Northern Ballet recently announced their 50th Anniversary Programme and central to it is Geisha, a new commission for Kenneth Tindall, following up on the terrific success of his Casanova. To be premiered on 14 March 2020, we wanted to know more about Geisha and all the other things, of which there are many, that Tindall is up to…
Congratulations on your latest commission for Northern Ballet – so what should we expect of Geisha?
Thank you so much. I am really excited to continue my relationship with Northern Ballet and create my second full length for a company that is very close to my heart. David Nixon (NB Aartistic Director) and I spoke for a long time about what title and style of narrative would work for the company and its current roster of dancers and also what worked and inspired me as a dance maker. It was actually David that suggested a Geisha story, and it just made sense.
It’s the companies 50th anniversary, and it is a great opportunity to pay homage to, and reflect on, the success and poignance of David’s Madame Butterfly and also use this inspiring subject matter as a vehicle for some of the key, up and coming dancers that the company has right now.
I have a personal fascination and attraction to Japan. I lived and worked there for a year and really enjoyed the rich culture and the deep history the country has. I also love the work of Takashi Miike, Akira Kurosawa and Katsushika Hokusai and many other Japanese artists, so I am very excited to use this influence to inform my creative process for this project. An original story is being written, which is inspired by true events. The world of Geisha is so shrouded in secrecy that it lends itself to fantasy and imagination, it’s alluring as a creative to find that freedom to colour in those unknown elements and produce a world that the audience can get lost in. It’s a story about friendship, betrayal, revenge and redemption, looking behind the mask of tradition and duty. Let’s just say a visually stunning, heartfelt narrative with a supernatural edge!
Who are the other creatives involved in putting Geisha on stage?
Gwyneth Hughes and I are co-writing the scenario, and we are consulting with Lesley Downer. Lesley is an author and specialises in Japanese history and the history of Geisha in particular. In fact, Lesley spent time training and living as a Geisha. Gwyneth has written for television and film, most recently Vanity Fair for ITV and Doing Money for BBC 2 – two very contrasting projects. Gwyneth also has a history as an investigative journalist, but this is the first time she has written for ballet. Alexandra Harwood is our composer and is writing an original score for Geisha. Alex is a very established award-winning composer and has an incredible back catalogue of work. I’ve chosen to work again with Christopher Oram for set and costume, we worked so well together on Casanova that is was an easy decision and Alastair West, and I will continue our working relationship together on the lighting design.
This year you also have a premiere with Cape Town City Ballet – do tell more…
It’s turned out to be a busy year, which is fantastic! Debbie Turner the AD of Cape Town City Ballet was over in the U.K and saw The Shape of Sound (having its London premiere at the Linbury in November), and she then approached me, and we got talking. It’s a fantastic opportunity to continue to develop my freelance career and start to build an international reputation, I am very grateful to Debbie for commissioning me. It will be my fourth new work this year, Milwaukee Ballet, two works for the BBC and one for CCG in Spain. It’s been an interesting period for me because I’ve enjoyed the challenge and its lead to a realisation that the creative muscle develops differently when worked and sculpted on a regular, constant basis. I am interested and excited to learn from a different culture and organisation and its artists. I enjoy going through the doors on that first day and connecting with a new group of people, discovering and understanding them as a team and as individuals and how to bring out the best in them, which invariably brings out the best in me, the process and the work.
What was it like working on BBC Young Dancer, where you choreographed a piece and acted as mentor to one of the contestants? Are you generally hopeful for the future of ballet?
It was great to get that level of recognition from an organisation as big as the BBC. It’s a fantastic platform for dance and creating in that environment was a very different challenge. It’s about understanding the brief and finding a balance. You are looking to create a piece that is suitable for the dancer and their ability, allows your voice to shine through and is relevant to the broad audience that will see it. It was a great opportunity to practice and hone my leadership and producer skills and to witness the large team operation of the BBC, given my continuing work on Northern Ballet’s digital platform.
The level of ballet was good this year, and I enjoyed mentoring the talent that was displayed throughout. I’ve been lucky to have had lots of great people around me at all the different stages of my career and feel it’s only right to give back and pay it forward. It’s a crucial point in a dancer’s development, just before you join a company, and I liked having the opportunity to be part of a platform that makes competition a healthy, positive experience.
Like it or not shows like this and Strictly have introduced and broadened the audience for dance. Sometimes ballet gets a bad rap, and it’s important we continue to address this. How can we challenge it? Is it with different music styles, different rep, the overall look and style we package our work in? The competition allowed me to challenge some of the stereotypes that exist around ballet.
Kenneth Tindall’s choreography for BBC Young Dancer Chloe Keneally
I am hopeful for the future of ballet, and in some respects, I believe it is thriving. There has been a real resurgence of interest in narrative work but, and there is a big but, we have a way to go before we are as relevant as some of the other dance genres. Classical ballet’s tradition and culture are important, but they can impede and weigh you down, it’s an area I have been exploring a lot for Geisha. I’ve devoted my life to dance and I have a strong vision and conviction of where I want it to go, I hope our tradition and culture doesn’t hold us back, we need to remain true to those tradition’s while continuing to evolve. It’s a beautiful thing right now that the definition of styles is getting harder to label, as dance makers call on a variety of vocabulary which best suits the needs of the work.
Besides being a choreographer, you also have the title Artistic Director of Digital at Northern Ballet. So what are you up to and how’s it all going?
In many ways, I was already working closely with Northern Ballet in numerous capacities, so to have this as a formal title and position at the company is great and also recognition for that work. I got a taste of directing when I was co-curating the Choreographic Lab a couple of years ago – I implemented a digital element into that process, and I was pleased the lab not only gave a platform to a new generation of choreographers, it started to develop relationships with filmmaker’s from in, and around, Leeds. It was all grassroots level but important, and it sowed the seeds for what I am pushing to accomplish now.
Dance is such a specific medium in film that it needs to be trained up like anything else unless you have means to an unlimited budget. It’s fantastic to be directing and leading a pioneering project; my aim is to strive to put creativity at the heart of the artistic decisions for the platform. It’s rare to have a space that is free of dependence on box office results, so I have the opportunity to take creative risks that aren’t always possible for the main stage work. The real difficulty is fitting all of this in with Northern Ballet’s packed schedule; I think it’s somewhere in the region of 225 shows when you include the children’s ballets. However, I can commission from outside the company, and I am looking forward to discovering emerging talent and increasing the collaborative circle for the platform. The opportunity’s for this are endless, and I hope that time and budget don’t hold us back too much – we have the chance to truly reach a new and diverse audience, cultivate borderless collaborations, use a number of different creative processes, use and develop new tech with some partner companies and most exciting, take artistic risks. It should be said we have no intention of it ever replacing the live theatre experience and nor can it, but it can and will give us new, fresh and exciting perspectives on how we can view and interact with movement and narrative dance. This could be or already is the next evolution.
A film on digitaldance.org – Northern Ballet’s digital play area.
On a personal level, the role allows me to continue my relationship with the company and hone my leadership skills as I look to my future and potential as an Artistic Director. There are some great courses out there formalising the role, but nothing beats practical experience. I am grateful to David (Nixon), and Mark (Skipper – NB Chief Executive) for putting such importance on this new and developing area and I look forward to stretching the potential of the platform.
Tell us a joke
This was my Dad’s favourite….
Horse walks into a bar,
Barman says why the long face!!!!!!
How good is that :]:]:]