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Light & Shape: Q&A with Alexander Whitley

by Emilia on November 20, 2012

Ten years ago choreographer Wayne McGregor created an evening of work for ROH2 which marked his own company’s first collaboration with The Royal Ballet. This season, McGregor & Random Dance are returning to the Linbury Studio Theatre with three world premieres from young choreographic talents Robert Binet, Paolo Mangiola and Alexander Whitley.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Alex, who has been appointed Choreographic Affiliate at the Royal Opera House and also New Wave Associate at  Sadler’s Wells. He told us about his piece, Hertz, an exploration of scientific theories of light.

Alexander Whitley

Alexander Whitley - Photo: © ROH

TBB: Can you tell us about Random Dance’s season at the Linbury Theatre?

Alex: It is a co-commission between the ROH and Random Dance. This evening of new works is part of the 10th anniversary of this association: Wayne was the first associate choreographer when Deborah Bull started 10 years ago, so these two weeks of Random Dance at the Linbury are a celebration of that. We are performing FAR, his most recent large scale creation during the first week and in the second week we have the mixed bill programme where he has given me and two other young emerging choreographers opportunities to make work on Random.

One of the first programmes he put out there featured dancers of the Royal Ballet mixed with Random Dance and, because his relationship with the Royal Ballet has continued and developed, it is nice that it has come full circle and that he has passed on that opportunity for these collaborations to a new generation of choreographers.

TBB: What can you give away about your piece, Hertz?

Alex: I am working with eight of the ten Random dancers, as neither Paulo [Mangiola], nor I are dancing on it. It is set to a score by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, whose music I’ve used before. I used selected tracks from an album of hers for Entropy [Feb 2012], a piece that I choreographed for the Royal Ballet’s Draft Works last year. I met her earlier in the year in Berlin and she told me about this piece of music that she had just written, and gave me a copy. It seemed ideal for the piece that I was hoping to choreograph: I loved the music but also the subject matter. I was already thinking about making a piece about light and I got stuck with the idea of light as a metaphor for reason and rationality. When she mentioned she had written a piece about it, I thought it would be good to tie it in.

So the piece is an exploration of light, which seems like a horribly broad theme, but what I’ve done are different aspects and ideas of light. Based on scientific theories of light, classical theories of light as waveform and then more recent ideas of quantum mechanics, I looked into what might be appropriate to apply to the creative process of dance, drawing principles that I could then apply to a choreographic process. I am also collaborating with Korean fashion designer J. JS Lee, who is designing the costumes. It is an interesting thing for me, because I’ve never worked with a fashion designer before but it is quite exciting. She is based in London and I came across her through another collaborator who suggested I have a look at her stuff. It is very elegant and minimal. I’m not one for elaborate costumes or elaborate things in general, so there was something very appealing in the simplicity and elegance of her work.

Camille Bracher in Entropy

Camille Bracher in Alex Whitley's Entropy - Photo: © ROH

TBB: How does one apply Quantum Mechanics to dance?

Alex: These theories try and explain the behaviour of something as a physical property of the world, so if you look at it in the abstract sense of the behaviour of a particular thing, then there are parallels you can draw in terms of how something moves in time and space. Theories of light are concerned with explaining how light travels, how it moves, at what speed, and how that relates to our concept of time. In the quantum mechanical explanation of it, the mind-bending thing is the possibility of photons travelling backwards in time and quantum events happening at different spaces in time that are somehow linked. So there are some interesting possibilities in just drawing principles, rather than actually trying to demonstrate these things in a literal way.

Two of the major principles I drew from what I read were the ideas of oscillation and frequency: how a waveform is an oscillating form and has the behaviour of something that continuously moves between 2 or more states – so an obvious application to making dance, would be to think about what different qualitative states of movement could be, or different states of expansion and contraction and how I can apply this idea of oscillation – the other is the principle of frequency – different colours or regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, having different frequencies, so thinking about what frequencies are in terms of the structure of the piece, or how a particular movement repeats. That’s the line I was thinking.

TBB: Are there any particular works that inspired you?

Alex: Well, there’s one that I read recently by a Scottish anthropologist, a philosophical anthropologist called Tim Ingold, who proved quite an inspiration in terms of how we can’t separate our experience of the particular features of the world from the weather at any given time. The particular shape or light cast in any object or landscape we are looking at shapes your experience of it, so the light and the object are inseparable, so to think of them as separate and aspects of the world like science likes to do, is a mistake in his opinion. If we are talking about trying to explain how we actually experience the world, it is the totality of all of those things, so in terms of how that line of thinking could be applied to this work, to think how the light can be used, it gives a slightly different quality to the repetition and the structure.

Alex and dancers in rehearsal

Alex rehearses Hertz - Photo: © Ravi Deepres / ROH

TBB: Do you think dance can have that function of tying all these experiences together in a cohesive way?

Alex: I hope so and I believe it can. My interest and fascination with dance is how it somehow taps into what is such a large part of our experience of the world that goes unspoken, how we can be more subtly engaged with the aesthetic qualities of the experience all the time. I think that is where my interest is leaning and in making a piece of dance, I guess, it is trying to take literal concepts and transform them into something that communicates at a non-literal level. I think it was Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker who said something along the lines of: ‘the amazing thing about dance it is that it can make the most abstract thing tangible’.

TBB: You mention Anne Teresa… Who were your major influences in becoming a choreographer?

Alex: There have been quite a few people. Undoubtedly Wayne McGregor, even before I worked with him as a dancer. He mentored me choreographically and his curiosity and enthusiasm for interrogating the body and dance have been massively inspirational. Jonathan Burrows has also been a long time mentor of mine and someone who has shared a lot. The work of Merce Cunningham, is hugely influential and Forsythe’s principles as well.

Although I haven’t had the privilege of working with Forsythe directly, I can’t help but appreciate what he has contributed to moving the choreographic agenda forward, and Wayne in his work has to be indebted to what Forsythe started with, geometric principles of choreographic technologies. So all of those and then the ballet to some extent, although there I can’t single out a particular individual that I really take as a major inspiration from.

TBB: When did you start choreographing?

Alex: I started choreographing at the beginning of my dance career, when I was with Birmingham Royal Ballet. There was an evening where they gave dancers in the company the opportunity of doing something so I jumped at it and haven’t stopped since then.

Thomas Whitehead and Itziar Mendizabar in Entropy

Thomas Whitehead and Itziar Mendizabar in Alex Whitley's Entropy - Photo: © ROH

TBB: What is it about ballet that attracts you?

Alex: It is an interesting time, because after the birth and development of contemporary dance, people were generally preoccupied with rejecting ballet as much as they could. But that has happened long enough now for it to shift into an acceptance of ballet as a technique and as a principle of movement, and taking that and applying to other media.

I think it is the clarity of form in ballet that is relatively unique and in dance, even Cunningham, having trained with Martha Graham, went to ballet lessons and adopted a lot of the principles of extension and line from ballet in Graham’s technique. I think there is something appealing in that purity of form, and the technical precision of execution in ballet for a choreographer that aspires to a certain degree of clarity. There is something appealing both in the idea of what ballet is, but also in dancers who have the physical clarity of execution that comes with a rigorous training that I don’t think you get in other physical forms of dance techniques.

There is a reason why ballet adopted line in the first place, because seeing someone in an extended form brings about a feeling in you. Seeing someone being open and expansive gives you a certain feeling of what is like when we are irradiating positive energy. That’s for me what dance communicates. So, I think that’s why ballet endures. It is amazing to see someone do that. Plus it is a highly skilled form: not everyone can balance for that long on one foot or turn that many times. There is something in the grace and execution of ballet that I think will be forever appealing.


Alexander Whitley’s Hertz is part of Random Dance’s Mixed bill (also featuring works by Paolo Mangiola and Robert Binet) at the Linbury Studio Theatre 22-24 November 2012. For tickets and further information visit the ROH website.

{ 3 comments }

Lizzie Maitland November 20, 2012 at 12:19 pm

I remember Alex from his days with BRB and was very disappointed when he left as he was obviously a very promising dancer. Brilliant to see how well he’s done in the years since he left and I just wish I could get to London to see the new mixed bill at the Linbury.
Wishing him all the best for the future and looking forward to seeing some of his choreographic work soon!

Penny Adie November 27, 2012 at 1:24 pm

I am Artistic Director of the Two Moors Festival. I have a specific theme for next year – dates 17 – 27 October and wondered if we could meet to discuss a project? I am in London a lot. Look forward to hearing from you.

Emilia November 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Many thanks for getting in touch Penny, we have sent you an email :)

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