New English Ballet Theatre’s autumn tour starts next month (full details/dates) and couples Wayne Eagling’s new Remembrance to a very different take on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons by rising star choreographer Jenna Lee. We have a word with her about the piece, working with NEBT and her general creative approach…
The Four Seasons for New English Ballet Theatre was well received last year and congrats on it coming back – what’s special about the music and why did you want to do it?
I fell in love with this wonderfully reimagined masterpiece a few years ago and it inspired me to choreograph the ballet. Max Richter has truly given this beautiful concerto an avant-garde update! I enjoy how the familiar melodies do unexpected things, constantly taking you in different directions. He throws you curveballs when you are least expecting it such as the legato movement of ‘Winter’ which feels so different from the original. The movement has been stretched out and has a very soothing but eerie space-like feel to it. The texture of the piece perfectly represents each season. There’s a strong contrast between the high-pitched plucking from the strings that sound like cold icy rain in winter and the balmy music representing a warm August evening – then there’s its passionate thunderstorm that comes crashing down in summer.
I like the fact that the audience will recognise this early 18th century music which has been featured in numerous films and TV commercials but has been reinterpreted, with vibrancy and flare, for today’s modern world.
Are you a ‘meddler’ – do you edit works when you bring them back? And how do you select your dancers – what qualities are you looking for?
Yes, I absolutely am a meddler! I think it’s a very natural thing for a choreographer to want to continually edit their work. During creation, it can be easy to indulge and procrastinate over steps and sequences of movement, only to come back and settle on your original idea. However, coming back to a ballet after a break is really beneficial; you can watch it again with fresh eyes and on a new cast of dancers. Very rarely do you find that the ballet, which is already choreographed, can perfectly fit onto a new cast. But that makes it interesting and I am keen to adapt to the body and dancer in front of me and use their skill set to enhance the piece.
— Jenna Lee (@JLchoreographer) February 2, 2018
Once a dancer has been recognised for having a strong, solid technique, it’s style and musicality that I am looking for. When I set phrases in an audition, I try and give as many details as possible about the mood, quality and texture of the steps and I’m looking for dancers who listen and try to interpret what I’m after. Trying to show that you have personality and individuality through a combination of steps that everyone else is also doing at an audition is quite hard! But it’s important that the panel sees you in the crowd and is able to connect with you. I am attracted to people with strong eye line, focus and poise in the upper body. It gives off a certain confidence.
How do you create – do you go into the studio with a firm idea of the movement you want?
I make sure that I know my music inside out before I step foot in the studio. Although I don’t read music I find my own way of understanding it and notating it, so I really grasp all the nuances. I like to feel really prepared. I normally don’t have the luxury of hours and hours in the studio with my dancers, so sometimes I work at quite a fast pace. Only very rarely would I walk into the studio without having done any preparation. Whatever I have prepared will always evolve when I put it on bodies but I have a strong starting point or motif in mind.
As part of my MA at Central School of Ballet I’ve been trying out new ways of tasking dancers, to help create movement. It’s lovely to have the time and space to try out new material where the final product won’t be seen and/or judged; it’s more about the process and reflecting and evaluating your work as a choreographer.
How would you describe your choreographic style? And who are your dance heroes?
My choreographic style is quite neo-classical but I work on such an array of diverse projects it’s a little hard for me to label! I try to fuse my knowledge of classical ballet with a vanguard style. Before I went to the Royal Ballet School at 11, I was trained in all genres of dance and that has definitely informed the work that I make. Although everything that I produce derives from a classical base, I love referencing other dance styles. I am currently doing some research and development for my next ballet Puss in Boots and am learning some Latin style dances, to put in one of the scenes!
Dance heroes: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Legends! Their partnership is flawless. I love the atmosphere they create when they dance, it’s very intimate and tender and looks completely effortless. Also from a choreographic point of view, it feels like a lesson in choreography! I love the way they build a piece of choreography, so it really climaxes, taking the audience with them every step of the way.
Darcey Bussell was my hero from a very early age. She talks in her books about the struggles she went through in her training, being a tall dancer and feeling like she didn’t really fit in. I connected with that, also being tall and strong from an early age and only hoped that I too would be able to have a career in ballet.
I also really enjoy watching pop singers in their concerts. I’m always on the look out for new ideas for shows or projects. It was actually watching a projection mapping section in one of Beyoncé’s shows and that was the inspiration for a scene in Against Time a show that I created when I was in ENB and collaborated with World Dance Champions, Flawless.
What’s next for you as a creative and what’s next for your company – JLee Productions?
My next project is working with Northern Ballet on Puss in Boots, a ballet that I am directing and choreographing. This narrative piece is aimed at very young children who are maybe going to the ballet for the very first time. I am faced with the challenge of creating a piece of theatre that children will be captivated by but also that adults will be entertained by. Richard Norriss, the composer of the ballet, has created the most charming score and I can’t wait to get started with the company and to bring it to life.
— Jenna Lee (@JLchoreographer) August 10, 2018
My company, Jlee Productions, continues to provide exclusive entertainment for a variety of clients. This year we have already performed in Geneva, Paris, Beirut and London, including a performance at The Classical BRIT Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. I am keen to show ballet in the most professional light possible, using beautifully trained, elite dancers, and to make sure the art form is represented in the best possible light.
Bonus Question: Tell us a joke!
Jokes are not my strong point… I’ll stick to the creative stuff!