Feature: Re-staging MacMillan's 'Sea of Troubles'

Tuesday 10 May 2016 by Rachel Elderkin

Yorke Dance Project's Phil Sanger & Amy Thake rehearse 'Sea of Troubles'. Photo: Charlotte Macmillan

Recently our contributor Rachel Elderkin spent some time with Yorke Dance Project as part of their Professional Pathways Programme. The programme offers undergraduates, graduates and emerging dance artists the opportunity to work alongside the company during the creation of a new project. Rachel joined the company’s rehearsals for their upcoming Autumn tour which includes works by Robert Cohan, Kenneth MacMillan, Yolande Yorke-Edgell and Charlotte Edmonds. This was an opportunity to learn the new works as they were created and act as understudy to a company dancer. During the project she was able to be involved with the process of re-staging a MacMillan work from scratch and, as both a dancer and writer, the process has proved intriguing – from the initial process of learning the steps to forming a work ready for performance.

Sea of Troubles is one of Kenneth Macmillan’s lesser known works. It was originally created for Dance Advance in 1988, a company founded by a group of dancers who broke away from the Royal Ballet with the intention of creating and performing in their own works. The original company was formed of Russell Maliphant, Stephen Sheriff, Michael Batchelor, Susie Crow, Sheila Styles and Jennifer Jackson. Their venture was supported by Macmillan and he conceived a new work for the company based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Created for just six dancers, Sea Of Troubles was designed to tour small venues and was performed by Dance Advance across the UK. Scottish Ballet adopted the work two years later and, while it has since been performed by other companies, it remains a work that is seldom seen.

So why have Yorke Dance Project (YDP) decided to revive this relatively unknown piece? Like Dance Advance, YDP is a small company of dancers. They create and perform works by acclaimed choreographers (one of their regular collaborators and supporters is Robert Cohan) as well as new choreographers, across the UK and in the US. “I have a strong passion for reviving works that can really inform the dancers and the audience,” explains Yolande Yorke-Edgell, founder and Artistic Director of YDP. “Sea of Troubles was suggested during a board meeting regarding our next programme and I was excited to hear that MacMillan had made a work on a company outside of a major ballet company. MacMillan has always been a choreographer I have greatly admired – I find the physicality, emotional content and the complex partner-work in his choreography fascinating.”

Lady Macmillan, who herself did the original design for the piece, agreed to support YDP in reconstructing the work after seeing a performance of their then current production, Figure Ground. She suggested that Yolande get in touch with Jane Elliott, the original Benesh notator for Sea of Troubles, as well as Susie Crow, to help coach the dancers of YDP.

“Lady Macmillan was incredibly supportive from the start,” says Yolande. “As well as attending our first rehearsal for the piece, she was pivotal in bringing everyone together, including her daughter, Charlotte Macmillan, who came in to take photographs.”

A meticulous revival process began, using a combination of Jane’s original notation alongside old rehearsal videos and performance footage. Having worked side by side with Macmillan during the creative process for Sea of Troubles Jane’s extensive knowledge was an invaluable part of the reconstruction process, particularly as the piece works around a complex score of variable time signatures and movement set to precise counts. Although the last time Jane had revisited Sea Of Troubles was for the Scottish Ballet production, having worked out the counts for the entire ballet herself she was still very clear on the musical phrasing. With movement and music so tightly knit, the musicality of Sea of Troubles became a time consuming part of the reconstruction process. Yolande and Jane agree that the main challenges in re-staging this work have been musical, both for the dancers learning the choreography and from a technical aspect. “When Sea of Troubles was first performed it was to live music,” says Yolande. “We had to search for a recording that was used by Adam Cooper who had reconstructed the work in 2002, which took a while to track down, so in the meantime we were working with various recordings I found on iTunes, none of which were the right tempo for the whole piece – there are nine sections to the work, each with a change of tempo. When we finally got the recording it generally worked aside from one section that was considerably faster than the one we had been working with but, actually, it brought more life to that section and in the end it worked.”

The technical details of the movement presented less of a problem, although with a very different company of dancers from those on which the work was originally created it was inevitable that minor adjustments would have to be made. However, steps and sections that at first felt old-fashioned soon began to breathe again as they settled into new bodies and as the intention behind them became clearer.

“The original female dancers which MacMillan choreographed for were considerably shorter, so some of the partner work either had to be adjusted or we had to swap partners” says Yolande; although as the characters change roles throughout the work this turned out to be a fitting solution. “Maybe the steps that were made on those particular dancers [Dance Advance] would have been slightly different had Kenneth been working with these dancers – he might not have done some of the choreography he did,” Jane points out. “However that’s what he did, so we have to make it work so that it suits them and so that they can make it their own as well.”

The idea of the dancers making the work their own is perhaps one of the most essential parts of the re-staging process. Watching Sea of Troubles evolve, and then seeing it on stage, you begin to realise the complexity of Macmillan’s choreography; the precision with which each step has been created, the carefully planned structure of the work – the sense that behind every movement there is meaning.

“There are many layers to MacMillan’s work and you can really see this when it is being broken down to learn,” notes Yolande. “The movements all have intention behind them, so the dancer has to know what is being conveyed; the essence of the movement has to be clear and then what is happening has to be portrayed dramatically without ‘acting’ the role.”

To achieve this, the support and involvement of those involved in the original piece has proved invaluable. Susie Crow joined rehearsals to provide direction to the dancers on technical details and characterisation – a first-hand insight into the thoughts and meanings behind Macmillan’s precisely choreographed movements. A documentary featuring sections from the final version of Sea of Troubles, with Macmillan talking about the new work for Dance Advance, was also found. It offered a rare chance to hear him share his own thoughts on the piece.

“The most important thing is that the dancers convey what the choreographer’s intentions were for the work; the meaning, the essence and the ideas,” says Yolande.“The dancers will never be the same twice, even the same dancer on a different performance night, but the choreographer’s intention behind the movement and the story has to be the same, so that the audience experiences what the choreographer had in mind”

Based around nine separate scenes in which the dancers interchange the characters they play, Sea of Troubles focuses more on Hamlet’s psychological state than the literal story. An awareness of the original intention therefore becomes a fundamental part of the reconstruction process, especially when working with a piece built around a character’s thoughts and feelings.

“I’ve seen the results of other people who haven’t worked from the score, and weren’t there at the creation, and it has shifted so far,” observes Jane. “You see one person’s interpretation of something – and that might not be the original intention of the choreographer. So I really felt it my duty, particularly with Yolande who’s so meticulous about these things, to bring the piece right back to where it was.”

Much like the play on which it is based, the emotional themes within Sea of Troubles can still resonate with audiences today. It’s an intense work and far from a straightforward interpretation of Hamlet. Instead, it creates a sense of the emotions its characters experience, structured around the interconnected relationships of Shakespeare’s play. For Jane that’s the beauty of it. “I think it’s the atmosphere that’s created. The way it moves in and out of Hamlet’s story, the fact that it’s not pinned on any one person in any particular role. It’s quite mesmeric when you watch it on stage. When it finishes you think, ‘I don’t quite know what I’ve just seen but it’s extraordinary.’ I think that’s what makes this piece very special.”

The detail of YDP’s reconstruction process has ensured that their revival of the work remains as faithful to the original as possible. From obtaining the original costumes (which were stored with Scottish Ballet) to tracking down the only set piece used in Sea of Troubles – an arras. With the exception of the arras, which was obtained from English National Ballet, everything you see on stage in Sea of Troubles is from the original work.

Jane believes that for a piece to be faithful to what it was you have to have ‘everything’: “Musicality, phrasing, dynamics, intention, flow – everything that it should be. There’s nothing missing. Artistically it has to be brought back to the best you can possibly bring it to with the dancers that you have.”

Yet as much as faithfulness, it has been the support and encouragement of those originally involved, an almost family-like feel, that has resulted in returning this work to life. “It was an honour to have all of these wonderful people share their memories and thoughts on the work, to pass on their insight and what they experienced,” says Yolande. “It has given us a clear focus on what we wanted to achieve.”

While the creation of new work is an exciting prospect, and one which offers endless possibilities, there’s also something undeniably special about resurrecting the old. To return an old work to life you have to revisit the time when it was created; embody the characters and the emotions once again. In doing so, you gain an insight into the thoughts of that choreographer, at least to an extent. With Sea of Troubles, this has been a chance for some of those originally involved to revisit those memories too.

“Sea of Troubles was a great experience,” Jane recalls. “At the time that I got roped in to doing it I was upstairs teaching at London Studio Centre. Some of the company members of Dance Advance came to ask if I could do it – Kenneth wouldn’t work without a notator. Then Kenneth himself walked into the room and said ‘oh how wonderful, you got me a notator!’ I’d just walked away from notation completely – I’d gone back into teaching and choreography and had been very happy to stop. But we ended up working together a lot after that as we got on so well. I went on to do Winter Dreams with him at the Royal Opera House and Carousel at The National Theatre. So I am really pleased to do this. I’m thrilled that this piece has been brought back.”

YDP are highly supportive of new work (in the summer they will be running the Cohan Collective – a two-week residency for choreographers and composers to create new work) but Yolande also recognises the worth of placing this alongside more historical pieces.

The reconstruction process gives a valuable insight into the work of these master choreographers. For instance, when Robert Cohan is reconstructing a work he will pass on information that he received from Martha Graham, Dorris Humphrey or Ted Shawn. When reconstructing Sea of Troubles we heard about Macmillan’s thoughts and his process behind the work. This is all wonderful information that is rarely heard and experienced. So it is not just about putting a past work on stage, it is about the process, the educational value and the impact it has on the dancers learning it; they take on new information, are challenged in a new way and grow as artists.

The process of putting a work on-stage is, after all, the largest part of the challenge. The final piece the audience sees is a reflection of everything that has gone in to creating, or re-staging, it.

Inevitably, that comes across in the work and, when you watch Sea Of Troubles, there is something intriguing about it. Whether that comes from the drama and the emotions of the piece or the way that it etches into your memory, it’s as if the precision of Macmillan’s choreography, the intention behind each movement, emanates through the final work that you see – even if there’s times when you’re not quite sure what’s going on.

Just like Shakespeare’s play, there’s a sense of timelessness to this piece. As Jane states, in her ever practical manner, “if a piece is good, it’s good and it will last forever.”

YDP’s tour of Inspirit, which will include Kenneth Macmillan’s Sea of Troubles, will take place in Autumn 2016 and Spring 2017. YDP will also be touring their production Dancing Sacred which visits cathedrals and churches nationwide.

Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dancer and dance writer. She has written for a number of arts publications and regularly contributes to The Stage, Fjord Review and British Theatre Guide. Twitter: @Rachel_Elderkin

Photos: Charlotte MacMillan

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