New Home for Rambert Dance Company

09/12/2013

United KingdomUnited Kingdom New Home for Rambert Dance Company

One pair of ballet shoes per year is the peppercorn rent that contemporary dance company Rambert has to pay Coin Street Community Builders for its new, purpose-built home on London’s Southbank. In return, the company must make a commitment to a community dance programme in the area. On the 2nd December the white, cube-shaped building in a street behind the National Theatre was opened to the public for the first time for two weeks of free, dance and dance-related events (advance booking essential at rambert.org.uk/rambert_moves).

Arriving early for the third day’s 4.30pm Panel Discussion, Preparing the Next Generation (for which I had booked), I found the reception area full of people waiting to see a performance of The Rite of Spring by dancers from the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance (for which I had not). I was told that if I ‘hovered’ there might be a spare seat. The reception area is not large, but is designed, like the rest of the building, to give a sense of light and of height. The façade at street level is completely of glass. It is possible to see down to the basement (which will house the company’s archives) from where a square beam, almost a totem-pole, of honey-coloured wood rises up through the stair well. On one side of the beam are carved, in figures, all the years that the company has been in existence (starting with 1926 at the bottom). On another is a quotation from Polish-born founder, Marie Rambert: ‘Movement, perpetual movement was my element.’ The only other decoration is two photographs of Rambert herself on the wall opposite the door. In one she is young, in the other old; in both she stands in an almost identical dance position: head tilted back, arms raised and open, but curving slightly inwards as if to form a circle.

The sense of light and of height continues in the Marie Rambert Studio (reached by concrete stairs), where Artistic Director, Mark Baldwin, introduced the performance of his version of ‘The Rite of Spring’ (there was a spare seat) as the first for the general public in the new building. With serious expressions on their faces and very straight backs, the young dancers filed in to take their places against the walls. I had seen Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ from the Amphitheatre of the Royal Opera House two weeks before. This version would be danced at eye level, and only a few feet from me. The dancers’ expressions did not change as they began to move to a recording of a performance of the music that was conducted by Stravinsky himself, and which gave to some passages a sinuous, lilting quality. If the dancers were close to the audience, their movements seemed close to the music as they stamped their feet or ran with choreographed energy in fast-moving circles. When they walked in a line towards the audience, as if they were never going to stop, I understood how the Chosen One, who is on her own in front of them, might really feel. As Mark Baldwin pointed out, ‘The Rite of Spring’ was a particularly appropriate choice as the first work to be performed. Marie Rambert worked with Nijinsky on the original version in 1913.

Several of the dancers returned for the Panel Discussion, which was also held in the Marie Rambert Studio. As members of the next generation themselves, they listened with great attention to what was said. The panel consisted of Mark Baldwin and of four experts in the field of dance education. Jessica Ward, from Elmhurst School, who chaired the discussion, started off by referring to the importance of ‘sustainable careers’ for dancers and how these can be achieved. As the artistic director of a dance company, Mark Baldwin’s immediate concern was how, or if, choreographers will be able to use a particular dancer. (He sometimes takes on a tall dancer to work as a pair with another of the same height already in the company.) He went on to say that in today’s diverse and ‘portfolio-based market’ dancers need to have ‘mental robustness’, and that he looks for dancers who are ‘autonomous’. Rambert Rehearsal Director, Mikaela Polley, supported this by pointing out that dancers at Rambert may be rehearsing or learning three different types of dance over the course of one day. For the Central School of Ballet’s Sara Matthews dancers need to have both technique and individuality, but they also need to have ‘transferable skills’. They must learn how to teach what they do, for example. In the graduate and post-graduate performing company at Central School, she said, the dancers are made aware of how to hang lights and iron costumes, even if they do not have to do these things themselves. Janet Smith, from the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, took a similar view. It was not a question, she said, ‘of stopping career A and starting career B’, but of developing different, related aspects from the start. Smith also stressed the importance of individuality. Dancers, she said, are not doing their own thing, but they need to ‘embody’ the movements they are making. Avoiding injury was seen as crucial. Rambert School’s Amanda Britton commented on the way in which ‘dance science’ and sports psychology have helped in this respect. Sara Matthews expressed it as: ‘training smart rather than long and hard.’ Janet Smith spoke of ‘ownership of the self’, and of the need for dancers to say no, on occasion, to the demands of a choreographer.

The panel agreed that dancers need to have experience of intermingling with other art forms. Mark Baldwin mentioned film and music (something for which Rambert, a dance company that has its own chamber orchestra, is well-equipped). When he gave up dancing at thirty-eight or thirty-nine, he said, he found himself lacking in computer and communication skills. He stressed the importance, for dancers, of ‘keeping the brain going’. In an echo of Baldwin’s earlier comment about autonomy, Jessica Ward described her efforts to let the pupils at Elmhurst (a boarding school) know that their life of dance classes and three meals a day, all provided in one place, did not reflect the life they would lead when they left. A final, visionary note was sounded by Smith, who believes (like Rudolf Laban in the middle of the twentieth century) that dance should not be taught in dance schools, but in all schools as part of the National Curriculum.

Two days later, it was the dancers of the current generation who were in the sun-filled Marie Rambert Studio for the morning Company Class. With members of the public watching them, this could not help but have something of a performance about it, too. As we took our seats on tiers of padded benches, the dancers were already warming up. One was using the lid of the grand piano for a leg extension. Another was doing the splits on the floor. Two more were chatting nonchalantly as they lay stretching their thigh muscles. The class started with the dancers facing the mirror that ran the length of the wall beneath the window. After rolling their heads from side to side in a standing position, they moved on to bending forwards towards the floor, then arching backwards. ‘Try not to swing your hips forward when you arch your back’ the répétiteur said. When their muscles were sufficiently relaxed (and warm), the dancers progressed through tilts (for which they were told to ‘curve rather than lean’) and the port de bras to plié and relevé, then arabesque and attitude. A musician was there to provide accompaniment on percussion. This gave an added air of performance to the pirouettes that came next. From working on the spot, the dancers then began to move across the room, first in horizontal lines, then on the diagonal. As they did so, they transmitted a sense of enjoyment and also, perhaps, of something I had read described in the programme for Shobana Jeyasingh Dance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall earlier that week as: ‘the uniquely empowering quality of designed movement.’ It was movement that expanded even further as the spinning dancers traced wide circles around the studio floor.

Although they had risen on to their toes, the dancers had not so far left the studio floor completely. After the pirouettes, they began to jump in ‘small jumps’. These then became full turns in the air. (The répétiteur reminded them to ‘find a stillness’ between each one.) Leaps in all directions followed, bringing the class to a climax. At the end the dancers returned to the standing position, facing the mirror for a final ‘roll down’, keeping their pelvises in the air. ‘Dance is a people thing,’ Mark Baldwin said in the panel discussion two days earlier. During this ninety-minute class the different characters of the dancers had come across with surprising clarity. Some smiled as they danced; some did not. Some asked questions; others were completely silent.

The event I had booked for next, Introduction to the archives, has been postponed until January. The archives are still at Rambert’s previous home in Chiswick. Instead, I was offered a tour of the building. This was conducted by the company’s chief executive, Nadia Stern, and began in the very cold basement room (the temperature is designed to protect the artefacts) where, in the most up-to-date facilities, the archives will be stored. As the oldest ballet and contemporary dance company in Britain, Rambert’s archive is consulted by academics from all over the world. Some of the objects from it (photographs and sketches) are already on display in glass cases in the reading room.

While the temperature in the archive made me regret giving up my coat, the rest of the Rambert building is kept at 24 degrees Celsius. Dancers are less at risk of injury in a warm environment. The bare concrete of the stairs and many of the walls is not only a reference to the ‘brutalist’ architecture of the neighbouring National Theatre, but also a way of retaining and transmitting heat. (In summer, apparently, concrete has the opposite effect.) After meeting the company stage manager in the large storage areas (Rambert produces four new works per year and can have up to nine productions touring at any one time) we were taken to the building’s upper floors. Here there are smaller studios; massage and physiotherapy rooms; showers and a sauna for the dancers; and, looking out onto a courtyard set into the cube structure to provide as much natural light as possible, a green room that is shared by dancers and staff (one of the dancers from the class was there on his lunch break). The studios can be hired, and parts of the building can be used for events (there is a kitchen specifically for this in the basement). Osteopathy, sports massage, acupuncture and Pilates will be available to the general public through The Rebalance Clinic (rebalanceclinic.co.uk). I was most interested in the room where costumes for the current and recent productions are stored. A tweed jacket from Barak Marshall’s ‘The Castaways’ hung on a rail (seeing it, I felt sorry that I had not enjoyed that dance piece more). Beside the jacket were the bodysuits from Mark Baldwin’s ‘The Comedy of Change’ (part of the same triple-bill). On the stage at Sadler’s Wells in October, the white sections of these had looked very white. Close up, and in daylight, I saw that the sleeves were smudged with make up.

The tour ended back in the Marie Rambert Studio, where the final event I had booked for, Rehearsal, had already started. While in the class, earlier, the dancers had been practicing steps with which they were familiar, in the rehearsal it was more a question of learning something new. The piece they were learning is to be performed as part of a Rambert Evening of New Choreography in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells on the 17th and 18th December. There was no musician, only a recording played from a laptop. Choreographer Malgorzata Dzierzon, Music Fellow Kate Whitley, and the dancers spent much of the time gathered in a circle around this, trying to find a solution to a problem with the ‘counts’. If the morning class had been (in part) a performance, here was a demonstration of what happens in the daily life of a dance company. In the last seven minutes, the choreographer worked with one of the dancers on her solo part. An example of an essential part of dance (movement passed on from one dancer to another who, as Janet Smith said, ‘embodies’ it), this was an appropriate ending to the time I had spent as a guest in Rambert’s new home.

John O’Dwyer

 

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