It’s a busy season for Rambert Dance Company: the company is getting ready to move to its new London home at the South Bank and is also premiering The Castaways, a new work by renowned US choreographer Barak Marshall. Named by the LA Times as a ‘Face to Watch’ (December 2012), Barak has choreographed all over the world. His fusion of traditional and contemporary styles is particularly well-known in Israel and the US, and this collaboration with Rambert marks the first time he has created for a UK company.
Ahead of tonight’s premiere of The Castaways (see details below), here’s Barak on his recent experience working with Rambert and on his choreographic approach:
On this new collaboration:
Barak Marshall: When I first walked into the studio, several months before, and saw the diversity here [at Rambert], it allowed me to rely a lot on the dancers, their talents and their characters, so a lot of that has come to this piece which doesn’t usually happen, because of the short period of time that you have to realize a commission.
In all of my works, I prepare the work beforehand and write all the sections, do all the movement before I come in. I write a script, like a director, so we can start from somewhere, because I want to extract upon something, not in place of something. In the meeting with Rambert – and I think this is a very important thing – I was shocked by the diversity and how multicultural the company was – and that made my job much easier. It really is one of the first times that I’ve had the ability to play this as much in the studio, to investigate and research with the dancers, because usually it’s really just me, teaching and trying to gain control of every moment to try and bring out those cultures. Here, the wealth in the studio is amazing.
On working with Rambert & its dancers:
BM: Rambert Dance Company is this kind of holy grail of companies and its reputation precedes it and follows it, and actually – funny story – Christopher Bruce brought the Company to LA in the 90s when I’d just started choreographing. My father tried to push me to the Company at that point, but I was an unknown… This company has an amazing reputation and coming to the studio to see these amazing dancers, actors and characters is very enjoyable.
On his uniquely “witty, joyous and theatrical” style:
BM: The attempt to be ‘witty/joyous/theatrical’ is really that there is so much darkness in the world we live in and I want to “hope to offer hope” in my work and to enlighten myself and the audience. I think that more than anything, I try to communicate very clearly with the audience, working in an abstract format. I’m very abstract, but my work is narrative, so I think when you’re having a conversation you touch on these human elements – you don’t want to send people away from the theatre crying!
I don’t have any formal dance training: I started late in life. I grew up with my mother’s dance company, so my influences really come quite directly from her (she grew up in the British Protectorate of Aden), and also from my father (from the Bronx). I think, since I didn’t have any training, I just did what was instinctive to me, and because of my desire to create movement that was like a script I really went to my own heritage for the gestural language which is the basis of all the work that I do – I’m really trying to tell a story through gesture.
Most of my pieces are very fast, very rhythmic – I enjoy density of images and density of sound. The human eye can see 60,000 images in a second and process 30,000 of them! I want to be able to present a rich world on stage, and it begins with the music. Dance begins with the music for me, without the music there is no dance. So the process begins with gathering the music over the course of year, when I start talking to someone about a commission I’ll go through about 10,000 tracks of music, very cursorily, but that reduces down to 3, 000 and so on.
In terms of style, one of the comments that I hate is that ‘there is a lot of East and West’. Because I grew up with a mother from the Middle East and a father from the United States, I was trained in classical music but also grew up with popular music, so I don’t really differentiate between that. I don’t believe in high/low, East/West divide: I try to find music that has the emotional content that’s right for the scene that I’m trying to build. The music is very varied, as in all my scores. You’ll have Middle Eastern music with Romanian music and a lot of Yiddish music, a bit of jazz, but it’s not about what genre or where it comes from, but how it serves the story.
On the The Castaways:
BM: On some level it’s posing the question ‘Is man inherently good or evil?’. What happens when you put 10 people in a desert island: do they help each other or do they hurt each other? My hope is that there is hope, and there is compassion. Compassion rules the day. The questions really are: ‘How dangerous are we to ourselves? How destructive is man to himself?’ There are a lot of objects falling in the piece and these are innocuous objects – for instance, a pair of shoes – but they become a weapon. When we deprive ourselves of our own humanity, everything is lost.
On fitting narrative work into a contemporary company:
BM: I find dancers are really hungry to inhabit roles – the resistance is always just in my head – I’ve gotten balletic companies to do text and this is not a ballet company, this is a very, very diverse company. It’s hard to create a coherent narrative arc – always, no matter what – even when you’re writing something. It’s not necessarily more difficult, it might actually be easier when you have images rather than words drive the narrative arc forward. It’s a hard thing to fit narrative into contemporary dance, it’s much harder than creating an abstract work because while you can leave a lot of open questions in an abstract work, you can’t really do if you’re trying to say something clearly.
On motivation and inspiration:
BM: I began dancing out of grief: my aunt died, and it was revelatory to me to understand how much the body expresses. We dance every day, and we don’t dance enough, right? I came to dance late in life, but I caught up very quickly, because I grew up around a dance company, but I think that it’s one of the most beautiful ways of expressing human emotion and a story. There’s a lot of complexity and a lot of room for extraction. I just love to dance.
Rambert Dance Company premieres Barak Marshall’s The Castaways tonight at The Lowry, Salford. The run continues until 11 October 2013 and the production also tours London (Sadler’s Wells, 22 -26 October 2013), as well as other venues in the UK.