Dramaturgs are not common in ballet. Uzma Hameed, the co-creator of Northern Ballet’s Victoria and Wayne McGregor collaborator, tells Anna Winter how the definition of storytelling needs to be wider
When dramaturg Uzma Hameed teamed up with choreographer Cathy Marston to make a ballet about Queen Victoria, they were determined not to slip into ITV territory. Bigger ideas beckoned.
“At that point the television drama Victoria was incredibly popular, and so we were trying not to do that,” says Hameed, recalling how Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon had requested a full-length work to mark the bicentenary of the monarch’s birth, though the creative approach was left open.
In marking the significant date, Hameed and Marston felt they couldn’t ignore something from the present day that was looming on the horizon, scheduled to happen at the same time as their ballet premiered: Brexit. “That was major, particularly in the way that some Brexit supporters were using the narrative and language of 19th-century pride,” Hameed says.
What they created is a ballet that fuses ideas about historical authenticity and memory with the narrative of royal biography. It was sparked by a ‘eureka moment’ for Marston: the discovery that Victoria’s youngest daughter Beatrice had edited her late mother’s many diaries, in the process excising passages she found unpalatable, including details of boudoir randiness and John Brown, her personal attendant and favourite.
“To write a piece about Victoria that was purely celebratory or romantic would be a dereliction of duty, I think, 200 years on. We were very keen to say something about what it means to look back on history,” Hameed says. “When we found out about Beatrice editing the diaries it seemed to encase a much wider conversation about rewriting and revisiting and rethinking. It was a gift.”
The ballet, which opened in Leeds in March and is on tour, is as much a drama about mothers and daughters as political power and monarchy. “That was really important, because here we were, two women writing this scenario, and we both have mothers who are getting frail, we both have children and inhabit that weird thing of being sandwiched between responsibilities and trying to work, too, which is something that Victoria, for all her privilege, shared as well.”
They certainly didn’t avert their gaze from the troubling aspects of Victoria’s reign, including “the whole ridiculous empire and self-aggrandising land-grabbing”. Although Hameed notes: “Victoria wasn’t racist in terms of the territories of the empire – viz the whole relationship with Abdul.” That relationship between the queen and her Indian attendant Abdul Karim was dramatised in the film Victoria and Abdul starring Judi Dench, in 2017.
Hameed and Marston found themselves asking “whether or not we liked Victoria”. It’s a complicated issue. “She seems to have said the most appalling things, but she was also the kind of person who’d pick up a poor baby in the street and hug it. She had that personal warmth and the common touch. So, bad politics, good heart – if you can square that.”
Uncovering all this during the research process involved ploughing through numerous biographies and documentaries, plus “a lot of in-depth discussion about being women and mothers and daughters”. They then had one week to “hammer out the scenario” at Marston’s house in Switzerland, a year before the production was due to go into rehearsal. Hameed admits that working so far in advance was her biggest challenge.
“Because it’s a ballet you need the scenario in order to write the music and inform the design, and we both felt like we were having to pin things down quite early on. Working with top-flight composers, it’s difficult to say, ‘Can you change it?’ once you’ve got the music.” She reflects: “There are things we could have done better given more time. I’d love more flexibility, but I don’t know how we’d go about achieving that.”
Her previous dance dramaturgical work with Wayne McGregor for the Royal Ballet – on 2015’s Woolf Works and Obsidian Tear the following year – involved a little more flexibility, due to the more abstract nature of both ballets. The 2016 work began with “images and ideas” inspired by two “mythic, Stravinsky-esque” compositions by Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. “At that time Isis was in its ascendancy and there had been images in the news of them pushing gay men off buildings.” From these preoccupations, Hameed began “to think about the original narrative of the Fall and that led me to Paradise Lost. The relationship between Adam and Satan is one way of looking at the first male duet.”
Hameed defines her role as dramaturg – the definition of which is often a vexed question – as essentially creative, a “critical friend” to the choreographer rather than an omniscient authority. “There are probably as many definitions as there are dramaturgs – kind of like versions of religion. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Wayne and Cathy who treat it as a collaboration. We’re together in terms of conceptualising and researching and creating the way in, whether it’s the scenario with Cathy or fluid concepts with Wayne that are shaped during rehearsal. I have the freedom to pursue my own route.”
Warm, engaging and articulate, Hameed has been “following her instincts” and varied interests since her career began. She grew up in Croydon, “a real ballet girl with posters of Margot Fonteyn, Beryl Grey and Moira Shearer on my wall”.
She studied ballroom and Kathak Indian classical dance, then read modern languages at Cambridge, after which acting beckoned. “I quickly realised there weren’t many roles available to Asian actors, especially in the mid-1990s. I wanted to make art about us being young and living in the city and the things we have in common rather than necessarily cultural differences.”
So she set up her own company, the Big Picture, “as a way to bring together literature, dance, theatre and also film, working out what each medium could best do”. After 10 years, she closed it in order to look after her newborn son. “The love for him came from the same place as the love for the art and I felt like I didn’t want to be divided,” she says.
Her collaboration with McGregor, whom she’d known for several years, sprang from a “desultory conversation about what plays or books would make good ballets. I remember waking up one morning and going: “Wayne should do Mrs Dalloway.” He said he would and asked if I’d come on board. It was kind of by accident, but kind of not – it was bringing me back to dance, to literature and the conceptual area where the director lives.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
A Saturday job as a sales assistant at Olympus Sports in Bromley, while I was at school. I was the go-to person for advice on tennis equipment.
What was your first professional theatre job?
As a dancer with Yuva, the national youth South Asian dance company.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Robert Lepage. He exploits so well the symbolic possibilities of staging – the contrasts of scale, the creation of visual pictures that say so much. There’s no point in putting something on stage if you’re going to have a realist approach to it.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Think of nerves as excitement rather than fear.
If you hadn’t been a dramaturg, what would you have been?
I’d like to work in climate-change science. As an artist it would be great to have a background in science, or you’re always researching and feeling like you’re catching up. That would be inspiring, to do something that has a positive impact on humanity.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, but I always feel a little thrill going in through stage doors. Literally always.
Ballet dramaturgs aren’t particularly common, perhaps in part to a prevailing sense that the choreographer’s overall genius incorporates narrative ability as well as step-making. Certain high-profile flops in recent years have raised critical eyebrows about the health of today’s narrative ballet, though works by Christopher Wheeldon, McGregor and Marston bely this. Such issues feed into perennial questions about what dance can or should do, pitching literary impulses against abstraction.
Hameed, though, isn’t taken in by these binaries. “The definition of story needs to be wider. It doesn’t necessarily mean a sequence of events: that’s such a flat understanding of it. That’s where it feels like there’s a bit of limitation.” She mentions the often-aired complaint that McGregor’s work is too abstract, or recent gripes that Victoria’s Disraeli isn’t clearly demarcated in gestural language.
Hameed speaks eloquently about the value of the form. “Ballet is so sublime, it has to handle big ideas, surely? Its symbolic potential in showing abstract states and subtext and cutting through to the heart of the matter – that’s what I find so inspiring. When it works, it shows you so much about how to live.”
Hameed and McGregor will soon be scaling more ideas of epic proportion with a ballet based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy – “just another bit of light reading.” It’ll begin life as a single act in Los Angeles in July, featuring music by Thomas Adès, before transferring to Covent Garden for a full-length version next year. “It’s another huge challenge but also incredibly inspiring and in so many ways such a perfect subject for dance.”
Born: Croydon, 1966
Training: Modern and Medieval Languages, Selwyn College, Cambridge; Kathak dance training with Alpana Sengupta and Sushmita Ghosh
• Obsidian Tear, Royal Ballet, (2016)
• Woolf Works, Royal Ballet (2015)
Victoria runs at Cardiff New Theatre, May 21-25, and Belfast Grand Opera House, May 29-June 1. For more details, visit: northernballet.com/victoria