Interview: Choreographer Christopher Bruce – 'I try to create a different world, a different language for every individual piece'

Interview: Choreographer Christopher Bruce – 'I try to create a different world, a different language for every individual piece'

Christopher Bruce (centre) in Ghost Dance rehearsals (1981) / credit: Nobby Clark

Choreographed in 1981, Ghost Dances is one of the most popular works Rambert has ever performed – we speak to Christopher Bruce about the work's creation

Inspired by the 1973 Chilean coup, and capturing some of the atmosphere surrounding the Mexican Day of the Dead, Ghost Dances has been captivating audiences for over 30 years. Is it the powerful subject matter, the music, Rambert's performance style or Christopher Bruce's choreography that makes it such a hit? We speak to the man himself to find out his view.

Ghost Dances has always been popular with audiences, to what do you attribute its success?
'If I knew that, I'd make it happen every time! When you make a piece, you use a combination of your instinct, your imagination and your craft, but I have to have a subject or idea that starts me off. A lot of research goes into any piece I make, and I remember thinking about Ghost Dances for about two years before I actually made it.

I hope it's popular because I did my work well– I created an individual style for the piece, then there's the juxtaposition of the actual dances and the way they link, the subject matter – it all just came together, with wonderful lighting and of course that beautiful music.'

Tell us about your inspirations for the piece
'I remember seeing the hanging skeletons they sell on the streets in Mexico during the Day of the Dead festival, which gave me the idea for the ghost dancers in the piece. Also the South American Indian tribes who have dances which celebrate the dead.

And of course meeting Joan Jara and reading her book An Unfinished Song, which she wrote about the Pinochet coup in Chile, and the torture and murder of her husband Victor – a lot of that is the germ of the piece.

But even though I set the piece in the Andes, it's South America generally – it could be Argentina or Brazil – any number of countries that have been subjugated by political oppression. And it's just as relevant today about the situation in the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe - the theme is universal, people being imprisoned and tortured, and many innocent people being caught up in it all.'

The South American folk music used in the piece is an important part of Ghost Dances' appeal. Unusually for this kind of score, it's played live – how did that come about?
'I wanted to create this work, and I remember going to speak to the musical director at the time, Nicholas Mojsiejenko, who was known as Nick Carr then, and he said to me "We can't play this music – why don't you do a piece with a score we can play?" And I said to him well, I really have a very strong idea for this particular piece.

The next thing I knew they'd gone off to Paris, found the instruments and taught themselves how to play it! Nick made an arrangement and Rambert is the only company that regularly plays it live, which really adds so much to the performance.'

It's 35 years since you first created the piece – when you rehearse it with new dancers, do you make any changes?
'I make small adjustments, and I make it fit the dancers who are currently dancing it. Obviously I cast dancers who are right for the individual parts, but then each dancer has their own way of dancing it. As long as the style of the material is right, technically correct and underplayed emotionally, the current dancers can make it work differently to the other casts.'

Ghost Dances, like many of your works, is born out of real life – has it always been important for you to reflect the world you live in?
'I was never just living in the world of the dance company – I had a family when I was young, so I was always being pulled out of it and always had my feet on the ground. And I was a real history scholar – not in terms of exam results, because I was dancing by the time I was 17 – but I've always loved history and literature, reading books and the paper or watching the news on television, so that human element was always in my world.

And I try to take the audience into that world, to bring them with me and be part of it for a while. But I also try not to make speeches or to preach. For me what is important is that I make a well-constructed dance – I've got to get that right, and if I do, and the performance is right, the dance will speak and it will say things.'

Your work has been consistently popular and successful – how do you manage to retain a choreographic style without repeating yourself?
'I think it's important that every choreographer has his or her own signature, but I'm also very careful to avoid a generic language. Yes we all use the same steps, but we must bend them to make them ours. And I've tried not to stay still – to re-make myself, because otherwise I get bored. So I try to create a different world, a different language for every individual piece.

I'm lucky because I now have a body of work, and I'm asked to create work regularly, or existing works are re-staged, so I can afford to experiment and try out ideas – if it works it works.

And it's not just me, it's those wonderful creatures called dancers I work with that help make it possible. The dancers I made Ghost Dances for originally, the choreography wouldn't be as it is if it wasn't for them – they influenced everything.'

Ghost Dances is the kind of piece people go and see more than once – why do you think that is?
'The great thing about dance is the ambiguity. You can interpret it on many different levels, and it can speak to each individual member of the audience and have a difference resonance.

So when people come back and see Ghost Dances again, as I've found they do with these works, they see different things each time. It's nice when there is a depth to a work, so audiences can re-read it.'

Touring nationally until May 2017.

Rambert: Life is a Dream

New show from Olivier Award-winner Kim Brandstrup, featuring lyrical dancing from the world-class dance company alongside a live orchestra score by Witold Lutosławski.

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