British choreographers are now sought after the world over – so what's their secret?
Thursday 10 April 2008
Over the next few months, some of Britain's most successful choreographers will be unveiling new work. Matthew Bourne, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Akram Khan have international reach: many of these works will be seen across the globe. All four have an interest in crossing styles: from ballet or Indian classical to modern dance. At the same time, they've looked for a public beyond the traditional dance audience. And they're all in demand, worldwide.
That international profile is a rare thing in British dance, particularly in British contemporary dance. Over the past few decades, Britain has produced several generations of successful choreographers. Many have toured abroad, or made works for overseas companies. But the recognition factor of a Matthew Bourne is something else again. With his Broadway hits, Bourne is the glitziest of these names, but all four have the clout to create big productions for a worldwide audience.
Large-scale commissions have come from theatres as varied as La Scala, Milan, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow or the National Theatre in London. These choreographers can call on starry collaborators: artists from Antony Gormley to Anish Kapoor, composers from John Tavener to James MacMillan.
Between them, McGregor, Wheeldon, Khan and Bourne are busy on international stages. Over the next few months, they'll be particularly busy in Britain.
'Entity', Sadler's Wells 10-12 April, then touring; 'Bahok' is at The Dome, Brighton, on 9-10 May, then touring; 'Dorian Gray' at Edinburgh International Festival, 22-30 August, then touring; Morphoses, the Wheeldon Company, is at Sadler's Wells this autumn
Of these choreographers, Wheeldon is the only one to come from an all-ballet background. Born in 1973, Wheeldon trained at the Royal Ballet School, then moved to New York City Ballet, where he became resident choreographer. His style is fluently classical, at its best in Polyphonia, with its intricate partnering and sure use of Ligeti's score. He can create brilliant images: DGV saw Darcey Bussell swimming in space, lifted high above her partner's head, glowing and assured. But Wheeldon can also be untidy or over-polite, piling up splashy concepts or academic steps.
At a time when ballet choreographers are in short supply, Wheeldon has been working with everyone from the Ballet Boyz to the Bolshoi. He quickly found backing for his new transatlantic company, Morphoses. It claimed that its productions would be "an evolution in the history of traditional, classical ballet and attract a wider audience". The pop star Björk was named as a possible collaborator. Yet the first (Björkless) shows were a soggy disappointment: greyly minimalist ballets, with the same kind of steps to the same kind of music. A second season is due at Sadler's Wells this autumn. It needs some excitement.
McGregor's new work Entity, which opens tonight at Sadler's Wells, is typical of his approach. There's a lot of teamwork – with musicians Joby Talbot and Jon Hopkins, but also with scientists. It is the latest of a series of works that questions the relationship between the brain and the body.
Watch The Making of Entity
On stage, McGregor drives his dancers hard. He moves them at speed from one extreme pose to another, bodies twitching and undulating. Discussing his method, McGregor's dancers single out his precision as well as his speed.
Born in 1970, McGregor himself is bright and highly ambitious. Besides founding his own company, Random, he's been eager to work in different situations, from West End musicals to the Paris Opéra Ballet. He's taken Random to Glastonbury, and made dances for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. His production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas for La Scala comes to the Royal Opera House next season. Last week, he was appointed Britain's first Youth Dance Champion by Culture Minister Margaret Hodge.
But his biggest move came in 2006, after the success of his ballet Chroma, when McGregor was appointed resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet. This was controversial: McGregor was the first Royal Ballet resident to come from outside the company, never mind from outside ballet. And he himself is controversial – I've hated some of his works yet Chroma was the best thing I'd seen from McGregor. He responded to his dancers, singling out individual qualities, taking delight in their style.
Chroma created a real buzz, a sense of excitement that even affected other choreographers. While McGregor was at work, Christopher Wheeldon was creating DGV for the same company. The friendly competition between the two choreographers prompted Wheeldon to set up his own company, seeking more collaboration and variety.
Born in 1960, Matthew Bourne is the oldest of these choreographers, and the most spectacularly successful. Following the success of his award-winning, box office-breaking Swan Lake, his productions have routinely set off on world tours, playing to full houses from Broadway to Japan. He's worked on musicals, including Oliver! and Mary Poppins, but his own works have the same level of reach and popularity.
Bourne doesn't go in for virtuoso movement. Instead, he uses a kind of choreographed body language, telling stories in the way his characters stand or look at each other. At its best, his work has a gripping psychological insight, supported by design that evokes very particular times and places. Play Without Words, first performed at the National Theatre in 2002, drew on British films from the Sixties such as The Servant for a tale of changing society, class resentment and sexual repression. Bourne doubled and tripled characters, playing out different versions of the same scene, repression and abandon side by side.
More recently, Bourne has seemed to be marking time, reviving his hits. His most recent work, an adaptation of the movie Edward Scissorhands, was depressingly bad: limited movement with gurning rather than insight. Bourne's name was enough to make it a worldwide hit, but it also received some rave reviews, particularly in America.
This summer, Bourne's new work Dorian Gray will have its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival. It's promising material for his style. The Oscar Wilde story of the painting in the attic is to be updated to the world of contemporary art. Bourne's Dorian will be an It Boy rather than a 19th-century aesthete. Some of Bourne's best characters have yearned after male beauties, or recoiled from their own bodies; some of his strongest works have updated and twisted older tales.
Throughout his career, Khan has crossed styles. He trained in both the Indian classical form, Kathak, and in western dance. Born in Balham in 1974 to Bangladeshi parents, Khan is a superb dancer. Yet he keeps his different sides separate. While his own choreography uses sweeping, delicate Kathak arms, he rarely draws on its brilliant footwork, leaving his dancers flatfooted.
Khan has described his recent works as "confusion, rather than fusion". He's mixed styles, worked with other collaborators. And he's very good at creating interest and excitement. Kaash (2002), his first full-length work for his own company, made brilliant use of stage space, framed by bright, stark designs by Anish Kapoor.
His latest work, Bahok (right), is a new kind of collaboration. Five of Khan's dancers are joined by four from the National Ballet of China for a work about national identity. Some of the piece shows the dancers waiting, as if at an airport. The mix doesn't just include ballet and contemporary. Khan's dancers have varied dance backgrounds, giving the piece a mix of dance as well as spoken languages. The Beijing performances were followed by a European premiere in Liverpool, with more British dates to follow.
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