Imogen Knight: ‘I never set out to be a choreographer’
If it takes one great performance to notice an actor and one great play to spot a playwright, other creatives can be harder to clock. Their stamp isn’t so obvious; their style bends to fit. When work catches your eye – a design or some direction – you delve into your programme only to find the name staring back is the same as last time.
So it was for me with Imogen Knight, one of the most interesting and in demand choreographers in contemporary theatre.
Her witty Swiss clock, dancing doll routine was the best thing about The Broken Heart at Shakespeare’s Globe in January. Her swirl of images set the tone for Carmen Disruption at the Almeida a few months later – three silhouettes smoking blue-tipped e-cigarettes in sync, a banker climbing the walls like a spider. In The Funfair at Home, she set actors bobbing like carousel horses and had them hang limp from helium balloons.
Looking back, she was behind the broken battle scenes of the National’s Edward II, the school corridor energy of The History Boys in Sheffield and the scrambles of Vivienne Franzmann’s Pests. She has just suped up The Skriker with a jolting, juddering, head-banging banquet and a lone raver dancing throughout, lost in music only he hears. It would take an expert eye to connect all these together.
Knight knows as much. “I wouldn’t say I necessarily had a style,” she says in a greasy spoon in London’s Pimlico on a lunch break from rehearsals. It’s a surprise spot for someone in dance. You expect green smoothies and superfoods, not omelettes and baked beans. “I’d say my style is my process.”
That incongruous omelette could be an analogy for her choreography: unfussed, as it is, by impressions or expectations. “I do something different with each show and with each group of people. I really have to think about who they are and what I want,” she explains.
“We’re all so different. Everyone dances in their own way and my job is to draw that out. There’ll be something about how you dance that will be completely different from anybody else.”
She cites Pina Bausch’s dancers, “all shapes and sizes, but still human beings; capable of all kinds of amazing things, but still able to come on and sit on a chair without being too good at it”.
It is a word she dislikes, good. “There’s always a connection with being good at dancing. It’s really unhelpful. Actors will say, ‘Just so you know, I’m really bad at dancing’. It’s not that everyone’s gorgeous, but that people don’t fit into the usual forms and that’s fine. That’s great.”
This is, I suspect, why Vicky Featherstone has brought her in on Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a new ‘play with songs’ by Lee Hall. Based on Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos, it follows a group of Glaswegian girls who skip a choral competition to go off and get trashed. “They don’t give a fuck, and it’s really unusual to see and hear girls onstage who are amazing at singing in a really ballsy way and who are physically free.”
“What I really believe is in making theatre a physical place.” British theatre can be frustrating in that. “Our culture is so heady, especially in theatre. It comes from text and understanding, which is all well and good, but we only speak because we feel something. Words come second in life.”
Knight trained as a dancer, first at Northern Contemporary Dance School then at The Place, and both courses stressed the importance of technique. That has since become much less fashionable, as expression has overtaken execution. “It was military, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
It is, says Knight, a case of knowing the rules before you can break them – “otherwise it would just be a hot mess”.
At first, she performed in dance and physical theatre, working with companies like Frantic Assembly. “I never set out to be a choreographer.” Gradually though, running the odd rehearsal became something more, taking a creative lead.
“I don’t even think I miss it. After performing for a long time, I started to get more nervous, which is the wrong way around. But I do have a burning desire to make work – and that’s as exposing as being onstage for me. It’s like people seeing your brain, seeing something you really care about.”
Making means more than just movement direction though. She has her own projects on the go: a short film with her dad, swanning deliriously through the Barbican complex and, in early workshops, a collaboration with Chloe Lamford, the designer, drawing on Mexico’s Day of the Dead Festival to look at our emotionally straitjacketed culture.
One of her major influences is Jerome Bel, the French conceptual choreographer.
“He calls himself a choreographer but you could easily ask where the dance is in his work,” Knight says.
“People in this country still think that to be a choreographer is to do something that’s ‘five, six, seven, eight’. I believe that you can be a choreographer of ideas.”