5 Questions to Yolande Yorke-Edgell of Yorke Dance Project on celebrating their 20th anniversary

Yolande Yorke-Edgell.<br />© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)
Yolande Yorke-Edgell.
© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)

See Yorke Dance Project at London’s Royal Opera House on 14-17 May 2019 – full details

Yorke Dance Project are celebrating their 20th anniversary with TWENTY – a bill of new works by Robert Cohan, Sophia Stoller and Yorke-Edgell coupled to the first ever restaging of Kenneth MacMillan’s Playground. We talk to director Yolande Yorke-Edgell…

Yorke Dance is unusual in being a long-lasting contemporary repertory company. How does it fit into the UK’s changing dance ecology?

We have always had the challenge of being a repertory company touring regionally when there are also graduate companies such as Edge, Verve, Intoto presenting rep by current choreographers. This has become more difficult with Rambert2 touring to similar venues and companies who tour more mid-scale are being forced to tour to smaller venues. So, this is a pivotal point for us as to how we move forward as a repertory company. We made the decision a few years ago to bill ourselves as a contemporary ballet company. This was for two main reasons – the first is that we want our regional audience to get a clearer understanding of the style of dance we perform and secondly the work we do is highly technical with dancers who are strong both in ballet and contemporary. It also coincided with the rep we started to include with rarely-seen ballets by Kenneth MacMillan. This question is particular interesting given the way contemporary dance is now being embraced by the classical companies. We are doing the reverse it seems, being a contemporary company introducing ballet to our rep. So, I think we are moving with the times and aligning ourselves more with the work ballet companies are presenting. Since we have made these changes our audiences have grown and the dancers are developing their skills too.

Yolande Yorke-Edgell's <I>Imprint</I>.<br />© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)
Yolande Yorke-Edgell’s Imprint.
© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)

What kind of training do your dancers need to cope with different technique-based works, such as Bob Cohan’s Graham-influenced choreography or MacMillan’s ballets? Do the dancers prepare by watching videos of choreographers’ works or do they rely solely on coaching?

We are very fortunate to be in the studio with Robert Cohan, I cannot emphasis enough the power of him being in the room with us. The information he passes on to us is life-changing, personally and professionally. We have studied his technique and we train in his technique during company class and also ballet in equal measures. I also have been teaching Lewitzky and Horton technique throughout the life span of the company so the dancers receive very technical and strong training at the start of every rehearsal. When we have revived a Macmillan ballet the dancers are coached in the work by original dancers and of course we have first-hand coaching from Cohan.

Yorke Dance Project in Robert Cohan's <I>Communion</I>.<br />© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)
Yorke Dance Project in Robert Cohan’s Communion.
© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)

Why did you want to perform MacMillan’s little-known Playground? How close could you get to the original creation? What changes have been necessary?

Having revived MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles which was a barefoot ballet I spoke with Deborah and Charlotte MacMillan about another work that could be performed bare foot or in ballet shoes. Playground was suggested because MacMillan had once said that he could see a company like Pina Bausch performing this work. So, with that in mind we all felt it would sit well with a more contemporary company. Reviving it has brought up some interesting challenges and decisions that have been made during the course of performing it. Only the lead female dancer is on pointe which has worked dramatically as it adds to her being apart from the rest of the group. We have also had to work quite specifically on character development which has been very interesting, especially having original dancers Stephen Wicks and Susie Crow in to coach us.

Yorke Dance Project in Kenneth MacMillan's <I>Playground</I>.<br />© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)
Yorke Dance Project in Kenneth MacMillan’s Playground.
© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)

In 1979, Playground proved a difficult work for Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet to tour – how has your revival fared on tour?

I would say it has had a mixed reception. I think people are more aware of mental illness and are more aware of bullying and the consequences of it but nonetheless a lot of people are very uncomfortable with seeing these issues played out in front of them. I have had audience members say it is the best ballet they have seen or that it was their favourite of the programme through to someone saying that it was harrowing and they are going to have nightmares. To me the ballet works as ultimately it has touched the audience one way or another. It is what people connect with, some people love scary films and some people don’t, it doesn’t mean that it is a bad film or an unsuccessful ballet. Playground is about real events and real outcomes and shows how mentally ill adults can behave.

When you have commissioned choreographers during Yorke Dance’s 20 years, have you prescribed what you hope for or do you give them free rein? Any clues to future plans?

It has varied throughout the 20 years. Each programme has had a theme and the work has to tie together so there is a connecting thread. There is always one revival so that can be the starting point. With new commissions I will give a rough time frame and offer a theme to work from. With the Cohan Collective commissioned works such as Charlotte Edmonds’s Self and our current commission by Sophia Stoller they were mentored through the process both by Robert Cohan and myself. There is a freedom during the creation process but I would not put anything on stage that would either jeopardise the integrity of the dancers, a revival or the company. I have had to make some very tough decisions in the past to honour this.

Yolande Yorke-Edgell's <I>Imprint</I>.<br />© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)
Yolande Yorke-Edgell’s Imprint.
© Pari Naderi. (Click image for larger version)

Future plans seem to be emerging from a series of events this spring. We are looking at reviving another MacMillan ballet Rituals; Robert Cohan has been inspired by all the cherry blossom falling lately and will be creating a new work and so a Japanese theme has revealed itself. I am also in discussion with Japanese dancer and choreographer Fukiko Takase about creating a new work. I would very much like to complete this programme with a work by Martha Graham which would be incredible if we can make it happen. Fingers crossed!

About the author

Jann Parry

A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.

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