Interview: Stina Quagebeur

Tuesday 13 May 2014 by Laura Dodge

Stina Quagebeur. Photo: Laurent Liotardo

Following Lest We Forget, their remarkable programme of new work marking the centenary of the First Word War, English National Ballet are back at the Barbican next week with Choreographics – a platform for home grown up and coming talent. Laura Dodge met up with Stina Quagebeur, one of four choreographers who have made new works inspired by texts about the First World War, to chat about creation, character roles and collaboration….

I meet Belgian-born Stina at a café in Kensington. She has a rare two-hour gap between rehearsals and orders orange juice and lots of water. “I haven’t been drinking enough. It’s just so busy at the moment.” Not only is Stina rehearsing Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath for a performance at the Imperial War Museum North and learning the role of Lady Capulet for Derek Deane’s Romeo and Juliet, but she’s also perfecting her own choreography, Vera, for Choreographics.

“I was lucky to have a very cultured upbringing” she says. “I saw lots of shows in Brussels as a child, including some very diverse repertoire like Mats Ek and Maurice Béjart. Every time I saw a performance, I would make up my own version inspired by the choreographer and would sell tickets to my parents to watch! I’m amazed now when I think back to how contemporary my style was then.”

Stina trained at White Lodge (the Royal Ballet Lower School) and English National Ballet School (ENBS), choreographing throughout. Aged 16, she came second in the White Lodge choreography competition, beaten only by Liam Scarlett. At ENBS, her choreography became an even bigger focus as she was injured for much of the second year. The school allowed her to stay an extra term to catch up and she made up a solo for her final performance, which was seen by Matz Skoog (then director of ENB). “I couldn’t believe that he offered me a job with the company. And it was great that it happened when I was performing my own choreography.”

Stina combined her choreography skills with a lot of ambition to put on full-length dance shows in Belgium as a teenager. “When I was 17, I saw how ENBS was able to put on a show. Really naively, I thought ‘I can do that’! I wanted to go back to my hometown and show everyone there what I was doing, so during the summer holidays I hired a local theatre and took ten students with me to perform. We put together a gala-type show, with some class exercises and pas de deux as well as lots of my choreography – both existing and new pieces. I had no idea how much work was involved with the marketing, designing posters and everything – but somehow we did it. And people loved it so much that I went back again two years later with ten dancers from the company.”

Stina has now been with English National Ballet for 10 years and is increasingly being cast in character roles. “I’m currently learning Lady Capulet which is wonderful. There’s a great chance to be individual and I love the challenge of making a role my own.” However, being in the corps de ballet can also be tough. Nutcracker is the hardest, especially Wayne Eagling’s version. Over Christmas, we do 11 shows a week for four weeks. You have no life except Nutcracker. Audiences don’t realise the hard work that goes into performing the corps roles like Snowflakes and Flowers. But other moments – like working with working with Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant on Lest We Forget – are just amazing.”

The choreography for ENB’s Lest We Forget took inspiration from World War One; works by Stina and fellow ENB dancers James Streeter, Makoto Nakamura and Fabian Reimair for next week’s Choreographics follow the same theme. “We were all given a poem as a starting point. Mine was In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. It’s where the poppy symbol comes from and I was struck by the emotion people experienced during the war.

“I did lots of research, like watching documentaries and plays and reading Vera Brittain’s autobiography. I even got drawn into finding out about the political debates of the time. I started with so many ideas – enough for a three act ballet. I’ve now scaled it down to ten minutes of quite abstract emotion. Entitled Vera, it’s a duet for Nancy Osbaldeston and Guilherme Menezes. I explore how the female character feels after her partner has died in battle. She goes through three stages. The first is loss and numbness, where you want the world to stand still. Then there is realisation and questioning, like ‘how did this happen?’, ‘why me?’ etc. Finally, she regains her sense of hope and finds the determination to carry on.”

The Choreographics works are intended to be a collaboration between choreographers and musicians but because of time pressures Stina is using existing music. “It’s very difficult because there are such tight timescales. New music has to be written before rehearsals even commence. I’m now using a score by Ivor Gurney. He was a soldier during the First World War and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals. Everything just clicked when I heard it – his music really complemented the ideas I had from the poem and Vera Brittain’s book.

Does Stina feel competitive towards the other company choreographers showing work? “I’m in my own tunnel, focused on my own vision. I don’t worry about what the other dancers are creating, though we did share some thoughts on our poems at the beginning of the process. The hardest thing for me was trying to collect ideas during rehearsals for Lest We Forget. I was learning Akram and Russell’s works and adopting their movement languages. I felt like I lost my own choreographic voice. The main challenge now is just finding enough time to rehearse as the English National Ballet studios and dancers are so busy.”

Stina is the only female choreographer taking part in this year’s Choreographics and is well aware of the challenges facing female creators. “Even in my White Lodge days, all the choreographers were male. It seems like men get more chances and women aren’t taken seriously. It’s as if people think females only choreograph as a hobby. It’s tough for women, especially in the ballet world. We are perceived as corps de ballet dancers, which is all about conformity. I think that makes us less valued as artists with individual voices.”

With a brand new website, Stina is determined to get more opportunities to create and show her work. “It’s so important to be out there and show what I do. I’ve put everything in one place with lots of photos and videos.

“As a dancer, you’re always doing what you’re told. But as a choreographer, you have control over everything. It’s all about my creative voice and it’s up to me to get the best out of the dancers and express something to the audience.”

Choreographics is at the Barbican Pit from 22 – 24 May. Stina’s Vera will be performed alongside work by James Streeter, Makoto Nakamura, Fabian Reimair and the winner of the English National Ballet School choreographic competition.

Laura Dodge writes for Dancing Times, Dance Today, Londonist, Bachtrack, amongst other publications. She is also Communications and Membership Officer at Dance UK and a freelance dance teacher.

Photo of Stina Quagebeur by Laurent Liotardo See gallery of some of her work below…

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post comments.

Sign in now

What’s On