An Interview with Kim Brandstrup

A few days before we set off for Copenhagen we had the opportunity to chat to UK based Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup. Kim has consistently produced innovative, modern pieces using non-linear narrative. His film-school background is a visible influence on his style, with plenty of shifts, cuts and stories that are open for personal interpretation. Goldberg, his 2009 project with Royal Ballet Principal Tamara Rojo has just been nominated for an Olivier Award (Best New Dance Production) but the main focus of our conversation was Rushes, Fragments of a Lost Story a piece Kim created for The Royal Ballet in 2008 which is being revived for a run of 5 performances starting tonight. Rushes was choreographed on 2 separate co-creating casts: one with Carlos Acosta, Alina Cojocaru and Laura Morera, and another with Tom Whitehead, Leanne Benjamin and Tamara Rojo.

During the interview we touched upon another double project Kim is currently working on: 2 new ballets for The Royal Danish Ballet, one all-female and another all-male, using the same music in different orchestrations. Kim also spoke to us about his career, working with different dancers and the importance of narrative ballets nowadays. You can read a capsule biography of Kim here.

Kim Brandstrup. Photo: Henrik Bjerregrav ©

For those who are not very familiar with your work, can you describe your choreographic process? How do you start a piece and develop a theme?

KB: Each piece is different. Music is very important. Music and dancers. The casting is where I start. As you probably know I’ve worked with narrative quite a lot, even when I did contemporary dance and of course, I always have a story or have a type of content in the end, but what sparks me creatively is the dancing, how a particular dancer moves and the music.

Whenever I go in, whenever you walk into the studio, you are looking for something to surprise you, you are looking for something you haven’t seen before. Sometimes that happens as an organic development of what’s already there and sometimes if I delay that a tiny bit something is going to take place. I think that for the dancers it’s also something very important to feel, that it’s alive and it has to be alive in the studio. There is a tendency for the dancers to feel the piece it’s theirs only when they take it onstage and the studio is the kind of thing you have to get through in order to get the freedom…but I think the sense of play and experiment and risk taking and pure fun has to be there all the time.

How do you find working with The Royal Ballet? How does its strong dramatic style fit within your own?

KB: What I think is wonderful about The Royal Ballet is that it has a tradition, inhabiting a kind of fictional word, where the dancers continuously work with Ashton and MacMillan, doing dramatic, theatrical work. I always feel that the dancers are lovely human beings when they come on stage. I feel that this is something I can draw from and enjoy very much. Of course the company has a style but I always try to work with the individual. It’s one dancer and the particular way a dancer moves that actually turns me on, so I try to go in and find what’s unique to the individual.

When I did Rushes I worked with two casts simultaneously and even though you would say that probably the steps are fairly similar, what comes out is very different and I think that it is important, finding, giving creative room to these artists, these individuals.

Carlos Acosta and Laura Morera in Kim Brandstrup's Rushes: Fragments of a Lost Story. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Can you expand on this concept of working with two different Principal casts leading to very different portrayals of the same characters?

KB: From the beginning I said I would like to have two casts and that I would like to work with them individually, so they never came on the same studio. I chose the dancers and said I didn’t want the second cast to stand in the background and learn it second hand, so we had complete separate rehearsals. The corps de ballet is the same in both but for the principals I set separate rehearsals because there is a kind of intimacy and trust that you need to build between the dancers and the choreographer.

Did any of the casts see the other cast?

KB: Only later on. For a long time they didn’t and I think that some of them might not even have seen the other. I haven’t asked them about it. I think they preferred not to, at least not during in the creative process. I think each cast trusted that I would develop the version that was right for them.

Some dancers have mentioned in the past that you are always changing things around [Kim laughs]. So how are you approaching the upcoming revival of Rushes?

KB: There are no cast changes, which is wonderful. Both casts are there, and it’s only a year and a half since we did it and those pieces are so tied to those people that I couldn’t even think of anybody else, although if I had to I would do it.

When you go in the studio you have to look at what’s in front of you: I know the music inside out, I know what’s supposed to happen that day but I am ready to scrap it when I see something better in front of me. The more experienced you get, the more open you become to let the wonderful artists you have take the piece in completely new directions and interpret the steps you give them. Once you’ve done something, the exciting bit is that the music and the steps settle in the dancers’ body and become second nature so you don’t have to do so much the second time around. But there’s also a certain kind of freedom when you revisit something. Suddenly you see new potential, things that you hadn’t and then you change it, like steps, structurally little things. You always look for something new, otherwise it wouldn’t be fun. You may see things you didn’t expect. Someone does something that is wonderful and you didn’t think it was possible; you have to grab it and use it.

Thomas Whitehead and Clara Barbera in Kim Brandstrup's Goldberg. Photo: Ben Delfont ©

We recently finished reading Different Drummer [Jann Parry's Biography of Kenneth MacMillan] and we were fascinated by how much of MacMillan’s choreography was inspired by cinema. We know that cinema is also your background and your passion. What’s your take on MacMillan?

KB: I am very fond of him. I think he is wonderful, there is a very strong narrative and dramatic centre to it and there is also the completely unique wonderful virtuoso quality of his work that’s been very inspiring to watch. I’ve been very lucky to see The Royal Ballet for the past fifteen years and seeing different casts do Manon, Mayerling… and also, enjoying the incredible individuality of how they do it. I feel that it keeps growing, it keeps developing, you see new things when a new generation takes over.

Would you say that there are elements in common between your style and MacMillan’s?

KB: It is always hard to say, I am sure I’ve been inspired by what I’ve seen of MacMillan. I think MacMillan has worked very much in the sort of traditional 3-act ballet, staying true to the tradition and pushing it. He pushed the limits and really did wonderful things with ballet. I think the narratives I started doing were probably a bit more cinematic, a bit more fragmented. You know, in classical ballet you have 3 different locations in each act and [in cinema] there is a sense of editing and jumping. All of those things are interesting to me, so probably the narrative comes out as slightly more condensed.

Steven McRae and Tamara Rojo are rehearsed by Kim Brandstrup. Photo: Ben Delfont ©

Speaking of traditional 3-act ballets, what’s your take on the regular scheduling of blockbusters such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty to keep ballet companies afloat?

KB: I think it is hard for companies to keep doing the same pieces over and over again. I know in America there are companies that survive on doing The Nutcracker for two months, it’s their bread and butter. But for a young dancer the creation of new work is important and so is the sense of them being a creative participant, to contribute, especially in early days. They need to experience that. So it is a problem and, yet, the classics too are important in the way that they pursue a particular kind of technical virtuosity that is very hard to achieve. Nothing trains you as a ballerina as much as Sleeping Beauty does, so it will always be a conflict.

What you have just described with Sleeping Beauty… it seems choreography based on classical vocabulary nowadays tends to suppress the type of technical virtuosity we are used to seeing in those blockbusters. Why is that?

KB: Of course I can only speak from my personal point of view. I look at the classical technique as a potential for movement. I try not to use it as a vocabulary. I always feel if you do set steps and if you put certain steps together it’s not so interesting. But if you have the technique, and the chops to do that, you have an incredible internal strength and power which can be used in all kinds of different ways so I hope that some of the things I do are virtuoso in another way. Affectionately I can relate to 19th century style and I love to see it, but I live now in the 21st century so I couldn’t use it as such, so I always say that I look for movement rather than steps.

Why do you think it is so hard now to create full-length ballets?

KB: It’s hard because that form was very utilised in the 19th century before there were films and television. The pacing of how you told a story was very different and now we have a much quicker sensibility in terms of perceiving an art. We clock it very quickly. For instance in film, it is a different storytelling. Also, some of the really strict formal mime is difficult for contemporary choreographers to work with, unless you do it as a homage, so part of the problem is how to construct a piece that moves and keeps you dramatically engaged.

I do think it’s possible but one has to really think of how to do a narrative ballet and of course, MacMillan is an example of someone who pushed the form. When he created his full lengths he was part of the house. He would pick out the dancers who would work for him, which is a very important part. And also to create such a big work you really need good support from the company.

When you started you had your own company, ARC. Can you elaborate on the pros and cons of running your own company as a choreographer?

KB: It was incredibly important for my personal development to have a company. I was in charge of my business, doing exactly what I wanted to do, I had a group of dancers around me that were there because they wanted to work with me and that I chose because I wanted to work with them. There was a sense of family, of trust in the studio. It was part of taking necessary risks. But at the stage where I am on my career now, it’s nice not to have the responsibility of “having a family”, fundraising, touring, the whole admin outside of the creative world that eats a lot of the time.

At the moment I am quite happy where I am. Of course sometimes I miss having that sense of family but on the other hand, it can also be exciting to meet a particular dancer anywhere and to be able to work together. You need different things at different times in your career and at the time I started 15-20 years ago, it was invaluable. It was a place where I could experiment. When I started out, nobody did narrative work in contemporary dance so it was the only place where I could do it.

Steven McRae in Kim Brandstrup's Goldberg. Photo: Ben Delfont ©

We know that you’ve been working with The Royal Danish Ballet in a couple of new pieces. What can you tell us about them?

KB: Well, the company has changed a lot, there is a new Artistic Director [Nikolaj Hübbe]. There has been a sort of big generation shift, I would say it’s younger. Nikolaj has really worked on the kind of technical side and has generated a physical excitement in the company and the kind of discipline that I think it’s great and needed.

I’ve done some initial work on the pieces that I am doing in May. I have been casting, just trying things, it looks good, the company looks in good shape. It’s an interesting project. Nikolaj wanted to separate the men and the women and make two programmes (MK Ballerina and MK Danseur Noble), so he asked me if I’d be interested. I said yes but I had two stipulations. One was that I could do a piece for the men and one for the women. I would use the same music, which has been written for it, in two different orchestrations by Danish composer Kim Helweg and then structurally they would be similar but for the corps, they would be physically very different. The second stipulation was that I wanted to bring a man in the last 5 minutes of the piece for the 12 women and viceversa with the men, so 12 men and 1 woman. I felt that the piece needed that.

For the music, we wanted to work with what there was in the repertoire, so there is a part that is Baroque and then there are strings, as they are also doing Serenade [as part of MK Ballerina programme], so it was orchestrated around what was available.

We know you are an avid reader so what’s on your bedside table right now?

KB: I’ve just been given Memoirs: Duc de Saint-Simon (Louis de Rouvroy). It is based on the years near the end of the reign of Louis XIV. It is a description of the reality of Versailles, what they were eating, how badly it smelled…

Are there any ballets you would like to choreograph to a book/story you have read?

KB: There is always some story. There is a wonderful play called Life Is A Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. [E. enthusiastically tells Kim she has recently seen Life Is a Dream brilliantly staged by the Donmar Warehouse in London with Dominic West]. It’s the one thing I would love to work on someday.

Kim Brandstrup’s Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story is part of As One/Rushes/Infra triple bill which runs at the Royal Opera House from tonight until 4 March. For booking details visit the ROH website.

MK Ballerina and MK Danseur Noble will premiere at The Royal Danish Theatre on 20 May and 21 May respectively. The programmes will run until 5 June. For booking details visit The Royal Danish Ballet website.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.


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