Pocket dynamo

Short on stature, high on energy, Aletta Collins has danced her way through opera, musicals and the movies. Now she's taking on Chekhov.
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The Independent Culture
She looks so girlie - just turned 30, measuring "five foot, no, nearly five foot one" - you wonder how in the past decade she has held her own among the heavyweight elite of Europe's opera houses, the big- shot administrators, the cosmopolitan conductors, the unfragile divas. She is such a delicious collection of curves, you applaud in this anorexic age her success as a dancer gifted enough to be accepted into the exclusive club that was London Contemporary Dance Theatre. She sounds so chirpy after the premiere of her most recent dance piece, 3 Sisters, you marvel at how many different assignments she can take on without tripping herself up.

Aletta Collins, whizz performer, choreographer and director, works in dance, opera, film and musicals. She was born in ordinary Bromley and brought up near small-time Watford in a non-theatrical family, although her great-grandmother did belong to "the first flying ballet" in Paris. (She doesn't know if this was a trapeze act.) As a student she choreographed a piece, Stand By Your Man, which was taken into LCDT's repertory, but her first professional job was in opera.

She was in the fourth year at London Contemporary Dance School when the opera director Steven Pimlott and the designer Tom Cairns arrived in search of a choreographer for their production of Saint-Saens's Samson and Delilah in Bregenz. They watched a student performance which included her work and she went to see them the next day. "I didn't know anything about opera," she remembers. "I'd never seen an opera in my life. So Steven said, `Come to ENO's Billy Budd tonight'. And I sat there thinking, "Oh, my God, what is this?' But because I liked Steven and Tom and the project seemed so exciting, I decided, OK, I'm off. I was just 21 and I had to choreograph this substantial 10-minute bacchanal ballet for the opera's last act, and I didn't know how. I read the CD booklet and found myself with 20 Bulgarian ballet dancers who didn't speak a word of English."

Yet it went well. So well that Pimlott invited her to choreograph his mega arena-style Carmen at Earl's Court, while Cairns asked her to collaborate with him on stagings of Tippett's King Priam (for Opera North) and Puccini's La Boheme (in Stuttgart) - whereupon she left LCDT. This was the start of an enduring professional partnership with Cairns, a symbiosis which dissolves boundaries so that "the working process becomes an organic giving and taking and it becomes hard to decide who did what". Collins has co- directed operas with Cairns (the last being Birtwistle's The Second Mrs Kong at Glyndebourne); Cairns designs Collins's dance pieces; and, together, they have made three dance films for BBC2.

So now Collins has a respectable collection of opera CDs and posters of her productions, but also a shortage of chairs. She sits on the floor and shuffles about. Is she all right down there? "Yes, yes, I'm fine. I'm only skiddering about because I'm a bit sore." If her body is aching, it is because she loves dancing and has choreographed herself into 3 Sisters.

She has to thank her mother's thrift for making her a dancer. "When I was eight, I wanted to ditch ballet to join the Brownies like all my friends. But my mother said no, because she had just bought me these new ballet shoes." Aged 16, she finished her first bash at choreography while attending the children's class at The Place - a 30-minute piece for nine dancers, created over two years in little bits every Saturday. She went through the London Contemporary Dance School system, but not immediately into the (now-defunct) company. Her shape and style didn't fit the streamlined LCDT aesthetic, where absolute perfection in Graham technique was the foundation. But she did appear as a guest, and my memory winds back to the unforgettable duet Jonathan Lunn created for her called Doppelganger - her compact silhouette darting round his rangier one with dappled hyperactive steps. She joined LCDT later for 18 months, when the choreographer Dan Wagoner became director, and introduced a more congruous ethos "with more speed and attack".

Her candid patter echoes the way she dances. "I preferred to work as a freelance, choreographing for LCDT and Phoenix Dance Company," she is saying. "And I didn't want the responsibility of having my own group." What changed her mind? "I made a piece for some dance students and, because I liked the result, I wanted to give it more than just two performances." That piece was Che Gelida Manina, a piquant take on La Boheme, which became the Aletta Collins Dance Company's first piece and which will tour again this autumn, along with 3 Sisters. Her desire to launch a company showed perfect timing, since it coincided with the decision of Southern Arts to help fund an associate dance company for three years. But this is the third and final year, and a question mark hangs over the future.

The group is also Collins's gift to her dancing self. "I wouldn't," she supposes, "have much opportunity for dancing if it wasn't for my own work." In fact, many choreographers prefer not to live the schizophrenia of simultaneously creating and performing. It is difficult to create when you are right inside your creation; so Collins relies on the dispassionate eye of forthright friends like Tom Cairns.

3 Sisters is the company's third piece. Although Collins is a narrative choreographer, she doesn't exactly go in for conventional storytelling - "I didn't want to do the dance of the Chekhov play." Rather, Chekhov is a springboard: the themes are drawn from the play, the characters are concentrated down to three women and one man. Collins hasn't seen Kenneth MacMillan's ballet version, Winter Dreams, and when I remark that it helps to know the play before seeing Winter Dreams, she says she hopes her piece isn't the same. "I think it has its own internal logic and narrative." The Collins 3 Sisters is part road movie with hitch-hiker interludes, part discourse on the human tendency to look beyond what we already have. "Chekhov urges us to re-assess the feeling that life will only start when we get to Moscow or get a husband or get whatever. Why do we constantly have to look beyond where we are to find happiness?"

The way the characters disregard their present condition links in with the fin de siecle aura of the play, that anxiety about the future - "which of course makes complete sense now". The parallels between Chekhov's fin de siecle and our own are mirrored in Collins's musical choices: turn- of-the-century Russian music, alternating with the disco sound of Sister Sledge and extracts from a Russian language tape (which is, by the way, the Collins Teach Yourself Russian).

Collins's own present is too full for her to fix her gaze on some utopian horizon. After choreographing the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, then devising a cossack dance for Watch That Man, a film starring Bill Murray, then moving into her new WC1 flat in January, she admits she felt the need "to hole up for a few weeks" before starting 3 Sisters and thinking about a solo for herself this summer. Even so, she clearly enjoys juggling the varied components of her career. "I think I'm very lucky to be exposed to so many different art-forms and to people who are brilliant in them - singers, conductors, directors, film-makers. I get to see first hand these people working. And that has been the biggest influence on me, watching how people achieve what they do."

Aletta Collins's `3 Sisters' is performed at The Place Theatre, Dukes Road, London WC1 (0171-387 0031) on 6 and 7 May, then tours to 25 May