Interview: Yolande Yorke-Edgell on staging Sea of Troubles

Monday 13 November 2017

In 1988 Kenneth MacMillan made a work for Dance Advance, a newly formed company of ballet dancers who wanted to cut loose from the hierarchical structure of the Royal Ballet in search of creative freedom and independence. MacMillan gifted the fledgling company Sea of Troubles, a choreographic work that in many respects mirrors such ideas of freedom.

Fascinated by the murky inner world of the characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, MacMillan created this emotive dramatic ballet for six performers exploring the role of angst coupled with revenge. The 35-minute piece, danced barefoot, is composed of nine vignettes where which each character is haunted by both a ghost and their own guilt.

As part of Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration, a festival that brought together leading British dance companies to celebrate MacMillan’s legacy on the 25th anniversary of his death, Yorke Dance Project performed Sea of Troubles in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House.

So how did the company gain access to the late choreographer’s work? “I approached Deborah MacMillan and she came to watch us perform and then agreed to allow us to reconstruct the Ballet,” explains Yolande Yorke-Edgell, choreographer and founder of Yorke Dance Project.

Good fortune followed when Lady MacMillan, who conceived the original design for the piece, put Yorke-Edgell in touch with Jane Elliot, the original Benesh notator for the piece, as well as Susie Crow, to help train the dancers of Yorke Dance Project and Charlotte MacMillan (MacMillan’s daughter who photographed the process.)

Yorke-Edgell explains the process behind reconstructing a ballet with such a complex structure has been a fascinating one: “I learnt so much more about how Kenneth approached his work and the importance of the finer details in his creations from a simple stare to a hand gesture.”

This, she says, was deeply enriched by having first-hand knowledge of the material during the rehearsal period: “Luckily with the original Benesh notator, dancers as well as the daughter of Deborah MacMillan – a teenager at the time of the ballet’s creation with her own memories of it – is as first-hand as you get.”

A departure from some of the more familiar ballets in his repertoire, MacMillan does not attempt to tell the play’s story. He repeats key scenes in different order so that the dancers swap roles from scene to scene. There are three women to play Gertrude and Ophelia, three men as everybody else. Identity changes are aided by swift costume swaps – shrouds for the ghost Ophelia’s veil, crowns for Gertrude and Claudius – but most importantly, through gestures, a physical exploration of the characters through intention, not just ballet steps.

“It’s all about the intention behind the movement here. The challenge of reviving such a work is trying to identify the right intention, the accurate way of dancing it and its original musicality. This is a detailed process. The physicality of storytelling happens here not just through dance-steps, but the intention behind them, Yorke-Edgell explains.

So what was the biggest challenge involved in re-creating such a work? “Confronted with the original choreography, you encounter all obstacles. The three female dancers originally cast, for example, were petite little things. We have taller dancers, so some of the lift work was impossible to achieve. Once you’ve got the material the dancers have to make it believable and work with what’s there.”

Another challenge to overcome was the interpretation of the music. The scores, by Webern and Martinu were used by MacMillan to reflect the shifting personas of the characters in the ballet. But as Yorke-Edgell discovered, it was hard to find the original musicality in the piece. “The music poses problems,” she says.

“We rehearsed with recorded music while MacMillan used live music so it’s a very different process. There are a lot of cues so one note of piano could reflect when a dancer turns around. Rhythms are key to what’s happening choreographically, so if they are played marginally different, you may miss that moment because it’s so subtle, but enough to throw the pace of the piece.”

And it’s intrinsic attention to details that drives Yorke-Edgell in her work and indeed one of the reasons why she is so drawn to MacMillan. “As a choreographer, I am interested in technicality. We are a small company and I come from a ballet background so I am fascinated by how technique changes the body. I like the strength of dance and to see how technique on bodies manifests. That’s why I have such specific requirements for the dancers I work with.”

Yorke Dance Project also had the luxury of a longer timescale to invest in preparing compared to a large-scale ballet company, where the work would be in rep and dancers given little time to prepare. “Here, the dancers had a chance to totally immerse themselves in the process from watching the play, learning about MacMillan first-hand to longer rehearsal time,” she explains.

Yorke-Edgell is also grateful to have had to chance to perform the ballet in different regions across the UK. “There are people who have never even seen a MacMillan ballet, let alone _Sea of Troubles_” she says.

Overall though, what has made the project so special for her is the chance to observe close-up the genius of MacMillan and this ultimately feeds back into her own work. “I create narrative pieces with clean attention, focus with the aim of understanding how everyone interacts on stage. I’ve watched Sea of Troubles countless times, but each time, I learn something new.”

Yolande Yorke-Edgell spoke to Rachel Nouchi. Rachel Nouchi is a writer/movement researcher from Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and contributes arts based features and reviews covering UK performance. You can find her on Twitter @NouchiR

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