Interview: Christopher Bruce - Choreographer
His departure from Rambert in 2002, when Mark Baldwin took over at the helm, was merely the end of Bruce's full-time duties. He continues to be part of the fabric, with several of his dances alive and well in the company repertoire. Works such as Ghost Dances and Hurricane marked Bruce out as one of the most crowd-pleasing choreographers Britain has ever produced, and his new piece, Hush, does little to tarnish that reputation.
A wonderful homage to family life, Hush will be performed in Scotland as part of Rambert's current Comedy of Change tour. With three children and five grandchildren of his own, Bruce is well-placed to capture the range of emotions inside the average home.
"It's very personal," he says. "I've used little incidents taken from life – reflections and memories that are indelibly printed on my mind, particularly about children's behaviour. The same behaviour I saw in my children I now see in my grandchildren. I suppose part of that is the nature of our family, and that our grandchildren are being brought up in a similar way to how our children were brought up, but you could say the same about any child anywhere. My work is very much based on universal human experiences."
A beautifully structured mix of wit and poignancy, Hush features six dancers playing a mother, father and four siblings. Although Bruce doesn't tell a story as such, there are obvious moments that will prompt children to laugh, and others that will bring a smile of recognition to parents. "For example, the mother is so busy she hasn't got time to think of herself," says Bruce, "and doesn't know what she's doing next." It's a scenario many mums will recognise, but one which was especially true for Bruce's own wife, Marian. Now in semi-retirement and enjoying life with his grandchildren, Bruce is acutely aware of what he missed the first time around.
"It was difficult for Marian for much of our marriage together with young children," he says. "Because I was away so much, she was often a one-parent family. In a sense I wish I could have been there more for my children and to support Marian, but she's a remarkable woman. And that's why in a way I'm trying to make up for that with my grandchildren, by being around more."
By Bruce's own concession, however, he's "still quite busy" in the dance world, and the same could be said of Marian. A well-respected set and costume designer, her part in Hush's success cannot be underestimated. A beautiful starry sky backdrop sets the mood, while her lively costumes give the characters a puppet-like feel. So what is it like for Bruce working with his wife professionally?
"It's always tricky actually, because it's marvellous that we can collaborate almost on a daily basis, but sometimes that's not such a great idea because we're too close to each other. There are a few battles that go on, but her basic ideas for Hush were absolutely spot on, it was just a question of balancing them."
Hush was originally created for Houston Ballet in Texas three years ago, where Bruce has been associate choreographer since 1989. Given that characterisation plays such an important part in the piece, how did he find re-staging it with Rambert? "Hush was very much created on the bodies and personalities of the dancers at Houston," he explains. "But I always re-make pieces when I take them to another company. The choreography doesn't fundamentally change, but it's just like one violinist will play a sonata differently to another; I had to allow the Rambert dancers to make the characters their own."
Houston is first and foremost a classical ballet company, whereas Rambert specialises in contemporary dance underpinned by classical training – a mix perfectly suited to Bruce's choreographic style. "At Rambert, I work with people who have classical technique but also have the facility for a wonderful range of contemporary movement," he says. "So the contemporary movement I use in my pieces comes more easily to the dancers at Rambert."
It's hard to imagine what wouldn't come easily to the talented Rambert dancers. The company's visits to Scotland are always hotly anticipated, and this February we're being treated to their first ever Scottish "mini tour", with dates in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Sitting on the programme alongside Hush is Mark Baldwin's challenging new piece inspired by Charles Darwin, The Comedy of Change. And closing number A Linha Curva, by Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili, is one of the most joyful works Rambert has ever performed.
But while it's easy for us as audience members to sit back and enjoy Rambert at work, what's it like for those responsible for delivering it? When asked if he can enjoy watching his own work, especially a piece as fun as Hush, Bruce replies: "Rarely – I'm usually too tense." That said, he can still recognise a good thing when he sees it: "Sometimes you make a piece in which you've created good movement, you've got everything right but it doesn't quite have that special quality. But I think Hush does. All the elements seem to be properly balanced."
By "elements", Bruce is referring not only to his choreography and his wife's design, but the superb music he uses, drawn from the album Hush by vocalist Bobby McFerrin and violinist Yo-Yo Ma. Having been given the CD as a leaving present, when he stepped down as artistic director of Rambert, Bruce found the music hugely inspirational. Quite rightly, he knew that audiences would find it equally enjoyable – but then knowing how to push people's buttons has always been Bruce's strong suit.
"I love to engage an audience," he says. "To move them and make them laugh. So the dynamic in Hush changes all the time, both physically and emotionally. My grandchildren loved it and laughed a lot, and I hope that anyone above a certain age will engage with what I'm expressing within the piece. I think it's very much a piece for people of all ages – it's for the child in all of us."
&149 Rambert Dance Company is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 11-13 February; Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 17-19 February; and His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, 25-27 February.