Ashley Page’s first work for a UK company since leaving Scottish Ballet in 2012 will have its world premiere in the Rambert Dance Company’s Autumn programme at Sadler’s Wells on 22 October 2013. Entitled Subterrain, it is a 35-minute work set to a score of chamber music by Mark-Anthony Turnage alternating with the electronic dance score of Aphex Twin. Page was artistic director of Scottish Ballet for ten years (2002-2012), prior to which he had nearly 30 years as a dancer and choreographer for The Royal Ballet. His many awards include an Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production (Fearful Symmetries for The Royal Ballet, 1995) and the De Valois Award for Outstanding Achievement in the National Dance Awards, 2011. He was appointed an OBE in 2006. He recently talked to Graham Watts about the new work and life after Scottish Ballet.
GW: Can you tell me something about the creative process for Subterrain?
AP: This piece has had a very unusual gestation period. When Mark Baldwin (Rambert’s Artistic Director) originally commissioned me, it was supposed to be ready for a premiere in February 2013 and we had a full rehearsal period leading up to Christmas. But, Rambert has been in a state of flux this year due to the company’s move into new headquarters (from Chiswick to the South Bank) and for reasons that I’m not too clear about, the work was postponed until the autumn.
Because I already had other things planned for later in the year, I kept the original rehearsal period and so we had this very strange hiatus in making the work. Because there was no pressure to create it in a short timescale it was, ironically, largely finished with a week to spare. It all felt very comfortable.
I didn’t work into it too much during that initial period because I knew that I was coming back to it for another couple of weeks in August. When I returned after seven months, I realised that we had done so much work that it could have easily gone on in the spring. So its creation has been unlike anything I have ever done previously, with the creative process coming together over a long period.
GW: What did this long creative period mean in terms of the work’s evolution?
AP: Working with the costume designer (Jon Morrell) and lighting designer (Peter Mumford), we decided to take advantage of this luxury of time in a more random approach to the piece. Originally, we wanted to employ the Oblique Strategies as created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt (Oblique Strategies is a deck of printed cards, first published in 1975, with each card offering a phrase or cryptic remark intended to help artists circumvent creative blocks).
It is a bit like casting I Ching but you write a list of instructions on cards, shuffle them and then draw a card to follow whatever thought it suggests. I confess that we didn’t follow the technique religiously. We wrote out our ideas and suggestions and kept emailing them to each other, whittling down an initial list of around 30 to a few essentials that we thought were interesting.
Was everything left to chance?
No. I knew that I wanted to work with Mark-Anthony Turnage (prolific composer of orchestral, chamber and choral work together with a handful of ballet scores and operas, most notably the recent success, Anna Nicole) and so the music led the work. This was certainly not left to chance. There were changes during the creative process but these were due to matters of practicality.
I chose two contrasting pieces by Turnage: one loud, rude and cacophonous, which is around 15 minutes’ long and then a lyrical, haunting, gentle piece of about 10 minutes, which has a mournful sadness. Because of the extreme contrast we needed a musical bridge so between the Turnage works I have put a piece by the electronic composer, Aphex Twin (Richard James), who I have used before. Mark-Anthony was not at all precious about this and he gave me the freedom to present his music in whatever context I liked. He loved that his work might inspire something else. I liked the bridge so much that I added a prologue (also by Aphex Twin) before the first Turnage piece, so the score alternates neatly between synthesised electronica and orchestral music. Following the calm, very still tableau in the Aphex Twin prologue, it is the loud, more rambunctious Turnage piece that effectively kick-starts the work.
Music is invariably important to your work…..
Music is always my anchor. I can’t work without a very solid musical base. That is what does it for me. I’ve made some pieces where the ideas have come first and then I have found the music to fit (Fearful Symmetries is a case in point) but there have been situations where I can’t find music to fit my concept. The lion’s share of the work I’ve made over the years has been music-led and the primary instigator in Subterrain is the Turnage music.
Initially, I wanted to work with two large orchestral pieces but the Rambert Orchestra isn’t that big and so I’m saving that idea up because I will want to work with Turnage’s music again having made a connection with him personally.
How did the long creative period affect the casting and the choreography?
Normally I am highly organised in the studio but I was purposefully more relaxed with this piece because I knew I had the luxury of this extended period of time. So I went into the studio less prepared and more open to seeing what happened. In fact, the material came together very quickly without me needing to be as organised as normal.
Dancers have always played a crucial role in helping to develop my work and so the casting is crucial. When I came to do the casting for Rambert, I’d seen the dancers several months previously at a performance in Aberdeen. But quite a few dancers that I had originally decided to work with had since left and so I had to think again.
Within two days of our studio sessions I had worked with them all and I was struck by how strong they were technically. So it was an easy decision to cast the piece as big as possible. I’m using ten dancers and have two casts, which means that I am working with virtually every dancer in the company.
When we returned to the studio in August, it was almost as if I was coming back to revive it and yet it hadn’t been performed before! I just needed to make a few improvements, tweaking it here and there to sharpen it up. Two dancers had left from my original first cast and so we had to shift the dancers around and bring in newcomers. But it all came back quickly and the new dancers were helped by those who had learned it in December. By the time I left in August, it was pretty slick. I have always found that if you involve the first cast in teaching their roles to others then they learn more themselves, so it’s mutually beneficial all the way down the line.
Is there any form of narrative to Subterrain?
It’s not about anything. It is one of these pieces that you watch and make of it what you want. Although there is no story there’s a lot of sensuality since it is essentially based on work for couples. There is an important shift at the end – in the last section of the lyrical Turnage piece – where many of the dancers seem to change partners and this implies a slightly troubled aspect. The music has a mournful air and, just when you have got used to the status quo in the pairs working together; it starts to turn around over the last 10 minutes. Although the choreography and the music come to rest in a definite ending, there is also a sense that things may continue to shift forever after the work has finished. We are almost like voyeurs watching something very private happening. So, in these senses, one could say that there is an implied narrative.
Tell me about your other collaborators on the piece….
I’m working with Jon Morrell again as my costume designer. We did a lot together at the Royal Ballet and have a long association going back to the mid 1990s. Now he has won a lot of plaudits (and an Olivier Award) for Top Hat although that is nothing like any of the work we have done together (includes Guide to Strange Places for San Francisco Ballet, Nightswimming into Day for Scottish Ballet and Room of Cooks for The Royal Ballet)!
Another major influence on the work has been the imagery of Geoffrey Crewdson, an American photographer who sets up richly-coloured, elaborately-staged shots, often as domestic scenes, or perhaps small town street scenes, where a heavy narrative is implied. Something has happened or is about to happen and his photographs usually imply a scenario that is deeply troubled. They often have a very cinematic, often surreal, fifties’ look and conjure similar imagery to an Edward Hopper painting or the atmosphere in a David Lynch film, especially since these are quite often similarly set in small town America. Other photographers work in a similar way but Crewdson’s works have a distinctive painterly quality.
In Subterrain I have set this influence in a broken-down environment that is partly industrial which is a departure from Crewdson’s photos because nothing of his is industrial. So, in creating this piece we have paired an implied, slightly domestic narrative with a rough, abstract industrial environment, which all works together in an interesting way with the music.
If Subterrain was such a highly unusual creative process give me an example of how your choreography normally evolves?
When I went to San Francisco, I had 18 days to make Guide to Strange Places. Mark Morris was there making a work at the same time and the dancers were also learning Onegin. I worked 7 hours every day for 18 days and that is how the piece had to be made. I just went hell for leather and I had to be highly organised. You have dancers coming in that have just been doing a Raymonda solo and then you are asking them to do something more contemporary. They can handle that range but you just can’t dither and sit there musing. You have to grab their attention straight away.
Can you think of an example where there just hasn’t been enough time?
At Scottish Ballet I was generally able to control the environment. Alice was the only time I ever had a panic about finishing something. Although the score was commissioned, there was too much music and I was trying to fill it all. But I realised that it didn’t need to be that long and it was better for me to work on the quality of what I had made rather than going flat out to make more and more material. I would like to have the chance to rework it and it can be improved upon. The concept is good and it looks fantastic with great designs. I just didn’t do such a good job with the choreography because I didn’t give myself enough time.
What other projects are on the horizon?
Joffrey Ballet has asked me to make a piece for them. Originally, this was for 2014 but I have also been commissioned to make a full-length work for the Vienna State Ballet, which is needed for a very precise date in April 2014 and Ashley Wheater (artistic director of The Joffrey Ballet) has very kindly agreed to shift their new work until the next season.
You seem to be developing a strong reputation in Vienna. Can you elaborate on that?
I’ve just returned from working with the company in Vienna for the second consecutive year creating the dances in the New Year’s Concert and it felt like going home. It all seems so familiar. I know the building and the staff and it’s interesting how you develop these relationships very quickly.
I will be going back in November to start work on this new full-length ballet, which will be based on the (Arthur) Schnitzler play La Ronde although it is a portrait of the fin de siècle period at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century in Vienna, rather than an interpretation of the play. That period was such an intense flowering of incredible talent in the arts, in literature, painting, and architecture.
Like the play, it doesn’t have a plot but is instead a series of dialogues where one person from each episode continues into the next scene until it comes full circle. We looked at Vienna in the era of when the play was written (1897) and realised that there was a real life La Ronde happening in that so many of these cultural icons were sleeping with each other. This led us to decide that you could throw out the fictional characters in the play and recast it with people from life, such as Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma, who subsequently had an affair with the artist, Oskar Kokoschka and married the architect, Walter Gropius, and the novelist, Franz Werfel . There are a couple of breaks in the chain but the idea is so good that we can take some artistic licence. So instead of building a ballet on La Ronde itself we have used the concept to create a portrait of Vienna in the first years of the 20th century.
You seem to be entering a third phase in your career – is that how it feels?
Absolutely. Although it was not by design and I was initially worried about leaving Scottish Ballet since I was going to be out of a job and I thought that this would mean having to retire. I had been in the Royal Ballet for 27 years and at Scottish Ballet for a further decade and so I had always been associated with one company or the other. When I was at the Royal, I made work for other places including Rambert and Dutch National Ballet, but the lion’s share of my output was for The Royal Ballet.
I didn’t have the confidence to believe that I would make it as a freelancer because I was known to be a house choreographer and, worse still, a director/choreographer, which means that people don’t tend to ask you to make work elsewhere because they know you are busy all the time. So you go off the radar. Also I had become better known as a director than a choreographer at Scottish Ballet.
So it has been an incredible surprise to find that I’m in demand! This began to happen before I had even left Scottish Ballet, when Helgi Tómasson – whom I didn’t know – came from out of the blue to ask me to make a piece for San Francisco Ballet. Out of nowhere, suddenly here was one of the best ballet companies in the world asking me to make a new work for them.
So I have now come to see the end of my time at Scottish Ballet as a flowering opportunity and, instead of calling it a day, I’m confidently embarking on a whole new phase of my career.
What do you feel is the reason for being so in demand?
I think it is at least partly because of the success I’ve had with full-length narrative ballets at Scottish Ballet. I had started dabbling about with these ideas before I left the Royal Ballet to go to Scotland, playing around with abstracted narratives and getting more and more interested in it. The time was right to have a go at a full-length narrative and I was getting a taste for it. This is why I’m really looking forward to the Vienna piece.
Is there a downside to being in demand?
The downside is that I really don’t get home much these days!
Will this third phase involve diversifying your career into the world of opera and theatre?
I’m sure it will. Even before I left the Royal, I was talking to Nick Hytner about diversifying my creativity by doing something at the National Theatre, perhaps in a similar way to how Akram Khan worked with Juliette Binoche (In-I), especially in terms of a choreographer working with actors on invented pieces. Then I got the job at Scottish Ballet and although we kept trying to find an opportunity to work together, in the end I was too busy in Scotland. But it is a thought that has lingered.
As I was coming towards the end of my time at Scottish Ballet I had discussions with Scottish Opera, the Citizens’ Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland about working with their companies and I would love to branch out and become more involved in opera and theatre. I have always been interested in film and theatre and many of my ideas for ballets have come from these influences (such as La Ronde) and so I see it as a natural extension.
Another recent project was choreographing Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie for Glyndebourne Opera. I worked closely with Jonathan Kent – the Director – and felt an integral part of the creative team and not just drafted in to do the dance. It was a great experience for me to get the opportunity to be fully immersed in that world.
My interest in theatrical direction has also been spurred by working with Nancy Meckler, whom I chose to direct A Streetcar Named Desire, which Scottish Ballet performed to great acclaim, last year. I had seen a couple of things that her company had done prior to this and there seemed to be a significant physical side to their work although they were essentially performing straight plays.
Details are not yet finalised but I’m hoping to have a chance to direct operas (and plays) in the near future.
Can you ever be attracted back into directing a company?
This could only happen if the opportunity and the situation are right for me. I was given complete freedom at Scottish Ballet because it was so desperately in need of revival. I took the job, only on the clear understanding that I could do it my way.
I took the company into a very different direction by recasting the model of what a modern classical ballet company could be. I was convinced that it could work but it had not been tried before. Crucially, the Board and the Chief Executive, at the time of my appointment, supported my vision. I think that they felt “what have we got to lose – it’s on its knees so let’s give it a go”.
Half the company had to be replaced because they just couldn’t have done what I wanted them to do and I recruited new dancers with an aim to do the contemporary repertoire as authentically as the company did the classical work. There was a hiatus of nine months without performances, but it was initially intended that this should have been a year – from Christmas to Christmas – but I found so many good dancers in the early auditions that it came together faster than I’d anticipated and we were able to start working on the new repertoire sufficiently quickly to run an autumn programme. So we were able to quickly lay out our stall of what the new company was going to be and we just took it from there.
Frankly, it’s unlikely that I will ever get that situation again; and even if I did, it’s just as unlikely to last for a long time. People change. It wouldn’t have to be exactly the same circumstances but I would need artistic freedom, fresh air and a sufficiently solid situation to be tempted back into directing a company. The challenge would have to be interesting and I would need carte blanche to make something new even if it would mean making something new out of an organisation that has been around for many years.
At the moment, I’m happy to be doing so much diverse work and the projects keep coming. I’m not looking beyond the next 2/3 years, just now, but I hope that I can keep my edge and remain just as busy.