Jacky Lansley: Choreographies

Posted: September 22nd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Book | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jacky Lansley: Choreographies

Jacky Lansley, Choreographies, published by Intellect Books (2017)

Jacky Lansley, Choreographies (cover photo: Hugo Glendinning, collage Emily Dann)

Jacky Lansley’s long career began as a dancer in the Royal Ballet before her fertile imagination and radical mind led her to enroll in what was then called the London School of Contemporary Dance in 1971. On the surface that transition sounds like a simple linear progression but consider it again in the light of what it involved. To become a dancer in the Royal Ballet requires a body that has the potential to master the classical form, extraordinary talent and years of strict discipline. Lansley would have danced there in the final years of Sir Frederick Ashton’s artistic directorship before Kenneth MacMillan was appointed to replace him in 1970. For Lansley to transfer from this rarified atmosphere of classical tradition to what she calls ‘a space for dance to explore and interact with…interdisciplinary influences’ must have taken a huge leap of faith and a willingness to embrace the unknown. She doesn’t touch on the reasons for this life-changing decision — Choreographies is about the motivations behind her work rather than behind the author — but she found at LSCD artists like Sally Potter, Diana Davies and Dennis Greenwood for whom she felt a close affinity. It was here she could begin to explore contemporary issues like feminism, racism and homophobia through a fresh, multi-disciplinary approach to choreography that could be expressed outside the traditional framework — as when she and Potter transposed a classical entrance from the wings to meet in the middle of a loch in full evening dress and flippers in Lochgilphead (1974). As I read about this and other early works like Park Cafeteria (1975), Death and the Maiden (1975), Rabies (1976) and Mounting (1977) with enticing photographs, I kept on wishing I had seen them.

The subtitle of Choreographies is ‘Tracing the Materials of an Ephemeral Art Form’. Lansley looks back on her vast material archive with the archaeologist’s eye but she is also the subject of their excavation. It’s a delicate place to put oneself but her focus is collective, on the people with whom she worked and on the creative inputs they derived from visual arts, performance art and, in the case of The Impersonators (1982), an interest in music hall. Her rational parsing of her works provides an insight into their layers of meaning and metaphor, and her deconstructions of classical ballets — Giselle in I Giselle (1980), Petrouchka in L’Autre (1997) and Firebird in Les Diables (1998-9) — in the light of contemporary cultural politics relates to Walter Benjamin’s ideas about literary translation. Wherever possible she has included interviews with her former collaborators, and the chapter notes are as far-reaching and informative as the text itself. These inside perspectives remind us of the important contribution of choreography to the realm of ideas and to an understanding of the body as a thinking instrument.

For Lansley choreography is the art form ‘which most profoundly links the mind and the body’ and for the last 40 years she has been guided by the clash of values that drove her away from the ‘narcissistic, virtuosic and dramatic view of performance’ to the ‘radical community’ at LSCD where she and her colleagues could, in differentiation to key dance makers in the US, nurture ‘artistic, conceptual and theatrical strategies’. Looking back, it is clear her intuition led her to being in the right place at the right time; she now makes her own place and time at her Dancer’s Research Studio in Haggerston which has provided the context for some of her more recent works like Holding Space (2004), View from the Shore (2007), Guests Research (2010) and Guest Suites (2012). Her working period between LSCD and today is a huge swathe of British dance history in which she has continually evolved as a choreographer: she was a founding member of Richard Alston’s first company, Strider; she formed Limited Dance Company with Sally Potter (joined later by Rose English), and co-founded X6 Dance Space with Mary Prestidge, Maedée Duprès, Emilyn Claid and Fergus Early. The key aim of X6 was ‘to view and explore dance within its wider social context’ and to be responsible ‘for encouraging cross art form collaboration and creating spaces for the development of interdisciplinary performance and somatic training.’ It is symbolic that the wooden floor in X6’s original studio space in Butler’s Wharf is now the underpinning of the performance studio at Chisenhale Dance Studios that Lansley also co-founded. But while Lansley’s narrative inevitably weaves through a history of dance in the UK, it is the history of her works in this 40-year period that is the true subject of her book.

Choreographies also reads as a theoretical underpinning or an approach to the art of choreography that is still relevant today; too much choreography is made and played rather than written and read. As an extension of this metaphor of the literature of choreography, Lansley has also been keen to foster a critical response to the work in which she participated, facilitating a dialogue between new dance and the public in the form of New Dance Review that X6 Dance Space launched and fostered for its eleven-year existence.

I have dipped into my dog-eared copy of Choreographies on numerous journeys; fortunately its variegated format of text, photographs (many by Hugo Glendinning), choreographic notes, scores and reviews supports this time-lapse form of perusal. It also suggests it is not a book to be read and left to brood on a shelf but should be consulted regularly like a chiropractor. Reminding us that there can be no critical engagement with an art form that does not provoke a critical dialogue, Lansley’s voice makes an eloquent case for a written choreography that can be expressed and read as a counterpoint to the readily accessible product of a gradual shift to social conservatism. Choreographies is a timely call to arms that recognises choreography, in the words of critic and dance historian Laurence Louppe, as one of the most important artistic phenomena of our time.

 

www.intellectbooks.co.uk


Peter Wright, Wrights & Wrongs, My Life in Dance

Posted: September 12th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Book | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Peter Wright, Wrights & Wrongs, My Life in Dance

Peter Wright, Wrights and Wrongs, Oberon Press         

Peter Wright demonstrating at a summer school, Cologne, 1960s

Peter Wright demonstrating at a summer school, Cologne, 1960s

There is not, nor can there ever be, a definitive history of ballet. Made up of so many personalities with their diffuse interactions and influences such a history will always grow richer but will never reach maturity. Sir Peter Wright’s memoirs, Wrights and Wrongs, subtitled My Life in Dance, is a case in point. In Jennifer Homans’ Apollo’s Angels, subtitled A History of Ballet, published in 2010, there is no mention of Wright, yet for the last 70 years he has been involved in so many ways in the key stages of the development of classical ballet in this country. Perhaps Wright by his own admission has blended so tenaciously into the fabric of those years that it is difficult to see the man for the material; he wistfully recalls being described as the best director The Royal Ballet never had. At the same time these memoirs do not set out to shine a spotlight on Wright himself; even with his own proviso that ‘this is primarily an account of my working life…I do not detail much about my family or personal life’, he reveals little about the man whose working life he describes. Nor was he ever especially in the spotlight, preferring to support in his long career key figures like Dame Ninette de Valois, Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko in a range of roles as dancer, teacher, ballet master, administrator, director and, most significantly, as producer of the classical narrative ballets of which his versions continue to serve the repertoires of ballet companies around the world.

What is fascinating is how Wright knew early on that he wanted to dance without having any connection to ballet. His early years were consumed in an effort to discover the door to the world he had sensed; he read about ballet in the school library and improvised movements to music on a gramophone in the gym. He was closer than he at first realised: the wife of his biology teacher had been in Pavlova’s company and offered classes to some of the girls and his music teacher had been a rehearsal pianist for Kurt Joos at Dartington. But it was at the age of 16, after seeing a performance of Les Sylphides by Mona Inglesby’s International Ballet, that he ran away from school to protest his father’s lack of understanding about his chosen calling. Impressed at his determination, his father acquiesced but refused to pay for his training. As Wright states, ‘…the more I am prevented from doing something the more determined I am to achieve it.’ Having failed to win a scholarship to the Sadler’s Wells ballet school, he apprenticed to Joos’s company, learning from him his sense of theatre and that ‘choreography is just as much about ideas as it is about steps.’ Realising two years later he needed more classical training, Wright left Joos to devote himself to classes with Vera Volkova in London before a spell in Victor Gsovsky’s Metropolitan Ballet, musicals, revues and the short-lived St James’s Ballet. It was here he met John Cranko who organized an introduction to Ninette de Valois that led to his entry into the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet which has remained, through its many manifestations and names, his home ever since. ‘Looking back over the training that I mustered for myself during my early years…I do not think I did too badly for a late starter with no money and certain major setbacks — injuries, parental disapproval and military service.’ He must indeed be very fulfilled to have set out with only the light of intuition on a path with so many obstacles that led finally to his goal. It is perhaps not surprising that he is drawn to fairy tales.

What is frustrating is how difficult these memoirs are to read. Co-authored with Paul Arrowsmith, the book’s contents are more easily grasped through its extensive index than through its chapter organization. The editing alternates uneasily between discursive conversations and Wright’s own considered texts while the timeline winds forwards, backwards and sideways with a persistent sense of déjà vu. Sentence structure is sometimes awkward and poor proofreading — ‘Marot Fonteyn’ is unforgivable — adds to the level of frustration. Nevertheless, the value of Wright’s memoirs is to substantiate and add to the complex history of ballet and his comments on the classics, garnered over the last 50 years, form a vital and perceptive account of how to stage them. These in themselves have the makings of a separate book. Wright is humble enough to admit his own failures and his caveats about designers and technical staff are salutary.

Despite his close association with The Royal Ballet, Wright’s relationship with Sir Frederick Ashton seems surprisingly bleak and he has little to say about Rudolph Nureyev as a dancer; I sense a lot of the memoirs exist in between the lines but he is harsh on Sylvie Guillem and disagrees on many counts with the treatment of MacMillan’s legacy by his widow, Lady Deborah MacMillan. Given his experience with the classics and his narrative sensibility, his lack of enthusiasm for the work of Wayne McGregor comes as no surprise, neither is his strong support for David Bintley and Christopher Wheeldon as choreographers with the ability to carry forward the tradition of the classics and of classical dance that is at the heart of the Royal Ballet’s two companies.

So what are the wrongs? One of Wright’s admitted weaknesses is in forgetting, while making a speech, to acknowledge the indispensable contribution of a key player. He preempts a recurrence of this by devoting an entire chapter to a roll call of appreciation for those past and present whose devotion to their own art has helped and inspired him throughout his career. If the memoirs read as program notes to his life work, this is the cast list.