Back in the Fray

Classic Arts Features   Back in the Fray
Choreographer Christopher Bruce, whose Hush gets its world premiere at Houston Ballet on March 9, talks to Allen Robertson.

When he retired as director from Britain's Rambert Dance Company in 2002, he stepped back completely. Fair enough, he'd been immersed in the world of dance for virtually four decades: first as a dancer, then as a choreographer, and eventually as an artistic director. Already four times a grandfather (he turned 60 this past October) Christopher Bruce decided to exchange stage and studio for home and garden.

He was, as he told me in early 2002, "both exhausted, and drained of ideas." So, not simply for the sake of his own health, but also for the good of the company, he chose to terminate his Rambert contract. He sold his London apartment and settled into his old farm - parts of the house date back more than 400 years - a few miles south of Bath.

"I wanted a break, a good rest," he says. He decided his new focus was going to be a long-postponed goal of building a stone wall. "There's a lot of stone on my land, most of it comes from one of the first Carthusian monasteries built in Britain during the 12th century. I was taught how to lay stone, and I started to build - walls, and paths, and terraces. Stonework became a hobby for me, alongside my gardening. I found it therapeutic and also creative. My wall is an ongoing task, it's endless, and I'll never finish it before the day I die."

Of course, Bruce's self-imposed exile didn't stop companies around the world from continuing to perform his already existing dances, nor did he want them to. But he needed a break to regroup and recharge, and importantly, not to be plagued by the unending administrative duties that go with being the director of any company.

Bruce had never intended to be a director, but in 1994 he felt that he simply couldn't turn down the pleas to take over Rambert. After all, Rambert was the company where he made his debut in 1963 and had spent the first 17 years of his dancing life.

His performing career exploded in 1967 when he first danced the title role in a Rambert revival of Glen Tetley's Pierrot lunaire. Overnight, the ballet made him a star: he even found himself dubbed "the Rudolf Nureyev of modern dance." Many subsequent roles included Prospero in Tetley's The Tempest, Federico Garcia Lorca in his evening-length spectacle Cruel Garden, the Faun in L'Après-midi d'un faune and, in 1988, near the end of his dancing life, the title role in Petrushka for English National Ballet. His final stage appearance was with Rambert when he danced in his own Moonshine in 1996.

Then in 2005, after his regenerative years in the country, Bruce decided to bounce back into action. He now felt ready to re-enter the creative fray - and with a bang. He agreed to choreograph three new dances to be premiered within the period of just 16 months. The first was for England's Royal Ballet (the fulfillment of a project that had originally been scheduled to happen way back in 1999). That was followed up with a work for his alma mater. Then Bruce returned to Texas to choreograph a new piece for Houston Ballet.

He is no stranger here. Bruce has been an Associate Choreographer with the company since 1989, and this is his fourth new work created specifically for Houston. The company has also staged another six of his dances, including such major successes as Ghost Dances and Swansong.

"Throughout the 1980s," Bruce recalls, "Ben Stevenson kept writing to me every year asking me to come do a ballet, and I'd been putting him off. Then, maybe because I was feeling guilty, I finally agreed to come to Houston in 1988.

"I fell in love with the dancers immediately. The company is packed with fabulous dancers. There's a tradition here of training, dedication, and discipline which I really enjoy, and on top of that there's a hunger to make new work.

"The first thing you say about American dancers is that they're physically and technically very strong, with a strong work ethic. They're really driven. There's no room for complacency because competition is high and jobs are scarce.

"They're also very versatile. Basically I've always had this theory that most American dancers are hoofers at heart - dancing Les Sylphides one day and doing a Broadway musical the next."

Now, with his country sabbatical behind him, Bruce is once again thriving. "I'm fascinated by the process of what I can find in the studio with a particular group of dancers," Bruce says about his new piece. "They help give each dance its own unique voice.

"One of the things about ballet dancers is that they're not afraid to assume characters. Sometimes contemporary dancers can be quite inhibited about playing parts, but ballet dancers have that in their training. And there is the suggestion of story here, but it's not really a narrative. I want to keep it subtle and enigmatic."

Allen Robertson is the dance editor for Time Out London and co-edits the British quarterly Dance Now.

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