Northern Ballet Associate Artist and Co-Director of Hamlet
Are you excited about working on Hamlet with David Nixon (Artistic Director of Northern Ballet)?
Yes, I am. David has danced the role and I have seen many Hamlets. The first was in Stratford-Upon-Avon with my best friend from school. Her parents had taken us and I was 17 and didn't know the play at all. Michael Redgrave, who was playing Hamlet, was over 50, with a blonde wig and apparently blue eye shadow, but for me he was 18 and a student of philosophy. I fell in love with him and Hamlet at the same time.
David and I talked about the possibility of doing this some time ago but I never really thought it would come about as it is daring to do it. Such expectations!
What are the challenges of writing a scenario from a play that is so well known?
Hamlet is considered to be the greatest play written in the English language, if not the greatest play ever written. We talked about doing the ballet more traditionally but then we found ourselves talking about Fascism and Italy and then it became the German Occupation of France. We needed to work out how we could express the hierarchy and usurpation, as we wouldn't be in a Royal Court. We have watched a number of very informative films and very violent ones too, made at the time, as well as read books and contemporary accounts. All this has gone into the story but all the time reading it alongside the play. It is daunting as we won't have any of the words and the famous soliloquies but we must express these in dance and with emotion. We have a really good creative team as well and we are all committed to the idea.
Why do you think Hamlet will make such a good basis for a ballet?
Hamlet seems to tap into all people and doesn't lose its hold, in any age. Many of us wonder what it would be like if we just ended it, if we weren't there any more. For some reason most people know this speech and can even quote a bit of, “To be or not to be....”. A lot of the poetry in this play seems to stay with audiences or readers. It is a universal experience hence so many continuing productions of it, here and all over the world.
Maybe in each new production we try to get inside the mind of this young man with all before him, destroyed by things outside his experience, a good kind young man who cannot bear the burden of all that happens to him. The play is so full of different emotions and in the ballet we have the chance to show some of his life before it all went so wrong and so quickly. We can see him happy with Ophelia, with his loving parents, with all his life before him. We can be free in this way as we can suggest whatever we want in dance and are not fixed by a script. We can interpret the story and this young man in another way, staying true to Shakespeare and his inspiration and imagination, but tell it another way and at the same time make it perhaps a little more contemporary by relating it to a fairly recent past.
What do you hope is the one thing audiences will take from Northern Ballet’s Hamlet?
I would so love those who have never read or seen any version of the play to be inspired to see it or read it and weep for Hamlet.
You have recently been made an Associate Artist with Northern Ballet, what does that mean to you?
As my contribution alters from ballet to ballet, people don't really know what I actually do! I have been working for such a long time with Northern Ballet so I wanted to cement this professional relationship in a proper title. It is a system used often in the theatre with companies like the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I am proud to have this title.
How do you work with David and the dancers to bring the scenario to life during rehearsals?
We refer to the scenario during rehearsals and try to let the dancers know for each rehearsal which part of it we will be working on, but it can get confusing for them especially if they don't refer to it themselves.
Often the scenario is also following a novel or story such as Peter Pan, and it is not difficult for the dancers to do some homework so they are in tune with this part of the story and the original material.
The scenario changes through the dancers interpretation and the choreography generally releases new thoughts on the story as it is being created.
We also flag up the research we have all been doing and especially David's and mine. So we can remind the dancers where it is coming from and add new bits of historical research as we find it.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream for instance we will constantly remind the dancers of the section in the play and what has just happened, in order to take them to the place we are working on. We also take them back to the original script of a play in sessions with me, before they go into the studio. But a lot comes from the dancers in the studio that allows the scenario to develop further, usually in character definition and not story necessarily.
Are there particular acting exercises you give them to do?
When I first worked with the company we used improvisation more, as we did in the theatre. Now we perhaps spend time on the research and discussion and less improvisation. We use exercises as they become necessary - to open up a scene for the story or the emotional content. And sometimes to help shape a scene from which the choreography develops.
How do Northern Ballet dancers measure up as actors?
They are extraordinarily committed and surprise me constantly as they find their own way into the scenario and the emotional life of their character. Each performance they develop emotionally as they grow into the choreography. Acting is part of the tradition of this Company and I feel they have a wonderful mixture of dance and acting that gives their work its own character. The older dancers pass on the acting expectations to the new younger ones too.
Do you get nervous on the opening night?
No I don't actually, if I know we have made what we wanted to. I believe our job is to take the dancers to the point where the work is theirs and they are confident and creative with it. They are an extraordinary company of dancers and somehow always pull off a confident performance on these occasions.
What’s your favourite Northern Ballet production and why?
I think it must be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is a witty and sophisticated production and follows Shakespeare in an imaginative way. It is unusual as a concept, cleverly using the world of ballet, but setting it back to the immediate post-war period. It revealed a wonderful sense of comedy in David and attention to detail normally seen in a play more than a ballet.
Is there a scenario you would really like to work on with David for Northern Ballet?
I wanted very much to work on Hamlet with him and we are. This is such an honour and I would never have thought I would be in this position of co - writing and co - directing a ballet of Hamlet.
We are interested in Pride and Prejudice and I hope we will do this one day. One idea we have talked about is a murder mystery thriller so that may come up sometime.