This month, Sally Brooker, Manager of the UK Choreographers Directory, was very excited to witness her first live aerial dance rehearsal of choreographer Robyn Simpson. Unfortunately, due to a swine flu scare at the office Sally had to settle for email correspondence but an exciting interview never-the-less! One that offers insight into an aerialists experience of choreography.
Robyn, you’re currently about to head off to Spain to take part in a competition, can you tell us firstly about how the project started?
The project began as research for my Masters of Fine Arts in Choreography. My dissertation was exploring and developing harness - based dance for large-scale performances. The result was a multi-discipline show called The Lovepet, with nineteen contemporary dancers, aerialists, gymnasts and actors. We trained people in harness techniques specifically for the show.
What was your inspiration?
The Lovepet was inspired by the passionate and volatile relationship between poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. There was a rawness in both their poetry, and an intensity that lent itself to the work. I was captivated that Plath and Hughes had met at a dance and Plath had bitten Hughes on the cheek. This action could have resulted in various (negative) reactions - but, instead it set their lives on a path together. This was a pivotal and defining moment. We all have moments in our lives where things could have been different if an alternative choice was made. The performers all had pivotal moments to do with relationships that provided a common ground for them to identify with the Plath / Hughes relationship.
The piece was choreographed in collaboration with the performers. Because we were trying something challenging it was important that the performers also had a personal involvement with the piece - it had to mean something to them. I think this is why we were able to come up with new and exciting material.
One of the most exciting parts of the process was coming up with the bungee duets, which really pushed the boundaries of existing harness-based dance. The duets explored intimacy and at times, extreme dynamics of relationships. The piece had to move beyond the spectacle of vertical dance working at height and with bungee enhanced and expressed sentiments of negotiation, action-reaction and the risk and reward within a relationship.
As a dancer, aerialist and choreographer I am always trying to find a new way of doing things. It was so rewarding to work with great people who wanted to experiment. It's much more taxing - physically and mentally to work outside of a known framework - especially because of the discomfort from working in a harness. However, we were able to create original movement vocabulary with the performers on bungee and abseil lines dancing together on a wall. It's these duets, which were the finale in The Lovepet, that have been selected as one of three pieces worldwide to compete at The International Choreographic Competition (Vertical Dance), Burgos - New York.
How have you found the rehearsal process and the preparation for such a competition?
Working with no budget meant that in addition to being the Director / Choreographer, I also had to do all the production work. Timetabling nineteen volunteer performers over three months is definitely an unenviable task! Nevertheless, liaising with the film-maker, animator, costume designer, music director and composer meant that I could bounce ideas around and get input from a range of people.
We have a great team of people involved and this has been vital to the success of the piece. Everyone has given up their own time to do it. The space we have been rehearsing in, The Hangar, have also been supportive. It's a huge undertaking to try to get people to rehearse for so long without being paid. I get really excited by the thought of what we could do with a booked rehearsal venue and being able to pay the performers...one day!
Our approach to the actual competition is that we are treating it as an opportunity to perform more than anything else. We will be doing the show on the wall of a residential apartment block that is 30m high! For the bungee duets A am working with five other performers: Simon Fee, Jono Fee, Bea Perini, Greville Matthews and Jenny Atwood. We work as three couples. The six of us and our rigger, Mark Perin are about to drive the 15 hours to Burgos for the competition - you can see how important it is that we all get on.
Where do you hope this experience will take you and the group?
I hope the exposure means that we can get other bookings for the work -either the bungee duets section or the full length piece, The Lovepet. I would love to be able to perform the duets on iconic buildings - the riverside of The National Theatre perhaps. It's a great way of getting people to look at public spaces differently - and get them looking up at the built environment. Then we will be applying to get funding to develop interactive projections to work with.
Have you been able to get funding/support to enable you to do this competition?
Unfortunately not - still looking for support.
This is an international competition, what are your perceptions of how Britain compares to other countries within the vertical dance field?
It's difficult to develop things like vertical dance because of the constraints around rehearsing - especially above 10m. Countries such as France and Spain offer a lot more opportunities to research, rehearsal and performance. I hope this competition puts us and British vertical dance more on the global map.
Aerial choreography-how does this differ in regards to choreographic techniques and structure?
Aerial choreography is more challenging, not least because of the technical demands and the physical wear and tear on the body. The nature of being off the floor, but having a pick-up point in the centre of your abdomen, means that you have a totally different relationship with gravity. This has good and bad points. The performers also need to establish a way of working with the wall that is like a floor but it responds differently, for example when you press into it you will be pushed away. The physics of vertical dancing is fascinating! Performers can't stay in a harness much beyond twenty minutes because they start to lose feeling in their legs, it might be lots of fun, but it still really hurts.
For me aerial dance offers a way of enhancing a feeling and extending movement beyond what is possible on the floor. But it's also important that there are reasons behind what is being made so that it doesn't just become about doing tricks. The art of aerial choreography seems to be about having the best of dance and circus arts in the same moment. Exploring the meeting point between these two areas is really exciting because there is still much more to discover. It's been really interesting selecting and applying elements of contact or 'points-in-space' ideas to harness work. Like dance, there is a technical vocabulary and then you can improvise and layer other elements and aspects into the work.
It's always safety first. There are so many pieces of equipment and every piece has to be checked and re-checked. Then we all have to make sure we are attached properly. Part of the rehearsal process is always about correct rigging and checking our own and each others rigging.
In relation to working with the performers, I have to be really clear about what I am trying to get across or what I am trying to generate from the dancers. The limited time available to work with a performer in the air before they have to rest means that I have to work efficiently and prioritise tasks rather than perhaps being able to try everything - or at least more things on the floor. Often we will improvise on the floor first, but it is so different to being on the wall.
What is next for you?
Applying for funding!
I choreographed the finale number for 4 Poofs and A Piano, for their new show at Edinburgh and my show from last christmas: Stephen and The Sexy Partridge, is performing at the Trafalger Studios for 6 weeks at the end of the year. It's a brilliant comedy directed by Cal McCrystal - go see it!