Rambert Dance Company (RDC) has gathered an incredibly eclectic repertoire from 1966-2002 from many important choreographers, including Norman Morrice, Glen Tetley, Christopher Bruce, Robert North, Richard Alston and Merce Cunningham. Inspired by Ballet Russes, Marie Rambert was always keen on continuing to modernise her company through collaboration and experimentation, a vision which each artistic director has closely considered when inviting in new and established choreographers to the company over the years. Their famous repertoire varies in subject matter, dance styles, music and physical setting which I will discuss from a range of works in their history: Pierrot Lunaire (1967), Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (ETRTM) (1968), That is the Show (1971), Ghost Dances (1981), Lonely Town, Lonely Street (LTLS) (1981), Death and the Maiden (D&TM) (1984), Soda Lake (1986), Rooster (1994), Swansong (1995) and Beach Birds (2000).
RDC’s repertoire benefits from its many different choreographers who have worked with them over time, delivering the core ballet and modern principles whilst also introducing varied dance styles along the way. Tetley’s ETRTM challenged audiences in 1968 with its use of t’ai chi exercises as a base for its movement vocabulary, something which was not so common in the western world at the time. Tetley took the principles of the 17th movement of t’ai chi: the deep squat and lunge positions to transfer weight, the soft, sweeping parallel arm gestures, the sense of calm and use of breath and the distinct hand gestures. This can be seen in canon by the ensemble of dancers who stand CSL as they smoothly drop down into a deep second plie facing the back, sweeping their arms overhead, before transitioning their weight to the right leg to switch and face the audience in a deep second plie, cupping their hands in front of their faces to create a yin and yang symbol. The way this phrase blends into the ballet and modern vocabulary is a credit to Tetley’s ability to seamlessly blend styles. Robert North also blends his vocabulary, with his ‘Aint No Sunshine’ solo from LTLS demonstrating key characteristics of ballet, Graham and jazz, which was popular at the time. The soloist performs a jazz pirouette, with his legs in a parallel retire position and his arms in jazz first against his chest which he jumps out of facing DSR, landing on the left leg with the right leg extended towards the DSR corner. His torso is contracted with an angular, expressive reach of the arms towards the corner as the weight of his hips pulls him in the opposite direction. He falls out of the Graham-esque suspension to perform an intricate jump where the left leg ronde de jambe in the air as his torso continues the spin, opening his chest in a balletic manner. This allows his piece to be expressive, technically challenging and entertaining by combining these three very different professional styles. Bruce’s Swansong incorporates tap dance as the guards shuffle, step and pick-up in a variation of orders and speeds to portray a conversation between them and the victim as they interrogate him. Whereas both Alston and Cunningham display more post-modern movements for movement sake principles in Soda Lake and Beach Birds, focusing on creating lines and shapes with the body, fragmenting ballet and modern positions so that the upper and lower bodies are separate, and adding challenge for the dancers and audiences through quick changes in facings, directions and speed. The abstract choice of movement provides Rambert audiences with a very different vision of what dance is and what it can be, which contrasts to the more traditional styles previously used.
What makes RDC so diverse is that their works follow a wide range of subject matter, from personal, to historical, to abstract. That is the Show is a work by Norman Morrice which focuses more on the journey of choreography and improvisation, rather than a solid idea. Morrice asked the dancers to improvise their own solo work based on the instruction “you are either in the sea, or you are the sea” without any further context, which developed into a section that explored waves, currents and consciousness. The intention of this work is still up for debate with the dancers of 1971 today! (Susan Cooper, Rambert Voices Archive). Whereas Robert Norths D&TM sticks to a more traditional narrative based on the poem Death and the Girl, which explores a conversation between the figure of death and a young girl who is not ready to die. The work separates into two sections, premonitions and conversations, taking us on a journey of the girl’s emotions as she transitions from fearing and resisting death, to finding relief and ecstasy in the moment she accepts her fate and allows death to take her. The piece is emotional and expressive, something arguably easier for audiences to relate to than a performance of improvised material.
Marie Rambert’s training in Dalcroze’s Eurhythmics meant that she was interested in exploring relationships with music, something her company’s artistic directors continued in various different ways. Tetley’s Pierrot Lunaire was one of the first modern premieres after the changes of 1966, throwing RDC into the modern arena and away from competing ballet companies. Although his work does use the score of a famous composer, Arnold Schoenberg, it is certainly not classical as a ballet company would expect. Schoenbergs score, also called Pierrot Lunaire, is based on 21 poems written in the 1800s which explore the stock characters and is highly experimental. Pierrot Lunaire opens with a cascading twinkling of a piano before the Sprechstimme begins to speak-sing the first poem ‘Moondrunk’ in German. The violin and clarinet both layer and mimic the cascading melody of the piano to build a chaotic sounding score, emphasised by the Sprechstimme who reads the poem with varying and unpredictable changes in volume, speed and tone. The overall effect can be quite challenging for the classical dancer or audience, as there is little sense of rhythm or belonging which can distract from the movement vocabulary. This juxtaposes a later work by Richard Alston, Soda Lake, which is performed in silence with only the sound of the dancer’s breath and footwork evident on the stage. This was decided with the intention of the audience being able to focus solely on the movement vocabulary and physical set design. By contrast, Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances uses music to enhance the themes of the work and support the movement material. Section 5 is named Sicuriadas, which translates to a traditional dance tune on sikus which is repeated to get faster. Sikus are bamboo pipes traditional to Chile, where this work is geographically placed. The section does as suggested, starting with singular siku notes of varying pitch, speeding up to create a repetitive folk-style and upbeat rhythm, supported by other instruments such as drums. The dance works in direct correlation to this as the dancers perform and develop a series of intricate folk-style motifs to the repetition of the siku, using canon and accumulation to portray the innocent villagers coming together as a community one by one and becoming more defiant in the face of death. Each choreographer has sourced and used aural accompaniment very differently, though all of them have clear connections to the subject matter.
Finally, RDC productions all vary in their physical set design, linking to time, place or character, through collaborations with leading designers in the industry. Pierrot Lunaire opens on a bare, grey stage with a singular blue spotlight on the top of a tall, silver, rectangular scaffolding consisting of 3 shelves created with metal bars. Pierrot swings on one of the bars at the top as he stares up into the spotlight, representing his daydreamer character obsessed with the moon. The use of the scaffolding, designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, is a highly modern take on an age-old story, however it cleverly represents the playfulness of Pierrot’s character as he tumbles and hangs off it like a child on a climbing frame. This widely contrasts North’s LTLS, which opens on a stage littered with props and setting. Designed by Andrew Storer, it depicts a run-down urban city, with apartment blocks at the back finished with metal stairs and windows, and a bar/shop to the right with flashing LED lights in the window. There is a car USL and bins DSR, overflowing with litter and newspapers across the stage floor. Light comes from actual lampposts dotted around the stage to fully immerse the audience in the setting. This again differs to Bruce’s Swansong, who designed the set himself, using the bare stage to create an enclosed prison cell, light dim coming from one lone window and nothing available to see but a wooden chair the prisoner comes to use as a safety blanket and a weapon, and a metal caged door the guards lock when they exit USR. The different approaches to physical set design allow for diversity in the feel and intention of the piece, as well as the entertainment of the audience members.
Overall, RDC’s repertoire varies greatly in dance style, subject matter, aural accompaniment and physical setting, with many works providing a different approach or interpretation for more than one of those aspects each time. This provides audiences with an enjoyable surprise each time they watch RDC on stage, allowing for the continued success of the company as well as the continued modernisation and development of the company in Marie Rambert’s honour.
Example Mark Scheme
Extended responses may include:
• Identification of features of the dance works reflecting the variety in the repertoire of the Rambert Dance Company (formerly Ballet Rambert) from 1966 to 2002, e.g. relating to choreographers, genre, style, form, dance structure, subject matter, movement content, dancers, physical setting, aural setting.
• Analysis of the dance works reflecting the variety in the repertoire, eg relating to choreographers, genre, style, form, dance structure, subject matter, movement content, dancers, physical setting, aural setting.
• Evaluation of how the features shown in the dance works contributed to variety in the repertoire of the Rambert Dance Company (formerly Ballet Rambert) from 1966 to 2002.
• Examples from a variety of specific works between 1966-2002 to support the points made. For my own students, this could include:
- Pierrot Lunaire (1967)
- Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968)
- Blindsight (1969)
- That is the Show (1971)
- 5 Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan (1976)
- Cruel Garden (1977)
- Lonely Town, Lonely Street (1981)
- Ghost Dances (1981)
- Death and the Maiden (1984)
- Soda Lake (1986)
- Rooster (1994)
- Swansong (1995)
- Beach Birds (2000)
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