Show People: Still being kept on his toes: 78. Christopher Bruce

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The Independent Culture
WE WERE supposed to go out for lunch, but Christopher Bruce, artistic director designate of Rambert Dance Company, changed the arrangement at the last minute. One of the dancers had just been rushed to hospital after injuring her foot, and Bruce wanted to be at the company's headquarters in Chiswick, west London, to hear from the doctors. A member of staff ushered me into a small room that will become Bruce's office when he takes up his new post next April, and told me to wait.

Someone else arrived with sandwiches and orange juice. 'It's handy having M & S up the road,' she said and left. Looking around, I thought this not yet much of an office for a man hand-picked to lead the company out of the wilderness. There were some dance posters on the walls and computer equipment stashed on a shelf with a handwritten note that said: 'Do not switch off ever.' Bruce eventually arrived, slightly harassed, hair slicked back, black beard, a self-confessed former rocker who these days would not look out of place on the Left Bank. 'I think it may be a sprained ankle; I hope nothing's broken,' he said. The afternoon's rehearsals were cancelled.

Rambert, a medium-sized touring repertory company, was founded in 1920 by the Polish-born British dance pioneer Dame Marie Rambert, who dominated it until she died in 1982. The company has been losing audiences - they increasingly felt the dancers' dialogue was with the movement and not with them - and last December, without warning, the board sacked the artistic director, Richard Alston, amid public protest from his friends. Bruce was invited to apply for the job. 'A year ago I would have said no. If it were another company I would still say no. But Rambert is family and if the family is in trouble you come to help out. Besides, I've got that grey-haired lady sitting over my shoulder saying: 'If you let me down you'll be in trouble'.'

Bruce and Rambert grew fond of each other, but didn't start out that way. Rambert had a reputation for shouting good performances out of her dancers in her ruthless pursuit of excellence. When Bruce joined her company 30 years ago as a wild 17-year-old with strong views, he defended a dancer whom Rambert had reduced to tears. Madame refused to speak to him for three months. 'I'll never know why I wasn't fired.' Then one day she called him into her office. 'She said this can't go on because I was far too talented for her to be wasting any opportunity to be correcting me. My peace was shattered after that.'

She never stopped correcting him: Bruce would take his wife Marian and their three children to Madame's for tea on a Saturday afternoon. 'She would demonstrate, holding on to the mantelpiece, certain corrections for me. This was long after I had left the company and wasn't even dancing.'

Bruce was the last choreographer nurtured by Madame Rambert, and he feels a responsibility to continue the Rambert tradition of producing choreographers who have a worldwide influence on dance. Bruce's own work is highly marketable, with an eclectic vocabulary ranging from Cruel Garden, a modern classic, to the raunchy, mods and rockers smash, Rooster, set to early Rolling Stones. It was the biggest hit London Contemporary Dance Theatre had had for years. Bruce is delighted by its success. Jagger himself came to see it. 'It was traumatic for Mick sitting there and listening to himself from 30 years ago and relating that to what was happening on the stage,' Bruce says. But Jagger liked it so much he asked Bruce to choreograph the promotional video for his recent single, 'Sweet Thing'.

Bruce is no stranger to pop culture and has choreographed many musicals, including Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat. He has been travelling since 1979 reviving his own pieces or creating new works for such companies as English National Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theatre, Berlin Ballet, Cullberg Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet. In 1986 he returned to Rambert as associate choreographer and three years later he became resident choreographer for Houston Ballet. He intends keeping the Texan appointment - because 'they won't need me for more than six weeks a year'. At present, he is creating a new work for LCDT.

He has big plans for Rambert, and has arrived at a good time. The company has just received about pounds 1m from the Arts Council, which said recently that it is giving priority to contemporary dance this year. Bruce aims to recruit seven more dancers to add to the 18, and introduce modern classical works into the contemporary repertory. He also plans to bring in more non-British choreographers such as Jiri Kylian of NDT and Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company. Isn't this a bit ambitious for the dancers, a bit like giving Nigel Kennedy a violin and an electric guitar to play at the same concert? 'Sure it's ambitious but I've seen it done by NDT, Geneva and the old Rambert company to some extent. In the big classical companies such as Houston there are dancers who move as well as any contemporary dancer and the next day they're in rehearsal up on pointe doing ballerina roles.' All the Rambert dancers have told him they are keen to stay.

Experience has shown it is impossible to continue to make good work and run a company. 'I know,' he said. 'But I told the board that I was not prepared to be around 24 hours a day because I've seen how it wears people out and affects their work.' To get round the problem he's taking on more staff 'basically to catch the aggro'.

His appointment sounds too logical to be true. He started at Rambert's ballet school at 13, worked with a legend in the company, went out into the world, and is now coming home to live. 'I never thought about it until the board approached me. Now I'm beginning to wonder if it's written . . .'

(Photograph omitted)