British choreographers are now sought after the world over – so what's their secret?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Christopher Wheeldon

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.

Wayne McGregor

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.

Matthew Bourne

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.

Akram Khan

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks