Several years ago Rambert Dance Company were heading for the dance graveyard. Now they have the future of British contemporary dance in the palm of their hands. Ellie Carr discovers the secrets of their new-found success.
Light streams through the windows, mixing brieﬂy with halogen from the striplights above before it glances off the heavily scuffed studio floor. Young men and women stand in huddles round the edge of the space, chatting and laughing in lowered tones. Wearing baggy T—shirts and well worn jogging pants, they look unremarkable. Suddenly one of the women gives a quick verbal command, the piano tinkles into life, and two of the bodies lounging round the room are across the space into a volley of dance steps, with almost inhuman grace.
This is Rambert Dance Company. the brightest light on the UK dance scene, and we‘re in the company‘s Chiswiek home for their first class of the day. To the ordinary eye this is pretty awesome. To them it‘s just a warm-up. Once the graft is over at 11.30am they move into the rehearsal that stretches through to 6pm and work on the pieces in their current tour schedule. For now though, it‘s heads down and on with the task in hand, which today just happens to be ballet. Ballet three times a week, modern twice a week, but like any contemporary dance company who drill their bodies with a tough ballet regime, it‘s stripped of all its candyﬂoss frills and ﬂounces till all you have left is the powerbase of strength. poise and attack that lies beneath.
Today the company's already substantial ranks of 24 have been swollen with the addition of beefy ex- Bolshoi, now Royal Ballet star lrek Mukhamedov as class guest. Enough to put an extra spring in even a Rambert dancer‘s step. In the comer, notehing up an impressive number of press-ups with his tiny, wiry frame is the man responsible for all of this — Rambert‘s artistic director ChristOpher Bruce.
‘1 like to do class as often as I can,‘ says the man who was a star dancer when the company was still Ballet Rambert and who has easily become one of the greatest dancers-tumed-choreographers of our time. ‘1 like to be able to demonstrate what l‘m asking the company to do, but at my age deterioration sets in rapidly.’ That his jumps are less than meteoric, his legs less than elastic is something we have to take his word for — dancers go out to pasture sooner than most - but limbs aside, Bruce‘s career in dance is still cruising at a rate of knots.
Only a few years ago, with audiences down to half- capacity and performances at a standstill 50 a year, Rambert were on their knees. In a tough shake-up that followed, the then artistic director Richard
Petite Mort: Rambert Dance Company die a little
Alston was ousted and Bruce (along with a substantial cash injection) was drafted in to save the day. Publicly it was the dawning of a new era. Privately no one was sure ifeven the enormous talents and vision of Bruce were enough to save the company from the same fate as Britain‘s other mainstream contemporary company LCDT which had just bitten the dust.
Fortunately for Rambert, Bruce delivered the jackpot. When the new look company premiered in Edinburgh in October 1994 they brought the house down, critics and all. Almost a year on, they‘ve played to 63,000 in the UK and are beating a shining path for British dance across the international scene. Bruce has re-instated classic contemporary rep. found a platform for his own fine work and brought stunning work by leading international choreographers like NDT‘s Jiri Kylian and the young Israeli Ohad Nahan’n to massive audiences.
‘ln many ways artistically we‘ve come further and faster than I ever thought we would,‘ says Bruce. ‘I gave myself two years to get to the position we‘re in now. In a year we‘ve gained this very strong repertoire, and with each piece that comes in it gets stronger and more interesting.‘
That is an understatement - the effects of what
Bruce and the company have achieved will be felt right across the spectrum of British dance. There are those who argue large-scale contemporary went out
; with the glory. glory super dancethlete days of the 70s when Rambert and LCDT were in their prime.
Bruce disagrees: ‘lfthe whole tradition ofthe large- _ scale contemporary rep company had died, we might
still have a very healthy independent scene. but all the mid-scale stuff would die out. When you have
people like Sue (Siobhan) Davies playing forjust one
night, you lose audiences. We hope to play to 60.000 next year, if we weren’t you‘d have such small numbers seeing contemporary dance. and that weakens the whole scene.‘
The other stone that was lobbed at the new Rambert was the ‘populist‘ one. Their stated aim was to bring big audiences back to contemporary dance and to some. that signalled sell-out. ‘There's an almost perverted reasoning going round in non-mainstream
work that if it‘s popular it can‘t be any good.‘
‘In many ways artistically we’ve come further and taster than I ever thought we would. I gave myself two years to get to the position that we’re now in after one.’
responds Bruce. ‘For me theatre has to reach an audience . . . i believe we [Rambert] are doing good
§ work that also reaches an audience and amongst that work we‘re also doing work that will challenge.
We‘re in the business oftheatre. We die ifwe play to 5 empty houses.‘
Bruce has been talking now for halfan hour. His limbs are starting to twitch slightly, his eyes starting
; to wander — he‘s dying to get back to work. By the
time we reach the studio upstairs the dancers are already sketching out the steps for Meeting Point. Bruce‘s latest creation, critically acclaimed at the recent United We Dance Festival in San Francisco. UK audiences will see the piece for the first time in Edinburgh, when it plays alongside Banter Banter a new work from ex-Rambert dancer and rising choreographer Mark Baldwin and a repeat of Jiri Kylian‘s voraciously physical and witty Petite Mort. A second programme pits the wits of innovative new Swedish talent Per Jonsson against Bruce‘s resounding Rooster set to eight Rolling Stones tracks and one of his hallmark dances from 1987, .S‘wansong.
Until then there‘s work to be done, as the mild- rnannered Bruce coaxes Meeting Point into the bodies of a fall-back second cast. Based round the idea of United Nations ofﬁcials round the negotiating table, the piece contains a hundred quirky, nippy little body gestures, combined with virtuoso leggy moves andjurnps, and set to a typically unpredictable Michael Nyman score When the Bee Dances. Tricky stuff.
Bruce and his rehearsal director stand on the sidelines chanting time signatures. The dancers‘ brows knit in concentration as like sponges, they drink up directions till this incredible dance takes shape. ‘Next time,‘ says Bruce, a smile creeping across his face, ‘l‘m going to make a simple ballet.‘
‘ The dancers just look at him.
Rambert Dance Company. Festival Theatre. Edinburgh, Wed 28 June—Sat 1 July, 7.30pm.
50 The List 16-29 Jun 1995