by Neil Nisbet
Rosie Kay is a professional choreographer living and working in the Midlands. She has won numerous awards for choreography and performance. Rosie is currently creating a new duet for performance later this year.
How does the work you have done overseas compare to your experiences in the UK?
In Poland a huge difference for me was in the status of the artist in society. As a soloist dancer you get paid the same as a doctor and have a high level of status. The company was very prolific, for example I would teach yoga classes on Polish television! But as the state dance company we performed in beautiful theatres and toured with hairdressers, make-up artists and costume assistants-
I was spoilt!
In France I felt much more excluded. I went to speak to the Centre Nationale Choreographique (French equivalent of NDA’s) in Montpellier and was told it was very difficult for them to even talk to me because I wasn’t French (apart from the obvious language problem!). Yes, you could maybe go and try to work as a dancer but it would be very difficult to be employed there because they have certain rules on employment in dance and theatre companies. It seems to discriminate against artists from outside France.
Berlin was very open. There’s a great “free” scene there, very experimental but little money because the city of Berlin is bankrupt and seriously in deficit. Companies are having to close or amalgamate. But that was a very open scene with people from all nationalities working, dancing and living there. It was quite an exciting place.
What motivated to you to finally return to the UK?
Well, I had almost completely given up dance, as it was hard for me to find work in France- I lived in an isolated village! Then Morag Deyes from Dancebase invited me to make a new work for Dancebase’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe season. I had worked with her twice in the past, and our relationship changed from me begging for help, demanding help even, to a better, balanced place!
I had intended to go back to France after the festival, but the piece received very good reviews and I felt that I had the chance to try to develop a dance company in Scotland. I was encouraged to be ambitious, but theatres in Scotland weren’t interested. I also just wanted to be closer to my family for a variety of reasons, who are all based in Scotland.
If you’re watching choreography or working with a new dancer or choreographer how do you approach that work?
As a dancer I love to be challenged, and I appreciate it when someone has a clear idea of what they want. I like them to have some integrity about movement. I have hated it when choreographers try to manipulate you psychologically or mistreat dancers. I think the choreographer is in quite a powerful position sometimes, and so they should treat that position and the dancers working with them with respect.
I think I learnt how I didn’t want to act as a choreographer by watching people closely! As a dancer I try to stay open and positive- and I have to admit that I sometimes found that hard. I felt quite oppressed being a dancer- you live in a silent, powerless world at times. You need to feed yourself in those circumstances, and try not to depend too much on the director or choreographer for support. In terms of watching work I like slick, good, exciting, fast choreography.
I hate to be bored! I like choreographers that are interested in theatricality and telling stories. It doesn’t need to be a linear story but some kind of theatrical narrative is interesting. Having said that one of my favourite choreographers is Cunningham and I really appreciate excellent abstract dance. I also love Balanchine. There’s a deceptive simplicity looking at such a genius’s work. How do I approach watching work? The same as life? I guess one tries to stay open minded and willing, but is often disappointed.
Is your performance style something that you work on or is performing something that just comes naturally to all dancers?
I believe performing is a technique like anything else. You can practise and practise and improve it, but it does seem that some dancers are born with more performing style than others. I believe in using visualisation to improve all aspects of your performance. I spend time working through ideas in my head, focussing the energy you need to project on stage, making sure I know what I’m doing physically, watching my performance from the outside and from how I feel inside. I don’t think you can walk on stage and be who you are normally.
You are trying to attract the attention of hundreds of people but do it nicely; you’re not stealing their attention or forcing yourself onto them. It’s an art form in itself just performing in front of people; whether you’re doing a speech or a poem or a dance, whatever, you have to respect that other people are there looking at you.
Has your career developed in line with your expectations when you were training?
Sometimes I’ve been lucky; sometimes I’ve worked so hard and got nowhere!
When I left college I wrote myself a Stalinist five–year dream plan. I wanted to dance in big opera house stages, have a soloist role (I even visualised the costume) and present a self-produced solo show. At the time they seemed impossible dreams, but I did do it- and within two years of leaving college.
After all that it didn’t get me anywhere. I got some nice reviews, I’d created my own work but it didn’t take me anywhere, and that was a bit of a shock to the system.
I was still in Poland, working for Polish Dance Theatre and starting to get really frustrated. I felt I was getting a bit self-destructive because I was no longer challenged or happy there. So I left.
I got into trouble of course, but I think the director did understand a bit. I returned to the UK and thought I was crazy- I was quite depressed and it was a difficult time. I was then invited to the International Solo Dance Theatre Festival, in Stuttgart. Which at, to my amazement, I won 1st prize for choreography. That renewed my self belief, and the prize money paid for a research period in New York, re-training.
Since then I’ve done all sorts of things, dancing, singing, acting, teaching, and in so many different styles. I’m amazed at the diversity of the work you can do- I’ve done everything from playing a crazed lumber-jack in the Brazilian rainforest (complete with chainsaw), to serious ballet theatre in Berlin, to being wrapped up in tissue paper in a performance art work!! I love it all.
What are difficult are the gaps- the moments when things fall through, and you’re left with no money. I feel that when I’m not dancing, I don’t feel like a dancer! Your self-belief is all tied up with what you do, and so unemployment hits really hard. Fortunately something does always come up, it seems. The trick is to get the things you want.
Now I see dance a bit differently than when I left college. I keep trying to make concrete Stalinist plans as to where I want to go now. But the career path in dance is just not there, you can’t step your way up a ladder, it doesn’t seem to exist. It’s incredible the amount of self motivation you have to have when as an artist you don’t want too much self belief, you’d be a really arrogant artist if you felt like that. But to survive you have to have to just keep going.
What do you see as the biggest challenges you face at this point in your career?
Money! I understand the market. Dance agencies and dance programmers do need to justify their existence and so to do that they need companies that already have a profile so they can get bums on seats to make the money and attract the audiences.
It seems they’re not prepared to take a risk on younger choreographers because they cannot guarantee that money. It means it’s tragic for younger choreographers because we just don’t get given the opportunity to make a mistake. Every work you do has to be a hit. I don’t want to bore audiences; I want to make great work but there is an enormous amount of pressure if you even get the chance.
And the chances are so few and far between to even make a performance work. I don’t want to make work that’s in development, that’s in progress. I want to make finished, professional, slick, theatrical work. That’s means lighting, costumes; that means money! Very few venues are prepared to take risks.
Do you see a way around this?
Well it’s hard because I’ve just had a project pulled, so at the moment I’m feeling slightly pessimistic.
The problem is that I have a way round it, but the way round it is just to get enough money to make a piece of work so people can see it! What has happened to me was that all my creative ideas had to be cut and cut and cut, until all I was left with is a small sliver of the original dance idea!I wanted to make a longer work, based on the poem The Wild Party, by Joseph Mancure March.
It’s a work I’ve long dreamed of creating, and is a fabulously dark and sexy poem from the jazz age. This project has had the money pulled or refused, so what started as a quintet became a quartet, became a trio, and has not been tragically reduced to a duet!! So its back to the drawing board basically- I can just see it- two dancer’s frantically attempting to create the atmosphere of a wild party!! It’s not going to happen!
I will be making a new work soon, but it’s a cheap duet again, which is frustrating as I wanted desperately to make a bigger work. But it’s better than nothing!
Because of all the problems do you see your long term future in dance?
I have to say that I constantly doubt that. All through my dance training I questioned why I was doing this. I wonder why I didn’t chose theatre- at least you can just stand up and say it! I’m intrigued by what you can construct in dance, that it can speak on different levels, and say more through less direct methods.
I love the construction of movement and the relationship between movement and music. But it’s hard when you feel like you are constantly struggling, and begging everyone for money, space, favours. I can see that it’s tiring. In a culture where money is so highly valued, and life is so expensive, you have to question why you pursue dance!The constant challenge of it dance is fascinating. I don’t want to give up on it. I would feel like I had failed before I’ve got anywhere. I just think there should be a point in your career where you might be earning a decent amount of money to live on!
But dance is wonderful and I love it to pieces, ha-ha!
If a dance student were to ask you if a career in dance was worth it, what would you say?|
Do you love it? How much do you love it? Are you prepared to work very hard for not very much? [If they say yes] then
I would say that it would be the best profession in the world and you are one of the luckiest people if you can do it. It’s a joy and a delight every single day, even when you are teaching you have a huge amount of pleasure and joy in what you’re doing. But just be prepared, it’s not secure, you’re not going to be at the same level as your friends in terms of financial security and that’s really hard in this country.
That isn’t such a problem abroad. It’s not such a big issue, especially in Poland or Germany, about owning a house or a car or certain material possessions. Whereas in Britain I felt it immediately upon returning; “I’m pretty useless because I’m not rich!” and that’s a hard place to be in. And you’re begging Arts Councils for peanuts!
So it’s a really tough place and you have to be mentally tough to not look at yourself and say “am I some kind of idiot?” or am I that self obsessed or egotistical that I think what I have to say is worth it? If you’ve got a burning desire, you still want to do it.
I really am hopeful that there is a new generation of choreographers and dancers that are coming out of these institutions that are going to change all of this. I was trained to believe that this was going to be my generation and I can see how you get knocked down by the constant slog. I would just say its tough, but get on and just do it. And do it well!