Inheriting Broken Fall – New Russell Maliphant dancers take on a legendary piece of dance and also talk about creating new work for the future…
An interview with Adam Kirkham, Carys Staton, Nathan Young and Yu-Hsien Wu of Russell Maliphant Company as they take on roles first created by Guillem and the BalletBoyz. Also advice to graduating students and discussion of Maliphant’s approach to creating new work…
In Russell Maliphant’s studio in north London, four young dancers are cosily squashed on a sofa in front of me, chatting genially and looking very much at home together – as well they might after touring these last few weeks across the UK. They are a new generation of dancers appearing in a revival of Maliphant’s Broken Fall, a work premiered by Sylvie Guillem, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt at the Royal Ballet, back in 2003. It was a pioneering production for all involved and won an Olivier Award that year.
Broken Fall was a key work for Guillem’s move into contemporary dance and proved to be the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration with Malipihant. It also marked Nunn and Trevitt’s return as guests to the ROH which they had previously left some years before in search of greater artistic freedom. They subsequently (as the BalletBoyz) toured the work extensively. Nunn and Trevitt had already performed some of Maliphant’s duets with their characteristic push-me pull-you shifts of weight and balances. This trio expanded the possibilities much further with some hair-raising lifts and drops from height (it’s not called Broken Fall for nothing) that demonstrated a remarkable level of bravery and technical skill. Michael Hulls’ lighting was as ever a key component in the work. This year Maliphant and Hulls celebrate 20 years of collaboration.
It’s been a long time since Broken Fall was seen in the UK, but it’s back now, if still very new to these dancers. It’s a landmark piece and I asked them about how they came to join the Maliphant company and about the challenges of taking on these roles and making them their own.
Adam Kirkham and Nathan Young were in same year at the English National Ballet School. Nathan had at that time just come to the UK from Australia. He joined English National Ballet from the school and was there for eight years, dancing roles including Mercutio and the Nutcracker. He’d enjoyed his time at ENB but he was craving something new. While at ENB he appeared in Maliphant’s Second Breath (part of the much-applauded Lest We Forget bill) and found that this was a movement style which really interested him and he wanted to do more. This tour is his opportunity.
Adam Kirkham worked in Denmark and then did five seasons with the BalletBoyz Company. Maliphant’s Torsion was the first contemporary piece he ever did. His time in the BalletBoyz included new creations by a variety of choreographers, and he is very articulate about the differences between these and Maliphant’s way of creating new work. He is keen to do more of Russell’s work, but found it amusing that after all that time with the BalletBoyz one of the first things he was doing in the new company was watching a BalletBoyz DVD performance as part of the learning process.
Yu-Hsien Wu trained in Taiwan and worked there for two years before auditioning for the Maliphant Company. It’s a big, bold step to take. She has been with them only four months and this is her first time in the UK. She looks understandingly dismayed by our dismal weather (it’s a wet and dark November day). While in Taiwan, Yu-Hsien had seen a live performance of the Push programme with Guillem and Maliphant, so she knew about his style. She’s only seen Broken Fall on DVD. She enthuses animatedly about being in London because there is so much new dance and other shows to see, a huge amount to take in.
Carys Staton has had four years with the company. She graduated from Rambert School in 2011 and started work with Maliphant almost immediately. How well did her training at Rambert prepare her? Her response is measured and thoughtful. Very well in many ways, but Russell’s’ use of improvised contact work and his way of partnering wasn’t something taught at the school, and was a technique she needed to get to grips with. She still thinks of herself as learning all the time. It was a big surprise to her to receive a National Dance Award nomination (best female modern performance) last year for the Still / Current programme. It was nice to be nominated but you don’t do it for the nomination. She “absolutely loved” performing the programme and felt really comfortable in it.
Taking on Broken Fall
None of this crop of dancers has seen a live performance of the work, only recordings. They are all articulate about the challenges involved. Adam Kirkham takes on Michael Nunn’s role and Nathan Young William Trevitt’s. The female role alternates between Carys Staton and Yu-Hsien Wu.
Carys noted that at first, when learning the piece, it felt “super specific” to the original creators. She really registered the core strength that they had. All of them agreed that it’s a real challenge. It’s a very hard piece, very technical and difficult. There’s a lot of risk involved.
Nathan notes that “We do need to make it ours. We can’t do a carbon copy or simply replicate exactly what you see on the DVD. It has to change, not astronomically, but little tweaks here and there to make it work on your body”.
Carys notes the need to keep the look of the work “clean” and to respect the classical element within it and the need to maintain a certain line.
Adam and Nathan partner Carys and Yu-Hsien at different performances and it’s clear in our chat that they have a big commitment to working out how to make it a success with the two different women. But ultimately they describe them as “very different dancers” and the work looks different on each of them. How different might best be judged when show hits Sadler’s Wells later this month.
The company has danced ten dates on the tour now. They discuss the contrasts of performing in different spaces, sometimes in quite intimate spaces, but also on a big stages like the Lowry in Salford with much more space to cover with the same steps. “You have to run faster!” says Adam. Carys likes the small venues when the audience are practically in touching distance and you can really sense their mood. You can feel what they are feeling. In a big auditorium you need to work more to generate that energy.
Nathan notes that after all the noise when school groups are present, there is a sudden complete silence from the audience as curtain goes up. “I always get really thrilled.”
Both men I notice have had the rather severe haircut associated with Nunn and Trevitt in the original performances. Nathan remarks that walking down the street with a shaved head you get side glances in a way you don’t with a conventional haircut. They have stuck with the same costume designer as the original, so thought they would go for the haircut as well.
They agree that after a number of performances “the work is much more in our bodies now”. “Now we have got beyond the steps and we can really work on making a connection with each other.”
They stress the constant process of revision and fine tuning as Carys says “to make sure it never becomes stagnant”. This theme returns in later discussion on creating new work. All the pieces, new and revived, are in a continuing process of review and refinement.
The company has had the studio here in north London for eight years, a bolthole to which they return regularly. There is a substantial library here of books about the body built up by Maliphant and Nathan regards the surroundings with affection: “Ballet studios can be quite clinical – here is informal”.
Creating new work
All four appear in a new quintet with Dana Fouras – called Piece No. 43 (because it’s the 43rd collaboration between Maliphant and Hulls). What’s distinctive about working on the creation of a piece with Maliphant?
Adam is very clear “It’s not like with many choreographers where you generate a lot of material and the lighting is done in a couple of days at the end.” Michael Hulls’ lighting is an integral part from the beginning.
Early on in the creation of the new piece they spent a week at the Lilian Baylis Studio under lights so Hulls could work out the effects. There are lighting facilities in the studio too and further work is possible there. The lighting plan then informs the subsequent development of the material by Maliphant. The dancers are aware early in the process exactly where the light will fall and of the need to keep their body at a particular angle to catch the desired effect. They also know where the light will direct the audience to focus. Carys suggests this way of working is more efficient: You don’t generate material and then find later that it doesn’t work with the lighting.
The composer of Piece No. 43 is Mukul and he too is very much part of the process of development and collaboration in the studio. And as you might expect there have been changes to the music throughout the process. There’s never an idea of “hand it over and it’s done” – development always continues.
Mukul is also the composer for Spiral Pass, a piece Maliphant created in 2014 for Munich Ballet (Bayerisches Staatsballett), which will be given at Sadler’s Wells as part of the tour. It’s a much bigger work than the others with thirteen dancers overall, including the much-admired Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino from the Munich company.
Advice for dance students graduating now?
It’s not an easy environment for new dance graduates to find work. What advice would they have for them based on what they know now?
Nathan: “See as much as possible to know what you want to work towards in your career”.
Carys: “Try out everything. There’s lots of workshops in London and around. Take every opportunity to find out what works for you and don’t rule things out.” And for Yu-Hsien, having moved half way around the world, that’s advice she is still living professionally as she unpacks all that London has to offer.
Adam: “And enjoy the process. If you don’t enjoy it what’s the point? It’s a short career.”