The headline dance news in 1913 was the turbulent premiere of Le Sacre du printemps. Nijinsky's pounding dance to Stravinsky caused a publicity-devouring scandal for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. But another Nijinsky creation, to an equally innovative score that premiered just two weeks earlier, had less immedi- ate impact. "Debussy's Jeux was completely overshadowed by Sacre," says choreographer Kim Brandstrup, about the score he has chosen for his first work for New York City Ballet.
If Sacre proved a sensation, Jeux was largely received with bafflement. Nijinsky's ballet: a tense love triangle with tennis styling: may have been suggested by his encounters in London with the avant-garde Bloomsbury group and by Diaghilev's own tangled relationships. Nijnsky's Jeux fell from the repertory, and: although Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer attempted a reconstruction in 1996: Nijinsky's ver- sion has been lost. The score has also been staged by other choreographers, including John Taras at New York City Ballet in 1966.
Brandstrup himself used the score in a previous opera work set to Debussy, The Fall of the House of Usher (2006). "It's an extraordinary score that has rarely been used for dance. I thought, this has tremendous power, something rather mysterious: something to explore further. The rapid changes in musical material are often abrupt and surprising: like cuts, almost cinematic." When Peter Martins invited Brandstrup to create a ballet which would exploit the full NYCB Orchestra, Jeux came to mind.
Unusually for a choreographer, Brandstrup's initial training was in film, at the University of Copenhagen in his native Denmark. He then moved to London, where he has lived ever since, to study dance; but cinema surely accounts for his command of focus, his confidence in wordless narrative. Speaking about the European film-makers he grew up on: Bergman, Antonioni: he marvels, "every second is accounted for and has an emotional intention." The same might be said of his own intelligent, deeply-felt, and lyrical choreography.
Brandstrup has directed short dance films (most recently, "Leda and the Swan" for The Royal Ballet), and worked in theater and opera (particularly with stage director Deborah Warner). His own dance works, although narrative in impulse, don't so much relate a story: there's no laborious mime: as distill currents of feeling and muddied motive. During two decades with Arc Dance Company, the com- pany he founded in London, he developed themes from familiar works by Shakespeare, Hitchcock, and Dostoevsky.
More recently, for The Royal Ballet in London, he created Rushes _ Fragments of a Lost Story (drawn with a near-novelistic density from Dostoevsky's The Idiot) and Invitus Invitam (the wrench- ing end of a relationship from Racine's tragedy B_r_nice). "It's important that there are human beings with something at stake," he says. "That's all you need to know." He mentions Jerome Robbins ballets like Dances at a Gathering, where the emotional information is profoundly clear, even if the situation isn't explicit.
So how does Brandstrup's process begin? "The propelling energy comes from the music," he replies without hesitation. "Music is the most powerful presence in the room. I always feel and 'find' the narrative, somewhere inside the music."
To mine that narrative he will "listen and listen until the music plays itself" and work closely with the conductor (in this case, NYCB Resident Conductor Daniel Capps). "We'll break the whole score down," he says. "Jeux is rhythmically quite com- plex, there are something like 60 tempo changes in the score, so we have to look at them each very carefully. The impact of music is immediate and emotional: but the making of music is mathematics, and you've got to get into that before you sail away on the emotion."
"Cinema, and not ballet, was my first serious encounter with classical music," he continues. "I recently went back and watched some early Ingmar Bergman films: in these films the music of Bach (or Mozart or Gluck), played beneath a beauti- ful close-up of a human face, seems to mysteriously chart the protagonist's internal thoughts. The synergy between the music and the silent human figure makes you feel as if you know exactly what they are thinking. I probably listen to the music in this way when I am choreographing: I am listening out for a 'thought,' a 'voice.' Once you find this 'internal voice' in a piece of music, your choreographic choices become easy: strangely inevitable."
That inevitability only emerges through immersion among the dancers. Brandstrup arrives with thoughts about structure, but insists, "my ideas are incredibly open. For me, the dancers are the most important. I have to find character and narrative with them, they contribute enormously. Their engagement with the music, their phasing, their unique way of moving make you imbue them with intent and make you curious about who they are and what they are doing."
If Brandstrup was initially considered a maker of contemporary dance, he is now more often commissioned by classical compa- nies (the Royal Danish Ballet will premiere his full-evening work Shaken Mirror next year). Even so, he laughs when I ask what has changed. "You do what you do," he says, simply. "Choreography isn't about steps, it's about movement, motion: it's about how you move. It isn't a script, it is flesh and blood, in front of you. It has to look as if it is happening for the first time."