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Aletta Collins: ‘Too many women in dance are not recognised’

Aletta Collins. Photo: johan persson Aletta Collins. Photo: johan persson

Rat Scabies is dancing around a rehearsal room in Southwark. The former drummer with punk group the Damned, Scabies is warming up for the afternoon rehearsal of If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the dance/rock gig hybrid created by actor Jane Horrocks and choreographed by Aletta Collins. To say the situation is unusual is an understatement.

Collins is one of Britain’s busiest choreographers. She moves effortlessly between operatic stages and West End theatres, making dance for just about anything that presents itself: Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House? No problem. Bend It Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre? Sorted. Scott Walker after Jean Cocteau? Send him over.

With a CV that would put most choreographers to shame, Collins is the go to/can do dance-maker de jour.

Her latest work is a collaboration with Horrocks, who is trading off her teenage years and the songs that influenced her. Commissioned by the Young Vic, London, it is a slippery creature to pin down. I can tell you that the title derives from the lyrics of an early Soft Cell single, The Girl with the Patent Leather Face. I can also reveal that Horrocks will sing all 13 songs selected for the enterprise, accompanied by a rock band that includes Scabies. More than this, I cannot say.

So my first question to Collins during a break in rehearsals is, what form will If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me take?    

“What was important was for it not to be allowed to turn it into a musical,” she says. “The temptation was to be very neat. But the idea of going from Joy Division to the Human League with a linear narrative was nonsense. It is more about Jane’s choices of songs, and each song has its own identity. It is all led by the music, as opposed to a narrative conceit. It’s a bit freer than that.”

Aside from her talents as an actress, Horrocks is gifted with a great set of pipes, as anyone who has seen Little Voice will know. While Collins had never worked with her before, she was summoned when the actor was in discussion with the Young Vic in the project’s initial stages.

Rehearsals for If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Photo: Johan Persson
Rehearsals for If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Photo: Johan Persson

“She got excited about going into a studio and recording these versions of songs she loved. But she didn’t want to tour with a band. She wanted something more. So she thought about dancers. That was when I came on-board. We did some workshops and I thought we could do something with it. But it is not An Evening With Jane Horrocks, taking us though her teenage years and the songs that went with them.”

Collins has worked as choreographer and director with actors, singers and dancers, though she admits that this is a new challenge. Actor-driven vehicles can prove tricky to negotiate, as Akram Khan discovered when working with Juliette Binoche on In-I at the National Theatre. Horrocks has a reputation for being very demanding. Was it justified?

“Demanding?” says Collins, after blurting out a phrase that she insists is ‘off the record’. “I would prefer the word, ‘fearless’.” Okay, fearless it is.

“She didn’t know what it was going to be. That’s why it’s great working at the Young Vic. They are good at taking on challenges. I am sure that’s why they work so well together. It is a very exciting place to be for people who want to make something different and therefore make a difference.”

Collins was born into an environment of art school creativity. Among other things, her father was manager of the influential minimalist punk band Wire. Having taken dance lessons as a child, she decided to become a dancer “quite early”.

She started off at the youth programme at the Place, home of the London Contemporary Dance School, before progressing to the school. She began choreographing little pieces almost immediately. After graduating from the school, she became their resident choreographer.

“Then I started expanding outside from the London Contemporary Dance Theatre to places like Opera North, and the Salzburg Festival. My first professional commission was an opera – Saint-Saens’ Samson and Delilah at the Bregenz Festival in Austria in 1988. There is a 10-minute Bacchanal sequence, and I was commissioned to do that. I was 21 at the time and still a student at LCDS. The commission also included giving ‘movement’ to the chorus and directing the dancers when they were not dancing. The dancers were a classical company from Sofia, Bulgaria, a company of 30, none of whom spoke English.”

Since then, she seems never to have stopped. She has created work for Rambert Dance Company, the Berlin Philharmonic and the 2008 Bejing Olympic torch ceremonies. She has worked extensively in theatre, film and opera as both a choreographer and director. Her own Aletta Collins Dance Company has toured throughout the UK and abroad and has made numerous short dance films for television. Her short film Girl in the Red Dress, starring Shirley Henderson, was selected for the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival and was seen at Edinburgh and London Film Festivals.

She is a storyteller above all. Her 2009 stage version of The Red Balloon, based on the 1956 Albert Lamorisse film about a Parisian schoolboy, was, according to Observer dance critic Luke Jennings, “a miniature gem, with Collins transforming everyday occurrences – a rain shower in the street, a woman distracted by her crying baby, children misbehaving behind their teacher’s back – into a whirl of wit and incident”.


Q&A: Aletta Collins

What was your first job? It was called Stand By Your Man. I created it for students in my third year at London Contemporary Dance School. The rights were bought by the company so it was my first professional piece.
Who or what was your biggest influence? It was music. My dad’s punk music collection.
What’s your best advice for becoming a successful choreographer? It is simply to do it. It is a craft and you learn by doing it. Keep making and saying yes to different situations and challenges. It is crucial to have a healthy dose of not listening. Trust your instinct.
If you hadn’t been a choreographer, what would you have been? I’d like to have been a film director. I made a short film which was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? No.

Among her other works, Awakenings – made for Rambert and based on the book of the same name by Oliver Sacks – was outstanding and illustrated the condition of patients ‘waking up’ from semi-comatose locked-in syndrome with delicacy and subtle power.

She has worked with the legendary singer Scott Walker on more than one project, notably Duet for One Voice (2011), based on Jean Cocteau’s avant-garde monologue. Even straight plays sometimes require her choreographic input, such as the recent production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape at the Old Vic. You might say she is a good all-rounder.

Choreographers can work from either music or concept. Which was her preference?

“I can work from a concept. The Hairy Ape was conceptual. When you work on a play, that is usually all you’ve got to work with. In dance and opera, it is the music first. Music seeds my choreography. I prefer it. Any of 13 tracks we’re using in If You Kiss Me could become the ‘seed’ of the evening, and that’s where the danger exists; we needed to keep each song’s integrity.”

Did she make any distinction between art projects and commercial ventures, or does she have an approach common to both?

“Trying to find the right language and to find the right way to tell that story has always got to be the route. It gets messy if you start worrying about how it will be perceived. You’d smell a rat, anyway.”

Finally, there is a question about the role of female choreographers that needs to be addressed. Much has been made of late about the lack of opportunity for women in choreography. Elephant – allow me to introduce you to the Room.

What is her view?

“It is a problem,” she says without hesitation. “It is a valid debate as a step towards equal opportunities.”

She tells me that the best illustration she can think of was the review of The Hairy Ape, directed by Richard Jones, on an arts website which inferred that she was incapable of choreographing it on her own.

The offending sentence runs thus: “Compositions and movement are extraordinary throughout (the credit for choreography goes to Aletta Collins, but Jones would surely have had his ideas there too).”

“Would they have written that about a man?” she scowls. “There is a disproportional representation of women working in dance and far too many women working whose work is not being recognised. It is about female authorship of things. And the authors are there.”

If Collins had an unlimited budget, what would she do with it?

“I’d like to open a new school theatre building. I’d like to work with young artists and create a space where young artists could be nurtured. I’d like to be around that.”

The feeling would be mutual, doubtless.

CV: Aletta Collins

Born: 1967, London
Training: London Contemporary Dance School
Landmark productions: Sunday in the Park With George (1990), The Tempest (2004), Big Dance (2008), Awakenings, for Rambert Dance Company (2010), Cocteau Voices, with Scott Walker (2011), Made in Dagenham (2014), Bend It Like Beckham (2015)

If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me runs at the Young Vic, London, from March 10-April 16

Read The Stage review here

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