Ovation opens this weekend at ASFA’s Dorothy Jemison Day Theater and we sat down for an interview with legendary British choreographer Christopher Bruce to discuss his two pieces that are featured in this program: ‘Sergeant Early’s Dream’ and ‘Rooster’. Take a look at the full interview below!

From ‘Sergeant Early’s Dream’ shot by Eric Lucky

What was your inspiration for ‘Sergeant Early’s Dream’?

“Sergeant Early’s Dream came about from getting to know the Rambert Orchestra in the early 1980s. The company had a wonderful orchestra, a small chamber ensemble of a very high standard. Amongst the musicians was a flautist called Mike Taylor, an Irishman. He regularly played with other Irish Folk musicians in pubs and at events and I occasionally attended these performances. They were magical experiences. I have always loved Folk music. I’m half Scottish and my father would sing traditional ballads. He had a beautiful voice and could play the piano without ever having had a lesson in his life. He also played the accordion and mouth organ. So, from an early age I was acquainted with folk music and always felt that it came from peoples’ experiences over hundreds and hundreds of years.

It occurred to me that maybe I should try to make a dance piece to this kind of music I so enjoyed; choose a number of songs and reels and see where it took me. Mike was great. He and other members of the group would make rough recordings in their sitting rooms and let me choose the tracks I felt I could use. I also listened to recordings by The Chieftains and other Irish folk groups. As I began to put together the music I wanted to use, I included two songs from a Joan Baez recording. I loved the link between the folk music of Ireland, Scotland, and England, how it transferred to America and developed its own style. But the roots are there. You can hear it in Geordie and Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.

Then I put together a theme. History was my favorite subject in school and I continued my reading after school. History teaches you a lot about the present. I was very affected by the stories of emigration from Ireland and Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. People were starving-the Highland clearances in Scotland, famine in Ireland. People were dying. They came to the New World to seek a better life and became an important part of the community of what is now the United States. And, of course, they brought their culture with them. All this I have tried to feed into the ballet.

When I’m choreographing a dance I always ask myself questions: Why am I doing this? What is the raison d’etre for this piece? What form should it take? There is an obvious theme of travel which is simply suggested by a diagonal line of movement and focus, from down-stage right to up-stage left, the journey from the homeland to the New World. You see it in the opening movement and at the end of the piece. The theme is about leaving one place, your home, and journeying to another but taking your culture and history with you. It is as if this girl looking out to sea is recalling memories of people and events from the past and they come to life momentarily in the various dances.

I was certainly influenced by my father’s Scottish roots, his stories and pride in his own culture. It’s also to do with one’s own life and how you feel about the lives of the ones who have gone before you. I’m a Bruce. Who know? Just imagine, I might be related to Robert the Bruce, descendant of Robert De Brus, who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. Art is about imagination. Making stuff up and developing ideas is the beginning of art. It’s in all of us. We all have an imagination. It is just a matter of developing ideas and creating form.”

From ‘Rooster’ shot by Eric Lucky

What was your inspiration for ‘Rooster’?

“The inspiration came out of the music. I always enjoyed The Rolling Stones. I was fortunate to be a young man at a time when there were all these wonderful groups forming and creating fabulous music; so many of them but, perhaps, The Stones and The Beatles dominated the scene in Britain, but we also enjoyed the wonderful American bands. With The Stones, I particularly loved the music because its roots were in the blues and, if you think about it, this music really came out of Africa. It came with the people who suffered slavery but, again, brought their culture with them which developed its own unique style. There’s a weight and a sense of deep experience in this music. The Rolling Stones performed original blues numbers but even in the tracks they created themselves, the sound was in the same style. To me, their songs appeared to have a depth that many other groups just didn’t have and I believe this is probably the secret of the band’s longevity. I grew up with this music, I danced to this music, I partied to this music. It was a part of my life.

One day I had this crazy idea: could I make a work to it? There is a danger in assembling a lot of short numbers. As with Sergeant Early’s Dream, the danger is that you end up with just a lot of separate episodes. Somehow one has to find a way of linking them and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts – if I’ve got he expression right. I had to find themes which I could develop. It seemed to me that, within the lyrics of some of the songs I chose for Rooster, there was a kind of battle of the sexes going on. It was very much about that relationship between the man and the woman. When I was growing up, I and my male friends were pretty chauvinistic in our attitudes towards women. I eventually married a very strong and independent woman and many of the women I mixed with professionally were strong personalities who didn’t take any rubbish from men, so I learned fast!

In my dance I wanted to celebrate the music but also include this serious theme of women standing up to the chauvinism of the strutting cockerels. It’s a good natured and fun piece but there is serious subject matter underpinning the work which provides a depth to the dance.”

Christopher Bruce teaching choreography to Alabama Ballet dancers for the 2010 production of ‘Rooster’ (Photo by AL.com)

Can you explain your style of choreography and what your choreography aims to do?

“I’ve always felt that dance is such a wonderful art form because you can read it on several levels. You are not dealing with concrete words. The audience is viewing movement and images which, together with sound, can suggest a collage of ideas. One can create a narrative but each member of the audience will read it differently. I enjoy providing that freedom of interpretation.

So, I tend to leave space for the audience’s imagination to enjoy my work on different levels. Then, when they view the work again, maybe they see something else in it. That will depend on their frame of mind, the particular performance and the dancers who are performing on that particular evening, because each dancer will bring something different to a role. I always find the change of cast exciting because it can often bring something new to the the work. With live theatre the performance can be a different experience on each occasion. It all begins in the studio where what I call the alchemy happens between the choreographer, the dancers and the music. It happens in that space in that particular moment. It’s transient, of course. It only exists in the moment the dance is happening but when it comes together well it can be magical. The challenge then is to reproduce that magic for each performance 

My choreographic process begins with the invention of a specific movement vocabulary for the dance. With ‘Rooster’, I started with gestures – smoothing hair, adjusting a tie or shirt cuffs, brushing dust or a bit of dirt off a jacket – and then I developed these gestures into a dance. I opened the ballet with Little Red Rooster. It set the theme and formed the basis of the piece. Within the lyrics I found the basic attitudes that form the behaviour of the men, the chauvinism, the dandy symbolized by the strutting cockerel movements. The women are the hens in the farm yard watching the ridiculous male behaviour with a rather bored indifference. There is no way they are going to let the men dominate and the stage is set for a mostly good natured battle.

I would say that I have an individual style which is recognizable but I try to find a particular vocabulary for each dance I make. With ‘Rooster’ I included social dancing of the time, the twist, the jive. It gives the piece a flavour of the times, of the 60s.

What I enjoy about ‘Rooster’ and ‘Sgt. Early’s Dream’, is that when I revisit them, they seem to have survived the time they were made. They still function. ‘Sgt. Early’s Dream’ is nearly forty years old and ‘Rooster’ over thirty but they’re still fresh. I think it is because they are full of movement the dancers can enjoy performing (and dancers do enjoy dancing their hearts out) but the cast is also given the opportunity to explore roles, to express feelings and tell stories. I put this programme together some time ago in Germany for the first time and found the two pieces work well together so I’m looking forward to seeing it again.”

We are thrilled to have Christopher Bruce here working with our dancers and we cannot wait for you all to see this stunning performance!

Alabama Ballet presents Ovation this weekend, April 14th – 16th, at ASFA’s DJD Theater!

Friday, April 14th, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 15th, 2:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 15th, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 16th, 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are now Buy One, Get One 50% Off!

Purchase tickets: here