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Animated Edition - Spring 2002
Outside in
Curated by Royal Ballet first artist Jenny Tattersall Outside In built on relationships developed through the Performing Arts Lab's 2000 Dance Lab. Five choreographers - Fin Walker, Kenneth Tharp, Cathy Marston, Ben Wright and Lisa Torun - were invited to work with Royal Ballet dancers, as part of the Artists' Development Initiative, outside the regular rehearsal schedule, each bringing their own distinctive voice to the process. But, as Kenneth Tharp muses it is not only the outside coming in, but a two way process, where the inside is starting to look out. Here he explains
Classical ballet was my first experience of dance, starting at the age of five. By my mid-teens I was dancing five or six days a week. I have never lost my love of classical ballet, but after more than 21 years as a professional contemporary dancer, I am in a different place. As I began work with the dancers in the Royal Ballet, I was conscious of re-entering a world that was at once familiar and yet startlingly different from my life as a contemporary dancer. I have never consciously sought to foster division, I tend instead to look for the things that unite rather than separate us, so it was strange for me to acknowledge that I did in fact feel like an outsider coming in.

I decided to revisit ideas that had been lying dormant for the last few years. My plan was to work with five men. Before the Royal Ballet's summer break, I watched company class a couple of times. I felt spoilt for choice with so many fine dancers. By autumn, I was due to start, but circumstances beyond my control, meant beginning work with four dancers (which eventually became three, when one left the company to start a new career). Similarly, my plans to collaborate with a talented young Australian composer, Susan Hawkins, also changed direction when we agreed that a long-distance collaboration in this timeframe would be too pressurised and stressful for us both.

Once in the studio, I worked in a variety of different ways. Sometimes I set short creative tasks; (normal for contemporary dancers, but not what these particular dancers were used to); sometimes I gave a short phrase or motif from which they each developed their own variations; on other occasions, I tried to demonstrate exactly what I wanted. Improvisation and 'play' were a vital part of the process of getting to know the dancers. This multifaceted way of working is something I find increasingly beneficial. It encourages a much more proactive role from the dancers in the making of work and aids the process of performer ownership. It can also generate more surprises, especially in the spaces when I dare to temporarily relinquish control. When the dancers play a significant role in generating material I like to acknowledge that, and do not lay claim to sole authorship.

In my dialogue with the dancers, it was important for me to try to be clear about what I was looking for. It was not so much that I wanted them to abandon their classical training, but to re-focus their attention, to encourage them to he more concerned with energy, timing, dynamics, and shifting of weight, rather than he preoccupied with creating shapes in space. Somewhere in the background, during this process, notions of the 'all-action male' emerged: the comic-strip superhero - big calved, overly muscled, hard jawed, tightly clad, ready for anything! Even though this remained largely as sub-text. We also borrowed more directly from newspaper cuttings of footballers in action. This helped to generate vocabulary and stimulate ideas. By chance, I found an extant piece by British composer Steve Martland: Hones of Instruction. It was hard, punchy, brassy, syncopated and driven, starting and finishing with an exclamation mark. It felt right, but at 14 minutes long, I realised that this, if nothing else, was going to be a test of stamina for the dancers.

The end result: Danger! Men at Work/Play needs no explanation. It was essentially highly charged play - a celebration of male energy and male athleticism.

So, what did we all get from the experience?
Well, as a choreographer, I had the rare opportunity to work with highly skilled male dancers - Ernst Meisner, Johannes Stepanek and Michael Stojko - who were capable of taking to the air with confidence and clarity. Many contemporary choreographers avoid using jumps - perhaps because they feel neither the need nor the reason, or perhaps because they feel that that is what ballet dancers do; or maybe because they do not work with dancers who really excel in that area? It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If dancers are not asked to do those things, after a while they no longer continue to develop those physical skills. If, as a young dancer in a contemporary dance company, I had been denied the opportunity to leap, jump and turn, I would have gone off and joined a classical company. In my old age, (42 is way past the average of most dancers) limiting myself to the odd jump now and again is fine, but as a choreographer, it was great to work with dancers who so clearly had that potential.

Another important opportunity for me was simply the chance to 'play'. Play is essential to creative growth. Play does not mean total frivolity. Play can be serious - serious in the way that children play, with complete focus and commitment. Sometimes it simply means asking 'what if?' and following that through. It was also a bonus to be in such magnificent studios: light, airy, amazing views, room to run, jump, leap, and to think big. As independent artists we are so used to working within limitations, (not lust financial) the danger is that we become conditioned to think small from the start - this stultifies the imagination - dreams should start big and unbounded, even if they then have to be scaled down.

This freedom to 'play' would not have happened without the enormous support of the Artists' Development Initiative staff: and most especially Jenny Tattershall, who did so much of the organisation, including fundraising, as well as dancing in two of the pieces! So many independent choreographers, myself included, spend so much of our time and energy on administration and organisation, that it can be a small miracle if we have any creative energy left by the time we get into the studio. It was liberating to be freed from much of that burden. The other invaluable area of support surrounding the performances was a very efficient and dedicated team of technicians headed by stage manager Johanna Adams and lighting designer Simon Bennison.

Whilst I cannot speak for the dancers, it is clear to me that they experienced different processes to their norm. A stark contrast between the practice of most contemporary dancers and these classical ones is in the amount of new work we do, work that is made specifically 'on' us, thus raising dramatically the level and the nature of our individual contribution. By being a cast of just three, Meisner, Stepanek and Stojko were offered not only a chance to be really visible in performance, but for their individual contribution to count throughout the process. In the end, I felt that the work was as much about these particular dancers as about my vision. I got a huge buzz working with them and we found space for laughter amongst all the hard work.

Danger!, like any piece, was partly a product of the circumstances in which it was made. Last year I developed a work of eight and a half minutes with Dansconnect, Swindon, in just five days. The process with the Royal Ballet dancers was much more drawn out, which had its pros and cons. It allowed me to get to know the dancers over a longer period. It allowed me time to mull. Conversely, we were denied any sustained chunks of time, which tended to dilute the focus, and thwart the sense of momentum. It also gave the dancers time to forget, and they would then have to spend valuable time re-learning material. I could not always work with all three, which only became a real hindrance towards the end of the process. In an ideal world, as one of my dancers voiced in a post show discussion, a block of dedicated time, where we could be more singularly focussed, would undoubtedly have generated a more satisfying experience all round and would have, without doubt, ended up with a different piece.

I think all the participating choreographers were forced to adapt to changing circumstances at different points in the process, which may have involved varying degrees of stress and/or compromise. In the end, part of what one gradually learns as a choreographer, even if sometimes painfully, is how to get the best out of any situation. I am still learning. I accept that good work can be made in less than ideal conditions and less good work can result from even the best possible conditions. Creating the right environment in the studio is the challenge, no matter what the circumstances, and again, I see this as a choreographer's responsibility.

The fourth performance in the Clore was separated from the other three by a performance of La Bayadére in the main house. Ben Wright and I went to watch and were fascinated to see the same dancers having to contend with such disparate work on consecutive nights. It struck me just how radically different it is to perform 19th Century ballet on the main house stage, as one of many dancers, projecting to the back of the amphitheatre, compared to dancing 21st Century contemporary dance in the intimacy of the Clore.

Predictably, the biggest challenge my dancers faced with Danger! was that of stamina. This was intensified no doubt by the fact that with five dancers, or even four, it would have been easier to divide the workload without compromising the choreographic intention. One of the benefits of being a dancer myself meant that I felt able to gauge how far I could reasonably and safely stretch the dancers, particularly as I, like them, would often arrive at evening rehearsals after already having done a full day's teaching or rehearsing. But in the end, I may have misjudged what was ultimately possible in these circumstances. When, after the second performance, I made a difficult choice to cut part of the work, it was to protect the dancers from injury, and to allow them the chance to play the work rather than be overwhelmed by it. If you play close to the edge, then you risk falling off. As a choreographer, I would rather allow myself occasionally to risk failure than to always do things I know will work. That way you learn.

Outside In relied above all on goodwill, trust and enormous generosity and commitment from the dancers; for this I was enormously grateful. In the bigger scheme of things it is refreshing to see more and more the presence of outside influences in the Linbury and Clore Studios; a gradual infiltration of contemporary choreographers, some bringing their own work, and others working with dancers in the Royal Ballet, but above all, new work. It is good to see faces on stage and in the studios that one does not immediately associate with the Royal Opera House, and to see in-house dancers taking on new challenges. This has been happening steadily over the last couple of years. But it is not only the outside coming in; I also observe a two way process, where the inside is starting to look out. Equally important, but perhaps less visible, is the gradual yet perceivable shift in attitude within the dance community; the beginning of breaking down the notion of 'us and them' that so often separates the classical and contemporary worlds. Big things start in small circles. As we start to work together, to go and see each other's work, we become more curious, more informed, and more respectful of the particular skills and perspectives that we each have, and in so doing we are all changed.

Kenneth Tharp, independent choreographer and dancer. Email kenneth@artyfarty.org

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Animated: Spring 2002