November 2000

From Start to Finish
Tom Armstrong


When the spnm selected choreographer Susie Crow and myself to produce a work for the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain, it didnÕt take us long to determine the type of piece we wanted to make; an abstract ballet set to an unbroken span of music, and with the dancersÕ personalities at its heart. I decided to swap note-rows for melodies whilst delving into the rhythms of salsa and techno, meanwhile Susie investigated the Fibonacci sequence (which helped give the work its title, and permeates the music and the choreography in various ways), club culture and Le Corbusier! We wanted to ÔsubvertÕ the ballet genre by using a continuous span of music (no gaps for applause), and a choreography which, rather than following a narrative, allows the audience to take in the beauty of the balletic shapes.

The result was FIBBA, a piece in four continuous sections beginning with a sombre sax theme, moving into an unashamedly tuneful waltz, then a fully-fledged salsa number and finishing with a techno finale. Why techno? The previous NYB programme featured a Riverdance number with a kind of "celtic rock" soundtrack. I felt that the dancers exuded far more energy and personality dancing to this than to traditional ballet music, and techno could achieve the same energy from them this time around. Also, we wanted to involve the dancers in the creative process, and we felt that a musical world familiar to them would assist this.

Susie and I collaborated on the project throughout, discussing each otherÕs ideas and working together in the studio. This shared process was immensely rewarding; SusieÕs choreographic thoughts led me in unforseen directions, and both the form and content of FIBBA owe as much to her input as mine. As rehearsal pianist for the work, I was able to keep track of how the piece was taking shape and get to know the dancers. I really feel that as a result of the way weÕve worked on FIBBA, the music is only part of a total work about movement, sound, colour and light.

But what would the dancers themselves think? I decided to interview them at the NYBÕs week-long summer school in Sevenoaks, during which FIBBA was to be rehearsed. I wanted to find out what these dancers, most of whom are used to traditional ballet scores, would think about the music. Many picked on surface stylistic novelties. Charlotte (13) was typical in her view: "ItÕs going to be... a bit different and itÕs going to stand out". For Drew (14) the differences lay in the abstract nature of the music: "ItÕs made for a different purpose... itÕs a lot to do with patterns and rhythms and the way that weÕre choreographed to dance."

From the outset Susie wanted the choreography to draw on as many sources as possible to inflect the classical ballet vocabulary underpinning it. Her working method was new to most of the cast, as it involved setting creative tasks rather than being dictating a pre-conceived choreography. For many of the dancers, such as Lizzy (15), devising choreography themselves created a sense of ownership: "ItÕs interesting because you can express how you dance more Ð you can make it your own in someone elseÕs piece". Fiona (14) on the other hand preferred the sense of disguise offered by a character: "IÕm used to playing a part, not being myself, so I find it really weird when IÕve got my ideas that I put into a dance and IÕm actually doing it!"

Had the dancersÕ feelings towards the piece changed during the first weekÕs rehearsal? For Justin (16), they had: "At first I didnÕt quite understand the purpose. I wasnÕt getting much involved in it at first. I found it really difficult, like the different speeds and stuff; I just found it a bit weird ... But over the week weÕve done so much of our own creativity, everythingÕs been to do with us as well as with each other. ItÕs been nice working with these people because you know the people; you can tell a lot from people by how they dance and how they think in relation to each other. IÕve really enjoyed it."

Tom Armstrong

FIBBA will be performed by the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain in a gala concert at SadlerÕs Wells on 5 November.

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Previous articles:

July 2000
Joanna MacGregor

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
the ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor.

July/August 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano.

June 1999
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50.

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!

December 1998
Forty years of madness?

November 1998
To plug in or not to plug in?

October 1998
No, honestly it is a cello

September 1998
Composing for film

July/August 1998
New music on old instruments

June 1998
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester