Watching dance can be akin to listening to a form of speech that has more components than just sound; in fact, many consider it a form of language where meaning lies in movement, gesture and form in fusion with music. The curtain rises, the first chords are struck, a figure dashes on stage in a flash of limbs – the audience witnesses, essentially, the voice of the choreographer, speaking through a medium understood by all.
“I am always inspired by the music,” says choreographer for the Royal Ballet, Alastair Marriott, whose ballet Sensorium had its first revival at the Royal Opera House last month. It comes as no surprise that music was a starting point for this piece; the idea for Sensorium was born of Claude Debussy’s piano preludes, orchestrated by Colin Matthews to their full potential as ballet music.
Literally meaning the part of the human brain which deals with sensation and the processing of the five senses, Sensorium’s selection of preludes have been chosen with attention to a sound translatable onto the physical plane. The choreographer dwelled long upon the sequence of the music, searching for a pattern that organically quickens and slows whilst retaining the seamless coherence of sensory perception. Indeed, Marriott emphasises the interconnectedness of sound to movement, and his choreography has a distinctly music-based quality to its inception:
“I think ballets work best when music and choreography are treated with equal importance. My choreography is always a response to the score.”
In its cool pastel-toned leotards and a set of simple but abstract shapes reminiscent of a Japanese aesthetic, the movements of the dancers and the expressive music itself has time and space to unfold in a synergy of the senses. The stage design follows closely in level of importance for Marriott within the creative process.
“Design should be of equal importance to music and choreography,” he says. “Busy or minimal design depends on the effect you are aiming for. Even no set can say something.”
Indeed, the origami-inspired stage concept serves to highlight the firm footing of this choreography within sensory storytelling. Despite retaining a classical feel in style and form, it demonstrates ballet in its intense connection to the flexibility of expression that can be derived from the human form. Reviews have particularly voiced their praise of the emphasis on leg and torso extension, its haiku-like choreographic language and a reoccurring sense of mysterious patterning.
I welcome feedback from my dancers but I am very conscious of sticking to my own vision, so that it is my voice
However, is the creative burden fully on one person? It certainly seems so, although there is still room to manouvre during rehearsals: “I welcome feedback from my dancers,” Marriott explains. “This is usually while mapping out the steps.”
Choreographers need a good working relationship with their dancers in order to meet the stressful demands of creating and performing under pressure. As every dancer has their individual strengths and weaknesses, this calls at times for some tailoring on the choreography itself once dancers have learned it.
At the end of the day, however, Marriott emphasises: “I am very conscious of sticking to my vision of the piece, so that it is my voice.”
A singular tone to a ballet creates a unifying thread that can help maintain a certain coherence to the choreography, as well as provide the means to tell a story without stylistic disturbances. Sensorium has been specifically likened to having a ritualistic atmosphere; this suggestion of the ceremonial and logical can only be established by retaining singularly unifying characteristics in the choreographic vision.
Yet there are always practicalities the choreographer needs to work around, and the success of the art form often depends on these considerably less exciting but necessary elements.
“The worst thing,” Marriott says, “is working within the schedule. There are many more performances and a wider repertoire each year to fit rehearsals around.”
The Royal Ballet employs approximately 100 dancers, many of them in a few different roles each season; unsurprisingly, Marriott feels that sorting out the logistics and the availability of his dancers are possibly the worst aspects of being a choreographer.
Nevertheless, on the other end of the spectrum, he is quick to add that which forms the enriching elements to his career path:
“The best thing is having an opportunity to express yourself, while collaborating with some of the best performers, designers and musicians around,” he assures.
Indeed, it is true that stress accompanies any job, but when the result is seeing what once began as a few pieces of music and some promising ideas become a fully-fledged artistic celebration, it seems rather a small price to pay.