Ghost Dances was premiered by Ballet Rambert (as it was then called) in 1981. A remarkable piece of dance theatre, it is disarmingly simple yet reaches profound depths. Initially inspired by a courageous musician's death, choreographer Christopher Bruce expanded the theme to have universal significance. Three skeletal figures with matted hair await the next consignment of the Dead, a group of five women and three men. Bruce's eloquent and intensely uplifting dance interpretation, which has enjoyed worldwide success, returns to Houston after 12 years absence.
The historic roots of the ballet are in the Chilean military coup of 1973 and the torture and execution of Victor Jara, popular singer, poet and song writer. Folk music fuelled both the cultural spring under President Allende and the protest movement against General Pinochet. Inti-Illimani brought the haunting Andean pipe music to Europe where Christopher Bruce first heard it. A few years later he met with Joan Jara, his widow and former dancer in the Kurt Jooss Company. She told him her story and gave him the copy of an unfinished song about her life with Victor.
Bruce told me, "I had the subject matter and I had wonderful music. I placed it in South America but it could have been any of half a dozen countries. I was, in a sense, making a statement about human rights but for the most part Ghost Dances was just about ordinary people caught up in the violence and political oppression.'
'When teaching the 'red dress duet' I am reminded of Joan and Victor: her search for him, finding him and seeming to dance with his spirit.' In 1973 a young man working at the mortuary had risked his life to contact Joan so she could identify Victor's body and give him a proper burial.
Bruce was also inspired by what he had learnt about South American customs - the ghost dancers and celebrations of the Day of the Dead. The old indigenous culture interacted with the new religion of Spain to blur the boundaries. 'I love the idea of the dead living on but I wanted to keep it as simple and as naÇve as possible - everything had to be said through the dance. The structure, the movement and the imagery are what's important, then you have a chance of expressing the theme and doing it well.'
Li Cunxin, a Ghost Dancer in the Houston's premiere in 1988 remembers, 'from the very beginning, in the silence, the audience were fully with us. Christopher's unique movement quality, the tension he creates captivated the audience. I related to the theme, what the story represented and I loved moving to that music.'
To be able to enter into another world was the magic that inspired Bruce as a young choreographer. 'My early influence was works created by Anthony Tudor, Walter Gore and Frederick Ashton in the Rambert repertoire.' Bruce was a company member in 1966 when Ballet Rambert took the plunge and went contemporary, immersing the dancers in Graham technique. 'Working with Glen Tetley was another tremendous influence _ seeing his use of Graham blended with classical.' Bruce was an unforgettable Pierrot in Tetley's Pierrot Lunaire.
Freely using the dance techniques he acquired in the 60s, Bruce developed his authentic voice but 'always keeping one foot in the real world. My father knew what poverty was and he instilled in me strong feelings about politics and injustice.'
Christopher Bruce has 'Rambert' written into his dancer DNA. He has been associated with the company in its various guises for around 50 years serving his rites of passage from student to artistic director. He was a charismatic dancer _ Nadine Meisner, writing in The Independent, called him 'the Nureyev of contemporary dance' - a world renowned choreographer and the British dance' (The Sunday Times 7/7/1996).
Houston has long been Bruce's artistic base in the United States. 'I've been associated with Houston Ballet for 28 years. Ghost Dances was the first work I staged for them so it has special significance.' In 1989 he was appointed Associate Choreographer, a post he still retains. 'The company has my work in their blood and the dancers understand my movement. My work isn't easy. What looks simple is often much more difficult but here in Houston I get the quality I need. The standard is very high and the dancers are versatile because the range of repertoire is enormous. This makes it a favourite place to work.'
Ghost Dances is on the English school curriculum for dance studies and the video has introduced Houston Ballet to thousands of young dance fans. The company has also presented the work at the Edinburgh Festival, in Denmark, Washington DC and in Canada. Houston Ballet has eleven of Bruce's works in their repertoire. These include Swansong, Sergeant Early's Dream, Cruel Garden, Rooster and Land. He has also created four works for the company including Journey (1990), and Hush (2006). In 2013 the company acquired his Intimate Pages set to music by Leo Janšček.
In addition Christopher Bruce has ventured into theatre, film and opera. His array of honours include two Evening Standard Awards: for Dance (1974) and Outstanding Artistic Achievement (1996), the International Theatre Institute Award (1993), the De Valois Award for Outstanding Contribution to Dance at Critics' Circle National Dance Awards (2003) and a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the 1996 Queen's Honours List. When he retired as director of Rambert Dance Company in 2002 he received a unique award - Honorary Life Membership of Amnesty International UK in recognition of creating dance to benefit humanity.
A quiet, self-effacing man, he is philosophical about the future. 'As you get older there are different things you want to do with your life.' He plans to spend more time with his wife Marian, former dancer and now a designer, at their house and garden in rural Somerset and also with his family of three children and six grandchildren. Ghost Dances will, thankfully, continue to inspire audiences.
Maggie Foyer is an international dance journalist writing for The Dancing Times, Dance Magazine, Dance International, Pointe Magazine, and websites Critical Dance and Dansportalen.se. She has contributed programme notes for a number of international companies and her book Norrdans: 2006-2015 has just been published.