Curiosity is Key: Sebastian Goffin Creates in Munich

From Munich, our collaborator Wiebke catches up with The Royal Ballet School-trained Sebastian Goffin, who is presenting a new work, Astres Errants, this Sunday 28 April at The Bavarian State Ballet II / Junior Company matinee program, part of Ballet Festival Week 2013.

Having seen a lovely piece (Papillon) by Seb at Bob Lockyer’s 80th Birthday Gala in London, we were very keen to find out the latest about the young dancer and choreographer, currently an apprentice with Bayerisches Staatsballett. 

Wiebke Schuster: How did you come about choreographing Astres Errants?

Sebastian Goffin: I was given a brief to create a non-narrative ballet to a piece of music with a lot of orchestration. I found this piece by John Lord called Boom of the Tingling Strings which I responded to right away. The idea for the title (meaning wandering stars in French) came from the music because it is constantly changing and evolving. I started to create for four soloists – two girls and two boys – but once I saw that the music was 14 minutes long, I knew I needed to add a corps de ballet!

When thinking about the essence of the piece, I didn’t find myself in any particular place or time. I didn’t want to create something completely abstract either. It is about people passing through, travelling beside one another, together, as the music changes. That’s my narrative – it doesn’t need to be visible to the audience, but it needed to be clear in my head and to the dancers, so that everything has meaning. Every step becomes valuable to me when it is filled with purpose. Even though my ideas might change slightly in the process, I try to always stick with what I initially set out to explore.

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WS: When it came to auditioning for your first professional job last year, was your interest in choreography already strong? Maybe even a deciding factor when choosing the “right fit” of a company?

SG: When I auditioned for the Junior Company of the Bavarian State Ballet, I had just started to work on Papillon, a piece for Bob Lockyer’s 80th Birthday Gala at the Place. He had asked five choreographers/directors to choreograph, or commission someone to create new work for his birthday celebrations. At that time, the Royal Ballet was incredibly busy with the revival of a full-length and two new works. Monica Mason had seen my work at the Ursula Moreton Choreographic Awards. I was in my third year at the Royal Ballet Upper School, where your primary focus is auditioning – you’re not working creatively a lot. So after a performance of Manon, Monica Mason put a call over the intercom backstage, asking me to ring her. I rang, thinking I was in some sort of trouble… Instead, she asked me if I wanted to choreograph a piece for the Gala. My jaw hit the floor!

I asked our director here in Munich if there was an opportunity for me to work choreographically, to experiment in a workshop-like setting, with his company. I wasn’t expecting it to be so soon, the answer was positive so I decided to join BSB II though things got very busy quickly. Come January, we had a little time off, so I was able to sneak in studio time with some of the dancers. I really wanted to go out of my comfort zone and push myself by using a larger cast this time around. Ivan LiÅ¡ka, our director, came to watch a rehearsal one day and was impressed with how advanced in the process the piece was – it was already 7 minutes long and quite polished at that time, so he decided to put it into the Junior Company Matinee program on the main stage during Ballet Festival Week 2013.

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WS: What are the challenges faced by young choreographers to gain more experience?

SG: I think it is mainly about building up a reputation, a portfolio where directors can put trust and resources into your work. Building these relationships takes time. It’s a funding issue most of the time too: commissioning someone “new” is a big risk on a big stage when selling seats is the main goal. Not every company is lucky enough to be able to offer young choreographers studio space to experiment even on a smaller scale. Draft Works at the ROH Linbury Studio Theatre for example is a format set up by Wayne McGregor that allows dancers in The Royal Ballet Company a flexible platform for short ideas or longer choreographic essays with a completely open brief. The New York Choreographic Institute is another similar format. I would love to participate in one of their sessions someday!

Time is another issue: working might well mean asking your friends and colleagues to stay after hours… and a challenge I experience personally is to balance choreographing with life as a dancer. The normal rehearsal and performance schedule is demanding as it is. Sometimes one role starts to take over: either you become such a fantastic dancer and get promoted quickly, or you are in demand as a choreographer.

WS: If you had to choose, what would it be?

SG: When I was younger I wanted to dance Romeo and roles of similar caliber. As I grew up, it became more and more apparent that I wasn’t principal dancer material. I am still hoping to do soloist parts though. When I began to choreograph, I started to be recognized more and I realized I enjoyed putting things on as much as I enjoyed performing myself, if not more. The adrenalin rush of watching your work on stage became increasingly thrilling. Choreography is at the forefront of my mind, but I want to gain more experience performing still. You need to know your craft well: know how to choreograph for both women and men, how to build up the necessary stamina dancers need, to make it through a demanding piece of choreography. You need to know what is possible and what is not. It’s a scary thing to think about, being so young, I guess you have to see where life takes you and run with it.

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WS: How supportive is the dancer community in Munich?

SG: Generally very supportive! It is a tricky situation, transitioning from a colleague and friend to leading a rehearsal. It is very awkward at first. Some people are your friends, some are not and some are definitely not. You learn from experience how to handle that well. You always have to prove yourself first – once the ice is broken people start to really engage in the process. I experimented a bit with at school. When it was time to start, I found myself very much still in classmate mode and that’s how the dancers looked at me. Then, I started coming to the studio on the dot or a tiny bit late which immediately changed the mood to alertness. This year, I really wanted to push myself to come in with less material prepared, to choreograph more on the spot, using the dancers’s bodies in front of me as inspiration. But that is difficult with a big group of dancers in the room because people get impatient standing around with nothing to do. When I worked with the two soloists for Astres Errants, I would come in with literally nothing prepared except for the musical highlights I wanted to explore – maybe with one or two ideas for lifts. We would try things out together and adjust, compromise or start anew. I really enjoyed the exchange – the fact that when there is mutual trust, choreographing can be a dialogue between you and your dancers.

WS: What experiences do you enjoy the most in the process of choreographing?

SG: I’ll tell you what I don’t like: choosing costumes! I haven’t reached a point in my career where I have the luxury of working with a costume designer to execute a made to measure vision! It is hard to choose from existing costumes danced in other people’s works. It is one of the most stressful things for me personally, especially with only a few weeks to go and 12 people to dress!

What I love is being in the studio. I enjoy working on the details. We’re just at the point now in the central pas de deux where Jonah (Cook) and Nicha (Rodboon) are starting to play with the choreography, to make it their own. I was discussing the narrative and feeling with Nicha the other day and I said: “Don’t try to Swan Lakeify it”, that’s a different kind of narrative drama – Astres Errants is more abstract, not set in a certain time period or place, with only with a white cyclorama and black wings, so my job is to cue them to remember their “normal” behavior: a normal look, to be less affectionate maybe.

I enjoy working on the lighting too. That part of the process I was always very interested in. While still in school, I did some work experience with the stage management of the Royal Ballet where I was able to watch Christopher Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” come together before my eyes! I find it so important to know what’s available to you as a choreographer and how to communicate it well, because there are often myriad options. This knowledge really speeds up the process too. From a young age, I was always curious as to how things worked.

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WS: Are you gaining exposure to different choreographers over here?

SG: I was very lucky that my parents sparked my interest in different art forms from an early age by taking me to see plays, operas, concerts etc. Here in Munich, I try to go to the opera as much as I can. I recently went to see the Ring Cycle which had some interesting choreography, in the beginning of the third Act of Die Walkure in particular. The repertory in the company here is so vast. There is some Ashton and MacMillan, which I know well and then there is Neumeier, Cranko and Kylián which I don’t know so well. I am exposed to a great variety of different choreographic voices.

The other day, someone just put on music after class and started to choreograph. I loved that! It is not about competition, but creativity. When that creativity is encouraged, that’s inspiring to me!

About the Author:

Wiebke Schuster currently lives in Munich. She completed her Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Dance Theatre and studied Arts Administration at the Limón Dance Company in New York. She is a regular contributor to the Bavarian State Ballet Blog. Follow her on Twitter @wiebela

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