Interview: choreographer Kim Brandstrup

The choreographer talks about changes he has seen in his 32 years of dance-producing

“Suddenly everyone’s carrying out narrative,” says Kim Brandstrup. If the London-based Danish choreographer enables himself a sly smile, it is possibly simply because he has been telling stories in dance because he very first began at the London Contemporary Dance College in the early 1980s. Drawing heavily on his early instruction as a film-maker, his Arc Dance Firm, founded in 1985, cornered the marketplace in narrative movement at a time when abstraction was the norm. Arc disbanded in 2005 but his distinctive brand of intelligent, characterful storytelling has been in strong demand ever since with each classical and modern troupes.

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When I catch up with him, Brandstrup is at Rambert’s headquarters on London’s South Bank, exactly where he is operating on the final rehearsals of a new production of Transfigured Evening for the business. Since the 59-year-old dancemaker produced Songs of a Wayfarer for Rambert in 2004, Mark Baldwin and his dancers have moved from their leaky, ramshackle premises in Chiswick, west London to a shiny new home behind the National Theatre. And it isn’t just the architecture that has changed: “It’s another business,” Brandstrup shrugs. “No a single is left.”

Dancers come and go but the biggest modify he has observed right here and elsewhere since he began making dances back in 1983 is in the bodies he performs with. “I started to notice it via the 1990s, when hip-hop and martial arts were becoming much more prominent amongst male dancers, and you can also see it in the girls now: the sheer athleticism, the upper-physique strength, the strength of the arms. [The dancers in] this firm are stronger physical animals than they have been 10 years ago. It is very exciting.”

Kim Brandstrup, photographed at Rambert’s headquarters on London’s South Bank last week©Trent McMinn

Kim Brandstrup, photographed at Rambert’s headquarters on London’s South Bank final week

There has also been a fundamental shift in attitude, with rank-and-file dancers significantly less content to be lay figures in the choreographer’s patterns. “Giving dancers a sense of ownership in the procedure is a lot a lot more prominent now: regardless of whether it comes from you or whether or not it is generated as improvisation, it has to belong to them.”

Often this emphasis on the pleasures of the studio can result in director and performers to turn inward, reinforcing the fourth wall, and Brandstrup’s understated, virtually cerebral style can stray perilously close to self-absorption. Wade by means of his press cuttings and the same words appear to recur. “Cinematic” is maybe inevitable, given the way his narratives zoom and crosscut but other go-to adjectives — “nuanced”, “allusive”, “subtle” — can read nearly like coded criticism. Is there a danger that his clear relish for the creative method prevents him seeing the view from the stalls?

“Editing is very crucial,” he says. “At a particular moment I step appropriate back and watch it with an ice-cold eye. You have to be very hard on yourself. I do invite men and women in, simply because as quickly as you sit subsequent to somebody you notice if anything is not clear or if it goes on for as well extended.”

After 32 years in the enterprise, Brandstrup is not quick of commissions but it tends to be directors who make the very first move. “I’m not the pitching kind,” he admits. His current collaboration with New York City Ballet came about after a opportunity meeting with Peter Martins at the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Deborah Warner’s Eugene Onegin, for which Brandstrup supplied the choreography. “Just in passing, I mentioned: ‘One day I would love to function with City Ballet,’ and he mentioned: ‘Of course.’ And that was it.” Brandstrup is nonetheless buzzing with the thrill of his first brush with the company’s work ethic.

“I had a fabulous time. There is anything incredibly un-neurotic about the dancers there. Quite often when you come into a new company, you have to negotiate the scenario, use your psychological abilities, feel the chemistry of the group. But they are incredibly matter-of-reality. They just come in and say: ‘What need to we do?’ There was no worrying about ‘how I look’ or ‘how I feel’. It was a bit of a shock in a way, simply because that negotiation is usually component of the method, but they were so prepared to go that I had to make things quite rapidly. You could go straight to the point.”

New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring perform Kim Brandstrup’s ‘Jeux’ earlier this month©Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring execute Kim Brandstrup’s ‘Jeux’ earlier this month

Employing Debussy’s Jeux for NYCB was his personal concept but it was Mark Baldwin, Rambert’s artistic director, who recommended Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 sextet Verklärte Nacht for Transfigured Night. Brandstrup was initially hesitant, locating it challenging to dissociate the score from Antony Tudor’s 1942 ballet Pillar of Fire.

“It’s too a lot to say I was ‘put off’, but I was apprehensive because of the expressionism of the music — I see Germanic early modern day dance, Max Reinhardt friezes,” says Brandstrup. The Richard Dehmel poem that inspired Schoenberg, with its tale of a man who forgives his lover for carrying yet another man’s kid, was a further obstacle. “When you read the poem it does appear really dated, the idealisation of the wonderful woman and the fantastic man who forgives her. It doesn’t fairly ring correct so I was listening out for anything slightly far more actual.”

Dancers are stronger physical animals than they had been 10 years ago. It is really exciting

Schoenberg’s score, like Dehmel’s poem, is in 5 sections, but Brandstrup has divided the action more merely. “The very first half is all the worst fears you have if you have to confess one thing extremely severe to a loved a single, all the fears of rejection and loneliness. The other half is the idealised version of what you would really like to take place: that he forgives you and absolutely nothing is a difficulty. And then I’ve created a coda at the finish exactly where the hurt and battered couple locate each and every other and forgive each other.”

Simone Damberg Würtz, Miguel Altunaga, Hannah Rudd and Dane Hurst have been selected as the couples inhabiting his two alternative realities. Casting has always been essential for Brandstrup. In 1993 he created Antic (a version of Hamlet) purely simply because he had identified his excellent prince (dancer and choreographer Jeremy James, who died in 2000). The Return of Don Juan, made six years later, would have been unthinkable without the brooding, charismatic presence of ex-Bolshoi star Irek Mukhamedov, and Brandstrup was equally rapid to exploit the nervy rapport between Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin in his Invitus Invitam for the Royal Ballet in 2010.

Brandstrup’s ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’, performed by Rambert in 2004©Anthony Crickmay

Brandstrup’s ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’, performed by Rambert in 2004

“I don’t know whether it’s because of my background in film but I always have to cast from who the actor is as a individual. It doesn’t mean that the functions can’t be passed on, but that initial spark comes from two things: the dancers and the music.”

The complete-firm piece Transfigured Night was created in a joyous burst of creativity this July. “It was a treat for me to come back to Rambert. When you work with ballet companies you get one particular hour a week with the principal couple, possibly an hour with everyone else, but right here I had everyone in the studio for six hours a day, for six weeks. This has been significantly closer to what I used to do with Arc: it is a uncommon luxury these days.”

The production itself also harks back to his more minimalist (and budget-conscious) beginnings with styles by Chloe Lamford (1984, The Twits).

“It’s just a mirrored floor,” Brandstrup says. “Design is very important but it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can make anything out of really little — it can at times be done just with lighting. But when the curtain goes up you have got to take individuals somewhere else — it does not matter exactly where.”

‘Transfigured Night’, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, October 28-31 Sadler’s Wells, London, November 3- 7, and touring. rambert.org.uk

Photographs: Trent McMinn Paul Kolnik Anthony Crickmay

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Section: Arts