Examining the development of Rambert Dance Company under the artistic directorships between 1966-1980.

Ballet Rambert, c.1971: Marie Rambert is in the centre flanked by Norman Morrice and John Chesworth. Photo © Astrid Zydowa.

Norman Morrice became artistic director in 1966 and alongside Marie Ramberts guidance, he completely changed the style, identity and running of the company in order to move away from the competitive ballet field and into the modern dance arena. In 1974 he was succeeded by John Chesworth, his associate director under his reign. Chesworth continued to push the company forward into modern times through experimenting with TV projects and educational programmes, whilst also staying true to Marie’s own values of nurturing company members.

In 1966, Norman Morrice transformed the company from a typical ballet hierarchy of 30 dancers to a smaller, modern company of 18 who were all of soloist ability. His choreographic workshops encouraged the dancers to develop their own skills in choreography and improvisation. For example, during the rehearsals of That Is The Show (1971) Morrice asked the dancers to improvise with this simple instruction: “you either are the sea, or you’re in the sea”. Their creations were then used in the choreographic process. In Blindsight (1969) he used a different approach by blindfolding them and talking them through a series of improvisational instructions including walking around the room and experimenting with contact work whilst not being able to see. These tasks encouraged them to think outside of the box and create new movement vocabulary based on their own interpretations of the instructions, often creating something much more original and interesting. By developing the dancer’s individual confidence and skills he was creating the ‘Rambert Dancer’, someone who is versatile and therefore more likely to succeed in the dance world. This set them apart from the competitive ballet field, allowing them to create their own modern style. Furthermore, this allowed Morrice to nurture talented choreographers such as Christopher Bruce, who started his choreographic career with short works being created in these workshops at this time.

Furthermore, Morrice abided by the first aim of 1966, which was to invite new and established choreographers to stage works for Rambert Dance Company. Morrice invited Glen Tetley, an established American choreographer who had been successful with Pierrot Lunaire in 1962, to stage Pierrot Lunaire on the Rambert dancers in 1967. Tetley experimented with a seamless blend of ballet and modern through the inclusion of Graham technique. For example, in the opening of the dance, Pierrot stands on top of a large, metal scaffolding and slides his right foot forward through the plie, to extend his back leg into a classical arabesque position, using the bars of the scaffolding as a ballet barre. He then sharply contracts his torso and brings his back leg into his chest in parallel, two key characteristics of Graham technique, before seamlessly opening his body to the audience in a graceful turned-out fan kick. This style was a step in the right direction to move the company away from the ballet world and into the new and exciting modern dance arena. In doing so, the company was following international developments in dance and so were able to bring in new, modern audiences and create a buzz by staging works by a famous American choreographer, ultimately increasing interest and therefore ticket sales at a pivotal point in their financial history.

In 1974, John Chesworth succeeded as Artistic Director and instantly got to work with projects for TV and film. He created Project 6354/8116 MK2 in 1974, which premiered on ‘2nd House’, a BBC Arts TV programme which ran in the mid-70’s. He also directed an experimental film called Dancers in 1978, a 29 minute documentary which artistically showed viewers a day-in-the-life portrait of the Ballet Rambert in an observational style, capturing performances to the mundane daily tasks. Its sole emphasis was on the physicality and discipline of ballet. Alongside this, Chesworth became a director for the very popular BBC children’s programme, Bertram Batell’s Side Show. This was devised and presented by Rambert Dance Company members and it was described as a ‘spellbinding dance fantasia for the entertainment of children of all ages’. At this time, there were limited TV channels available and so the concept of Chesworth directing a popular children’s dance programme and featuring his documentary of Ballet Rambert on the main channel, BBC, meant that the company quickly developed their audience base and raised awareness of dance in Britain. Furthermore, it can be said to have attracted and encouraged more young dancers into the world of Rambert.

Chesworth continued to abide by the first aim of 1966, to invite new and established choreographers to stage works for Rambert, by inviting American choreographers such as Glen Tetley and Anna Sokolow to stage works. However, his main contribution was that of Christopher Bruce, a company member since the 1950’s, who had started to create short works under Morrice’s direction. By continuing to nurture and encourage Bruce through choreographic workshops, staging possibilities, and introducing him to Lindsey Kemp, Bruce made his debut with his first full-length feature work, Cruel Garden, in 1977. Cruel Garden was an instant hit due to its political focus on the mysterious death of a protester in Spain, showcased through a grand set design and Spanish elements of flamenco dance. For example, we see the male soloist wearing a cream bolero jacket embellished with gold lace tassels and 3/4 length trousers on top of white tights and ballet shoes, reflecting a traditional style influenced by flamenco. He swishes a white cloth, at times painted red with the lighting, to suggest the idea of a bull fight, in a graceful yet dynamic manner across the front of his body followed by percussive footwork, a key characteristic of flamenco dance. Firstly, this work provided a new cultural perspective for the audience, offering an entertaining and immersive world on stage. His works continued to become more and more modern through the cultural elements and darker themes, which increased the diversity of the audiences Rambert saw in this time frame. Secondly, this helped to raise the profile of Rambert Dance Company as Bruce became one of the most famous British choreographers and his success put a positive light on the company’s training.

In conclusion, both Morrice and Chesworth had a significant impact on the development of Rambert Dance Company between 1966-1980 through the inclusion of new dance styles from around the world, exciting possibilities for TV and film and experimental choreographic approaches which built the dancers confidence and independent skills. Overall, the directors were able to nurture their company members and build a strong reputation for the company to ensure its professional and financial success.


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