At Northern School of Contemporary Dance, second year students are working with Dance UK member Carlos Pons Guerra to create a new version of Bronislava Nijinska's iconic 1923 Les Noces. Using the original Stravinsky score and inspired by the choreography of both Nijinska and Bob Fosse, Les Folles creates a world where the norm is to be gay and heterosexuality is illegal.
Using a similar storyline to the original, the work is about two grooms getting ready for their wedding. One of the grooms, however, is secretly straight and is actually in love with his bridesmaid, who is also secretly straight. The work communicates the horrors of being persecuted.
With just a few days to go until performance, Dance UK’s Communications and Membership Officer Laura Dodge visited the school to see the work in rehearsal and speak to Carlos about his creation. As the students prepared for a full run of the 15 minute piece, he encouraged them to get into character: “You can hear the jazz and the noises of a busy city, and see the neon lights. Forget who you were – you are now your characters: erotic, animal predators.”
The choreography includes both Nijinska’s powerful poses, such as when the heads of six dancers are stacked on top of each other with expressionless faces, and Fosse’s jazzy arm movements and high kicks. Throughout, the dancers move in a very animalistic and sexual manner, rolling on the floor and erotically groping each other.
The work feels very confrontational, with the unwilling groom and bridesmaid more or less sexually assaulted by their respective partners, who seem oblivious to or unconcerned by their partners' non-consent. Carlos’s choreography therefore makes for uncomfortable viewing, rather like Kenneth MacMillan’s The Judas Tree. Was it meant to seem so brutal?
Carlos explained: “I thought it had to be. In Russia, Uganda, India and other places, it's just as brutal what is happening to homosexuals. Although it makes the choreography dark, I felt I had to show that darkness to make the point of the piece clear.
“As a gay man growing up I was bullied, and I wished then that the bullies could understand what it felt like to be persecuted. So as a choreographer I wanted to use this idea for a dance work – turning the tables and making the world gay, with heterosexual people being persecuted. I’ve had the idea for a while, but recent events prompted me to create the piece now. Dance makers have a certain responsibility as we have a voice with which to express important issues.”
Combining choreographic inspiration from the two very different styles of Nijinska and Fosse also creates an interesting juxtaposition in the work that matches the conflict of the narrative. How did Carlos go about structuring Les Folles?
“I watched Nijinska's Les Noces online and loved its simplicity. It's about the conflict between tradition and modernity, and the individual and the group. The wedding preparation setting also made sense as gay marriage is still illegal in many places.
“I wanted to enforce a camp style onto the heterosexual characters in the work. I have been forced to act 'straight', to be more butch, many times, and wanted to show what this is like the opposite way round. Bob Fosse's choreography has that quality of campness that I could use.
“I actually never really liked Fosse's choreography before. I was always told that it was 'too jazzy' and I should stay away to keep my work contemporary. But my partner used to dance Fosse's works and he showed me some moves after we'd had a few pina coladas! When I looked more closely, I realised how contemporary Fosse's choreography really is. The positions, isolations, asymmetry and attitude of his work all offered fantastic inspiration.
“With Nijinska's choreography, I was struck by the uniformity of the dancers’ faces. I wanted to do the opposite, with fake smiles, to make something that is annoying and creepy for the audience. I have also taken some of Nijinska's shapes and constructions and the idea of a ritual. I’ve absorbed these ideas into my choreography.”
How have the students at NSCD found performing the work? Carlos continued: “It was hard at first for them to fully absorb the ideas and create a realistically gay world. Dancers find it easy to touch each other all the time as part of choreography but the sexual intention for this piece was a hurdle.
"When I explained the mistreatment of homosexuals in many countries to them, they opened up and realised that they needed to show something important – to be politically and socially responsive. I’m really proud of how well they have been able to perform not only the choreography, but also to really convey the work’s theme.”
NSCD student Barnaby Booth, who is dancing the gay groom describes “a real responsibility” to convey Carlos’s message effectively. “I feel a lot of pressure to make sure I get into character and find a way to portray the role that is real and can create an impact.”
How does Carlos want his audiences to feel when they watch Les Folles? “I want to move the audience and for them to understand the depth of horror for homosexuals and anyone else who is persecuted for how they were born. I want them to experience the fear I had as a child – even just for 15 minutes.
“The idea is not for the piece to be shocking just for the sake of it, but to give impact to the message. I also hope the audience will enjoy the more humorous and jazzy elements.”
Les Folles is being performed this week as part of the NSCD Student Showcase: www.nscd.ac.uk/view.aspx?id=595
Carlos's Young Man can also be seen free as part of the International Dance Festival Birmingham on 24 May: www.idfb.co.uk/whats-on/young-man