Tag Archives: Mark Bruce

Something Wicked This Way Comes

As the ‘dark pleasure’ of the multi-award-winning Mark Bruce Company’s Macbeth arrives at Theatre Royal Winchester (Jan 31 & Feb 1) as part of a national tour, veteran dance-theatre critic Donald Hutera learns more about this compelling new take on Shakespeare’s most notorious couple – and, in a Winchester Guide exclusive, speaks not just to the show’s creator but to the two dancers cast in the leading roles.
MARK BRUCE, choreographer and director
Q. What are your thoughts on Macbeth?
MARK BRUCE: It hits you fast, cuts through to the bone, and for me it’s the least ambiguous of Shakespeare‘s plays. Its darkness opens our nightmares; we recognise fundamental traits inside ourselves, and the consequences of acting upon them. The vicious pursuit of power to fill a void will always be relevant. The Macbeths are everywhere in every age, because they’re a part of us.
Q. When did you discover Macbeth and what did you think?
MARK BRUCE:   I first read it as a teenager and, returning to it now, the images and atmosphere it evokes haven’t changed. Its power lies in a relentless tale of supernatural horror told with a beauty and symbolism that reaches to the tragic state of the ‘other.’   The supernatural is always present in Macbeth, bending our own thoughts and perceptions as well as those of the protagonists. It infects us, always one step ahead, and Macbeth’s decisions are made in the world of a nightmare as if there’s no separation between thought and action. Murder is done and descent is rapid.
Q. Why choose Macbeth?
MARK BRUCE: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I had a vision of Macbeth’s world and some of the cast in mind. It was the same with my company’s previous shows, Dracula and The Odyssey.  The choreographic language of Macbeth is very specific and detailed, and I felt I had the right dancers at the right time in their careers to pursue this vocabulary.  I do feel there’s a time when you are ready to do a production, and you can’t really contrive that.
Q. Your production puts Lady Macbeth centre-stage with Macbeth himself. Please say more…
MARK BRUCE: The Macbeths are mere playthings of the evil they set free, and in the madness and emptiness that ensues they become but walking shadows, or – as in my adaptation – simply clowns of sound and fury.
Q. Are you influenced by other artists?
MARK BRUCE: Influences always begin subconsciously and often it’s only in retrospect that I identify them. I also don’t expect to completely understand why an influence has imposed itself. I do think I’ve been affected by the films of David Cronenberg for this production: their pace, his economic shot selection and the film Eastern Promises especially. The brooding atmosphere, the colour, the darkness seem to marry with the world and characters I saw Macbeth taking place in. Compared to a production like The Odyssey, in which there was a myriad of influences, Macbeth is far more lean. It’s written for the stage. My approach has been quite simple so I can really explore the text, and get deeply into the characters and the world in which it is set. 
Q. How do you choose your dancers for Mark Bruce Company productions?
MARK BRUCE: Sometimes I’ll have particular dancers in mind for a production and this will have a bearing on whether I pursue it or not – whether it’s an established narrative or something I’ve written myself. With Macbeth I had a combination of dancers I already knew and some new ones. I held an audition for which we had over six hundred and fifty applicants. From this I took three dancers. They needed to be strong dramatically and in contemporary and classical technique.
Q. Your music choice for Macbeth is classical and doesn’t involve any of your own compositions, unlike many of your other productions.
MARK BRUCE:   The music of Arvo Pärt was a fundamental decision in realising a through-line for Macbeth. I was instantly drawn to how it captures something deep inside us. It can be sparse and refined, and for me Macbeth is a refined play. Like Arvo Pärt’s music, there’s so much going on with every line, every suggestion, and this enables our imagination to transcend to the state of what’s inside the protagonists, what they are missing, and the state of their souls. I felt the combination of the subject matter and this music created something beautiful and tragic. These two elements were the basis of my interpretation of Macbeth.
Q. What are the pleasures (and any perils!) of working for and with Mark Bruce?
ELEANOR DUVAL: This process has been a pleasurable one. We started with some R&D a year ago with a few dancers in the studio, where Mark tried some ideas out and started working on the relationship between the Macbeths. He’s taken his time to create these characters, which has also given us time to inhabit them. Everything has been very detailed, and the ‘conversations’ between Jon and myself are crucial to the plot. The new studio the company has in Frome is a game-changer. There all the creative team have been around, and we’ve had the set up in the studio from day one of rehearsals, so a real sense of atmosphere and excitement has been apparent from the beginning. I guess the only peril working for Mark is that I seem to have very disturbing dreams!
JONATHAN GODDARD: This is my third production with Mark, and I enjoy trying to bring the visions he has into the world. It’s always interesting to see how a director imagines a character, and I relish the darkness of the roles – thankfully quite different to my own temperament and life.
Q. What sorts of things have you discovered during the creation period about the character you play?
ELEANOR DUVAL: Lady Macbeth is extremely manipulative and will do anything to gain power. I feel during the creation time I put a lot of work into how I could make this clear to an audience. The result has been an editing process where ‘less is more.’ The calmer she remains the stronger she comes across. The detail in every look is crucial. Mark spent a long time with Jonathan and me on our physical and mental reactions to the various situations we find ourselves in during the piece. One thing that surprised me was the vulnerability in my character. Obviously I know the play, and the ‘washing of the hands’ scene is well-known. Her insanity, however, builds throughout this production. Lady Macbeth remains strong for her husband until her stubbornness, pride and denial finally cracks, and everything spirals out of her control.
JONATHAN GODDARD: It’s been interesting to give myself over to a character that seems to aspire to total freedom, but who also has to negotiate and bear the extreme repercussions and effects of his actions and fate.  I love that Shakespeare makes everything happen right away, right that minute. If Macbeth decides to murder someone he’ll do it straight away; if things go wrong, they spiral fast. It makes the journey a thrilling one, and demands real on-the-spot commitment to some quite extreme moments.
Q: What have you discovered about yourself as an artist and a person?
ELEANOR DUVAL: Worryingly, I’ve discovered that I enjoy being an incredibly awful person! It’s been a real treat to dip into something this evil. I’ve also found the detail and precision of the choreography an enjoyable challenge. We’ve worked closely from the script in creating a choreographic language. Every nuance and accent is specific. Of all the productions I’ve danced in for Mark this has been a very different approach, and therefore I’ve learnt new skills at the right time in my career.
JONATHAN GODDARD: That I’m still enjoying dancing in my late thirties. It takes longer and longer to warm up, but I’m still curious and my body is just about doing what I want it to.
Q. If this version of Macbeth were to be experienced with all the senses, how might it smell, feel and taste?
ELEANOR DUVAL: This production would definitely taste metallic and smell of flesh. However there are sweet tastes along the way as I feel Mark has created a lot of beauty within the harshness.
JONATHAN GODDARD: I think it would taste metallic, and feel as if someone has just left you alone in a car park at night!
Q. What will it sound and look like?
ELEANOR DUVAL: Truly beautiful. 
JONATHAN GODDARD: It sounds very beautiful. Mark has worked with a lot of Arvo Pärt for this production. I think this music captures Macbeth’s sort of transcendent state and the constant presence of the supernatural in his world.  
Q. In a nutshell, why does this Macbeth need to be seen and experienced?
ELEANOR DUVAL: It’s a unique production that touches all the senses. Audiences will ultimately find it cathartic. Mark has created a world which we have all delved into, from the dancers to the creative team – lights, costumes and set. The audience will have a chance to be drawn into this world and experience Shakespeare’s savage tragedy in all its beauty.
JONATHAN GODDARD: I think Macbeth always feels very modern and current to audiences. It definitely speaks to now and the perils of power unchecked. It’s a brilliant introduction to dance-theatre if you haven’t seen any before and, hopefully, a dark pleasure if you have.
Company and tour info: http://www.markbrucecompany.com/

Win Guide to January

Happy New Year, Wintonians. The christmas festivities may be over but we’re very excited about 2018 in Winchester. Here’s our guide to some invigorating arts and culture in the city this January.

To start the year off with some live music, take a look at the Railway Inn’s programme.  Events include Riteoff (12 Jan), Who Killed Nancy Johnson? (13 Jan), Lucy Bernandez and Friends (19 Jan), Blackstone Jones (20 Jan) and the Department electro party (26 Jan).  For full details or to book tickets, visit the website here.

From the Jam will be taking the Guildhall by storm (26 January) whisking you back to the early 80s.  The band is comprised of legendary former ‘The Jam’ bassist Bruce Foxton, vocalist & guitarist Russell Hastings, drummer Mike Randon, and Andy Fairclough on Hammond and piano.  Tickets (14+) are available here.

For a different aesthetic, Index Cantorum will return with an immersive musical performance at Winchester Cathedral 20 Jan, 12pm & 1pm.  Experience the music in a promenade or sit in the nave whilst the singers encircle the audience. The event is free with a retiring collection.  For details, visit the cathedral website here.

Tom Kempinski’s ‘Duet for One’ is a thought provoking piece at the Chesil Theatre (20-27 Jan). The play which premiered starring Frances De la Tour in the 1980s is inspired by the story of Jacqueline du Pre and her conductor husband, Daniel Barenboim.  A virtuoso violinist, Stephanie has lived for music since the age of four. She and her composer husband appear a golden couple until she is struck down with multiple sclerosis. Can she adjust to a different life? The story is told through successive interviews with a psychiatrist whose quiet probing unveils the true picture. For ticket details, visit the website here.

The Theatre Royal will be hosting the World Premiere of Mark Bruce’s dance theatre adaptation of Macbeth 31 January. That’s right, you can see it here first.  Goaded by the whispers of demons, the Macbeths unleash murder for their own gains and set in motion their path to madness and self-destruction, unravelling events in a nightmare they cannot control. To book tickets, visit the theatre website here.


Macbeth Trailer from Mark Bruce Company on Vimeo.

We’ll be bringing you more highlights throughout the month on Twitter @Win_Guide.  Have a great start to 2018, one and all.

Ballet Black is Back

Our editor Donald Hutera delves into the workings of Ballet Black, returning to Winchester for the second year in a row

A Dream Within a Midsummer Night's Dream" by Arthur Pita Photography: Bill Cooper
A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Arthur Pita
Photography: Bill Cooper

Ask Cassa Pancho, the artistic director of Ballet Black, what her dreams and plans for the company are and she answers, ‘To keep going.’ It might sound simple, maybe even glib, but behind the succinct reply is a vast amount of sheer hard graft.

Pancho, who is of Trinidadian and British parentage, studied classical ballet at the Royal Academy. Upon graduating, and having noted a dearth of people of colour either studying or working professionally in the ballet sphere, she decided to address this alarming omission by starting a company of her own. The result was Ballet Black, founded in 2001 with a mission to ‘provide dancers and students of black and Asian descent with inspiring opportunities in classical ballet.’

Since then the company has gradually attained a high-profile, earning acclaim, awards (including gongs from the dance section of Critics’ Circle for its outstanding repertory and as best independent company) and an avid fan-base. Among the chief reasons for its ascent is the calibre of dancing coupled with Pancho’s astute and truly impressive choice of choreographic commissions. The latter roster includes Irek Mukhamedov, Richard Alston, Shobana Jeyasingh, Liam Scarlett, Bawren Tavaziva, Henri Oguike, Christopher Hampson, Will Tuckett, Antonia Franceschi, Javier De Frutos, Mark Bruce and Jonathan Goddard. ‘When I began the company I was always the one inviting people to make ballets,’ Pancho explains, ‘but now we get a lot more asking us if they can create something.’

Here at The Winchester Guide we’re partial to Ballet Black, having worked with the company in the summer of 2009 on the production POP8 at the Giant Olive Theatre. It seems that audiences in Winchester may be likewise favourably inclined, given that the company’s upcoming performances at the Theatre Royal Nov 28 (triple bill, 7.30pm) and 29 (family show Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, 2pm and 4.30pm) constitutes its second visit to the venue. With any luck, this might well develop into an annual occurrence.

Pancho, not unnaturally, enjoys sharing information what the work the company is doing. As do the choreographers she invites to create on her dancers. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call it a mutual admiration society.

Consider Martin Lawrance, a long-time associate (as both dancer and dance-maker) of Richard Alston’s company. The curtain-raising Limbo is the third time that he’s made work for Ballet Black, following the 2009 duet Pendulum and the quartet Captured three years later. Pancho deems his new work, a trio about being caught between life and death, ‘fiendishly difficult and exhausting to dance – but worth it!’

Lawrance, for his part, has a high regard for Ballet Black’s dancers. ‘They can do everything,’ he enthuses. ‘How can I get them to do things better, by which I mean push them in a different way?’ The result, set to Hindemeth’s fastidiously dramatic Viola Sonata, is a dark, dynamic piece that fulfils Lawrance’s creative brief to mine human feeling out of motion. ‘You make movement,’ he says, explaining his approach to choreography. ‘I don’t go into the studio with a dramatic idea. I just see where the phrases lead, but as it turns out that can be done poetically.’

Sharing the first half of Friday’s evening bill with Lawrance’s Limbo is Two of a Kind by dancer (including with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures) turned chorographer Christopher Marney. Pancho describes it as ‘a beautiful quartet set to Ravel and Tchaikovsky, exploring the theme of one woman’s internal journey through the course of a changing relationship.’ This work has been expanded from its original state as an eight-minute pas de deux fashioned for a Ballet Black fundraiser in 2009.

Dogs Don't Do Ballet
Dogs Don’t Do Ballet

Two of a Kind is the second dance Marney’s made for the company, after having scored a hit with War Letters last year. But it doesn’t stop there. Marney is also responsible for Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, based on Anna Kemp’s best-selling children’s book about, in Pancho’s words, ‘a little dog who thinks he’s a ballerina and doesn’t want to do anything but dance. The company really enjoys working with Chris as his choreography is incredibly inventive, funny and touching – all the things that make the book so special.’ Pancho is pleased because, as she says, ‘I’ve always wanted to have a ballet for families to enjoy together.’

Another important aspect of Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, she adds, is that it marks the first time Ballet Black is using a set. Is it any wonder that Marney’s scheduled to make another work for the company in 2016?

A Dream Within a Midsummer Night's Dream" by Arthur Pita Photography: Bill Cooper
A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Arthur Pita
Photography: Bill Cooper

That only leaves Arthur Pita’s Olivier and Critics’ Circle-nominated ensemble piece A Dream Within A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be discussed. ‘I’d wanted to work with Arthur for a while,’ Pancho confesses, ‘and when he suggested  a Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s turned on its head I jumped at the chance. We have an incredible catalogue of ballets, but for our fourth narrative work I wanted to try something less traditional and really give the dancers a challenge. Arthur’s created a pure gem of a ballet for us, traditional in one sense – it’s our first time with tutus! – but just as you think you’re going to see something very classical he pulls the rug out from under you. The music includes Eartha Kitt, Handel, Jeff Buckley, Yma Sumac and Barbara Streisand, to name a few. Arthur has a true gift for weaving these things together to make one of my all-time favourite BB ballets. It feels like a real piece of theatre. We’ve toured it around the UK and Italy, and audiences are loving it.’

You could hardly ask for a more heart-felt and articulate endorsement than that. Still, it’s worth finding out what it meant to Pita himself to create the piece. For starters, he really appreciates that with this 25-minute work for eight dancers he was able to take a risk. ‘The first section of the piece is a ballet with tutus, tights, pointe shoes and the works – something I’d never done. I’m totally fascinated by the laws of the tutu and how they marry to a balletic vocabulary. It was wonderful collaborating with designer Jean-Marc Puissant who has such vast knowledge about tutus. I learned so much about the atheistic of ballet generally, and the dancers were so encouraging. I’d also just come out of doing a darker piece prior to working with Ballet Black, and so I felt the need to do something lighter and have some fun with the dancers.’

Pita says his goal was ‘to create a ballet in which rules can be broken and mended within the laws of classical ballet and theatre.’ But his intentions towards his source material remained honourable. ‘I’ve always loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played the Indian boy way back in the English National Opera’s production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, and I remember thinking how well the narrative lent itself to dance and music. Shakespeare provides much mischief and glorious images to play with, yet there’s an honesty in all of the characters’ desire. It’s not faithful, but it’s certainly inspired by the world of Shakespeare’s Dream. It’s an adaptation of the idea, hence the title. The images of the narrative are there, but the journey to them is different.’

Asked to pinpoint what the pleasure of working with Ballet Black is, Pita replies, ‘It’s the passion they have for their work. They work in a tiny space in Marylebone, and I mean tiny, and only have a big studio once a week at the Royal Opera House. Somehow, with love and compassion, they manage with no complaints. There’s a joyous atmosphere in the studio. And Cassa gives herself fully. She cares so much about the company and what it stands for. She’s kept the company going with only a little support from Arts Council England, but has gone from strength to strength.’

Based at Marylebone Dance Studio in London, Ballet Black occupies a unique place on the British dance scene and Pancho is rightly proud of it. ‘We’ve achieved many things over the years. Our main goal was and is to inspire more children and dancers of black or Asian heritage to take up ballet in some form.’ To that end, she says, ‘We have a thriving school for children that’s packed with students of all colours; they come to the performances, take classes, and pass ballet exams. Another goal was going from being a part-time group to a full-time professional company over fourteen years. We’ve won two Critics’ Circle awards (plus three nominations) and have toured extensively throughout the UK, Italy and Bermuda. Our entirely original repertoire of over 30 ballets by over 25 choreographers is also quite rare.’ While Pancho admits that ‘a lack of substantial, regular money makes it challenging to plan too far ahead,’ she remains determined and optimistic about the company’s future. ‘I don’t like to think that anything can hold us back.’