Interview: The Rodin Project

Monday 29 October 2012

Russell Maliphant. Photo: Panayiotis Sinnos

The Rodin Project is inspired by French artist/sculptor Auguste Rodin [1840 -1917] – but it’s not about him. “Its about what we take from him – the way I interpret that use of weight, or tension, or the relationship between bodies and gravity, or the muscularity and the physicality that I take into the movement” Choreographer Russell Maliphant talks to Graham Watts about the development of his latest work – back at Sadler’s Wells this week.

There appears to be a link to your previous work AfterLight (2010) which was inspired by Nijinsky and, in particular, photos of him in Ballets Russes costumes and his drawings. Is this a deliberate follow-through? Yes, that’s very true. AfterLight was the first project in which I had used a really direct source for inspiration, through the photographs of Nijinsky and in the arcs and flow of a particular drawing he did of a woman dancing. We enjoyed that process and thought that it would be good to try another one. Rodin had been an inspiration for many of my pieces in terms of the language I had used for a long time so I thought let’s go deeper into this and make it more overt instead of just being behind the scenes. That involved examining his work and looking deeper into it, which was a great process.

Did you focus on one particular work?
It was more than that. Something like The Gates of Hell contains so many other works, such as The Kiss and The Thinker, which are shown as individual pieces but then they are brought into The Gates of Hell, so you could say that this 30-year work was a big reference point [Rodin started work on this portal to a museum that was never built in 1880 and continued working on it until he died in 1917]. We had a lot of books containing images of both Rodin’s sculptures and watercolours always open in the studio while we were making the work.

The set design was already established before the R&D process for developing the choreography. Can you explain that?
When I decided to do this project, I knew that I couldn’t do it on a flat floor since the sculptures – whether it is a reclining nude or something coming out of a rock in The Gates of Hell – are often raised or angled on different planes. When a figure’s foot is raised, it might be taken up to knee height but it could also be leaning into a rock. If you do that on stage just by picking up your leg, you won’t have the same lines of gravity going through the body into that leg. So I wanted lots of different planes so that I could get these things happening and I knew that this would involve playing with the set. I got together with Es Devlin and we came up with the structure that was used in the R&D process and – in the end – that was pretty much what we stayed with for the whole piece since it contained exactly what we needed.

Can you describe the set..
The set is constructed with standard pieces of 8’ by 4’ steel decking which can be moved around, like working with Meccano, to change the angles to exactly what we need. We have tinkered with it since the beginning, changing certain heights and the incline of certain slopes. We have a part that we call “the mainland” and another that is “the island”: sometimes they are together and sometimes they are apart.

How much of the material survives from those early R&D workshops?
The first workshop was held in February 2011 with Daniel Proietto and Silvina Cortés and I was going a slightly different way with it before these sessions but there were things that I learned during that time that stayed in the work. For the second series of R&D sessions, in May, we were joined by Tommy [Franzén), Dickson Mbi, Ella Mesma, Jenny White and Carys Staton. This time I videoed everything and edited bits of material from the week of tasks. There were really great things that came up that were right and I knew that I wanted to use them. For example, there is a lot of stuff in the show that comes directly from the first improvisations that Tommy did on his opening day in the R&D process.

The set must have opened up lots of exciting choreographic possibilities?
There was so much happening with the set. It was like letting the dancers loose in a playground. Tommy’s climbing skills were a fantastic bonus. I had been trying to do a piece with a wall for some time. I did some R&D at Le Groupe de la Place Royale in Ottawa with Peter Boneham in 1997 that was a duet for two guys against an 8’ wall. I always wanted to perform something like it but it has taken fifteen years to have enough funds to do this piece. I really understand this language but it was all helped by Tommy who knows climbing really well – he can flip about and he is really comfortable up there – and Dickson is as strong as an ox and was learning quickly from Tommy. There was a great chemistry in the group and it felt like this was a really rich place to be.

How different is the work now compared to it’s earlier performance at Sadler’s Wells (British Dance Edition in February 2012)?
When we did it previously at the Wells it was something like the fourth performance of the work. Since then, there has been a general evolution that happens because we hadn’t the time to go deeply enough into it in those early performances. You are always working towards this deadline of the performance and there is never enough time to go as deep as you want into a work. By the time of the first performance at Sadler’s Wells I had maybe ticked 80% of the boxes but there was a lot that I wanted to go further into but hadn’t the time. We have made a lot of changes since then but not as many as I want.

Is that all just to do with time and opportunity?
Ultimately, it is an issue of money. I can make the changes with the dancers in the studio but the technicians can only catch up when there is stage time. They need to change the lighting or the set and the only time we have to make those revisions is when we are on stage preparing for a show. Generally, we will have just four hours with the technical team in each venue to make sure that everything is right: perhaps change the lighting levels; make sure the sound is all there and so on. Developing the piece is very difficult to do within that scenario. So there are many changes that I have made with the dancers that we can’t put into the work because we don’t have the technical time.

How many performances will there be in this run?
The tour lasts a long time but it is only in four venues: Sadler’s Wells in London. Luxembourg, Poole and New York. We will have four hours with the light in each of these venues except for New York where we are unlikely to have any. So the opportunity for change is going to be limited. You try and drip feed the changes in by doing what is most possible.

How did you come across the music for this piece?
Alexander Zekke came to see Push and Eonnagata and he gave me a CD of his music. I put it on my computer and I was listening to it from time to time – quite often I listen to music in the studio when I’m working on things. I was playing the music while we were working on the R&D for The Rodin Project and it was catching my ear. I had been choosing music that was written at the time of Rodin but I thought maybe I should talk to Alexander. I wanted something weighted like a double bass or a cello and I originally thought that maybe he could write something that fitted between the pieces of music I had already chosen (from composers such as Massenet, Meyerbeer and Bruch). I approached Alexander about that possibility and he started writing immediately: he wrote something on the afternoon that I contacted him and sent it back straight away and said what about this? I thought that it was excellent and really, really beautiful. So we started talking more and he sent more music and it was so strong that I decided that he had to compose for the whole piece. He sometimes took inspiration from Massenet or Meyerbeer but we wanted to go more modern and make a distinction between parts one and two. We actually spent several months going back and forth before we actually started work on the piece. We finished the R&D in May 2011 and started work on the piece in the following September. So between May and September we were developing the music with Alexander.

Did you encourage the dancers to read about Rodin?
We were watching documentaries and DVDs about his life and work and so we all knew about his affair with Camille Claudel and the double-life that he led with Rose Beuret (whom Rodin married in the last year of both their lives). Rodin’s personal life and his interactions with some of his models inevitably became intertwined with the artistic influences and there are particular times that it surfaces to some extent. We have even named certain sections in reference to parts of his life or to his models. You can’t look at Rodin’s work without also considering Claudel’s work. So, an interaction and a familiarity with his life is a subliminal subtext to the work. There are sections where the dancers are more the model than the sculptor and then there are others where the roles are reversed and it is more about Rodin. In general it is his art that is the inspiration.

The title intrigues me – the word ‘Project’ suggests that it will continue to develop?
I called it ‘The Rodin Project’ because it is based on Rodin – but not about him. Things are ongoing because when you start to dig into something as big as this, you don’t get there – you are just opening a line to something, to begin the research, to start an enquiry that feels never ending to some extent. The inspirations that we were taking were all from Rodin but if you look at his life, he was inspired by Michelangelo and by sculptures and paintings from antiquity and so in a way we realised that we couldn’t do a piece on Rodin without reference to Michelangelo or to these influences from antiquity because all of these were a part of his life.
Rodin was surrounded by sculptures and artefacts from antiquity that he would look at in different ways, putting two unrelated things together, for example, or maybe he would add something – this was all an important part of his process of making art which we had to incorporate. Some of his work was really inspired by Michelangelo and when you put the two works side-by-side it becomes very clear.
I felt that we couldn’t just call it ‘Rodin’ because it would seem purely biographical and it isn’t. It’s taking inspiration from his work and we want to allow it to grow but also to remain true to what Rodin did. I didn’t want people to see the work and say “that’s not about Rodin”. It’s about what we take from Rodin – it’s the way that I interpret that use of weight or tension or the relationship between bodies and gravity or the muscularity and the physicality that I take into the movement. All of those things informed why I chose the particular dancers that I am using for this project. There were reasons that I could see in the sculptures that made everyone appropriate to this work since I could see that they would bring something that I would want to see in a Rodin work of art. The texture of each piece is something that you take in as well, whether it is made in bronze, plaster, marble or whatever.

Russell Maliphant Company, The Rodin Project
Sadler’s Wells, 29 – 31 October

Interview with Tommy Franzén – one of the dancers in The Rodin Project

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for, Dancetabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is currently Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK. A version of this interview appears in the Sadler’s Wells show programme.

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