News: Talking choreography & collaboration

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Olympic opening ceremony London 2012 choreographers Temujin Gill & Sunanda Biswas Photo: Chantal Guevara

Dance UK’s National Choreographers’ Conference took over the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells on Saturday (11 May) for a day and evening packed with sessions from over 25 speakers working in dance across west end theatre, contemporary dance, film, music and TV. Lise Smith went along to the morning session…

The flawed but widely held image of a choreographer as someone who slaves alone in a studio to create material, neatly counted in sets of eights, that is then simply handed over to a cast of dancers was one usefully challenged by Dance UK’s National Choreographer’s Conference (formerly Choreoforum) this weekend. For one thing, we heard from a range of speakers who have worked with actors, musicians, film extras and community volunteers as well as companies of trained dancers. For another, the central theme was the importance of collaboration in creating choreography, working with a diverse range of other creative professionals from theatre and television directors to lighting and set designers, as well as facilitating input from performers to make work.

Modelled on the popular TED talks format (www.ted.com) where experts speak fairly briefly on a themed topic, this year’s conference, chaired by choreographer Alex Reynolds, welcomed 25 speakers from the areas of dance, theatre, film and television. The first session of the day was a fascinating look behind the scenes of last year’s Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies, with closing ceremony director Kim Galvin, opening ceremony choreographers Temujin Gill and Sunanda Biswas and their dance captain Eilidh Ross. One of the themes to emerge from this session was the complexity of working on the scale of the Olympic ceremonies. Gill and Biswas choreographed the “swing” section of tap and lindy-hop, memorably celebrating the NHS and children’s literature during the opening ceremony. As well as communicating with 1,400 volunteer dancers, their work had to navigate 350 moving beds, dozens of flying Mary Poppinses and a 90-foot inflatable Voldemort. “Working with mass movement, with these 350 beds was like doing mathematics,” says Biswas. “Working out how many nurses have to push this bed and how many kids. Every time you came into work something had changed, and every time there was a change there was a knock-on effect to the whole piece.”

Gill reveals that the children and adults were taught material separately, requiring even more kitchen-table planning to ensure a successful final result. “The first time we saw it all together, it was so beautiful and so magical that it worked together,” he says. Gill and Biswas found the PREVIS pre-visualisation tool, which allowed them to look at video mock-ups of the whole ceremony on a computer, invaluable to the process. “I didn’t know how to use it at first but by the end they couldn’t get me out of the room, because it’s such a lovely tool to have!” laughs Gill. Dance captain Eilidh Ross also proved a highly useful tool of a different kind, taking on both creative and communication roles with the volunteers.

Choreographer and stage director Kim Galvin, who had previously worked on stadium and arena tours with Take That, faced the unique challenge of creating two closing ceremonies staged four weeks apart, with the first performed just 17 hours after the last event of the Games. The very broad brief for both events was “it had to be a celebration – that’s all I was given.” Volunteers rehearsed in a wet and windy Dagenham car-park big enough to contain a full-scale mock up of the stadium; rehearsal video reveals both the challenges of the weather and the commitment of the volunteers. “Would I do it again?” asks Galvin. “Yes, but not for a while!”

Two themes that rose repeatedly over the course of the morning were the importance of communication between collaborators, and the need to adapt when necessary. Dramaturg Lu Kemp describes her role as being all about communication and language – clarifying ideas in the rehearsal room, facilitating dialogue between artist and performers, and helping artists communicate their work to an audience. Theatre and television choreographer Lucie Pankhurst emphasises the need to make sure everybody is working towards the same aim. “If the dancers understand the bigger picture, especially in comedy where they might be facilitating a gag, if they feel alright they will do it well,” she says.

In a talk reflecting on 20 years of theatre collaboration, director Peter Rowe and choreographer Francesca Jaynes discussed how a successful collaboration means working together on all aspects of a production rather than strictly dividing roles in the rehearsal room. “I think our contribution comes in three thirds,” says Jaynes. “A third is me, a third is him and the most interesting is the third that’s both of us.” Rowe talks of the need to balance careful planning with responsiveness to what happens in the studio: “One of our great strengths as a partnership is knowing when to depart from the plan. A lot of what we’re working with is performers’ abilities and talents, and trying to incorporate them into what we do in a really organic way.”

Choreographer Liam Steel, who recently worked on Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Miserables, agrees with this principle. “Prepare everything, plan nothing,” he advises. “You never know where the camera is going to be, you have to be able to change everything, rework stuff completely in ten minutes to make sure that things are being seen. You need to have enough research, enough preparation to be able to do that.” Steel’s job also included managing hundreds of extras and negotiating some very fragile star egos, touching again on the theme of communication and diplomacy.

Another key theme that emerged from the morning was that of stepping back and letting go in order to work towards a shared artistic vision. Gill and Biswas knew that they had to shape their section to fit within Danny Boyle’s overall vision for the opening ceremony: “The closer we got to the performance we lost our ‘voice’ and it had to be given over to the creative team,” says Gill. “That’s hard but you have to let that go.” Liam Steel had a similar experience working on Les Mis: “We choreographed this ball, this researched-to-the-hilt period dance. We didn’t finish until 10 o’ clock at night, those poor dancers’ feet were bleeding, and not a bit of it went into the film. And you have to let go of it,” he says.

Afternoon speakers included Dance UK patron Robert Cohan and choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh talking about their experiences of collaboration, and a discussion on gender in collaboration with Charlotte Vincent, Jane Coulston and Holly Noble. Theatre director Rufus Norris talked about working alongside Javier De Frutos, and there were fascinating insights into production design from Michael Howells.

Working collaboratively has allowed all the choreographers present at the conference opportunities to work in a rich and organic way across a variety of media, although it certainly comes with a raft of challenges that must be negotiated with patience, diplomacy – and sometimes with the help of technology. “When I trained at The Place,” says Lucie Pankhurst, “the word ‘collaboration’ conjured up a gorgeous image of everyone wearing hessian in a studio,with somebody banging a drum and somebody painting, and it’s wonderful.” Her real-world experience of collaboration, however, is that it begins online with email dialogue and exchanges of video clips – “and then it comes together in a studio by some dark alchemy. And I love it!”

Links to further information about speakers at the conference on Dance UK’s website

Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher, as well as a regular contributor to londondance.com, londonist & Arts Professional

Photos: Chantal Guevara

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