Russell Maliphant moves dance out of the shadows into the light
PUBLISHED: 12:48 21 October 2013 | UPDATED: 12:48 21 October 2013
Dancer and choreographer Russell Maliphant admits that he is consumed by an ongoing quest. It is to realise onstage what he sees in his mind's eye.
His work returns to familiar themes – particularly the relationship between bodies in motion and the way that they interact with light. It’s a fascination which has fuelled more than ten years of work.
Next weekend Russell is bringing his latest work, titled appropriately enough, Still Current, to the Jerwood DanceHouse which offers Suffolk audiences an opportunity to see this leading dance producer in a gloriously intimate space.
Normally you can only get to see Russell’s work in vast 3,000-seat theatres like Sadler’s Wells – which rejoice in the spectacle of performance but up close in the 200-seat Jerwood dance studio on Ipswich Waterfront, you can feast on the small details and feel that you are virtually onstage with the dancers.
Still Current is an evening of new solo works and duets alongside new performances of Afterlife (Part One), winner of the Critics Circle National Dance Award for best choreography and Two, a solo performed in a yellow box of light, originally performed by Sylvie Guillem.
The evening has been designed to bring together Russell’s on-going artistic concerns which he says are developed over several pieces over several years.
“I knew that we would have several earlier works in the programme including Two which was made way back in ‘98, and Afterlife (Part One) from 2010. I was keen to include Afterlife because that was the first piece we used animation as a lighting source. Also Two was important because it was the first piece to have a very special interaction with the light.
“So with this new work I wanted to go deeper into those smaller pieces where you can get closer to the performers and the light plays a bigger part.”
The lighting in Russell’s work, created by long-standing collaborator and lighting designer Michael Hulls, mirrors the classic portraiture and figure study lighting favoured by such iconic photographers as George Hurrell, Bill Brandt and Horst P Horst rather than traditional show lighting.
The lighting, filtered through gobos and other devices, creates an almost monochrome world, rich in shadows, where bodies in perpetual motion come into the light and then vanish again almost as quickly. One of the joys of Russell’s work is that much of his work is seen in atmospheric half-light where the audience’s imagination becomes part of the conversation. While an audience watches this visual poetry, they are automatically filling in the details which they can’t see or are merely glimpsed in a half-light.
The constant movement of the dancers and the subtly changing lighting creates a world which is both beguiling and beautiful. “I like the fact that the body can disappear into darkness and the light can sculpt the figure, using top light or backlight or a sidelight. The darkness is as important as the light. I like to work in that area which exists between light and dark.”
In Still Current he plays with dappled light and uses highly directional light to create images reminiscent of art photography or classical sculpture – a logical development of last year’s performance piece The Rodin Project.
“There is an element of monochrome in my work. There is a little colour, not that you would really see it, it’s very subtle, it’s just there to give a little warmth, give a different tinge to the skin.
“I suppose I am more concerned with texture rather than colour. In Afterlife there is texture as does Still Current, the new duet, that has texture in it.”
He said that his work was inspired as much by paintings and sculpture as it was by dance. “Also I have been working with Michael (Hulls) for 20 years now, so we have had the opportunity to go quite deeply into the look of the work. I suppose I have grown up making work that has that poetic element to it – for want of a better word.”
Other choreographers like DanceEast associate artist Wayne McGregor have a similar fascination with the body but his approach is quite different. His work concentrates on the body as a machine. He collaborates closely with scientists and researchers examining why the body works as it does or just as importantly why sometimes it doesn’t work and what the human body is capable of.
While Russell acknowledges that this is a legitimate area for study, it is not something he is interested in.
“I’m not really interested in the notion of the body as a machine. We’re human and we’re organic. We’re much more sculptural than mechanical and there is a poetry in movement – especially in the way that two bodies interact and move in relation to one another.
“I find that this is what inspires me. I want to work with those elements.”
Russell said that he is also keen to strike up partnerships with other creative personalities who are working at the top of their field. For Still Current these include musician Armand Amar, responsible for film soundtracks to The Concert and London River, costume designer Stevie Stewart who has worked with dance companies Rambert and Michael Clark as well as providing tour costumes for Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears and animator Jan Urbanowski who provided the opening titles for Danny Boyle’s film Trance.
“I generally prefer working with people over a period of time, on longer collaborations, because it allows you to go deeper. What you may have only just scratched the surface on with your first performance, you can go deeper on the second collaboration and then deeper still on the third, fourth and fifth pieces. I try and go that way if I can because it is more rewarding.”
He said that working with the same people and looking at similar subject matter didn’t mean that he was repeating himself.
“You might use a different vocabulary, a different soundscape, you may have a completely different look but the explorations into people, into movement and light benefit from repeated visits. The questions we need to answer don’t change and they are complex and you need to go deeper and deeper to get those answers.”
He said his work comes together both in his head and in the rehearsal studio. The look of the piece is determined by the needs of the choreography and establishing a setting or atmosphere. Another long-time collaborator, composer Andy Cowton, is responsible for fashioning a soundscape that helps to shape the mood of the work.
“The creative use of light is a constant. During the rehearsal process I am looking at qualities of light, looking at graphic shapes and working out what looks good in that.
“Once we have worked out what we’re doing with the light, we can dispense with it and start putting a movement vocabulary together and then start making phrases. Then we run it through with the light again and if there are areas that look a bit dull, literally, then we see if there is a way we can energise them through movement, light or sound.
“These are the three elements we are playing with and they contribute to the whole of the finished piece. I find if you are making a piece in a studio without the light and then when you come to stage it, you light it then, then it is different. Light is not part of the performance it merely illuminates it.”
Russell trained at The Royal Ballet School, graduating into Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet before leaving to pursue a career in independent dance.
He quickly became identified as one to watch as he danced with DV8, Michael Clark, Rosemary Butcher and Laurie Booth – which earned him a Time Out Live award for “raising improvisational dance to new heights”.
In the early 1990s he spent four years studying anatomy, physiology and biomechanics which he combined with classical ballet, improvisation, yoga, capoeira martial arts and tai chi to create his own distinctive choreographic signature.
It was at this time that he first met lighting designer Michael Hulls and between them set about creating a language where movement and light are not only intimately connected but speak as one.
He formed the Russell Maliphant Company in 1996 and has also worked with renowned companies and artists including Robert Lepage, Isaac Julian, Balletboyz and Lyon Opera Ballet.
However, the artist that Maliphant is most closely associated with is legendary dancer Sylvie Guillem. They first worked together in 2003 when he created Broken Fall as a joint project her and Balletboyz which premiered at the Royal Opera House and received an Olivier award for best new dance production.
Broken Fall was restaged in 2004 as part of the programme Rise and Fall, containing three of Maliphant’s works, and toured for two years. Keen to maintain the creative partnership, in 2005 Guillem invited Maliphant to create an evening of work for them both, culminating in the duet PUSH. This premiered at Sadler’s Wells and received a South Bank Show award and an Olivier award in 2006.
This was followed by two artistically diverse collaborations: Cast No Shadow with visual artist Isaac Julien, and Eonnagata which was created and performed with theatre director Robert Lepage and Sylvie Guillem.
In 2009 Maliphant created part one of Afterlight for In the Spirit of Diaghilev, Sadler’s Wells’ celebration of Les Ballets Russes. Parts two and three of Afterlight followed and toured as a full evening together with part one. The Rodin Project opened in Paris at the end of January 2012 and was also turned into a film entitled Erebus.
Still Current followed swiftly afterwards co-commissioned by DanceEast.
He said that he is delighted to be working in a smaller space because it brings a different dynamic to the performance. “There’s an intimacy that I enjoy. It’s different if you have an orchestra pit separating you from the audience. But, I enjoy the variety. I have done both and enjoy both. I think the work in this programme is very flexible so it can be done in a small studio or it can fill a larger space.
“Sometimes if you have projections from above, the audience need to see the light on the floor. In a studio you can do that. It’s not so easy in a proscenium arch theatre.”
Still Current is at the Jerwood DanceHouse on October 25 and 26.