Ballet highs: From Hozier to Jamie XX and Radiohead, the dance form is being used in pop videos to escape convention

Sia, Radiohead, Mark Ronson, Boy George...

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When Sergei Polunin, a wayward Ukrainian ballet protege, looked to reposition himself as a Hollywood star, he turned first to pop music. Together with the photographer and director David LaChapelle, Polunin created an alternative music video for “Take Me to Church” that was only later sanctioned by the singer, Hozier.

Polunin started training as a child and has since walked out on two prestigious ballet companies. He used Hozier’s hit song to explore the agony of the discipline involved in his career. One moment he is turning spectacularly mid-jump, the next he is writhing on the floor, his tights torn, and his tattoos proudly on show, every bit ballet’s best-known rebel.

LaChapelle captures him in an abandoned warehouse, slumped over between the sunbeams. As the song lifts, he starts to dance, exuding grace and self-control, before collapsing again, clutching his head. The song, which Hozier wrote to express his frustrations with the Catholic Church and its rejection of same-sex relationships, lets both men tell a story: Hozier of control exerted over him by religion, Polunin of his struggle with his gift.

Polunin’s breakaway style is indebted to those who broke boundaries before him. Michael Clark described hearing the music of The Fall in the Eighties as a “clarion call” to create his own form of modern ballet. The Fall went on to score a full-length ballet called I Am Curious, Orange for Clark at Sadler’s Wells in 1988.

Clark’s work paved the way for choreographers like Mark Bruce, who left the company he was dancing with in the Nineties to create his own work to the music of PJ Harvey and Nirvana. Like Polunin, whose Hozier video was made without the permission of the band, it was only afterwards Bruce wrote to PJ Harvey to tell her what he was doing. Before he knew it, he was on tour with her in an articulated truck, choreographing a full-length work to Dance Hall at Louse Point, her 1996 album with John Parish.

Bruce says that, these days, those kinds of projects are more accepted. “The whole dance world is changing,” says Mark Bruce. “The crossover between contemporary dance and ballet is shifting.”

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Tree of Codes, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, was testament to the expansive ambition of Jamie xx (real name Jamie Smith) but it was also an indication that musicians were looking to ballet for new challenges and visual ideas at the same time as the ballet world was changing.

McGregor has worked with Mark Ronson, Alison Mosshart, Boy George and other pop artists in a career that has brought him numerous awards and critical acclaim. He says it hasn’t always been easy to get artistic directors to embrace contemporary ideas. He senses that attitudes are changing at grand lyric ballet theatres, such as the Royal Opera House in London, home to the Royal Ballet.

“Opera houses are trying to make the experience more accessible,” he says. “They’re willing to engage with a more diverse musical palate, because they want the audience.”

McGregor grew up with Nineties rave culture and trained in ballroom and Latin dance as a child. “One of the things I’ve been trying to do is extend what is possible in a ballet context. In classical ballet the rules are more distinct and I want to blow that out the water,” he says. He credits a new generation of directors for being open enough to commission pieces like Woolf Works, a contemporary ballet he choreographed for the Royal Opera House in 2015, scored by the minimalist composer Max Richter and based on three works by Virginia Woolf.

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Fukiko Takase, a dancer in McGregor’s company Random Dance, said the dancers were freestyling in the wings by the end of Tree of Codes. “Towards the end, it really lifts us up – the beat and the bass – it’s party music,” she says. Takese has also danced for Paloma Faith at the Brit Awards and with Thom Yorke of Radiohead in a video for “Ingenue”, a single by his side project, Atoms For Peace. “I was a bit nervous. I didn’t know what he was expecting for ‘Ingenue’, but he was brilliant,” she says. “He influenced my language – his swagger.”

Takese explains that her job is to feel the music, translate into her body and project that feeling through dance to the audience. That job can be especially challenging when there are lyrics and strong, fast beats involved.

McGregor chooses his music carefully for that very reason. Adam Wiltzie, one half of the ambient duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen, told the BBC he sensed McGregor had picked their music for the project Atomos, which premiered in 2013, precisely because it matched his ideas. When Wiltzie and his bandmate Dustin O’Halloran first saw the dancers in rehearsal, they realised that they didn’t need to be heavy-handed with rhythm and timings for it to work.

“The first time we went to see the dancers it was really eye-opening,” Wiltzie said.

Jamie xx found the same thing. “Coming back to the dance rehearsals later, with the music much more advanced, it was so different,” he wrote for the programme notes. “Time passes so differently in space when you add movement.”

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Tree of Codes

The brevity of a pop or rock song can prove to be challenging for a choreographer, according to McGregor. “The economy of a pop video is really interesting. The way in which images are built and constructed is different,” he says.

After the staggering popularity of her video for “Chandelier”, featuring young dancer Maddie Ziegler, Australian singer Sia made two more videos with Ziegler in the same style.

“I know I can sing and I know I can write songs but this is my time to create visual art,” Sia told Dazed and Confused. She is doing so at a time when YouTube has given the music video a place in the career of an artist that it hasn’t had since the heyday of MTV.

Sia ended up using Ziegler across three music videos, almost like three acts of a ballet. “It’s interesting how those [videos] have developed,” McGregor says. “How you can create short-form films that have some connection over time.”

Ziegler told New York magazine that she found the experience of working for a pop artist freeing. “It was so fun to do and it was really out [of] the box and it expanded me a lot, because I’m used to competition dances where you’re like, ‘point your toes!’ But this was like, you just need to let go and feel it.”

Mark Bruce, whose work with PJ Harvey was an early influence on Wayne McGregor, says: “Ballet is a fantastic form to start from but if you lock yourself to it, it can be limiting.”

While the boundaries between ballet and contemporary dance are more fluid these days, the dance world is still a long way behind pop music, which has a long history of crossing genres.

Bruce says that working with pop or rock music can seem seductive to a young choreographer, but it can be difficult to create a dance that is not being “dragged” by the music.

Or, as McGregor warns, something that is merely decorative. “There’s got to be [an] exchange. You want people to feel the power of dance and have some ownership of it,” he explains.

“You’re trying to communicate what the music does on an emotional level on a visual level,” Bruce says. “The world that has sprung into you through this music.”

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