Lea Anderson: Out of step

If the choreographer Lea Anderson is to be believed, her work is hopelessly unfashionable. Yippee for that, the dance innovator tells Zoë Anderson
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The choreographer Lea Anderson is plotting extravagance. Her new work, Yippeee!!! (2006), which comes to Sadler's Wells as part of Dance Umbrella, will be what she calls a musical. Though it has live music, there will be no plot and no singing. "We've got rid of all the painful mime sequences," she says cheerfully, "and just got down to the nitty-gritty of what a musical's about. There are big dance numbers, and bits of action in between."

Anderson's work has been full of edited, re-imagined images. She's best known for her own two companies, the all-female Cholmondeleys (pronounced Chumlees), and the all-male Featherstonehaughs (Fanshaws). Anderson's reputation is quirky, but she's now an established figure in British dance, an MBE whose work is studied at A-level.

I met Anderson in a break from work on Yippeee!!! (2006). A small, dark woman, with decisively cropped hair, she bounces gleefully in her seat as she describes her ideas and influences. The new show, she says, is "inspired by the symbology and meaning of multiples. What is it about many things the same, that behave in the same way, that attracts us? I was looking at the work of Busby Berkeley in particular."

Berkeley was one of Hollywood's boldest and weirdest choreographers, a star director from the 1930s on. His numbers could involve armies of chorus girls, arranged in dizzying kaleidoscopic patterns, with his cameras swinging overhead or diving between their legs. He would show dozens of identical women - all dressed the same, all posed the same - then pull in for a series of close-ups of different smiling faces.

"A much misunderstood choreographer," says Anderson. "His black-and-white work is the most beautiful - all the very, very surreal dance sequences that come from nowhere. Halfway through them, you think, 'Where did this start out? How on earth could this possibly be fastened to any Hollywood narrative?'"

Anderson lights up as she talks about Berkeley, and his "bizarre floating bodies", but using him meant a slightly different approach for her. "Quite often, I make storyboards out of still images, which I then follow," she says. "This time, the movement comes from a different kind of place - sampling moving rather than static images. I'm not using pictures in the same way."

Besides the movement, Yippeee!!! (2006) draws on the whole look of the Berkeley movies. "Simon Corder has provided a very Hollywood set for us, with a very shiny floor. The lights are booms on wheels that the dancers can move around on the stage, so you can have a wall of light - very glamorous. So the imagery is a slightly abstracted and exaggerated take on the movies."

But the music won't sound like an old film. Steve Blake, one of Anderson's regular collaborators, has formed a new band, Yum Yum, for the show. "There are songs - maybe without words but they're definitely song structures," says Anderson. "The big dance numbers traditionally had tunes, so these have got big fat riffs, with improvisation among it, like a layer on top. So the riffs are very repetitive, just like Busby, but with stuff that will change every night. It's very loud. We've had complaints from the neighbouring flats."

This isn't, Anderson insists, a pastiche of Berkeley. "It's suggesting new ways to look at this imagery - all these Thirties films. We can tap back in and sample those dances. But they degrade and crumble." So why does Yippeee!!! (2006) have the date in the name? "This is when we're making it. It's about this point, about now, stopping to consider now."

In recent years, Anderson has celebrated plenty of milestones: her MBE in 2002, the 20th anniversary of the Cholmondeleys in 2004. Earlier this year, she worked with teenagers on a revival of her 1988 dance Flag. All this, and exam syllabuses too. So does she feel she's reached a new stage in her career?

"To be honest, I've got a very important project that I've been working on for so long, and all I can think of is getting this right! I'm delighted to be in a position to be able to make work still. It gets harder and harder each time you come back to make a project, because you've got to raise the money, all the stuff that goes with it. But in my career? It just feels like normal." She laughs. "Of course, it's great to get all these things, to have that kind of support. It persuades other people to support the work, to let me go on!"

So she doesn't feel like an established figure? "Strangely, I've never been very fashionable in the dance world. That can be helpful for me in that I never feel that I've made it, that things are great from now on, that I can take it easy."

She doesn't pick her way as she answers, but she does prod at the question, putting on voices, with a hint of jokey attitude. "Well-established is a funny one. It's very good that you think that, I must remember that when I start panicking. I always feel that I'm out on the edge somewhere, sometimes I can get a bit bristly about that, but it's good. It keeps you on your toes.

"It's good to keep a different kind of vision, to occupy a different kind of space, for the sake of 'the mental health of the dance scene', and everyone else." She bursts out laughing, with another voice. "'I'm here so that you can all be straight!' I'm not sure how that's going to go down..."

'Yippeee!!! (2006)' is at Sadler's Wells 3-4 November (08707 377 737); then touring ( www.thecholmondeleys.org)