by Susan Cunningham
Ross Cooper (Artistic Director of Curve Foundation) talks about building an audience for contemporary dance and his companies unique relationship with their venues.
You are performing at The Kings in Edinburgh, such a prestigious theatre. Is the venue important to you?
It’s necessary. Every company or artist should look to perform their work in the best possible conditions and The Kings Theatre presents that for us. When you go from small to large scale, there are more facilities to be sleeker with what you do and it‘s better for the audience. These are venues that are designed to watch dance. A lot of modern buildings are transformations as opposed to architecture conceptions for theatre.
In a previous review (The Scotsman 2006) it was said you deserve a bigger stage and bigger audience. Do you feel you are now getting the audience you deserve?
I don't know if we are getting the audience we deserve. But, for example, through familiarity people come to watch the shows in Musselburgh.
We do 2 seasons a year, 3 performances in each season. We sell out these pretty easily, which gives us a 750 audience. That‘s not such a big audience for dance but Musselburgh only has 20,000 people so thats 4% of the population coming to see us. If we were to do that in Edinburgh you‘d sell out 50 nights at The Kings.
So I am hoping that even though we don‘t have massive audiences, we’ve now built up an audience that reiterates we can take on a single night at a bigger venue. Yes we are getting out to a bigger audience but that hasn’t been an overnight thing.
It’s a result of doing lots of educational work, talks, teaching everywhere and just being here; people get used to you being around. Through building awareness to what we’re doing has increased the audience. Of the small-scale independent companies, we get the highest audience- significantly. That’s come about through many ways, the feeling of Musselburgh.
The Brunton Theatre (where the company is based) is a brilliant building. You can get married there, divorced there, pay your Council Tax and electricity, get marriage counselling, theatre and dinner! Because of the nature of the building, the dancers meet the street-cleaners, the councillors, the old ladies who come in for tea dancing, the kids.
That kind of municipal building is something you don’t get with theatre now. They build these beautiful theatres but how do you get people inside? We have that naturally in Musselburgh. I think that’s encouraged us to build a similar type of relationship with all our venues. The Kings, for example, we’ve been working there for about 6 months developing the awareness to the work, through educational events, performance-related events and workshops.
Although Musselburgh has been successful we have to establish links with other places but I don’t want these to be whistle stop tours where you go, take your clothes off and dance. Now when we go to other theatres we try to emulate what we’ve done in Musselburgh.
Tell me the reasons behind your choice for the programme?
Money, artistry, technique, future, articulation of the dancers. Money; if I had enough money I would do a new programme every season. But I don’t so I do some old work and some new work and some medium scale work - I wanted us to present a strong programme.
'Savaliana' is a strong piece and we have a good dancer who can do this. 'Cervantes', I didn’t want to show a female solo without showing a male solo. 'Under the Skin' because it’s kind of new to us. When we did it before Under the Skin had 7 lights and it wasn’t enough really but now it has 180 lights. The reason for doing Under the Skin was, it didn’t feel finished.
Did you make the changes because of the venue?
We made the decision originally to do it that way. I went to the technicians and said, "I want this, this and this and they went, "well give us £40,000 and we’ll do it” So we went from 180 lights to 7 lights to try to construe the idea.
'Violet' is part of a future project. 'Violet' is summer from the Four Seasons. A future project that we are working on is to choreograph a full-length work of the Four Seasons and while we have people to do spring, autumn and winter we haven’t done them yet. Although we’ve done this piece before we hadn’t done it with live instrumentation. The Four Seasons project we are working on hopefully in 2008 will include a full orchestra so we need to try it out on one season - see how it goes and if it feels right.
And 'Duo': if you look at the development of the majority of repertory companies, it is important for them to work with certain pivotal choreographers. The more articulate your body becomes the more it can speak. This choreographer is quite specific within his articulation and I felt it was something that the dancers needed to be a more rounded, holistic. So 'Duo' was a necessary step in the development of the dancers physical vocabulary and it’s quite different to work that we’ve done. So that’s the reason for the programme - Money, future, dancers and physical vocabulary.
When we met previously you told me it was an ambition of yours to work with William Forsyth. How was this realised?
Through Video tapes - tapes got sent to Vancouver- the first lot got lost then the second got lost. Then I sent DVDs; I was like, " we’re a small, provincial group working in a fishing village and we’ve done ‘this’ already”. I got a response back, “yeh, good work, nice dancers, can we come and see you and spend a bit of time?” and so in 2005 Alison Brown came to Musselburgh for a couple of days, watching seeing how we work. Then after that we got an email saying that he felt that this piece 'Duo' was going to be ok for us and he’d like to offer us it.
Did you get to meet William Forsyth?
Not yet, we’ve had lots of emails. I’m sure at some point that will happen.
Did you choose the costumes?
No it all came with it. Well there really isn’t a costume - well there is. (He smiles wryly: the very little costume that there is small shorts and some fishnet material for a top!)
It looks like a Curve Foundation piece then?
I think he thought it was something we could handle. One of the bits of paper that I’ve got about 'Duo' says, "the dancers were as god made them” and I think in that way it’s a “no frills” piece – there’s not 200 musicians, big projections or big bright colours, its simple. It’s an ethos that I have followed - simpleness. It’s due to all sorts of things including budget but to be economic with your work is important. For example if I buy a coat, I’d rather have a really nice material than lots of fur.
Do you actively seek out firsts (as with premiering Merce Cunningham’s work in Scotland and now with William Forsyth in Britain)?
No if it happens to be, it happens to be. I have a list in my drawer at work. It has some names on it of people I’d like to work with and I’m already in discussion for future pieces with some of these names. It depends who comes in first, Matsek or whoever we choose to programme. It has new people but it also has established people. I choose people because I like their dancing and because it’s something we haven’t done before or the time’s been right. Within a ten year period you have to give your dancers all these choreographers and then after ten years you have someone that is completely rounded.
Are you dancing yourself?
I do like three movements then walk offstage backwards - I don’t know if that counts as dancing. I better do them well eh? (giggles)
Is it still important to you to still be performing?
No, it’s not important to me. I’d probably be better served not dancing but budgets being budgets I thought rather than hiring someone to do three movements I’d just do them. But I do feel it’s necessary at times to be outside of it and already I have a lot of responsibility and elements to deal with. I think I’d be best served if my focus was on those and not on that (performing) and I get buzz off dancing in the studio just as good as I would from going on stage.
You are very much involved with the dancers.
Some of the time it's to keep an eye on them! It's not because I always want to be there! It's a thing I saw Merce do - in many ways it's been influenced by him. He arrives every day in his wheelchair around 12, sometimes 10ish if he's teaching class, but all his paperwork is done in the studio and he's there on hand for any questions.
You have to be there for them to feel they're part of it and to form things the way you want them to be formed. It’s important for me to be with the dancers. Although we work on a project basis some of the dancers are here all the time so we have to look after them. I do everything with the dancers from playing tennis, going to the gym to going out, to being upset together, to being happy together. The approach is holistic. That's with reference to how they are physically and mentally.
So the Curve Foundation sounds like your life? What do you do to get away and relax?
If I ever feel I have to get away, I have a lot of friends who are not dancers. They don't know anything about dance so they don't go, “how did your piece go today?” They go "my job today was crap, my girlfriend and I broke up, bla bla bla!” I suppose I swim, but I don't have a "hobby".
Are you planning to choreograph yourself in the near future?
Not this season. When we take a big step, I have a lot on. Especially like this, it's the first time in a bigger place so I didn't want to add one more thing. I already had technicians, an orchestra that we've never dealt with before and to deal with the instrumentation of the pieces.
Had I been doing a piece as well it would have given me less time with these elements. But I’ll do stuff again in the future. I believe you can only build brick by brick - always try to go one step at a time. It's a step, but I'm not yet at the top of the stairs.