Scottish Ballet
Scottish Ballet
Image: Scottish Ballet

Scottish Ballet

Ends of the Earth...
Feature by Gareth K Vile.
Published 26 August 2011

Scottish Ballet are at a watershed moment. Ashley Page's revolution transformed them from a conservative, provincial company into a bracing, innovative powerhouse, attracting international choreographers and even tempting English contemporary ballet choreographer, Richard Alston, to make his first narrative ballet. Yet Page will be leaving soon, leaving behind a repertoire that ranges from the neo-classical geometry of Ashton's Scenes de Ballet to Page's own financial satire Cheating Lying Stealing. The future might see a return to the safer, earlier incarnation, or a development of Page's dynamic vision.

Their festival double bill gives away few clues. Lovers of passionate traditional ballet will be delighted by the inclusion of Song of the Earth, Kenneth MacMillan's 1965 masterpiece. Inspired by Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, it was MacMillan's first work after the success of his iconic Romeo and Juliet and has the essential romantic ingredients of sex and death. One of the great British choreographers, alongside Ashton, his potent use of erotic and sensual movement ensured that his work has remained determinedly modern, despite its clear neo-classical heritage.

The other piece, Kings 2 End, is a new commission from Jorma Elo. Elo emerged from the Nederlands Dans Theater and has an eclectic interest in diverse dance traditions. "When I had my introduction to dance," he remembers. "No-one said you should do only ballet. No-one said said you should do only Cunningham. No-one said you should do only ice hockey. I am still in that way!"

Elo admits that his route into choreography has been idiosyncratic, which helps to explain this eclecticism of movement. As a child, "I was very physical," he says. "I really was focussed on ice hockey. I wanted to find ways to get the best balance and flexibility. My sisters were taking Cunningham and Graham classes, and I thought I'd try it. Then I was in this class with all these women. I thought... this is better than ice hockey!"

Sporting ambitions were finally transferred to the stage when he discovered that "the theatre is a magical place," and his descriptions of his dancers and his early memories of being backstage in an opera house fizz with enthusiasm and humour. Since he was not inspired by seeing a show, but by participating, his choreographic process is very much about the process in the studio.

"I work with great dancers. I love dancer's bodies. Every dance can do the same movement with slight differences," he says. This nuance of technique informs his choreography as he creates it. "I love being in the studio. Closed in for hours: it's like a primitive response, like an animal: what happens when the music is put on? We pile up on information as we move and the energy flows between us."

Unsurprisingly, given this process, Kings 2 End is not a narrative ballet. It is abstract, a series of set pieces, set to Mozart's First Violin Concerto and Reich's Double Sextet. The audience are invited to read their own interpretations into the dance. But, like MacMillan, Elo had a clear inspiration.

"It was mostly the music," he says. "I'd be listening to the violin concertos by well-known composers, and wanted to see what polarity and excitement dance would add to them." After he selected Mozart, he added "Steve Reich's Double Sextet - an interesting mix of different worlds." Reich is a minimalist master, percussive and driving, while Mozart is the baroque wunderkind. The composers do share a fascination with repetition, even where Reich shaves away the ornamentation that makes Mozart so popular.

For Scottish Ballet, this bill is characteristic. A familiar slice of neo-classical repertoire, and a more recent work from an international choreographer. As the national company, Scottish Ballet strives to satisfy both the traditionalists and the upstarts, bridging the gap between two very different audiences.

The company is making a determined play for the younger generation with these new pieces - and advertising campaigns like "We Dance to Radiohead, too" - but this is tempered by the necessity of holding onto the older fans, who love a spot of tutu action.

Ballet remains a huge seller - Rock the Ballet proves it can have a slice of the box-office action at the Fringe, and the success of The Ballet Ruse was not hurt by the poster images of smoking ballerinas. Yet it often lacks the effortless cool of other art forms, to the extent that choreographers who blatantly use ballet technique pretend that they are something called "contemporary" - an empty term that alludes to a hip modernity without backing it up with radical concepts or movement vocabulary.

Scottish Ballet has demonstrated that it has company members who can hoof it ballet style or in the Cunningham mode - the technique most often called "contemporary" but actually a distinctive, identifiable discipline. This double bill has the potential to please both sides of the divide, and us remind that both the heritage enthusiasts and the young turks might share some common ground.