Kim Brandstrup: Arcing back from the abyss

Kim Brandstrup's award-winning Arc Dance Company has returned from the brink of bankruptcy. Nadine Meisner wants to know what brings the Danish choreographer such popular acclaim
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Kim Brandstrup is a courteous fellow. Being a Dane, he may well have inflammable Viking blood pulsing through his veins; while being a choreographer, he must feel a certain sensitivity about his work. But he doesn't lean over to ram my cup of cappuccino down my throat, which he might have, given that I've assiduously trashed his work in my reviews.

Kim Brandstrup is a courteous fellow. Being a Dane, he may well have inflammable Viking blood pulsing through his veins; while being a choreographer, he must feel a certain sensitivity about his work. But he doesn't lean over to ram my cup of cappuccino down my throat, which he might have, given that I've assiduously trashed his work in my reviews.

He sits looking smilingly gentle and diffident and in need of a shave. He is something of a human hulk, but he speaks in such a husky whisper that I worry the cassette recorder isn't picking up his words above the hiss of the coffee machine. He'd probably be the first to say he doesn't have a dancer's body, but then he never aimed to become a dancer. He came to dance late, the best known fact about him being that he arrived (in 1980) at the London School of Contemporary Dance after studying film at the University of Copenhagen.

A choreographer is what he set out to be, and in this capacity he undeniably has his supporters. Incredibly, I toyed with the idea of becoming one myself last year, when for the first time ever I broke my rules and practically enthused about his company's last programme. There was an interesting revival of Saints and Shadows, a piece I'd not seen before. And even better there was the brand new Elegy, whose quiet intensity seemed to strip naked the emotional triangle of a woman and two men and which Brandstrup has now expanded into a full-evening piece called Brothers.

If I were to become a pro-Brandstrupper I'd be joining the likes of London Contemporary Dance Theatre (now sadly defunct) for which he made Orfeo, his first success, and, as his publicity tirelessly tells us, wona 1989 Laurence Olivier award. Since then other companies have piled in: among them, the Royal Danish Ballet (naturally); English National Ballet; Rambert Dance Company; the Royal New Zealand Ballet (for a slightly edited staging of The Sleeping Beauty); and, most recently, Les Grands Ballet Canadiens (a 20th-century retelling of The Queen of Spades). The Russian ballet star Irek Mukhamedov has commissioned and performed pieces by him – Othello (the London Evening Standard Award for Most Outstanding Production) and The Return of Don Juan. Add to all this the 20 works he has created for his own Arc Dance Company, founded in 1985.

Actually, The Return of Don Juan (1999) almost became a big no-return finale for Arc, but the Arts Council clearly had enough faith in the company to pull it back from bankruptcy. Using live music, the production had been enormously expensive and had broken Arc's budget. Even recalling this now in an interview is a downer for Brandstrup. "You've put me quite off," he falters. He suffered a tremendous shock when he suddenly found himself staring at a financial void. But what has finally emerged from the crisis is a stronger company administration, in return for which the Arts Council is giving £190,000 recovery money, plus £170,000 in total project funding spread over two years.

It may not sound so much for a touring ensemble of 10 dancers, but in the penny-pinching arts world it's not too bad, especially if you add a further 30 per cent from private sponsorship. So what is it that earns Brandstrup such wide appreciation? Perhaps it is his fondness for telling stories, which if contemporary dance were a river would see him swimming upstream while everybody else is swimming down. He attributes this partly to his film roots, partly to the impulse he believes inhabits all humans. "When we watch people – in the street, whatever – we want to know who they are, what they are doing, and why," he says. "It's inherent." He does not, though, subscribe to the narrative method of ballet where all the action is funnelled into a few scenes. "In a ballet you have a location and people acting in it in real time – 45 minutes in a castle, 45 minutes in a forest, 45 minutes at a wedding." Whereas in film one event cuts to another and time is not literal. "So often it's up to the spectator to deduce what happens in the gap between this cut and that cut. It's when you put the two camera shots together that you find meaning. I think we are very sophisticated in the way we decipher narrative from film or television and I think with dance you can do the same thing."

But isn't that going to further complicate the story line, when what you need with a non-verbal form is simplicity? "When I studied film, everything that I loved about it was not verbal, it was the silent films. And when you look at a director like Hitchcock you'll find that 60 or 70 per cent is purely visual and it's through the images that the story is told." I'm not entirely convinced; I can think of some of his more involved narratives such as Crime Fictions, a Hitchockian murder mystery, where the dots didn't join up, because no amount of significant glances and comings and goings were able to match the specificity of words. "Yes," he says, "that's the great challenge. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don't."

Perhaps this cinematic compression is why, to me, his pieces seem as flat and impermeably shiny as celluloid, the characters psychological blanks caught up in a flurry of activity. It surprises me when he blithely declares: "I'm more interested in the emotional subtleties which the body and dance can convey." I could ask him about the limited range of his dance vocabulary, the deadening effect of the wallpaper music he tends to commission, the way these factors, combined with using the same designer (Craig Givens), result in pieces hard to distinguish from each other.

But I don't. Because I'm also remembering Saints and Shadows and Elegy. This last piece, Brandstrup explains, represents a change of emphasis and, rather than focusing on concrete events, he has homed in on the emotional high-points: "I'm leaving the action to the spaces in between in a way that I think opera does. You have the arias and duets, but many of the events happen off stage and it's the meditation on a character's emotional state that is important. I think that what I'm doing now is making each of these moments stronger in itself." Certainly it worked beautifully and inspired intense performances from its cast.

Elegy drew on characters in Dostoevsky's The Idiot and has now been enlarged with two other Dostoevskian tales derived from The Brothers Karamazov. "I wanted to tell three separate stories and intercut them, so you keep going from one story to another and they're all around the same theme. I tried to make a piece about men and about three different kinds of rivalry between men, each throwing up similar ethical problems." The male framework was in turn inspired by The House of the Dead, which Dostoevsky wrote about his prison-camp experiences. "So what I am presenting is a closed male universe into which enter different women," he says.

Much of Brandstrup's work is based on literary classics – he must read a lot – which is perhaps another reason for his popularity, although he stresses that he filters his material through a 20th-century point of view. Next year, he wants to re-work Antic (1993), based on Hamlet, and for the following year he is planning a piece using Calderon's 16th-century play Life is a Dream. Back home in Denmark he had a carefully modernist upbringing: he went to a progressive school which encouraged creativity, his father is a contemporary artist, and music prior to Stravinsky didn't figure in the household. Yes, we do tend to react against our parents, even if it means going backwards.

Touring to 18 May; London performances at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (020-7960 4242) 8 and 9 April