Christopher Bruce and Moonshine Come to Prague
This backgrounder article is sponsored by The National Theatre Ballet as a service for Opus Osm readers.
Introductory word by Christopher Bruce
The music for all three ballets that make up this programme was recorded in the latter part of the twentieth century. However, a basis of folk music going back centuries is present in many of the tracks and represents a theme which links all three works.In The Waterboys album, Universal Hall, a fusion of Celtic folk music and rock is clearly evident and, of course, Bob Dylan’s Bootleg album is nearly all pure folk music. When we get to the Rolling Stones, their style was hugely influenced by American blues and this powerful and emotive sound is present in many of their recordings.
Where you have folk music you have folk tales. This has enabled me to create characters and tell stories which I hope the audience is able to follow and, maybe, to bring something of their own imagination to the whole experience.
DANCE AT THE CROSSROADS
When I first heard The Waterboys Album, Universal Hall, it seemed to me that it described a spiritual journey; not necessarily a religious one, but a struggle to come to terms with life and relationships, and, a search for peace of mind. At least, that is how I have interpreted it, and I have chosen tracks which inspired the imagery and choreography which I required to explore this theme.
These songs brought to mind several independent, strong-willed and, occasionally, troubled women I have met over the years, particularly some remarkable artists I have had the privilege to work with. I believe their personalities have shaped the main character of my dance. However, as with all my ballets, the audience is allowed to make individual interpretations of the dance.
This ballet was created for NDT3, a company formed to provide performing opportunities for older dancers nearing the end of their careers. The idea for Moonshine was that it would rely on the experience and artistry of a cast of mature dancers, rather than the athletic physicality of their youth.
A dancer’s life is short, and coming to terms with this is something that must be faced. I have tried to suggest the peripatetic nature of a performer’s life. My strolling band of players, in a reflective mood, blend reality with the fantasy of performance during a pause on their journey.
Rooster is a celebration of the music and the times when these tracks were recorded in the 1960s and ´70s. As a young man in my twenties I lived with these songs. I have chosen eight tracks and linked them together with themes present in the music and lyrics. Taking “Little Red Rooster” as my starting point, I have created a preening cockerel who symbolises the elegant but rather chauvinistic young man of my youth (oh yes, there is at least a little of myself in the characters I have created). Meanwhile, for the most part, the women look on with mainly ironic amusement at the male posturing. I think one can say that the result is something of a battle of the sexes.
– Christopher Bruce
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Christopher Bruce and Ballet Rambert
Ballet Rambert, Britain’s oldest dance company, was founded in 1926 by Dame Marie Rambert, who was trained in the technique of Isadora Duncan and Emile Jacques Dalcroz and was also invited by Vaslav Nijinsky to work with Les Ballets Russes. Initially, Ballet Rambert performed in various towns and cities throughout Britain, with mainly one-act works by choreographers whom Marie Rambert had developed from within her company. Frederick Ashton and Anthony Tudor created their first works for Ballet Rambert.
In the 1950s, as the Company grew, full length classical ballets were brought into the repertoire. Contemporary works were added too by dancer and choreographer Norman Morrice, who became Artistic Director in 1966 when Ballet Rambert was reformed into a smaller Company. It focused on modern dance works introducing the Graham technique alongside classical ballet technique. John Chesworth, Robert North and Richard Alston were its artistic directors.
Christopher Bruce joined the Ballet Rambert School when he was thirteen years of age. In 1963 he became a member of the company. During his career, he danced character roles in the ballets Giselle, Don Quixote, etc, and the titular roles in The Afternoon of a Faun (Nijinsky), Pierrot Lunaire (Tetley), Petrushka (Fokine), and The Tempest (Tetley).In 1969 he began working as a choreographer and from 1994 to 2002 was the artistic director of Ballet Rambert. His aim was to build up a company capable of encompassing a wide dance repertoire, to train versatile dancers, and to afford opportunities to young choreographers.
During his tenure as artistic director, the company staged some 50 choreographies, including works by Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp and Siobhan Davies, half of which were created directly for the Ballet Rambert dancers.
Relation to music and choreography
Initially, Bruce had an open approach to selecting the music for his choreographies – Duets, Weekend, and There Was a Time – creating them without having a specific musical accompaniment in advance. The music was only delivered to him in the final phase of rehearsals. During the 1980s, however, music served as inspiration for creating individual choreographies, be it folk songs, Janáček’s and Stravinsky’s symphonic works, or popular songs by Billie Holiday, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and the Rolling Stones.
His choreographic style, which he himself defines as “contemporary,” blends the classical and the Graham techniques, and is influenced by many other choreographers, including Tudor, Tetley, Limón, and Robbins. To achieve his ends, he employs any convention, drawing inspiration from folk, tap, vaudeville, social dance, etc.
Of major importance for Bruce is a coherent and individual movement vocabulary which is well-phrased. He enjoys seeing a dancer take risks, moving through space and avoiding the safety of always being on balance. Movements are wittingly led outside the body’s imaginary vertical axis spontaneously into various directions, which is something that dancers primarily specialised in classical dance technique are not used to, and therefore their bodies yield with difficulty in this respect.
Bruce also places great demands on the dancer’s ability to sense the music, with all the nuances of its rhythm as well as co-ordination of movements. “It drives me mad when a dancer doesn’t hear the music!” Christopher Bruce said in an interview with Donald Hutera.
Bruce compares the process of creating his choreographies to an adventure trip. He comes to the rehearsals only with a general idea of the work’s structure, and the actual movements originate in co-operation with the dancers. Be it preparation of a premiere or just transferring a work to another company’s repertoire, he always welcomes stimuli from the dancers, thus affording choreographies several years old the opportunity to have new life breathed into them.
Inspiration and interpretation
One of Bruce’s key inspirations is literature, cases in point being Robert Cockburn’s poems for Living Space; Oriana Fallaci’s novel A Man, describing the suffering of political prisoners, for the choreography Swansong; as well as the work and life of Federico García Lorca in Cruel Garden, a choreography created in tandem with the British mime artist Lindsay Kemp.
Dedicated to innocent people in South America destroyed by political oppression, Ghost Dances is inspired by indigenous dances and the tragic fate of the Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, whose wife was a member of Ballet Jooss. Strong political and social sentiment makes its way into Bruce’s works naturally but, he states, these themes are secondary, and what is important to him is the composition of the dance.
Others of his dozens of works refer to everyday life and have an autobiographical subtext (Ancient Voices of Children and Preludes and Songs, etc.). The choreography Hush, inspired by Bobby McFerrin’s music, depicts family life as a theatre through characters from commedia dell’arte.
Christopher Bruce sees one of the main strengths of dance in its ambiguity. Although we may be directed towards a certain interpretation, the same dance can represent something different for each of us. On stage, we see social and political problems, our life with all its attendant joys and hardships; however, the field of interpretation remains as open as possible, affording ample scope for our associations and imagination.
– Libuše Hronková
Photo Credits: Christopher Bruce: Hana Smejkalová; dancers, Diana Zehetner