The award-winning choreographer’s new work with video artist Panagiotis Tomaras draws on his training in the alternative therapy of Rolfing. He tells Anna Winter how the inner working of the body was his inspiration
Choreographer Russell Maliphant is turning his attention inwards. For his latest show, Silent Lines, he’s taken “the internal environment of the body” as his starting point.
Emotional and psychological exploration is often the stuff of dance, but what does the internal environment mean for Maliphant in choreographic terms? A duet between the pancreas and a half-digested Tracker bar? A solo inspired by the small intestine?
The 57-year-old choreographer is serious about maintaining deep awareness of the body and its anatomy. It’s familiar terrain for him: he studied Rolfing, the vigorous massage of the connective tissue or fascia. Another key part of his physical vocabulary is Bodywork – which refers to contemporary dance’s complementary practices such as yoga, the Alexander Technique and Pilates – underpinning the seamless and spooling flow of movement that’s so characteristic of his work.
But where previous pieces have developed from exterior influences, or aesthetic sources such as the Nijinsky-inspired AfterLight and 2012’s Rodin Project, Silent Lines is about “digging” directly into the experience of having a body, drawing on its fascial lines to trace connections between the internal physiological realm and the outside world. Maliphant gives the example of “the breathing of our body and the breathing of the planet, in a way that’s a microcosm and macrocosm. Or, the flow of blood through the veins and the water through streams and rivers – again, this manifestation within the body of something that we see in our world.”
Maliphant works with his troupe on “sensing the body. You might sense the blood, or pulsing, for example. You can feel pulsing at the wrist, the armpit, the side of the neck, back of the knee, groin, or the back of the ankle. When you put all of those together, you realise your whole body is pulsing and pumping blood”. He contrasts the sensation of our bones vibrating with the fluid movement of blood: “We’re still walking, running or dancing, but the qualitative change would be something we could explore.”
Along with video artist Panagiotis Tomaras, Maliphant is creating Silent Lines with a new group of dancers, who are now company in residence at DanceEast in Ipswich. In the past he has worked with star ballerinas eager to explore contemporary fare, collaborating with the formidable Sylvie Guillem on the acclaimed 2005 duet Push and Eonnagata in 2009, along with Robert Lepage. “I miss dancing with Sylvie,” he says. “She knows her own mind. Her body can do things that most bodies can’t. She has such a range, so the dialogue it creates is so interesting. If I have her on my shoulder, or dropping down my back, she can always position herself so that the lines are harmonious and balanced.”
In 2016, he created Silent Echo for Royal Ballet principal Natalia Osipova’s show at Sadler’s Wells, which she performed with her then-partner Sergei Polunin. He’s also worked with street dancers Dickson Mbi and Tommy Franzen, as well as his wife, dancer Dana Fouras, for whom he made the duet Two in 1998. “She’s been inspiring me for years.” A new work he made for 55-year-old ballerina Alessandra Ferri – who recently said she can no longer jump – and Argentina-born American Ballet Theatre principal Herman Cornejo, opened at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre at the beginning of the year.
Having experienced such a diverse range of talent, how did he select this fresh batch of performers? “I looked for qualities of attack, involvement with their bodies and enjoyment of dance – a quality that was special to watch. I find them interesting and exciting to watch and that gives me a lot of energy back in the studio. They’re all very different, there’s not one unifying factor. We have 12 weeks working together, so we will cohere into a group as we do classes together every day and form a common language. But I’m interested in the way they work with their own idiosyncrasies and uniqueness.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I had a paper round.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Far too many to mention, but some ongoing ones are: Kenneth MacMillan, nature, Michael Hulls, Dana Fouras, as well as many of the dancers I’ve worked with.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Go where inspires you.
If you hadn’t been a choreographer / dancer, what would you have been?
I’ve worked as a Rolfing Structural Integration practitioner and as a carpenter and painter / decorator in my early freelance days, but sculpture would have been a chosen profession if I could have made it pay the rent.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
The practice of warming up or preparing for a performance is a ritual I invest in.
Maliphant harnesses each dancer’s individuality of motion through teaching and improvisation, setting movement tasks based on experiential anatomy (“for example, feeling the shoulder blades within the soft tissue and then moving the connecting soft tissue around, or getting into the hip sockets”), which “each dancer approaches in their own way”.
Despite the involved processes and physical practices behind Silent Lines, he’s nevertheless aiming for audience enjoyment above all: “A rich visual movement-language and a contemporary vision of movement, whether that is something contemporary juxtaposed with Chopin, a very odd techno track, or a percussive track. It’s got to be exciting to watch on some level; not always fast, but sometimes slow and subtle excitement.”
Slow and subtle might describe Maliphant’s journey from classical dancer to sought-after contemporary choreographer – he recently picked up the prize for best independent company at the National Dance Awards. As a child, he took up dance lessons with his sisters and later trained at the Royal Ballet School before graduating into Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, which is now Birmingham Royal Ballet.
But a life performing countless 19th-century classics wasn’t for him. “The first three or four years I was there, quite a lot of new work was made. Doing the bigger works like Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake is great for a while, but I missed the creative process and wanted to explore that more.” He left to pursue a freelance career, working with DV8 and Michael Clark Company, without any grand plan to choreograph.
Even as a student, “I wasn’t interested in creating anything personally. I felt I had enough to manage just trying to dance”. However, a period with the improviser Laurie Booth set him on course towards creating a piece of his own devising. “I wanted to work with improvisation, but to choreograph it so the dynamics were controllable and possible to manipulate with other elements – to pick up the dynamics, or disintegrate or modify them in a way that I couldn’t with improvisation.”
Those other elements of stagecraft have long been fundamental to Maliphant’s work – namely, the lighting designs of Michael Hulls, with whom he has collaborated since they met in 1992. Although Silent Lines won’t feature Hulls’ input, their creative dialogue, which once again started out with improvisation, has culminated in mesmeric works where the lighting is as much a dance partner as another human body.
Looking ahead, Maliphant has much to keep him occupied alongside touring. He will be resetting a piece for Lyon Opera Ballet and working on a filmed dance version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a rare foray into narrative, although he did choreograph biographically inspired sections of 2018’s Nureyev documentary.
An understated presence, he doesn’t reel off the star names or famous companies that he’s eager to work with. Instead, he’s inspired by those questing “into movement practice”, citing a recent performance, in London, by American modern-dance veteran Steve Paxton, the inventor of contact improvisation. “It was in Chisenhale, with 60 people there,” he says, with typical restraint. “I’m not sure how old he is now, but it was beautiful to me.”
Born: Ottawa, 1961
Training: Royal Ballet School, London; Dr Ida Rolf Institute, Boulder, Colorado
• Shift (1996)
• Two (1997)
• Broken Fall, Royal Opera House (2003) Push, Sadler’s Wells, London (2005)
• AfterLight, Sadler’s Wells, London (2009)
• Maliphantworks, Print Room at the Coronet, London (2017)
• Olivier for Broken Fall (2003)
• Olivier for Push (2006)
• Best independent company, Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards (2018)
Silent Lines is at Sadler’s Wells, London from October 18-19