TALK: Choreographer Alexander Whitley in Conversation with Ismene Brown


The internationally acclaimed choreographer Alexander Whitley was interviewed by the doyenne of ballet criticism, Ismene Brown in advance of the performance of his ballet this weekend at the barn at Messums Wiltshire in Tisbury.  Brown, who was the Daily Telegraph’s dance critic for 15 years, began her incisive line of questioning by asking what it was like for Whitley to see his ballet in a 13th century wooden barn.  She was met by equally penetrating responses from Whitley in what made for a riveting and illuminating evening…

‘To bring such a unique work to such an historic venue makes the work very different from how it exists in the clinical theatre space ‘said Whitley.’ ‘Every theatre reveals something slightly different about the piece itself.’.

Each of the pieces in Whitley’s triple bill are all very different in character and performed to starkly contrasting music ranging  from the electronic minimalism  of Ryan Lee West to John Woolrich’s piece based on a Montiverdi opera.

‘The pieces are very intimately related to the music but as well as the melodies it is the libretto that formed the basis of the dance pieces’ explained Whitley.

The first piece, Noumena, was commissioned by the Royal Opera House   in response to Frederick Ashton’s ballet Sylvia.

‘Noumena means a thing that is in itself; the inner essence of a thing unreachable by the senses. We were working with the words to develop the choreography; not just the music’ said Whitley. ‘Ulysses Awakes’ is about Ulysses being washed up on a shore of Ithaca after an epic battle with the Phoenicians. He is suffering from inner turmoil and regret at what he’s experiencing after a long journey.’

In creating his work Whitley said he had been much inspired by the psychiatrist Carl Jung who had written much about how folkloric tales relate to the human unconscious.

‘It’s really interesting  to work more abstractly with something narrative,’ said Whitley. ‘Ballet has always tended to deal with narrative very literally but I am more interested in the ability of movement to express something deeper; an essence of our ability to communicate that pre-dated  language.’

Brown asked why contemporary dance has become so densely intellectual; ‘ballet is all about steps and contemporary dance seems all about Significance’ she said.

Whitley replied;  ‘I am more interested in the exploration of movement rather than dance steps. In Sleeping Beauty, the story telling element is around 5%; I have always held that the narrative in classical ballet is a frame to hang a formal demonstration of technical authority. Nutcrackers and Romeo and Juliets work in a way new narrative ballets struggle to do’.

Brown pointed out that contemporary dance  has ‘many languages. ‘

‘In becoming a choreographer I had to unlearn a lot of what I had learned’ said Whitley, who trained at the Royal Ballet School. ‘I had been so rigorous and codified in my dance that  to break patterns so deeply ingrained  in my body was hard; to think about moving in a very different way.’

Whitley said he had learned much from a generation of choreographers a few years older than him. ‘Michael Clarke was a big influence in his deviousness and subversion of classical ballet, William Forsyth was the most powerful person in liberating classical ballet and learning how to apply formal techniques into different ways of performing.’

Setting the scene in Whitley’s ballet are some hoops of light that oscillate between the performers, accentuating their moves.

‘I’m interested in the relationship between the body and objects,’ said Whitley, ‘sets create atmospheres that generate specific moods. We can utter a word and immediately know what its meaning is whereas a movement is more ambiguous. The tantalising thing is that you can’t pin it down; its always moving.’

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Rehearsals were underway here today. The video below is a sneak preview of ‘Ulysses Awakes’ ahead of the performances Friday 27 and Saturday 28 July.

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