibitions in New York and Glasgow, and, in 2014, his first solo museum show in St Louis, Missouri. Is this fallout from the prize? “People say things like ‘I bet the phone hasn’t stopped ringing,’ but it’s quite difficult to put your finger on what has changed. I had already been talking to the curator in St Louis for quite a long time, I wonder if the Turner solidified that process? It certainly has an effect on people’s consciousness. Having ‘Turner Prize winner’ after your name, people’s ears prick up.”

• Scottish Ballet’s autumn season is a triple bill featuring Run For It, William Forsythe’s Workwithinwork and Hans van Manen’s 5 Tangos. It opens on 4 October at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, then tours to Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen.

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