For long I have been fascinated by the work of young choreographer Alexander Whitley, and especially his explorations of concepts from science and physics in dance, given my own background in high energy physics. The first time we interviewed him - around 2012 or so – he was looking into applying principles of Quantum mechanics and theories of light into a piece called Hertz, which he made for Random Dance (now Studio Wayne McGregor). We spoke again about his influences and possibilities for new cross collaborations in dance in 2013, when he was commissioned to create Kin, his first work for Birmingham Royal Ballet.
After a string of successful works for BRB, Studio Wayne McGregor, Rambert, as well as New Movement Collective, the critically-acclaimed ensemble famous for its interdisciplinary productions, Alex now also looks after his own company, Alexander Whitley Dance Company. He is about to premiere 8 Minutes, a work inspired by solar science research. This full-length piece, made in collaboration with STFC RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, appears this week on the main stage at Sadler’s Wells:
TBB: It’s been a while since we last interviewed you. How have things been with the company, and what can you tell us about your recent creations?
Alexander Whitley: I’m doing really well. It has been a busy few years getting the company off the ground. The piece I made at the Linbury in 2014, The Measures Taken, was really the launch of the company, and it has been a steep learning curve in a lot of respects, dealing with what it takes to manage and direct a company, and the practicalities of putting productions together and touring them. I am still coming to terms with all that and learning, but at the same time it has been very exciting because the company has had some great opportunities to perform at venues around the world.
Since the Linbury launch, we have been part of a big event at Sadler’s Wells based around the music of Thomas Adès. I was invited to create work alongside Crystal Pite, Wayne McGregor and Karole Armitage, so it was a huge privilege to feature alongside choreographers of that stature and to tour the production to New York. I made my third company production last year, which was a duet named Pattern Recognition. That first piece for the Linbury, The Measures Taken, had five dancers, and I was interested in trying something at a smaller scale here, partially because of the interesting technology around it. One of company’s areas of focus is to explore and create possibilities for new technologies. As The Measures Taken had used interactive motion tracking technology, I decided to carry that investigation on in Pattern Recognition, which we’re performing again this autumn after the performances of 8 Minutes.
TBB: We know about your interest in not only technology, but also science and physics. What types of themes are you exploring in 8 Minutes, and how did the collaboration with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory come about?
AW: The collaboration came about through Sadler’s Wells and their New Wave Associates programme. The project was initiated by the Rutherford Appleton Lab. They have been working with artists for several years now as part of their public engagement initiative and they thought a dance production would be an interesting way of engaging people in the ideas behind the work that they do: their attempt to understand the Sun, and its behaviour and activity.
I jumped at the opportunity when the project was presented to me. It was slightly unusual because ideas behind the pieces typically come from me, but this was definitely a subject of interest, plus I would have the opportunity to get to work directly with scientists, to really learn in depth and to work with some of the other artists also involved.
And so, I have been working very closely with the lead scientists of the project. Dr. Hugh Mortimer has been advising the creative team and we are drawing on the research, the imagery and data gathering. It has been fascinating to learn as much as my brain can handle about complex physics, and find ways of giving an audience a different way of engaging with scientific ideas, and with the various outputs that are involved in this production, including the music and in this case, video. We have a video artist, Tal Rosner, who is using a lot of the imagery that has been gathered by some of these amazing international space programmes, which he is applying directly to the piece. Hopefully audiences will have quite an experience!
TBB: Besides the images from international space programmes, what other types of inputs did you receive from the scientists?
AW: There have been many conversations, we were given presentations by several scientists working at the laboratory about the work that they do trying to understand solar activity, and I’ve been reading a lot about the subject myself and referring back to Hugh to give me more information and help improve my information about the scientific theories about the Sun. It has been really a matter of picking out the features of science that are interesting and effective in terms of developing movement ideas from.
I am not trying to explain the science in any way, nor am I doing a piece to explain science: there is no way the body can explain complex scientific ideas, but it can represent them in a certain way, which allows people to engage with the ideas behind the theory. What I’ve come to really appreciate is that physics and dance aren’t so different. They are both about studying and understanding movement. It is just that they ask questions in very different scales; solar physics is about understanding movement of atoms and particles and photons, or something of the size of the Sun itself, which is vastly beyond our comprehension. It has been really interesting to learn about the theory, and behaviour of the movement at these different scales and then ask questions of the body in relation to them, and see how much the body is capable of understanding and expressing those ideas, and so they have thrown a lot to me in terms of different ways of thinking about movement, which has been really exciting.
TBB: So is the title 8 Minutes because that is the amount of time that it takes the light from the Sun to reach the Earth?
AW: It is, absolutely, yeah. The piece is more than 8 minutes long though! There is a lot of imagery, and some actual footage captured by space missions and through the research. They are there to convey and contextualise the movement, set the scene for the choreography, and hopefully bring things together and paint a good picture of the science. It is important to me that the piece isn’t just looking at the abstract scientific side of things but also questioning our relationship to the Sun in its broadest sense.
We have a very direct relationship with it because of the feeling we have of being underneath it. The feeling of heat on our skin, the sheer enjoyment of just sitting and resting beneath it, and so we are trying to expand and illuminate our relationship to the Sun, not only through modern scientific understanding but also via our deeper connection to it. Nothing we know would exist without it, the Sun is at the centre of everything and I realise it’s a vast subject to try to do justice. I am hoping that in my piece I have at least captured enough of these feelings.
Alexander Whitley Dance Company performs 8 Minutes at Sadler’s Wells on 27 and 28 June 2017. For tickets and further information visit the Sadler’s Wells website.