Interview: choreographer Struan Leslie

The movement director is making a perform that mixes acrobatic methods with music and poetry at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival

Struan Leslie, photographed earlier this month©Howard Sooley

Struan Leslie, photographed earlier this month

The days when an opera singer might be expected just to plant themselves centre stage and sing are extended gone. But even so, the prospect of a soprano spinning on a trapeze is fairly startling. That, however, is a likely scenario at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, exactly where the opening show combines Benjamin Britten, Arthur Rimbaud — and circus.

Sarah Tynan will sing Illuminations, Britten’s setting of Rimbaud’s surreal poems, in the firm of nine circus performers. She won’t be performing handstands even though singing — not the greatest position from which to project the voice. But the director Struan Leslie explains that she is likely to carry out a (non-vocal) trapeze duet and to “sing at some point from a piece of equipment”.

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Meanwhile, all through the piece, the circus artists will develop a physical response to the nine songs. Even the musicians — the innovative Aurora Orchestra, who have famously performed whole symphonies by heart — will be on the move. Though they won’t, sadly, be dangling from a trapeze.

“There was an early drawing whereby we had all the string players suspended from the ceiling,” says Leslie, adding, somewhat regretfully, that that specific concept bit the dust. “One day maybe! But we have got performers who are up for standing on best of a wardrobe and playing. That feels like really a big step.”

It all makes spinning a handful of plates sound really old hat. But for Leslie, this complex enterprise is a labour of adore. Getting trained at the London Contemporary Dance College and spent several years working on choreography and movement within theatre — like five years as head of movement for the RSC — he has lengthy been in search of a stage language for Rimbaud’s work that may well meet the wealthy, sensual imagery and elastic narrative of the poems.

“When I was nevertheless operating in the dance planet, just before I moved to theatre, I remember pondering, ‘How would you choreograph this?’” he recalls. “I workshopped a few suggestions and they in no way met it. But circus feels proper to me due to the fact it has a vertical element to it.

“The clue is in the title,” he adds. “They’re illuminations, not illustrations. There’s a sort of narrative but [the poems] are a lot more like visions or dreams. So it’s not about communicating narrative — that would be like attempting to pin things on to a line that wasn’t really there. It’s not about which means, it’s about an experience of some thing.”

Soprano Sarah Tynan with circus artists Craig Gadd and Matthew Smith©Ben Hopper

Soprano Sarah Tynan with circus artists Craig Gadd and Matthew Smith

Rimbaud’s poems inhabit a surreal globe, usually tumbling inside a phrase in between the realistic and the fantastical. “I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple garlands from window to window golden chains from star to star, and I dance” reads one particular section. You can see how circus performers may possibly express these pictures physically. But Leslie adds that there is also a relationship between the way Rimbaud uses words to create sensation rather than sense — “the moon burns and howls”, for instance — and the way acrobats stretch their bodies far beyond the functional.

“You hear it in Britten’s music, as well,” he says. “There are moments where it is reaching suspension points and then taking us over into another globe. And there’s that fantastic issue about circus performers — there’s a transformative power they have. They go from being human beings to becoming flying objects. “

Even so, I wonder whether there’s a danger that the visual and aural components of the performance could distract from a single one more? Leslie suggests that, on the contrary, physical overall performance can draw out shapes in the music. His job, he feels, is to “help folks to listen by means of seeing”.

“It’s like the way taste and smell are connected,” he adds. “I’m trying to make a connection in between seeing and hearing. For me there is anything about the rigour of the circus performer meeting the rigour and specificity of the musician that is genuinely fascinating.”

When I contact into the rehearsal area a week later, the possibilities right away grow to be clearer. Even just resting, the circus artists shift the parameters of physical normality. A single performer slides casually into the splits during a chat, although another balances on one hand and a third juggles hats. The movement in the room has a various high quality to regular: these are people comfy with getting inverted, hanging at fantastic height, shifting their bodies horizontally through space.

All nine are performers interested in pushing circus properly beyond a series of stunts into something much more expressive and responsive. Trapeze artist Eric McGill explains that for both them and the musicians this will be new territory.

“There’s a danger that when you combine art-types they all get watered down,” he says. “That’s not the case right here. We’re trying to locate a language through which the music and the abilities are functioning in tune.”

There are specific challenges, he adds, to matching circus moves to a severe piece of music. In contrast, say, to dance choreography, where moves can be produced, set and repeated on cue, there is an element of unpredictability — and danger — to circus.

“In circus, if someone’s not ready, you mustn’t do the move,” he explains. “Circus bands know this and will maybe repeat a bar a couple of times until the performers are prepared. But this will be distinct.”

Sarah Tynan with an ensemble of circus artists©Ben Hopper

Sarah Tynan with an ensemble of circus artists

I watch a section of rehearsal. Leslie is working with Aislinn Mulligan on the aerial silks: long strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling from which she can suspend herself mid-air. The aim is not just to react to the rhythm and shape of the music, but to find a deeper emotional and physical response and then let that response drive the movement.

“What we need is the tension in between your physicality and the music,” Leslie tells her. “So we do not end up with both undertaking the very same factor.”

As a haunting segment of Britten’s music oozes from the CD player, Mulligan starts by repeatedly falling backwards and recovering, like a person veering towards then away from a dark truth in a dream. She then extends that movement up into the silks to develop a sequence of vertiginous lunges and twists, each striking and unsettling.

Leslie says that there is a “hunger” in contemporary circus to use the expertise of the discipline to express, rather than impress. He points to the Australian group Circa, who visited this year’s London International Mime Festival with The Return, a harrowingly lovely piece about loss and displacement.

But there is also, he notes, keen interest in the use of physicality in much more traditional theatre. His work as movement director for stage productions has incorporated every thing from formal choreography to detailed operate ensuring that actors stand and sit in keeping with the setting of a drama, be it 19th-century Russia or Elizabethan England. We study body language unconsciously all the time in genuine life, he points out: theatre can use the audience’s ability in deciphering non-verbal communication to generate vivid expressive function.

“There are wonderful stories about circus companies choreographing falls in, due to the fact they know the audience will be really alert for the rest of the show,” he says. “I’m interested in that dirty edge. It fulfils one thing in our lives that we don’t necessarily get anywhere else . . . We need to give audiences anything that doesn’t make them behave as if they are watching a screen.”

‘Illuminations’, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh Festival, June 10-13 aldeburgh.co.uk

Photographs: Howard Sooley Ben Hopper

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Section: Arts


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