Donald Hutera talks to Yolande Yorke-Edgell about her company’s anniversary production, TWENTY in a special feature for the Winchester Guide.
Yorke Dance Project’s ambitious mixed bill TWENTY marks this enterprising company’s 20th anniversary. The UK tour opened in Bournemouth at the end of January, and includes one night at Theatre Royal Winchester (Feb 12) plus later dates in Leeds, Frome, Banbury, Salisbury and Swindon before culminating in several evenings at the Royal Opera House’s Clore Studio Upstairs in mid-May.
I interviewed dancer, choreographer and company artistic director Yolande Yorke-Edgell about the programme, about dance and about herself as an artist and art-maker, and here are her replies – long, but rich in detail.
Donald: First, a philosophical/practical musing. What’s kept you going as the head of a company for two decades, Yolande, and how do you measure success?
Yolande: What’s kept me going for so long is that I’m passionate about the work we present. The opportunity to reconstruct work by choreographers who’ve been (and still are) pivotal in how dance has evolved, both in the UK and the USA, has been a great honour. For me it’s vital that these works are seen. Ballet companies present both historical and new work but that’s less prominent in contemporary dance, and personally I love performing these works. I’m also driven by the dancers in the company. I want to give them the chance to perform works that are challenging and develop them as artists. They’re just as important as the work itself.
Measuring success is difficult. The obvious would be that we started (in the UK) performing in small venues such as the Acorn Theatre in Penzance, and our aim was to work towards venues such as Hall for Cornwall, Truro or the Norwich Playhouse – the sort of venues Richard Alston Dance Company performs at. But success can’t be measured by the trajectory of the scale of venues, and that’s because the way dance is being presented now is harder than ever. Still, I couldn’t have reached higher than being presented by the Royal Opera House twenty years after the company’s first performance at the Occidental College Theatre in Los Angeles.
Ultimately my measure of success is two-fold. The fact that we’re still touring an eight-strong company in work that only major companies around the world present, and with the level of dancers such as Jonathan Goddard, Dane Hurst, Freya Jeffs and Oxana Panchenko – that’s a great measure of success! My other measure is of the trust bestowed upon us to present work by Robert Cohan and Kenneth MacMillan. And just to work alongside and collaborate with Robert Cohan, which was my goal as a young student…
Donald: Tell me about Kenneth MacMillan’s Playground and how it’s been to revive a master’s 40 year-old work.
Yolande: It’s been a fascinating process and very different from reconstructing Sea of Troubles, which he created for the company Dance Advance and which we previously revived. With only a very fuzzy black and white film and the Benesh Notation to guide us, we’ve been piecing Playground together with the help of notator Jane Elliott and two of the work’s original dancers, Susie Crow and Stephen Wicks. Aside from the principal characters there is a corps of twelve which we’ve put together by inviting dancers from Rambert School and Central School of Ballet to take part. On Sundays we all pile into a studio with both casts of lead dancers. That’s roughly 22 dancers, two coaches, a notator and myself. It’s all quite frantic, but a great experience. All of the dancers have a role to play, and so it’s a wonderful opportunity for the students to learn and develop character roles as well as being in a working environment with our incredible dancers.
Deborah and Charlotte MacMillan [Kenneth’s wife and daughter] have been providing some wonderful insights too. And, as with any master artist, to unpick and examine the work has been incredible. All of this focus enriches the process of reconstructing a very complicated ballet.
Donald: Why do you think Playground has been pretty much forgotten till now, and what factors prompted you to undertake bringing it back to the stage?
Yolande: From what I’ve gathered, and from my own take on this, I would say it was ahead of its time. Too abstract, perhaps, and not a traditional narrative with movement people were uncomfortable seeing. If you look at where people were with personal issues in the late 1970s… They didn’t discuss their problems openly. No one would admit to seeing a therapist back then, so maybe people were uncomfortable with seeing characters that they couldn’t – or didn’t want to – relate to, or even be exposed to. I think Playground is particularly relevant now. It was of interest to me because its theme is bullying, which is a huge problem for children at the moment especially on social media. So this work provides not only an opportunity for audiences to see an intriguing and multi-layered ballet, but it’s allowed us to devise a specific educational programme with a child therapist and movement director that we can take to schools and do what we can to help stop bullying amongst children.
Donald:What happens in Playground, in a nutshell, and is it being danced en pointe? And what discoveries have been made in remounting it?
Yolande: My initial discussion with Deborah and Charlotte MacMillan was about whether or not this ballet was possible to do without being en pointe, and we felt it was. Further discussions led to us agreeing that only the lead female role should be en pointe, to give the full effect of the character and the physicality of the movement, which is key to MacMillan’s partner work. There are only two other featured female roles, and their movement would not lose its authenticity by not being en pointe.
One of the most interesting discoveries, which is also an important feature of all MacMillan’s ballets, is what’s going on around the lead characters. There’s so much happening between all the other sixteen dancers that is vital to telling the story. This is what’s made it quite a challenge to reconstruct. Charlotte MacMillan is re-imagining both the set and costumes, and there have been lengthy discussions about certain design aspects and what might be most relevant now. Do we keep the visual impact of a straitjacket, or bring it up to date with whatever would be used today? We’re still working these sorts of questions out as we go along. We have to adapt the set to work in smaller spaces too. It will be very much like the original, just scaled down.
Donald: Who’s dancing the role of the intruder, and who the lead young woman originally played by Marion Tait?
Yolande: We have two casts for the intruder and the young woman. Company dancer Jordi Calpe Serrats and guest artist Jonathan Goddard, and Oxana Panchenko, from Michael Clark’s company, along with Romany Pajdak, first soloist with the Royal Ballet, will share these roles.
Donald: Let’s move on to another master choreographer and company mainstay, Bob Cohan. What’s the mood and tone, the look and sound, of his new work Communion?
Yolande: As a small company we have in the past reconstructed smaller works of Cohan‘s. For this anniversary programme I wanted to offer a commission for a larger group, especially as he’d made such great large-scale pieces for London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Knowing we had working with us Jonathan Goddard and Dane Hurst, who particularly inspire him, he started to create a work for nine dancers. In 1973 he’d made a work called Mass with dancers who walked in a line and voiced overtones [essentially singing two notes simultaneously] as they moved. This was a starting point for Mass and now Communion. I think this new dance reflects where he is in life now, at the age of 93, and from the feedback we’ve had from people who’ve seen the rehearsals it’s a very powerful and moving. Aside from the sounds of overtone singing, the rest of the music is by contemporary composer Nils Frahm.
Donald: Can you say just a little something about the solo to be danced by Laurel Dalley Smith at Covent Garden? It’s not being seen elsewhere on the tour, right?
Yolande: That’s right, it’s only at the Royal Opera House. Laurel joined the company in 2014 and was chosen by Cohan to dance in Lingua Franca which he created for us and which was performed as part of his 90th Birthday celebrations in spring 2015. Laurel was so inspired by Cohan that she decided to attend the Martha Graham Summer School, and from there she auditioned and has been a dancer with the Martha Graham Company since 2015. Laurel will be on a short break from the Graham company in May, and to celebrate our anniversary they’ve have given permission for her to guest with us for the ROH performances. A new section of Communion will be created featuring Laurel, and it’ll be rehearsed a few weeks before the May performances.
Donald: Your new work Imprint has been made in homage to three inspiring people. Can you say something about each of them, as well as giving some idea of what this work is like in terms of its structure and the sensory impact of its look, sound and other textures?
Yolande: The journey the company has taken, from its beginnings in Los Angeles through to where it is now, has been greatly influenced by my experience with three choreographers: how they work in the studio, how they make work and how it feels to dance in their work. I spoke at length to Robert Cohan about the idea of making a new work that reflected what I’d learned from each, and how that has impacted me as an artist. He suggested that I go into the studio and remember how it felt to dance their work, and be in their presence, and just let the movement come through me without thinking about it. It was the most freeing experience I’ve had as a choreographer – just allowing that physical history to come through, and making movement with what my body remembered from. I’ve never made work as quickly as I’ve done with this process, and it’s been interesting to see what has come out.
There are two sections dedicated to each choreographer – Richard Alston, Bella Lewitzky and Cohan – and the music I’m using includes Bach and Heiner Goebbels. My fear after looking at the work is that the audience might think I’m trying to make something in the style of each choreographer, but that’s not it at all. It’s simply the imprint of their work on me that they will see. What I’ve taken from each choreographer is the musicality and playfulness of Alston, the depth and sensation of movement of Cohan and the clarity, strength and shape of Lewitzky.
Donald: I came across this quote on Wikipedia:
“Great control of every motion and placement,” she says, “is a kind of self-care. It’s self-love in the best sense. I make a contract with the dancers (not literally, of course) to keep them alive and well and progressive – doing my level best to see that they’re not injured.” One must bear in mind, she says, that “dancing is not normal, that only a strong, knowledgeable body can protect against damage.” Bella Lewitzky, from an interview with Donna Perlmutter, Dance Magazine (January 1997)
Any reaction to it? And how normal is dance to you?
Yolande: This is very ‘Bella’! Thank you for sharing it. I was at my strongest as a dancer when I danced with Bella. She knew exactly how the body worked best and developed her technique to protect us and ensure she had strong, powerful dancers.
For me dance is, as Bella so rightly pointed out, self-care. It’s where I feel most comfortable. It is who I am, and what I know best. As a child it became my voice and was a safe place for me to express myself. This might go back to what drives me to lead a dance company. As far as asking how normal it is, for me it’s not exactly normal, but once you allow it to exist within you, it’s your normal.
Donald: I don’t know the work of Sophia Stoller at all. Can you say something about it and her, generally, and, specifically, about the dance she’s made called Between and Within?
Yolande: After forming the Cohan Collective with Robert Cohan here in the UK – a residency for choreographers and composers to collaborate whilst being mentored – I piloted theCollective in Los Angeles in partnership with Pennington Dance Group. We worked with three composers and three choreographers from Los Angeles, and Sophia Stoller was one of the latter. She created a duet during the residency that was very powerful, and I thought it would be great to develop that further and so commissioned this work for our anniversary programme. This ties in to the ethos of the company presenting work by dance-makers from both the UK and America whilst being supportive of emerging artists. We also invited her collaborator Justin Scheid to compose the music. What I find really interesting is that her style is very different from what we are currently seeing here in the UK.
Donald: Okay, a final question: Why do we need to see dance, and your company dancing, now?
Yolande: When this question comes up my mind always goes to a scenario that happened when the war in Iraq was breaking in 2003 and I was opening a show in Los Angeles. I had three nights at the Miles Memorial Theatre in Santa Monica. The opening night was when the war broke out. The second night a reviewer from the LA Times came along – one of about ten people in the audience that night as everyone was in shock about what was happening in the world. We spoke, and she said she was very moved by the performance and would do all she could to try and get the review in Saturday morning’s paper so that others would come and see the show. The headline was “Real Emotion from Yorke Dance Project” and her opening paragraph included the line, “It was possible to forget the woes of Thursday night when Yorke Dance Project brought beauty, grace and real emotion to a sparse but appreciative audience.” She did it, and we had a sold-out evening. So I don’t think it’s a case of seeing dance and the company now. There is just something very special about live theatre. You get to be in the same space, and feel the same energy (particularly in small theatres), and be taken out of your head and into another world. It’s like a meditation. You stop thinking and just experience something, whether you end up liking it or not!
View the trailer here:
Tickets available for the Theatre Royal Winchester
EXTRA ‘INSIDER’ FEATURES!
The multiple award-winner Jonathan Goddard is one of the UK’s best contemporary dancers. Although he’s performed in Winchester a number of times, he won’t be available for Yorke Dance Project’s date at the Theatre Royal. Still, he was good enough to reply to an email query asking him about the work the company is offering and his part in it.
Jonathan: I’ve been involved with Yorke Dance Project since 2014, and it’s great to be able to contribute and celebrate its staying power. I’m in two of the works.
Playground by Kenneth Macmillan was originally staged in 1979 and created for what was then Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. It’s a narrative work which takes the Orpheus and Eurydice myth as its starting point, and I’ve learnt the role of ‘The Intruder.’ It’s been exciting to revive this ballet. I think Macmillan had been undertaking psychoanalysis around the period it was made, so there are some meaty themes to get into – family, and the balance of sanity and fantasy. I’m very much enjoying dancing with guest artists Oxana Panchenko and Romany Pajdak, and to develop the work’s central partnership with them. Playground hasn’t been revived or performed since it was made, so it is really a process of excavation. It’s a rarity, and with a great cast, so it’s definitely worth coming to watch!
The other work I’m in is a new choreography from Bob Cohan. Communion, created last year, feels very special. Bob has made a really beautiful solo for me which finishes the work. I first danced for him in a revival of his piece Eclipse for his 80th birthday celebrations in 2005. It’s really good to be back together, and there’s a sense of achievement, poignancy and fun to be working together fourteen years later.
Our UK tour will finish with shows at the Royal Opera House in London, where we’ll be adding a duet with dancer Laurel Dalley-Smith. Laurel began dancing with Yorke Dance Project,where we met and partnered each other, and then went off to join the Martha Graham Company and has been doing fantastically well there in New York City. It’ll be great to dance together again and see how Bob responds and creates with someone who is now working with the company where he has so much history and was a star dancer.
Susie Crow was in the original cast of Kenneth MacMillan’s Playground. Here, as one of the coaches for Yorke Dance Project’s current revival of the ballet, she offers valuable inside knowledge about that first staging.
Susie: Playground was originally created for performance at the Edinburgh Festival, where it was apparently well-received; certainly friends of ours who came were impressed. MacMillan choreographed it after leaving the directorship of the Royal Ballet and making such exploratory and dark works as My Brother, My Sisters. But after subsequent performances at Sadler’s Wells, and I think some on tour, it wasn’t done again.
Was Playground perhaps deemed to be too gritty and uncompromising for further touring? It might’ve been thought a risk when Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet was rebuilding itself and its following. It’s just a shame that it didn’t get a chance to establish itself in the repertoire.
More recently, following the anniversary season of MacMillan work in 2017, there’s been renewed interest in reviving lesser-known, earlier works of his. That, and the recent success of Yorke Dance Project and its revival of his Sea of Troubles, probably influenced the decision to revive this ballet. It’s a work that includes rather naturalistic movement to create an environment within which the principle characters act out troubling relationships. The Yorke Dance dancers have really impressed me in their ability to present the more expressionist side of MacMillan’s work. Given today’s social concerns about bullying, exclusion and mental health issues, Playground also feels remarkably topical and prescient. It could be really powerful this time around.
I don’t want to disclose what happens in Playground. I think all the audience needs to know before seeing it will be in the title, and in the specified names of a few characters. Yorke Dance Project is a small contemporary company of less than ten dancers, and this was effectively a work for a much larger ballet company with a cast of eighteen and a full orchestral score originally performed live. So some adjustment has been necessary, a process which can concentrate the focus on what is important. It’s been really exciting to see the work coming back to life, and in its painstaking reconstruction to appreciate afresh MacMillan’s ability to create character and situation through balletic movement, and acting through dancing. It also opens up questions about performative skills – how to be on the stage for a long time as a member of an ensemble and sustain the work’s claustrophobic atmosphere, often with minimal or simple means, and deciding where the focus is.
A recorded version has been made of the original score by Gordon Crosse which is richly colourful and atmospheric, but also quite challenging for the dancers to co-ordinate to its combination of more and less rhythmic passages.
This time the work will be performed in smaller, more intimate venues. Inevitably the set, while keeping the character and signification of the original, needs to be more flexible, lightweight and tourable. The costumes likewise will maintain a spirit of dressing up, but perhaps give a slightly more timeless look. It’s very special to have Kenneth’s daughter Charlotte re-designing a ballet made when she was a small child herself.
It’s been a brilliant learning experience for all of us!