Following on from a successful career as a dancer with both Scottish Dance Theatre and Phoenix Dance Theatre Errol White takes the reigns of his own company. Susan Cunningham spoke with him prior to the company's month long tour of Scotland.
Where did you first explore authentic movement?
I thought the work I would make would be dance theatre because that's what I enjoyed doing, but in Scottish Dance Theatre I went through a period of examination, of my body but also of who I was emotionally.
Tell me about the work (Three Works)
I always knew I would be a choreographer so that when I came to make a solo I had collected all this information over a 20 year period.
My solo was firstly a critical examination, trying to dissect, to deconstruct physically who I was as a performer. What was original signature, what was authentic to my body and what was learned information, i.e. from where I'd been and what associations I'd had. Not as a negative exercise but as a way of knowing. Stripping everything back to where my origins were.
About a year before that my father had passed away so it was a self examination of who I was emotionally and physically, and why I'd become the person I had. Not to make any judgements on it but to ask what is learned information.
Having your family and friends around you from such a young age; Everyone's a teacher so everything [is] passed down to you as a truth, you don't question anything, you just absorb. My question was, did I actually think those things that are me?
When my dad passed away, immediately I thought I am very much like my dad and it was a way of trying to hold on to a passing of some description. But 2 or 3 years down the line you go, its ok that I'm not, in certain parts, I'm not like him at all.
I'm an authentic individual who exists in his own right. You start to define how you place yourself in the world. The solo was an exploration of that concept. Not to create a narrative for people to watch. I didn't want to prescribe my experience, "You need to feel this....." I wanted to create something which was totally abstract in vocabulary but had an emotional narrative built in to it.
Did you feel the need to change it for your company's debut?
The opening of a solo is like cutting yourself open and saying, "let's begin" (he demonstrates slicing down his chest and ripping himself open). I wanted to create something that was male, but not "male" because that's everything I see now.
I have been that dancer, I can stand on stage with that power but after a while you go, well it's just a trick, they're just moves.
As you get older you start to explore your body in a different way. I think I did that very young and was kick started by the passing of my father, that examination of what is a man.
The duet is an extension of the solo, once you've seen who you are, what happens when you meet someone. How you can be independent and in union with somebody? It's the idea that we are not trying to confine ourselves, we just are.
The idea came to me in a flat in Dundee. It had a big, long corridor and I was shaving at one end (it had a mirror) and as Davina was walking down to meet me, I left the room. This idea of a glimpse in a moment in time and the actions that you do can be perceived in many different ways.
And the 3rd piece?
Is another extension. I'm quite direct when I work; I'm very clear about when we are working, when we are out. Like a performer, when you stand on stage, you're in and then you walk off stage, you're out.
As well as developing the methodology to allow the performers to arrive at a performance from different backgrounds; what is improvisation, what is body awareness, what is pure technique? How we can find the methodology through all those to create the work I want so it's not just turning up and saying, "Lay your life on the line; I want all this emotion!
The third piece for me was; I'm not a social dancer- I'm not a dance bunny. I find it really hard to be around lots of dancers. Even though I live in a very social business, I need my own space. I'm very in when I'm working so I need that complete separation. That's caused me a lot of problems.
Now I've got a company I've got to really confront those. When I teach, it's a professional environment and I'm very open but I like separation. So the last work was; how do you maintain your identity while you're in a larger setting of a group dynamic?
It's not a comment on the business. It's the way in one moment someone can perceive you as a specific individual and not allow that view to change. It's happened to me a few times, you say one thing and you're sent to Coventry for it.
As a company gets bigger, the people can become more disconnected. The value people feel when they are in companies can get manipulated, just by the very nature of things as they expand. So the third one is a comment on how you can maintain your identity in a bigger world. But it's very abstract.
Are you nervous about the debut?
I love performing- it's who I am and with regards to how things will be valued, I can only do what I do.
What would you like the audience to leave saying?
It's two-fold. I'm not trying to tell them to buy a particular product, I'm just trying to pull them down the same shopping aisle and find their own similar product. I'm not trying to prescribe anything. At heart, what I'm trying to be is as honest and hopefully as brave as possible and go, have a look at this, what do you think?
The other point that comes is how people receive it with regards to you being a company and whether it's successful and the works of any value. Everybody that comes that evening will come from different points of view. I can't make work with that in mind. It's like performing, I know exactly what the rep is, I get my body ready- as soon as I walk past the wing, its like anything can happen................... Davina and I are shitting ourselves! [laughs]
But it's like a controlled fall, I've reduced the possibilities, preparing but open to the fact that anything can come through, you're creating a vessel for a unique performance.
The way I work is I create a situation where it's easy for the dancers to come on stage and find ownership of the work, and feeling that it's theirs, not mine. Once Friday comes- it will just be whatever it is. We've had a lot of injuries and problems along the way but the best thing we can do is not hide.
Whether the Arts Council wants to fund me any further that's something else! With the problems with funding and trying to get a company off the ground, can you be the individual you were as a performer? There's so much more at steak, purely financially if this doesn't work. In the last year I have gone from having a salary for 20 years to living off peanuts. There's a question of money and art.
Has that hardest aspect of starting the company?
[He rolls his eyes at my obvious question!] I don't think people who've had a career in dance should automatically get funding however there is a need to keep that experience within the industry. People reach a certain age and don't know what to do. If you've been institutionalised in a company, when you leave that environment and if you don't want to be a choreographer or teacher, what do you do? I think in an ideal world there should be a kind of fellowship funding, a way of supporting those individuals.
I've lived on my savings [which are now gone] so I'm totally committed to what I'm about to do. When the Arts Council award you a lot of money and you look at an element of this.
I'm going to get in to trouble for this; How do you live on six grand a year? When you are rehearsal director, director, choreographer, administrator. [And performer] Before I got this money, if I had not, I would have had to leave Scotland but I want to make work here. I have a strong creative voice and I think there's a real opportunity for Scottish identity within Europe.
However, somebody who is 39 and someone who is 20 shouldn't be paid the same. There's 20 years of experience there, in every other business there's an income measure, I think we've got to register that.
I'm working with a composer who can get 20 grand a week and I'm paying him £500 but he's doing this because he loves the work. There needs to be an understanding of what the real cost of things are. Sometimes I think its all about hitting targets- you can have this money if you do this, this and this. I'm hoping that the changes that are coming in the Scottish Arts Council will start to address these issues. The people in the Arts Council are as frustrated as I am.
I'm a studio person, not a politician; I think there's a role for a mediator of some description to facilitate that connection point.
It sounds really arrogant but I know what I do is good, what I do is of value; the very nature of doing brings value. I bring quality and experience and to pass it on to the next generation, that's what lineage is.
Do you go to see other work?
People get a bit grumpy at me and quite rightly so, but I get more inspiration from theatre and theatre practitioners, I love Lepage and Peter Brook. I like European choreographers; I admire what Rui Horta's doing and the new Forsythe Company.
Performing's where my heart is but after a show, I have to go home. You come off stage and you've just about sewn yourself up and someone comes up to you and says, "I didn't like that bit" and you go, "woooaaaah!... I'm a bit vulnerable here".
I protect my dancers too because the last thing they want is to be dissected in the period after a performance when they are vulnerable.
What's been the highlight of your career... so far?
I remember doing a performance at Sadler's Wells, it's an ego thing, and we all have a sense of ego! Sadler's Wells has always been home for me. The person who designed it was a genius because it's massive but it feels extremely intimate. I was doing a Rui Horta piece, it wasn't a particularly successful piece for Phoenix but I had this piece where I was working with a girl who had a solo. There's this stereo on stage and I come on, stop the music, ignore her completely and walk over to the audience and just look at them.
There's this sensation of standing there with this massive audience and going... ..it's ok.... something is about to happen. It's story telling at its simplest.
The body is vital to me but sometimes we get so obsessed with shape and form that actually the very thing of communication is gone. These moments resonate much more than technique.
As I get older it brings the question, the value of what I have done? Why I've chosen the career path I've chosen. My CV of what I've turned down is better than the jobs I've taken. To dance with a big company might feel great but is it what you really want? Or working with someone who's virtually unknown that gives you the opportunity to find out who you really are? That could be ego destroying, especially for a young male. I'd like to see dancers consider themselves as artists instead of just bodies in space.
What was your epiphany moment, when you knew you wanted to be a dancer?
I was quite late, I was 19. I was a break-dancer/ street dancer. We used to compete up and down the country but I'd given it up, when I bumped into an old P.E teacher in the street. She asked me to do a school project and within 3 months I was at college.
She took me to see London Contemporary - 'Troy Game'. These guys were at the top of their tree, they were stars. When you see something at its pinnacle and not diluted, it opens you up. It opened me up.
The set, the power of the men, and women. I walked away from that completely changed.
Even if I go to see something I don't really like it makes me make a choice. If you allow yourself over a period of time to absorb that, maybe you'll go back and see it in a different way.
I've said I don't want to go and see dance because I don't want to be influenced, you can absorb other peoples ideas without even realising.
I'd rather go and see jazz or sport (I come from a sport background) because these guys come out real pure and they just go for it, there's an honesty and personality in it. It's really important to make history, so you don't make the choices that people have already made.
If you do make choices you know you're making those choices. I really like writers like Paul Alistair or even being around certain people.
Dancers in general are affected so physically and emotionally. You can absorb something and accept it as a truth and never question again. I see that when I teach, the way they've picked up a por de bras or the affectations of teachers (who could have been the worst teachers in the world!) and not at any point did they question.
It's said, when you see something for the first time you see it 100%, the second time you only see 20% in the moment and 80% from memory.
The problem is institutionalised behaviour through college and then into companies.
I like to laugh about it because I come from a background that I shouldn't even be doing this. I remember doing a piece once in polka dot tights and thinking of my dad going, "What are you doing?!!" I'm a grown man for god's sake!
What are you most looking forward to in the run?I'm looking forward to turning up and doing the thing I'm meant to do. What will happen will happen. I've got an amazing team. Janet Smith once said to me, "I know positively that you are a director in your heart". I think she was saying to me, don't rush! I've taken my time- it's been like a slow burn.
I've not been in a rush. I have a voice which will communicate with some people and not others. I'm glad I've taken my time. It's not traditional but I love this idea of bravery. As a communicator, if you show that in a trip or fall then people connect with that and it reflects into their life. I think that is my life.
Do you have a mantra?
It's a Paul Auster quote, "It was, it will never be again, remember." That sticks with me. In companies it can be quite a sterile environment. What I try to install is that idea of now, all we have is now. And that relates completely to performance- a moment in time, where anything can happen.