Background Context and Marie’s Ethos
Marie Rambert opened her first dance school in Kensington, London in 1920. Six years later, one of her students, Frederick Ashton, staged A Tragedy of Fashion (1926) which marked the early beginnings of Rambert Dance Company. Marie’s dance troupe became The Ballet Club in 1930 and it was renamed to the beloved Ballet Rambert in 1935. Trained in the Cechetti method, Marie was first and foremost a ballet teacher but was inspired by Isadora Duncan and Ballet Russes to develop and modernise her company through the style, set design, music, choreography and collaboration. Her original vision was to experiment and create new works. For many years this was not possible. During WW2 the company was temporarily managed by the Arts Council due to financial issues, under who they toured extensively to non-theatrical venues such as canteens, factory hostels and miners halls. After the war, Ballet Rambert performed Giselle (1946) which was the company’s first full production of a classic ballet, and it premiered to great acclaim. Audiences began to expect longer ballets, and during this time Ballet Rambert performed several classics, including La Sylphide and Don Quixote. Their extensive 35 weeks-a-year touring schedule meant there was less time to create new works and there was no notable choreographer working with the company at this time. Long story short, Marie was unable to fully implement her original vision and ethos until 1966, when Norman Morrice was appointed artistic director and the company underwent a drastic transformation to move into the modern dance arena.
“I remember a headline in the sixties describing the company as a phoenix rising from the ashes. It was always in crisis but always rising. It has such a strong base of repertoire, reputation and ethos that it can keep rebuilding. As long as you stay with that ethos, that policy of representing history but never settling back on it, always finding new directions, experimenting, being able to risk failing, and surviving that, Rambert will go on.”Christopher Bruce
Marie has 3 key influences which we can evidence in Ballet Rambert’s early development and the creation of her company ethos: Isadora Duncan, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, and Ballet Russes.
- Isadora Duncan originally inspired Marie to dance professionally after seeing her work in 1904. Duncan broke away from conventional classical ballet techniques and explored new ways of moving. Her dances were emotionally expressive and she danced in tunics and scarves, which was very daring at the time as it was opposite to the tight corsets and long skirts seen in ballet. She was an ambassador for women’s liberation. This inspired Marie’s modern choreography and her eventual vision change from ballet to modern.
- Émile Jaques-Dalcroze developed Dalcroze eurythmics training in the early 20th century. Marie attended Jaques-Dalcroze School of Eurythmics in 1910. The central concept is the relationship between music and body movement (kinaesthetic training). It focuses on awakening innate musicality through rhythmic movement, ear-training and improvisation. This inspired Marie’s choice of, use of, and relationship with music and choreography.
- Marie, as a first generation student of Dalcroze, was invited to Ballet Russes to assist with the incredibly complex rhythms of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In 1912 she joined the company for a year, teaching eurythmics, assisting Nijinsky, and performing in suitable ballets. Here she developed her love of classical ballet. This company was innovative and set trends for other companies. They used set design commissioned by major fine artists (including Picasso), music by the finest composers (including Stravinsky) and invited famous and respected ballet dancers/choreographers (including Nijinsky and Balanchine). Ballet Russes was groundbreaking and influential. We can use Ballet Russes as a source for Marie’s desire to develop and modernise the company through style, set design, music, choreography and collaboration. We can particularly use Tetley’s works as an example of this in terms of style, music and set design because Marie was very much still involved with the company whilst Tetley was creating even though she was no longer artistic director. Though it is important to note that Marie retained an active interest all aspects of the company until her death in 1982.
How did each artistic director stick to Marie’s vision and ethos?
- Morrice brought in American choreographers, such as Glen Tetley, to create new works and experiment with dance style, accompaniment, set design and collaboration.
- Pierrot Lunaire (1967) used a seamless blend of ballet and modern (Graham technique) with aspects of acrobatics through the use of set design. The bare design and large, silver scaffolding structure designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian provided extra opportunities to experiment with choreography and levels. The aural accompaniment, Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg, was experimental and non-traditional. It is a setting of 21 selected poems from Albert Giraud’s cycle of Pierrot Lunaire, as translated into German. It combined the voice of a female narrator half singing, half speaking those poems with an incredible range of pitch, volume and pace, which alternated randomly and did not follow any specific melody or pattern. (This vocal technique is called Sprechstimme.) On top of this, a wide range of instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano) were layered in what can only be described again as random, in the way they alternate in pitch, volume and pace, sometimes complementing and sometimes mismatching the Sprechstimme.
- Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968) similarly uses a blend of ballet and Graham technique, though is certainly less expressive and more stiff and gestural. The implementation of t’ai chi, both gesturally and through the use of rigid space, was original and experimental at the time. Again, Tetley’s style is evident here through the bare stage and unique trimmings – the silvery mirrored floor and light draping material at the back of the stage designed by Nadine Baylis – and the interesting aural accompaniment by Morton Subotnick. The music is electronic, robotic, and repetitive with random whistling, plinking and metallic sound effects which overall sounds very futuristic and does not appear to match the idea of t’ai chi. Although, the subject matter does also explore human relationships in rather a cold way which I suppose is reflective in the unemotional score.
- Morrice positioned the company firmly within the modern dance arena, and therefore away from the competitive ballet world, through the choreographers he hired and his own choreographic processes. Morrice was known to improvise and experiment in the studio, and many of his techniques and processes would be described as ‘post-modern’ today.
“He was very experimental… he wouldn’t tell you what it was about… and that was really a feature, I think it was because he didn’t want us to interpret it in a way that he didn’t want. So he’d start works by experimenting and what he did with Blindsight was that he made us work with our eyes shut in the studio and set us all these tasks.”Susan Cooper talking about Blindsight (1969)
- Chesworth continued to promote new works by in-house and American choreographers, each with differing styles and approaches.
- Christopher Bruce had been a dancer with Rambert for many years, and in 1977 he was appointed associate director of the company. Cruel Garden (1977) was Christopher Bruce’s first full-length work, which was fully supported and encouraged by Chesworth. Cruel Garden features ballet, Graham and flamenco techniques and was experimental through its cultural exploration of music, movement and ideas from the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The theatrical set design was different to Rambert’s earlier works by Tetley, but still screamed modernism in comparison to Ballet Ramberts pre-1966 ballets.
- Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan (1976) was created by Frederick Ashton and dedicated to Marie Rambert who shared his love of Isadora Duncan. The traditional score by Brahms contrasts other works staged around this time (e.g. Cruel Garden only a year later) and the Duncan technique is used which offered audiences new movement vocabulary away from Graham technique which was the most prominent at the time.
- Chesworth was very interested in the possibilities for dance on film and television. He created Project 6354/9116 Mk2 for BBC TV (1974) and directed the experimental film Dancers (1978), a collaboration with Derek Hart and Yutaka Yamazaki which won awards at the Chicago and Krakow film festivals. Experimenting with technology allowed the company to continue Marie’s experimental ethos.
- North brought back a distinct interest in musicality, after some previously more experimental accompaniment (Tetley).
- He was able to play with direct correlation and leitmotifs in Death and The Maiden (1980) through Schubert’s string quartet in D Minor, ‘Death and the Maiden’. This was also the stimulus for the work and it dictated the structure and steps entirely. One leitmotif in particular can be heard at approx 14:50-56 when the girl bows to accept death. This is repeated multiple times, often in moments of acceptance such as taking death’s hand.
- North experimented with music visualisation through the use of lyrics in Lonely Town, Lonely Street (1981). The lyrics and themes of Bill Withers songs dictated the themes and loose characters within the piece, which was entertaining and relatable to audiences. In section 5, Ain’t No Sunshine the choreography visualises the lyrics and themes as the male soloist wraps his arms around himself solemnly as the lyrics sing “it’s not warm when she’s away”. Introducing popular music was another step towards expanding the diversity of the repertoire of the company.
- North developed the company by including new and popular dance styles and pushing the boundaries of set design, too.
- Lonely Town, Lonely Street (1981) has an incredibly interactive set design, with stairs that lead to new rooms and doors which open into shops and bars. The dancers use this, particularly in the filmed version, and I like to consider that Matthew Bourne is praised today for developing contemporary dance through similarly transformable, multi-layered and interactive set designs. So for North to experiment with this in the 80s is truly something to be discussed. The run down American city is clear through the building blocks, back-alley fire exits, clutter, bars and shops and in section 1 the ensemble use pedestrian gesture such as walking, chewing gum, and bumping into each other as they travel in tight right-angles, resembling the pavement system in NYC. Pedestrian gesture is a popular characteristic of contemporary dance today which allows choreographers to merge theatre with dance. Furthermore, North implements jazz technique in this piece which was gaining in popularity at the time, allowing the company to stay relevant.
- North continued to invite new and established choreographers to choreograph for the company, however the majority of works were by himself, Richard Alston or Christopher Bruce. This enabled the company’s repertoire to be highly diverse as each choreographer is very different.
- Ghost Dances (1981) by Christopher Bruce is highly political as it explores dictatorship, death and memories through the events of the Chilean Coup. The work is both animalistic and human; dancers swirl across the stage using folk-style stepping patterns and formations portraying family, lovers and friends whilst Ghosts linger in the dark, crawling and moving in predatory ways as they collect their victims. The music is both folksy and eerie, in style and context: the Chilean band Inti-Illimani were touring in Europe during the Pinochet regime and found ways to work in exile, spreading awareness of what was happening in Chile across Europe. This contrasts North’s emotional and populist approach, and Alston’s formalist approach.
- Wildlife (1984) by Richard Alston evidences unique set designs and costumes, designed in collaboration with Richard Smith.
“The work opens with a red kite structure in the foreground, downstage and a white sculpture upstage. One dancer enters from stage left performing arabesques, leaps and positions that are held. A second dancer emerges through the sculptures on stage from upstage into the centre; both dancers perform a unison phrase with turns, arabesques within the sculptures. The audience capture glimpses of movement, viewing through the gaps. As the red sculpture rises, the duet performs in unison.”Rambert
- Alston certainly pushed boundaries, experimenting with minimalism and replacing Graham technique with a new trendy technique – Cunningham and Fulkerson’s Release in 1986. It’s important to note that the company had experienced Cunningham technique before, but it was a drastic change to replace Graham technique with it in the company’s daily class. Graham technique had been a key stylistic feature of the company since 1966 in terms of movement vocabulary and expression; now they switched expressive contractions for streamlined linear shapes, tilts and curves, playing with space and formation in a more abstract manner. There has been debate about Alston’s tenure in my classroom, as many students perceive Alston’s drastic changes to be negative because the company suffered financially under his directorship. (I will be writing a blog detailing this soon.) But really, Alston was purely following Marie’s vision to experiment through a wide range of features.
- Alston not only uses Cunningham technique, but adopts some aspects of his choreographic method e.g. movement for movements sake. This makes his works very abstract and many of Alston’s works have followed a more formalist approach. Soda Lake (1986) is a good example of this as it is based on Nigel Hall’s sculpture, also called Soda Lake, which was originally based on the artists observations of the Mojave Desert. A copy of the sculpture is used as his set design, which the dancer responds to, at times becoming part of the visual design himself. This is a stylistic feature of Alston’s as he is interested in performance art and visual design. The work therefore has no narrative, but explores key contemporary principles of space and time. The movement is devoid of emotion, but is inspired by the shapes, weight and gravity of the sculpture itself. To top it off, the work is performed in silence, which forces the audience to focus on the visuals and see the work as a moving piece of art. Different? Yes. Following Maries ethos? Also yes.
- Mary Fulkerson’s Release technique is a British contemporary technique which focuses on the body anatomically and holistically to create organic movement which emerges naturally through play, experimentation and improvisation. This contrasts Cunningham technique, and Alston is unique in the way that he fuses the two to create his own idiosyncratic style. Release technique can be seen in Soda Lake (1986) in the gentle floor-work, where the dancer slowly explores the floor through fetus position, rolling, crawling and placement of weight, as well as the use of gravity when the dancer falls into the floor on his side.
- When taking over as artistic director in 1994, Bruce’s aims for the company were to return it to Marie’s original aims and ethos, ensuring that the company was continuing to modernise and develop, as well as inviting new and upcoming choreographers. Notable choreographers include:
- Mark Baldwin: Banter Banter (1994)
- Jiri Kylian: Petite Mort (1994); No More Play (1997)
- Merce Cunningham: August Pace (1998); Beach Birds (2000)
- Twyla Tharp: The Golden Section (1999)
- Mats Ek: She Was Black (2000)
- Wayne McGregor: detritus (2001)
- Bruce’s style is influenced by Marie Rambert herself, and his social and political works are emotional which audiences enjoyed more than the abstract experimentation of Alston. His aim was to bring back some of the audience favourites, particularly Graham technique and nostalgic pieces from 1966 onwards. Audiences enjoyed the nostalgia of the ‘old Rambert’ when Bruce came back, boosting ticket sales and funding, saving the company from closure. All well and good, but how did he continue to experiment by seemingly going backwards?
- Rooster (1994) is based on his own nostalgia of the 1960’s and explores important themes such as narcissism, treatment of women, drugs and the sexual revolution. Each episode offers a snapshot into a certain type of character or theme which enables the work to be entertaining, relatable and emotional. Graham and ballet technique are both evident as Bruce’s core style, but this work in particular also uses social dance styles such as ballroom, lindy hop and jive as well as pop culture references (Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger’s famous moves) to enhance the themes and set the era. The use of lyrics and music visualisation echoes North’s LTLS, but is done in a more complex and artistic manner.
- Swansong (1995) is more political, exploring the prisoner of conscience. The work offers aspects of uneasy humour and uses tap dance as a form of non-verbal communication between the victim and the guards. This work is theatrical and tells a story through characterisation, drama and props.
Please note that all premiere dates are for Rambert Dance Company and may not reflect the works original premiere.
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