Award-winning choreographer Russell Maliphant talks to Eirini Diamantouli about his creative process, collaborating with renowned composer Vangelis and his latest work, Silent Lines, soon to be performed at Sadler’s Wells.
Dance can be a powerful means of communicating, and responding to, the world around us. Do you find our current turbulent political reality manifesting in your work, influencing your creative decisions or choice of thematic material? Or are you more interested in abstraction, with your work taking on a more escapist quality?
I am interested in creating movement through focused and expressive abstraction. Often this involves a dialogue with our internal world, dealing more with sensation, breath, pulsing vibration, energy and awareness rather than our outer reality – not to say that one doesn’t influence the other of course, just that the way in is different. Themes of equality, relationships and human connection are recurring and maybe they are responses to the world around us.
For your recent work, The Thread, inspired by Greek mythology, you worked with legendary Greek composer Vangelis. How did you collaborate to produce such a thematically cohesive work?
Vangelis and I began by listening to music together to discuss what might be close to the imagined needs of the project, such as reflecting Greek traditional and contemporary language, linking dance and music. Vangelis developed musical phrases and vignettes as I was developing movement material, so that we had a collection of elements to explore together. The dancers and I worked on material to sit with the musical elements and I made choices based on what was coming through the general structure and framework for different sections to organize a dynamic framework for the evening.
Your works feature diverse musical styles. Which styles inspire your work most and is it those which you listen to in your free time?
Music often impacts my development of movement. Sometimes it’s there for fun – to lift the mood – and at other times music excites and inspires on a particular day. It may be a specific rhythm that makes you want to move, or music that is tender or fun. I’m not interested in any particular styles per se. When creating a work it’s more about a juxtaposition with movement and setting that I find interesting; or the dynamic journey through the duration of a dance piece. I listen to a large variety of styles and genres of music for a variety of reasons and they all inspire in some way.
What features of the music do you find the most rousing – is it rhythm, timbre, harmony or melody, for example, that most inspire your work?
All of the above! Movement and music influence each other in a special way – what we are taking in at a performance is how music and movement (and other elements) mix together to create what we experience. That may be very different to the individual elements. It’s a case of where the whole wants to be greater than the sum of the parts and that’s what I find most rousing and inspiring – it can be any of those things that converge to create a special interest.
This summer The Thread was performed at the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus in Greece. Do you think this historic setting impacted the performance and its reception?
Epidavrus is an incredible setting and it impacted the performance of The Thread there in many ways. Elements of the lighting and staging needed to be adapted to make the piece work for the performance there, which was the first outdoor venue the piece had played. There are no overhead lighting bars at Epidavrus (which previously carried 90% of the lighting design) and I chose to have no wings or backdrop either, opting instead to see the natural setting of the venue. Subsequently, I needed to adapt and re-choreograph entrances and exits so that as many elements became visible without the usual wings to mask the dancers offstage. We also changed the stage itself, creating a 4 meter raked section halfway back which gave two different levels to the stage’s surface area and was unique to that performance. The uniqueness of the setting was awe-inspiring and a very positive focal point to be part of.
Are there any other historic or unconventional venues or settings where you can envisage your work being performed?
I really like seeing work performed in unconventional settings and when there is time to adapt a production thoroughly it can be a great experience. The team working on The Thread were excellent and made it a very positive experience to adapt the piece within a limited time. In 2015 the company performed in a 13th century barn that was turned into a gallery by Jonathan Messum [for Maliphant’s piece Conceal / Reveal]. It’s very unconventional for a stage performance, with a playing area of 25 meters deep by 7 meters wide, so everything needed to be adapted, but I loved seeing the work in a new way.
Which dancers, choreographers or other creatives have influenced you most over the years – which continue to inspire you?
The most influential dancers, choreographers or creatives who have influenced my work over the years are really those I have direct experience of working with. Each dancer has an impact on a process and the performances. Some people I have worked with for longer periods of time. I have collaborated with Michael Hulls for over 25 years and he has influenced the way I perceive or imagine for the stage. Laurie Booth, who I performed with for several years and taught me improvisation was a big influence, as was Lloyd Newson of DV8 Physical Theatre and Michael Clark. Vangelis was inspiring to work with and I grew up watching and dancing works by Sir Kenneth MacMillan, which have influenced me also. Seeing Robert Lepage and Alexander McQueen do their thing creatively was and will always remain, inspiring to me.
After collaborating with Michael on more than 45 works to date…it has affected my choreographic perception and thinking about space and time.
As part of your appointment as artistic director of the National Youth Dance Company (NYDC), you will be creating a new commission for the company. Do you think working with these young dancers will influence your choreographic language?
I think every time I work with a dancer/dancers and we get to something that’s interesting, it influences me – so I am hoping we have that same experience when I begin working with NYDC and that it will in turn influence my choreographic language.
Does your process change when working with other companies aside from your own? What are the challenges and benefits to this?
The process often changes when working with other companies because a lot of elements are already in place within those company structures for what they have to do in the bigger picture. I often teach during the process of creation with my own company, but not necessarily in another company – that has an impact on qualities and tasks that we can share and dig into together within the timescale of a process. This is understood and I do all I can to make the most of the differences. It can be challenging not to have the format of a class or workshop, especially when trying to address physical issues or understand an appearing vocabulary which might benefit from further exploring before it’s assembled and constructed. At the same time working with another company also demands the search for other ways to understand the essential ingredients of a piece.
In your works, movement mingles and interacts with light to powerful effect. How does your long-standing collaboration with lighting designer Michael Hulls influence your creative process?
Lighting movement, and creating movement for a particular light to frame, is different than thinking about movement regardless. It sets it in a context of an element that is often not in the room. After collaborating with Michael on more than 45 works to date, some of the processes I have developed to help these elements fit together more productively affect my choreographic perception and thinking about space and time. These might include placement, size of area being moved within, duration of intended stay in an area before moving on; in addition to energy and it’s relationship to the intensity of light level, location and placement of areas of light and their relationship to previous or following scenes; body parts that will be emphasized by the light – all such considerations influence and are now part of my creative process.
Your choreographic language demonstrates your deep connection with and understanding of anatomy and the science of movement. How does Silent Lines, your latest work, reflect this?
The idea for Silent Lines was to inspire the creation from the inside of the body. That carried through from the physical tasks and explorations into the choreography and also into video animations which were inspired by patterns and structures from within the body. This internal world of textures and pattern is externally reflected back onto the dancers’ bodies, thus becoming an environment for a visual performance.
Some of these patterns and structures are familiar throughout nature (both outside and inside of the body). For example, the ring circles of a tree trunk can also be seen in the layered tubes or arteries inside the human body, and the cellular structure of tissues form something like a honeycomb matrix. These texture the figures and form our setting and aesthetic for Silent Lines.
To return to our present situation, how do you think the looming reality of Brexit may impact the dance world?
I can’t see it as positive for the dance world in any way. I imagine that international touring will take more administrative work and be more expensive and time consuming. It will create unnecessary boundaries for an art form that has a universal language.
Russell Maliphant Dance Company’s Silent Lines will be performed at Sadler’s Wells on 18th and 19th October. Click here to book tickets and for more information. To find out more about any of the creatives mentioned in the interview, click on the links in the body of the text.
Lucy Writers would like to thank Russell Maliphant and Tom McGarva of Sundae Communications for giving us this interview.
Feature image is by Panayiotis Sinnos, courtesy of Sadler’s Wells.