Music by Radiohead, set by Richter: it's ballet like you’ve never seen it before

Rambert Dance Company to celebrate opening of new £19.6m home in style

Arts Correspondent

Abstract artist Gerhard Richter and Radiohead drummer Philip Selway have been recruited by Britain’s leading contemporary dance company to broaden the cultural appeal of its new production.

Rambert Dance Company is to celebrate the opening of its new £19.6m building on London’s South Bank in June with a show that draws on some of the biggest names in visual arts, music and dance.

The “Rambert Event” performances will be staged on a set decorated with a selection of Richter’s most famous paintings. This is the first time the 82-year-old German artist’s work has been used in staging for a dramatic performance.

The performance will use work devised by – and is a tribute to – Merce Cunningham, the legendary US choreographer whose abstract dance “events” were staged in locations ranging from an Australian beach to Tate Modern. He died in 2009.

Jeannie Steele, a former dancer from Cunningham’s company, is to oversee the staging of 10 of the choreographer’s works to a score composed by Selway, who is considered one of the most talented drummers of his generation. His band Radiohead had previously composed a piece called Split Sides for Cunningham in 2003.

Ms Steele said of the artist: “I’m a huge fan of Gerhard Richter’s work. I was in complete shock when his team came back with a positive response. I was thrilled.”

Richter’s popularity soared after a major retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012; the following year his painting of Milan’s Piazza del Duomo sold for $37m (£24m), making it then the most expensive work sold at auction by a living artist. He has subsequently been overtaken by Jeff Koons.

“In thinking about a designer we wanted somebody interesting and well-known,” Ms Steele said. “A friend suggested Richter and all of a sudden a light bulb went off in my head and I thought: ‘The Cage paintings, that’s it’.”

The six Cage paintings – named after musician and composer John Cage – will be reproduced at a larger scale, with five as a backdrop and the dancers’ costumes bearing the image of the sixth.

Cage was Cunningham’s musical collaborator and romantic partner. “You have that link there, which is great,” Ms Steele said. “It’s amazing these paintings haven’t been used as set designs before. They are so beautiful.”

It is unclear whether the artist is planning to see the work. Ms Steele continued: “I’m hoping he’ll see it and it could open up a door for other performance-related companies to use his work, because it is so extraordinary.”

There are six planned performances in Rambert’s new headquarters and Gerhard Richter is yet to decide whether the company can use the images indefinitely.

“We’re hoping that if we can use it later on it could be used in all sorts of different spaces,” Ms Steele said. “He’s holding out to see what the finished product is.”

Ms Steele danced with Cunningham’s company for more than a decade. She said: “As well as being a choreographic genius Merce was just a kind, generous and wonderful man. He treated his dancers with respect and trust. Intellectually it is stimulating work, too.”

The opening night in June will be almost 50 years to the day of the first Cunningham “event” in a gallery in Vienna.

Other notable shows took place in Cottesloe Beach in Perth, in front of the Temple of Jupiter in Lebanon and in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall during Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project installation.

The Rambert company was founded in 1926 by Dame Marie Rambert. This will be its first public performance since the Queen opened the new building in March.

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