Interview: Yolande Yorke-Edgell

Monday 5 November 2012 by Carmel Smith

Yolande Yorke-Edgell. Photo: Pari Naderi

Former Rambert dancer Yolande Yorke-Edgell left the UK to dance with the Lewitzky Dance Company in the 1990s and later founded her own company– Yorke Dance Project. She returned to the UK and performed with, amongst others – Richard Alston and Adam Cooper, before in 2008, reforming her own company here. Later this month she brings her company to the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells. Words Worth is a rich programme of new work, including her own Noted, inspired by letters written by significant figures over five centuries, with music by winners of a new competition for rising young composers – and Easy to Love – Anton Du Beke’s (of Strictly Come Dancing fame) first foray into contemporary dance. She tells us more..

What was the inspiration for this programme Words Worth & your new work Noted ?
My inspiration for Noted came about because I started following Shaun Usher on twitter. He runs a site called Letters of Note where he posts fascinating letters, telegrams and notes. I came across a letter written by Marilyn Monroe which I found very moving. Looking more, I found so much that inspired me that I decided to put together a group of letters and make a new work based on these. Each letter is very different in theme, content, emotion and rhythm.

Once I knew what I wanted to do with Noted I began to think about the rest of the programme. I had wanted to bring back a piece that was very close to my heart – City Limitless based on the life of beat writer Jack Kerouac who has always inspired me. Since the piece was inspired by a writer and some of the movement is performed to Kerouac’s voice, it was clear that words were the connecting point. The three shorter works that make up Words Worth are all inspired by words in different ways.

You set up a Young Composers Competition with the Causeway Foundation – and have used music by the winners in Noted. Tell us how that came about -and how it worked. Were the winning works your starting point?
We do a lot of work with young artists of different disciplines and I have always wanted to collaborate with a composer and so the idea came about for a competition to find young composers. There were quite clear guidelines as I was looking for something very specific. The composers were asked to choose a letter and create a short work between three and six minutes in length that had to reflect the emotion, rhythm of the words and, very importantly, reference the date it was written. The letters span five centuries and I really wanted the music to reflect this.

Is music an integral part of the choreographic process for you? And is the development of new composers important to you?
Music is incredibly important and is the driving force behind the movement. As a choreographer I am most inspired by music, as soon as I hear something that resonates with me I imagine steps in my head or how I could work with that music. When I was listening to the submissions for the Young Composers Competition I had to first connect with the music before deciding if it was right for the letter. When I received all the submissions for the competition I felt very honoured to sit and listen to such incredible work. One piece was submitted by a very talented 10-year-old , Lilly Vadaneaux, whose work I could not use as she was too young for the competition. However I’m using her music for a piece I am making on CAT students in Swindon which will be performed as a curtain raiser. Having spent some time with the composers and responded to their work, I would really like to continue our relationship and perhaps collaborate on new work in the future. I have already had someone ask for one of the composers’ names so I hope they continue to get something from this experience

It’s a surprise to see Strictly Come Dancing’s Anton Du Beke has choreographed a piece for the programme. How did the collaboration come about? Tell us about the work…
I first met Anton through a mutual friend. I was putting together a fundraising event for the company a few years ago and she suggested that Anton and I could dance together which I thought was a great idea. Our first rehearsal together was so much fun, we really connected and every rehearsal since has been such a wonderful experience. During that time we discussed at length the differences between ballroom and dance and contemporary and ballet. I was fascinated with the change in where the weight was held and how close you had to be physically. It’s completely different to any other partner work I had ever done. Anton really enjoyed working with a dancer with a different style so when I told him I was putting another production together he offered to make a work for us. Developing the ideas, we looked at footage of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers including scenes where they walk in a park then seamlessly transition into dance. I also looked at excerpts of old movie scripts so that we could base the dances on some of these transitions, how conversations would happen and then the dance would begin. It’s very reflective of that era and the music really influenced Easy to Love.

It’s being described as his ‘first foray into contemporary dance.’ Is he consciously extending his movement language?
I think he really likes discovering new movement. When we worked together he liked how I would interpret something he set. For example, I would continue the movement he might of shown instead of finishing it. When we were making Easy To Love he was clear that he did not want to give us traditional ballroom steps as we did not have the correct technique or knowledge. So he would show us the movement and then ask us to do “what we do” with it. With a choreographer’s eye, I also found it very interesting to see him create this piece. He knows exactly what works and doesn’t and he really designs the dance spatially and of course rhythm and dynamics are very important.

And have your dancers found themselves learning some ballroom?
The dancers absolutely loved working with Anton. I think any dancer would love the opportunity to learn a new style of dance, particularly ballroom and with Anton! They found it difficult at first and it takes a lot of time and energy adjusting to a different style. There were a lot of sore feet as we are not used to wearing heels all day. I think they enjoyed learning some tango steps the most.

You formed Yorke Dance Project whilst living in LA in the 1990s – is it a very different company here in the UK?
The company is very different in the way it is run but not different in what we do or the style of work we do. I started the company just after the Lewitzky Dance Company disbanded. At the time it was the only full time dance company on the West Coast so any new job would have meant heading to New York. I really wanted to stay in Los Angeles so I decided to set up my own company. It was very hard to get funding, so in the beginning I worked as a prop stylist to fund the company. I ran everything by myself which was a lot of hard work on top of a very demanding job. I gathered a group of five wonderful women and invited guest artists to join us when I needed more dancers. The dancers rehearsed for free as I could only pay them for performances. In the UK I am very lucky to have an executive producer, Cath James, who takes care of most of the administrative work in addition to many other things. It’s also great to have someone to discuss ideas and get feedback too. All the dancers get paid for rehearsals and performances but we don’t work all year round. I just gather the dancers for a project which usually spans over four or five months.

What’s your company ethos?
I have been very influenced by both Richard Alston and Bella Lewitzky, taking what I have enjoyed most from them and putting it into the company. At Rambert, I really enjoyed working with different choreographers and being challenged by new ways of working which is why we are a repertory company. I am very passionate about sustaining the history of modern dance and we’ve worked with the Lewitzky Trust in recent years to reconstruct two of her past works. We really hope to keep this connection going. In addition it’s important for me that the company produces varied and diverse work whilst nurturing new talent. In the past we have commissioned works by Lea Anderson and Wendy Houstoun and now we have new works by Anton, a young emerging choreographer Alessio Barbarossa from Sardinia and ex-Lewitzky dancer John Pennington. Very diverse indeed!

It looks like you have a particular interest in education – do you have a team of regular collaborators?
The company delivers all the education and dance development work we undertake. Our producer Cath James has vast experience of creating dance development programmes for both professionals and youth dance leaders and she works in partnership with a number of different organisations and agencies. In particular, we work with the Dance Development agencies across the South West, including Take Art Somerset, Swindon Dance, Creative Ecology Wiltshire, Bath Dance and Activate in Dorset. We have also worked in partnership with Youth Dance England and Pavilion Dance South West through its youth dance co-ordinator. We work with youth dance companies in the venues where we perform by liaising with the venue Learning and Participation managers or their local dance development agency.

Words Worth is touring at the moment – what are you planning next for Yorke Dance Project?
2013 looks like it will be an exciting year for the company. We are currently working on our second collaboration with the Pennington Dance Group in LA – Across Connections. We are looking at another tour of Words Worth with perhaps an additional work by another choreographer. The company is also performing at the Olbia Dance Festival in Sardinia in July.

Yorke Dance Project Words Worth
Lilian Baylis Studio, 14 & 15 November

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