A moment with Robert Binet and Rosamund Small in Eye-in-Suffolk to discuss the debut of their new work 'Terra Incognita' on Artery and why they're calling it the first 'open sourced ballet'.
It’s ten o’clock in the morning and choreographer Robert Binet is standing on an idyllic patch of English countryside doing one hundred jumping jacks while waiting for his friend, the playwright Rosamund Small, to join him. A few feet away, five young ballet dancers from the world’s best companies are inside Abbey Hall, warming up.
After just three weeks of stealth rehearsals, and sixteen hour days, all seven are getting ready to do something rare - debut a new full length work of original, site specific ballet. Terra Incognita, penned by Small, is the first production to debut from Binet’s newly formed Wild Space Company - and it may also be the reason that he is not able to sit still this morning, or any morning, these days.
Even for the highly scrutinized world of ballet, the stakes for Binet are real. If your mandate is to "re-imagine the way ballet is created, presented and shared," you're plotting a revolution, even if it begins in a sunny meadow.
Salimah Ebrahim, Artery (Q): Okay, so five of the best ballet dancers in the world, a renowned young choreographer and playwright, arrive in Suffolk. What happens next…..
Rosamund Small (RS:) So I guess this means you also want to see the tv show we are pitching? It does sorta feel a little bit like a Ricky Gervais tv show…
Robert Binet (RB): (laughs) It’s true.
Well, we arrived a week and a half ago - we have Emma Hawes from the National Ballet of Canada, Ida Praetorius & Andreas Kaas from Royal Danish Ballet, Yasmine Naghdi of Royal Ballet here in UK and Martin ten Kortenaar of Dutch National Ballet - and we’re making a new ballet in the beautiful Abbey Hall.
Q: This is certainly a different 'theatre' than the dancers or you are used to - in fact, we’re right sitting outside here, next to the open meadow where the final act of Terra Incognita will occur this weekend. Why meadow and not stage?
RB: This has definitely been been the most non-traditional performance space I’ve worked in! We were really interested in how we could take these very finely tuned skill sets - everyone has been training since they were ten - and apply them to a completely new situation and new setting.
For example, what does it mean for my choreography or the dancer's performance when the audience is suddenly one foot away, instead of across an orchestra pit? What does it mean to create something where the audience is looking down from the balcony directly above rather than looking at it straight on? What does it mean to perform outside? I think it is exciting when you have a lot of new questions.
Q: Rosamund, you've become known for your site specific work. Your play "Performing Occupy Toronto" is a verbatim show and actually took place in a public park - yet you've called this is a new experience. How so?
RS: I think this is a radical thing to do with a historical art form - and this is really, really radical for ballet. That was part of the learning curve for me. You know, ballet is used to telling these stories that are beautiful and historical stories but that are fairytales and myths and things that we are really used to. And we’re used to seeing them danced and we’re used to seeing the way the women are portrayed in those stories, and [so] to write something new— that was exciting.
RB: It was really important for me to have an original story, original characters, use indoor and outdoor spaces (…)and I didn’t want to have it centre around a heterosexual love story - because every ballet does.
Q: Let’s dive in there. Where did the idea come from, and tell us about the story of Terra Incognita? What is it about?
RS: I had sketched out a little short play about a new world appearing in the sky and humans deciding whether or not to go. It was such ‘big idea’ . It was such a big, broad metaphorical kind of baseline and I just threw it away, never got anywhere with this play because it wasn’t narrowing down. It was characters saying “Do you think we should go?” “I don’t know. It’s really complicated.” (laughs)
And then when I talked about it with Rob something popped. He was really drawn to it. It is very visual —
RB: — and there is a sort of physical pull. That’s what I latched onto immediately - that there was so much emotional intensity to play with. Is it morally right to go out and explore and create the new or is it morally right to stay and fix what you’ve damaged?
And I couldn’t come up with the answer. I couldn’t figure out if I was in that situation what the right thing to do was and that made me really want to choreograph it. There were so many stories inside of that so many characters we could build, and political and environmental angles —
Q: — the story certainly feels relevant.
RS: Ya, I think we ended up talking about it as a modern myth - that idea of stay or go holds such a large metaphor for so much. In the story you see people exploring: ‘Do I leave my broken relationship do I stay in my broken relationship? Do I stay with my illness? There is a character with depression - which is something I write about a lot - and there is such a large feeling with depression of ‘Do I stay with this or break out of this? Is that even possible?’
RB: Yes, and this idea that the ‘new world’ means different things to different people - a place they can be themselves a place they can be well, a place that is full of the unknown and therefore danger.
RS: And so, I really don’t think it lives well in a literal world. Like a film about this I don’t think would work well, maybe someone else could write it, but I just found it so literal that it was limiting. But there was something about the dance that had the emotion of ‘What if it was something better?”
RB: In ballet we can't do the specifics. I can’t explain through dance “Is there going to be good oxygen on this new planet?” (smiles)
But if it was text based people would start asking these literal questions but in dance we can go straight to the core of these massive conflicts and emotions and really tap into the very real, deep tension within this person or between these people.
Q: That’s really interesting - the cross hatching of this story across mediums. You’re writing Rosamund, while you Rob are thinking about how this will translate in a non-verbal way. Is this type of collaboration unique in your world?
RB: I mean it is done but I would say that definitely for a new story it is rare - I’m not saying it hasn’t happened but I personally haven’t seen a ballet that is a completely original story that isn’t based in history or adaptation.
Q: What does the process look like?
RB: Ros will write a ton of text and send it to me and I’ll go through it and see what connects, how I could tell this story in movement —
RS: — I’m often surprised by what bits he picks. I’ve had to learn not to edit myself as much because there are things that are not realistic dialogue or for someone to express out loud but Rob will put that into movement and so I’ve learned to send him five ideas instead of one!
RB: And then we work together to create a script and it’s the scenes that are the hardest for us that we end up [creating a] line by line breakdown of what each character is saying. But then there is a lot of improvisation, taking the text and playing with the idea of ‘what if she stood up like this’ or “if we played this music’ (…)so then I jump around the room a little bit.
Q: Rosamund, given that this is, I believe, your fourth collaboration with Rob, are you starting to 'think in movement' a bit more?
RS: Oh for sure…and it is so funny to be here because I am the most chatty playwright. All my characters are hyper verbal and have really high linguistic skill sets. This [collaboration] has definitely made me aware of how you can elevate a story into a heightened world. If you set up a heightened language of gesture, if you set the tone of a heightened world, we will accept that.
So when we say something is really melodramatic or over the top what we are really saying is that it didn't fit with what we saw just before that. But it is really just about setting the parameters and rules for the world that you’re creating.
Q: This sandbox of work, of ideas, of collaboration is so rich. Why so few original ballets?
RB: Well, there are a lot of original abstract short ballets. Essentially when a major company puts on a ballet they have to sell around 2000 seats and so we go with stories that people have some sense of. There is a satisfaction when you are watching something of recognizing it and getting it and it is less of a box office risk.
There are probably a hundred ballets of Romeo and Juliet and that’s one of the beautiful things about ballet - that you can explore these really rich ideas in so many ways - but in terms of brand new stories it takes a lot to sell something people haven't heard of (…) and it is really hard to tell this story.
RS: I think it’s also sometimes tempting to say this is a ballet thing or this is a theatre thing, it also has to do with the size of institution. Because if you’re going to a play that is in a 2,000 seat theatre it is probably not an original play. It might be, but it’s also probably a Shakespeare or a musical.
In general working on a smaller scale you get to take a bigger risk - and your audience is more out on a limb with you.
Q: Right, so the funding structures and also the scale of institution are not open or even always able take a risk on something like this, but only adapting historical stories and narratives does have a cost. Rob, you’ve talked about this before, the relationship ballet has with contemporary values.
RB: For sure. When Ros and I started working together she would say, “You know it is good but there is this moment when the man just picks her up and walks across the room which is very normal in ballet but to her eyes there is not a whole lot of consent going on there!”
The physical technique of ballet evolved so long ago, from the courts of Louis XIV, so the gender roles and power balances are built in from that time. And the scale of ballet, the huge overhead lifts, makes it so moving and so you’re trying to balance having the scale that can deliver but at the same time trying to tell stories where the women are not at the mercy of the men.
In this piece we have sibling relationships, and a love story between two women and it’s hard because I can’t use the basic ballet ‘fireworks’, if you will, and so you have to work really differently (…) it forces me to find new ways to use the technique and try and tell stories in a very inclusive way.
Q: It seems then, who 'sees' ballet is important to the currents behind these changing norms around gender class, elitism. The current audience of season ticket holders, perhaps, looks different than the audience that you seem to reaching for and talking about here.
RB: Ballet lives in these incredible spaces, in these huge beautiful houses and it is very expensive. They require costumes, huge sets, lights, sixty people - there is a reason ticket prices are so high.
But I think there also needs to be a way to create productions that are flexible that can transform and move into different spaces and are far more portable and are far more malleable. That's why Artery is really exciting for me, because we’re taking this story - Terra Incognita- and we’re letting it splinter into pieces and be recreated by dancers in different spaces. The story will be told in as many different ways and spaces so that people can have really diverse encounters with ballet - and really intimate encounters.
Q: How, exactly, will it work?
RB: So the plan is that all the dancers - coming from four different cities - have agreed that they will go back to their city and take some part of what we have created here and create their version of it that works in a space they find on Artery - living rooms, backyards, along canals, its up to them. They will do at least three Artery showcases in their city and do so in a new way that gives the dancers a lot more creative autonomy while also allowing people and hosts in those cities to co-create along with them. I've been calling it an 'open sourced ballet' - one that can transform, go viral in all sorts of ways.
Q: I like that “open sourced ballet.” That shift of control, though does it make you nervous to an extent?
RB: It's exciting. I’ve brought in people I really respect and trust and so I’m not concerned - it is a huge experiment and it is a risk I want to take. It was important for me with this project to not have the dancers just show up, learn their steps and go home. They are such brilliant artists and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when they have a little more freedom of interpretation - which is different from the way a ballet choreographer normally works, and the amount of control observed. I usually have say over who performs who performs it and where they perform it and when they perform and what the standard is it, but this is a lot about letting go and seeing where it goes.
And I think the concept of the story we’re telling - this new world that begs exploration - really lends itself to this question being posed in so many spaces and so many places around the world, in so many socio and political contexts. It’s just really cool.
Q: You’re very driven by this idea to re-contextualize ballet. Ultimately, what conversation do you hope Wild Space and Terra Incognita will inspire?
RB: It’s not that I want to break down the incredible allure and respect around ballet - because what the dancers do every day with their bodies is one of the hardest things in the world and it is so brilliant - but it is important to see the creators of it and performers of it as people who have thoughts and opinions and a lot to say and a lot to talk about.
RS: I think that was an interesting change in culture - theatre is moving more and more towards actors not just as walking talking props but good directors really understanding that they’re not (...) and I think a similar thing is what Rob is doing with the idea of performers as collaborators.
RB: I’ve said this many times before in interviews so forgive me for repeating myself, but you know painters get paint, musicians get an instrument - I get people. And everything that comes inside a person. That’s why I do what I do, because I am creating in the moment with people and getting to draw on the richness of their lives and experiences.
I feel like I’ve done my job when they’ve been brought to the surface. I just think a lot of good can come from people sharing what is inside of them.
Wild Space: Terra Incognita debuts on Artery, July 2016.
Journalist and Founder, Artery