The company of dancers varied, but tended to consist of experienced performers, most of whom had been in the big companies, Rambert, London Contemporary Dance Theatre etc.: Lucy Burge, Sally Owen, Juliet Fisher, Philippe Giradeau, Betsy Gregory, Michael Popper, Michele Smith, Stephen Goff…..who brought a wonderful mixture of intelligence, experience and technical skill to the work.
The method of working was a revelation to me. Ian, inspired by Pina Bausch, treated the dancers as people rather than bodies – now the norm (hooray), but at that time unusual. The rehearsal period started with an exploration of the central idea, with the dancers, provoked by Ian and Anthony, inventing material. The choreography evolved gradually. Ian was a reluctant choreographer. He was most interested in the nuances of everyday movement.
This implied something more complex than the usual simple contract between composer and choreographer – composer writes music, choreographer, inspired by music, choreographs dance, while perhaps torturing the composer along the way by asking for cuts and extensions – a contract which, of course, had worked extremely well for Nijinsky and Stravinsky for example, but wouldn’t cut the mustard here. What was needed was a more collaborative, two-way process. I would come to rehearsals, watch and discuss what was going on, make a demo of a section, come back in and try it out…. Some sections required explicitly dancey music, some underscore, like a film, some vocal music, some nothing at all. What we were forfeiting in this process was a big stand-alone well-structured piece of music that might find its way into the concert hall (e.g. The Rite of Spring). What we were aiming at was an event with an interesting heterogeneous texture, in which dance, dialogue, singing and naturalistic movement would combine into a piece of complex theatre.
There is a danger of a devised piece of this kind being episodic, a series of loosely related sections to be glued together late in the process – Woman’s Hour structure. Ideally you have an eye on the complete event at all times. Which is essentially what you’re doing when you’re composing a piece of music at home – working on material and form simultaneously – not so easy to do when you’re in a rehearsal room full of people.
I loved this process though – the reacting to the central idea, the discussions, the rehearsing, the sheer sociability of it all. It was gloriously different from the garret composition process. Frustrating at times, of course. But not constricting. An opportunity to find out what other people were thinking, and to be introduced to ideas which would never have occurred to me. It led me to many new discoveries – Oliver Sachs, Stravinsky, Chekov, klezmer music….
Choreographed by Ian Spink
Designed by Antony McDonald
Dancers: Juliet Fisher, Lucy Burge, Sally Owen, Michele Smith, Betsy Gregory, Philippe Giradeau.
Band: Andy Blake (saxophones), Caroline Verney (cello), Catherine Edwards (piano), Elise Lorraine (voice).
Second Stride’s New Tactics was based on Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, an account of patients suffering from a 1920s epidemic of sleeping sickness, and his attempts to help them in the 1960s (yes, really, 40 years later) using the new drug L-Dopa. (Curiously enough, Harold Pinter was at the same time writing the play A Kind of Alaska inspired by Sachs’ book. Later it was made into a film Awakenings with Robert de Niro and Robin Williams.)
A stage full of pillows. An scene of extreme alienation and isolation, almost zombie-like, was gradually transformed into one of fragile, febrile, interaction – an essentially optimistic story. The most memorable sequence was based on the physical tics which were one of the side effects of the drug. The implicit reference to The Sleeping Beauty re-emerged more explicitly in Escape At Sea.
FURTHER AND FURTHER INTO NIGHT
Further and Further into Night was based on the Alfred Hitchcock film Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergmann. Ian’s approach was to look at scenes in the film, particularly ones with interesting physical movement, and subject them to filmic editing processes: slow motion, repeat, reverse, jump cut. (The idea of taking a technological process and applying it to live performance was reminiscent of Steve Reich’s early live work – Piano Phase, Drumming.) Some elements of dialogue and narrative survived, and some of the mysterious atmosphere of the original; but the piece was more about the analysis and exposure of social gesture. In the original, for example, there is a scene in which a posse of crooks come into a room to meet a nervous Bergman, who is terrified of being exposed. In our version, this happened over and over again, in a loop. The posse enters, approaches the single seated woman, there is a silent stand-off, she shifts position nervously, the posse backs out in perfect reversal of their entry, and prepares to come again. Weird, scary, beautiful. (This perfect reversal technique was brilliantly deployed by Hofesh Schechter in his The Art of Not Looking Back.) At the first performance of Further and Further Into Night there was no explicit choreography at all. All the movement was elaboration of physical gesture. The dance critics were unhappy, and said so. Whether in response or not (probably not) Ian made extra choreography for later performances – a pity, I think.
The dancers: Lucy Burge, Philippe Giradeau, Michele Smith, Cathy Burge, Ikky Maas, Lenny Westerdijk, Maedee Dupres, Sally Owen, Juliet Fisher, Michael Popper
The band: Andy Blake (saxophones), Elise Lorraine (piano, vocals), Simon Limbrick (vibraphone), John Lunn (double bass)
Directed by Ian Spink
Designed by Antony McDonald
Listen to a live performance.
Bosendorfer Waltzes (soundcloud)
The starting point for Second Stride’s Bosendorfer Waltzes was the Nijinsky-Stravinsky ballet The Firebird. By some odd transference the main inspiration for the music was Stravinsky’s oratorio Les Noces, with its exclusively percussive orchestra, including four pianos. I discovered that Stravinsky had attempted to make a version of the piece using pianolas. Like a lot of composers in the early 20th century, he was fascinated by the possibilities of the pianola. Long before the American composer Conlon Nancarrow devoted his life to the instrument, Stavinsky, Hindemith and others were making pieces specially for it.
I was very intrigued by the question of how, given that Stravinsky was considering using several pianolas, he was planning to synchronise them. I could visualise some fabulous complex mechanical contraption but couldn’t imagine how it could possibly have worked. For me, working in the early 1980s, there was another possibility. The Cambridge Pianola Company had recently started marketing digital pianolas. They didn’t use rolls, but converted MIDI data into mechanical movement. A curious mixture of cutting-edge technology with an old-school machine. Most of them had been loaded with pop tunes and sold to pubs, but I wondered if it were possible to do something more ambitious. Certainly it should be possible to synchronise several using MIDI.
The company had made a beautiful display model out of Perspex. The idea of putting several of these on the stage and using them to make the music was mouth-watering. But was it going to be possible technically? I discovered that the company had employed Peter Zinovieff to work on technical innovations for their instruments. Interesting. Peter had invented the VCS3 synthesiser (and, intriguingly, if not entirely relevantly, written the wildly complex libretto for Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Mask Of Orpheus). So I arranged to visit him. He lived in a fabulously chaotic house (an old rectory possibly) in a village outside Cambridge. There seemed to be about twenty children under the age of ten wandering about in various states of undress, but it was difficult for them to move around freely because the house was overrun by defunct bits of technology. It was like an Ealing Comedy version of a mad inventor’s house.
Peter was very frisky, hospitable. He invited me to record something into the pianola, but warned me that it was quite unreliable, often confusing adjacent notes, and sometimes failing to record at all. Sure enough, the playback was like a subtly twisted parody of what I’d played. Peter was gung-ho, enjoying the possibilities of the transformation from played material to playback. I was, frankly, miffed, seeing my idea go up in smoke. So how did the company make recordings good enough to use in pubs? Peter was vague. He’d had nothing to do with that process.
I was ready to go, but Peter took me into another shambolic room to show me an invention he was working on. Using a spectrum analyser, he was converting recorded music from a vinyl player into MIDI and hence into the pianola. Again the warning: it was quite unreliable. He put on the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This was utterly surreal. The spectrum analyser couldn’t necessarily tell the difference between the fundamental of a note and its harmonics, so there was a constant racket of high harmonics clattering away at the top of the pianola, and occasionally it was possible to hear the ghost of a familiar tune fighting its way out of the frenetic texture. But, he said, there was one kind of music which seemed to transform perfectly…. He put on a record by Jimmy Shand the Irish bandleader. And, sure enough, there was the music, clear and (more or less) uncorrupted.
The idea of using a piece of imperfect technology to make music was extremely interesting (very Wabi-Sabi), but it wasn’t what I needed at that moment. In fact, I think it would have been possible to make the music by patiently creating a series of MIDI tracks, inputting each note individually. But the people at the pianola company were not very interested, and I was disappointed to discover there was only one display model (not surprisingly) and they weren’t too keen to make any more. I’m ashamed of myself for not being more determined – I gave up the idea, and the piece was played on a grand piano, an upright piano, a knackered pub piano (appropriately enough), and a synthesiser which was hidden in the body of an old grand piano. All the pianos were on wheels, and could gallivant round the stage. This was glorious, but it wasn’t quite as glorious as it might have been.
The idea of using several syncronised pianolas was eventually realised, brilliantly, by Heiner Goebbels in his ‘performative installation’ Stifter’s Dinge.
ESCAPE AT SEA
Choreographed by Ian Spink and Ashley Page
Directed by Ian Spink and Antony McDonald
Designed by Antony McDonald
Dancers: Lauren Potter, Philippe Giradeau, Lynn Seymour, Lucy Burge, Julien Joly, Catherine Malone
Singers: Amanda Dean, Jozic Koc
Escape at Sea is based, partly, on the story of Slava Kurilov, a distinguished oceanographer, who defects from the Soviet Union in 1975 by jumping off a ship.
He plans his escape with enormous care, training himself to swim huge distances in fierce conditions. He books himself on to a cruise liner. The ship leaves from Vladivostock but will not approach foreign shores too closely, for fear of defections. He jumps off when he calculates that the ship is at its closest to land – a small island in the Philippines. After three days in the ocean he realises that he has miscalculated, and that he has been swept past the island by the ocean currents. It is night, pitch dark. He decides to give in, let himself drown. At that moment he hears breakers. Carried by a series of enormous, terrifying waves, he arrives in a large lagoon. As he staggers to the shore his body becomes covered with phosphorescence. He shines in the darkness.
His troubles are not quite over. He is held captive for six months in the Philippines, including a month and a half in prison. Finally he is released, travels to America, and becomes Professor of Oceanography at UCSD.
Our piece starts in Russia. The performers are characters from Chekov’s The Seagull. They jump ship (in slow motion, the jump takes five minutes), go underwater, dream, emerge (in slow motion) in America, and struggle to make a new life.
The extract above takes us through the slow motion jump, the underwater dreams, and the emergence.
LIVES OF THE GREAT POISONERS
Libretto by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Ian Spink
Designed by Antony McDonald
In Second Stride’s Lives Of The Great Poisoners, Caryl Churchill yoked together three stories: Dr. Crippen, who poisoned his wife Cora; Medea, who poisoned her ex-husband Jason’s new wife Creusa, and her own children; and Madame Brinvilliers, who in 17th century Paris poisoned almost everyone she came into contact with.
The stroke of genius was the inclusion in all these stories of the American inventor Thomas Midgley. Midgley had three profound insights in his career. The first was to overcome the problem of ‘knocking’ in cars by adding lead oxide to petrol. The second was to substitute the extremely dangerous chemical ammonia used for cooling fridges by dichlorodiflouromethane, a CFC. Both of these brilliant inventions turned out to be catastrophically poisonous. Midgley floats through the action, a benevolent presence and friend to all. He has a glorious insouciance, impervious to the neuroses and anxieties attacking the other characters. At the end of the piece, he reveals his third great idea: to control the growth of crops by increasing the ozone in the earth’s atmosphere.
My key decision was to dispense with a band. The music was a cappella, sung by four singers: Angela Tunstall, Jackie Horner, Mick O’Connor and Jozic Koc. They were part of mixed ensemble with the dancers Sally Owen, Stephen Goff, Michele Smith and Michael Popper, and the actor Pearce Quigley. This was hard to pull off (and I didn’t by any means entirely succeed). It’s difficult to do narrative with no band, and hybrid scenes between, for example, a singer and a (speaking) actor, or between a singer and a dancer are tricky, to say the least. So the project was always in danger of collapsing under its own curious self-imposed rules. It’s banal but true to say that it would have been easier to tell the stories with nine singers and a band......
But there was something deeply satisfactory about a piece of theatre in which performers of several different disciplines were able to work together with no sense of hierarchy. A long way from the other dance work I was involved in at the time, at the Royal Ballet; often the dancers and the musicians would perform together without ever having met. (I returned to this idea in May Contain Food with the choreographer Luca Sivestrini.)
My favourite lyric from Lives Of The Great Poisoners: Brinvilliers has tried unsuccessfully to seduce Midgley before she and her lover Sainte-Croix kill him. The plan hasn’t worked, Sainte-Croix has run off, and Brinvilliers and Midgley sit exhausted all night.
Midgley: Don’t kill yourself.
Brinvilliers: Don’t leave me.
Midgley: Don’t kill me.
Brinvillers: Don’t betray me.
Perfect concision. My music was equally simple - part-Purcell, part-Elvis.