Scottish Ballet's updated Petrushka
This article is from 2009.
Suffering for your art may be a cliché but not for the Scottish Ballet boys. Kelly Apter feels their pain as choreographer Ian Spink tells just how he put them through hell
It’s not an overstatement to say that Ian Spink is one of the most important figures in British contemporary dance. Yet there’s every chance, especially if you’re on the youthful side, that you’ve never even heard of him. Starting a dance career in his native Australia, Spink moved to London in 1977 and has never looked back. Five years later, he co-founded Second Stride with Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston: a pivotal moment in contemporary dance history.
But while Alston and Davies went on to run their own self-titled companies, thus ensuring a continuation to their high profile, Spink embarked on a freelance career. Over the years, he has worked with the likes of the Citizens Theatre, Scottish Opera, Rambert, English National Opera and the Royal Shakespeare Company, while in recent times, Spink has been artistic director of Aberdeen dance agency, Citymoves, expending his energy on the creativity of others. But one man was determined to bring Spink back into the limelight: Scottish Ballet’s artistic director, Ashley Page, who commissioned Spink to choreograph a new work for the company’s appearance at the EIF. ‘Sometimes people such as Ian can get forgotten about,’ says Page. ‘And the younger generations don’t realise that they’ve been crucial in the development of the artform. It’s important that we don’t forget the people who have been instrumental in furthering modern dance in the UK in the 80s and 90s.’
It wasn’t just the desire to get Spink back into the rehearsal studio that prompted Page’s decision, however. With 2009 being the centenary of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Page wanted to re-work an important ballet from that period. With very few updated Petrushkas doing the rounds, it seemed the natural choice, both for Spink and Scottish Ballet. ‘Ian has approached most things in his career from a narrative standpoint,’ says Page. ‘So I thought it would be good to have somebody like him, that’s worked in the theatre and in opera, to revisit this story. Our brief to Ian was simple: “make us a new Petrushka”.’
And that’s exactly what he’s done. First choreographed in 1911 by Mikhail Fokine, with the famous Nijinsky in the starring role, Petrushka got off to an inauspicious start. Stravinsky’s music was deemed unlistenable by many at the time, yet it was the score which most attracted Spink to the job. That, and the chance to revisit a ballet he hadn’t worked on since his early career, albeit with some rather painful memories. ‘I performed in an Australian Ballet version of Petrushka when I was a young dancer,’ recalls Spink. ‘And I remember it with agony and angst. I was one of the stable boys and they do a lot of Russian dancing, which gave me a knee injury. I struggled on, but I was on painkillers the whole time to get me through it.’
Somewhat ironically, Spink has visited almost the same level of discomfort upon the Scottish Ballet boys, although it’s not Russian dancing, but breakdancing he has incorporated into his choreography. Lacking the skills himself, Spink enlisted the help of Edinburgh b-boy Tony Mills to teach the men in the company how to break. Though not literally. ‘There was a little bit of fear that that kind of technique might be damaging to ballet dancers,’ says Spink. ‘But everybody took it on board in a very positive way, although they were all staggering around afterwards saying “oh my legs”. So in a way I was inflicting the same thing on them that I went through when I was dancing Petrushka.’
Those familiar with the original ballet will be wondering what place breakdancing has in an early 20th century market place setting. And the short answer is nothing, because Spink and designer Yannis Thavoris have changed the story in almost every way imaginable. Once the tale of three puppets who entertain the crowds before coming alive backstage, Petrushka is now a gritty look at human exploitation in 1990s Russia. Instead of a ballerina, moor and hapless Petrushka doll, we have a strongman, a showgirl and, what Spink calls, ‘an angsty character who doesn’t quite connect’. One fundamental aspect from the original remains intact, however: the doomed love triangle. ‘There’s a dangerous tension between them,’ says Spink. ‘And ultimately there’s only one thing that will break that, which is that one of them has to go.’
Replacing the happy bartering which opens Petrushka with people selling knocked-off electrical goods, drugs and alcohol may be some people’s idea of sacrilege but for others it’s a way to keep classical ballet alive for modern audiences. But any new work carries an element of risk; something Spink is more than aware of. ‘Petrushka comes with a lot of baggage because it’s such a famous piece from a very famous period in ballet history. And when you adapt something like that, the fear is that people will throw their arms up in the air and say “no, you can’t play with this”!’
For Ashley Page, Spink’s Petrushka is just one part of the balancing act known as Festival programming. If you’re going to give an audience something new, it had better sit alongside some tried and tested old favourites. Enter Sir Frederick Ashton, creator of the ‘English style’ of classical ballet and his oh so chic 1948 creation, Scènes de Ballet. ‘It has been a long-time favourite of mine and was reportedly Ashton’s favourite of his own works. I thought it would be good to have a ballet with tutus, which would feed the part of our audience that likes that.’
Straddling the line between Ashton’s traditional style and Spink’s contemporary approach is William Forsythe and his 1998 piece, Workwithinwork. ‘It’s the last piece Forsythe made en pointe and was made at a time when he’d stopped creating neoclassical works and was experimenting with more improvisatory techniques,’ says Page. ‘Workwithinwork catches his choreography at the cross-current of those two things, so it felt like the right work for us to do.’Making his debut at the EIF, how does Spink feel about closing an evening of such diversity? ‘I feel very proud and pleased to be in that position,’ he says. ‘And very chuffed to be in that programme.’ He pauses for a moment of contemplation and then muses with a gentle laugh. ‘I wonder how extreme it will be?’
Scottish Ballet, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, 0131 473 2000, 4 Sep, 7.30pm; 5 Sep, 2.30pm, 7.30pm, £10–£42.