ARTS / Show People: Pedigree Cholmondeley: Lea Anderson

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The Independent Culture
THE choreographer Lea Anderson is in the middle of creating Metalcholica, the Cholmondeleys' new work. 'Come down on the diagonal and be Ice-T,' she says to one of the dancers. 'Go back for two counts and stop. I don't want it to look cluttered. Oh bollocks] It's getting overworked. Leave Ice-T and do the Madonna runs again.'

Members of the all-women Cholmondeleys (pronounced Chumlees), one of Britain's foremost contemporary dance companies, are rehearsing in the function room of a Soho synagogue. Chairs are stacked along the sides. Fruit, sweets, clothes and bottles of water are scattered about. Metalcholica opens on 24 March and Anderson is racing against time. The tension is palpable. 'You're creating and perfecting at the same time,' she explains later.

The company breaks for lunch at 1pm. Anderson is starving and wants to eat. Can the photographs wait until afterwards? We head for a trendy coffee bar down the street, just the sort of place this ex-rock singer, ex-painter, ex-anarchist would choose, but I say it's too noisy. So we go across the road to a kitsch Italian restaurant, the sort of place Anderson would not normally be seen dead in. It's quieter, but not for long. Within 15 minutes it fills with the sort of people who would not be seen dead at a Cholmondeleys' show. But at least I can hear what she's saying.

She's 34, direct, businesslike and talks fast. The Cholmondeleys are celebrating 10 years in the business, so Metalcholica is special. What's it about? 'Different kinds of journeys, spiritual or interior. It's bound up with rock'n'roll cliches - which explains the references to Ice-T and Madonna - motorbikes, drugs, drink, that sort of thing. Different forms of escape.'

The Cholmondeleys have been a huge hit with their humour, originality and detailed observation of everyday life, and they're avant-garde enough to interest style magazines such as The Face. But things have not gone so well since 1991 and the smash-hit Birthday. Precious, last year's work, was good only in parts, and Walky Talky (1992) was boring. What happened? 'If I painted something and didn't like it I wouldn't show it to anyone. If things are not going well with a show you can sometimes take hold of it and sometimes you can't. You have to make decisions about what parts you can present, then grit your teeth.' Anderson was the choreographer for Cabaret, the sell-out West End musical, and found it instructive. 'It was amazing: there was the music and the script. Everything existed from the beginning. When rehearsals were finished we still had a week for run-throughs. What a luxury. With dance you're working until the last minute.'

Like Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp, Lea Anderson started her company with friends. They met as dance students at the Laban Centre and formed a company in 1984 after graduating. The idea was to choreograph and dance in each other's pieces. But it soon became apparent that Anderson was the most enthusiastic about choreography. Their first piece was based on a painting called The Cholmondeley Sisters, and the name stuck. The group lived on the dole in squats, became interested in class struggle and politics, and presented dance anywhere they could think of - with rock bands, in tunnels, pubs, parks and art galleries. 'That period away from the dance scene was invaluable, because I could make mistakes. If I'd done that on a big stage I wouldn't have had the courage to carry on.'

By 1986, Anderson was the company's official choreographer. Then the Arts Council offered them money - which led to the taming of Lea. She had to become what she calls 'a business person'. 'Once you're funded,' she says, 'you have to do things their way. I have to think of projects years ahead, which made me angry at first - having to work in someone else's mould. But now I try to turn it into an exercise to keep my imagination going.'

The Cholmondeleys has remained all-female because Anderson wants to avoid cliched partnering. She started the all-male Featherstonehaughs (pronounced Fanshaws) in 1988 because the Cholmondeleys were becoming pigeon-holed as of interest only to women. 'And you can take the piss out of men which you can't with women, who are much more vulnerable.' When it launched, the Featherstonehaughs made as much impact as its sister group, with its lively and unconventional images of men in dance.

Anderson grew up in south-east London, near the Old Kent Road. Her first memory of dance is demanding her mother's nightie so she could imitate Isadora Duncan. She took ballet classes, but it was only after a year at St Martin's School of Art that she became aware that dance was not only for fairy-tale princesses, that you could make up your own steps. For 10 years, she has been doing just that, hyperactively. She still dances in all her own work - 'I give myself the easy bits' - and will be presenting a second TV series of her own dance in Tights, Camera, Action] for Channel 4 in the summer.

She says the dances she's designed for television are as accessible as her stage work, and she hopes they'll appeal to a general audience. Talking of audiences, Anderson remembers that there is a dance waiting to be finished and photographs to be taken.

I offer to pay, and in a flash she's gone.

The Cholmondeleys: Palace, Watford (0923 225671) Thurs; The Place, London WC1 (071-387 0031) 29 Mar to 9 Apr; then touring.

(Photograph omitted)