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BalletLorent choreographer Liv Lorent: ‘I’m female, I’m in the north and I make family work. That’s a triple whammy’

Choreographer Liv Lorent. Photo: Luke Waddington Choreographer Liv Lorent. Photo: Luke Waddington

It’s been 25 years since choreographer Liv Lorent set up dance theatre company BalletLorent. Based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the company is known for its innovative family shows and diverse casts, including the recent trilogy of reimagined Brothers Grimm tales. Nevertheless, BalletLorent marks its anniversary with more risqué fare – After Dark is a new cabaret-style production for adults that runs at Northern Stage from November 7 to 10. Liv Lorent talks to Anna Winter

Why did you set up your own company?
I had a very strong sense of the aesthetic I wanted, and it wasn’t something I saw around me. I felt it wasn’t already invented. I was familiar with classical ballet, which I like elements of very much – the magic and the mystery and the fairytale aspect. I wasn’t so keen on the amount of men in tights and crowns, or the strange mime gestures to communicate narrative.

There was contemporary dance that was very abstract, and I knew I was interested in making work that had emotion and stories in it. There was lot of physical theatre at that time, a lot of dancers crashing to their knees, falling to the floor, a lot of self-destruction, impoverished men and women moving across the stage in abject misery! This was very effective and powerful, but I didn’t necessarily always understand why it was happening. I wanted to care very much, particularly with the painful or destructive imagery that the dancers created. I didn’t want it to feel gratuitous, I wanted to know why they did it, personally. I wanted to feel something. The overriding thing I wanted was to come out of the theatre and feel different to when I came in. Like going to a great movie.

Why Newcastle?
I graduated in London from Laban and started the company in a housing estate in Greenwich in a hall that the unemployment benefit office offered me. There were long-term unemployed people of all different shapes and sizes and backgrounds – not necessarily dance-trained – plus me and the professional dancers – all of us out of work together. But we had the bare bones of what we needed: bodies and space. No money, but we could put on our work at platforms like the Place and the Lilian Baylis theatre. We did that over a couple of years and became resident artists of the Place, but there was no income at all.

I met the then-director of Dance City, Janet Archer, in the Place one night after a show. We got on, and she understood that I liked making work with diverse types of bodies and dancers. She said there was this opportunity in Newcastle to create a project with old people and children. It sounded exciting to do a full-length work and to be a professional choreographer. I auditioned twice and got the job and moved up north. I had to give up on my home in London, thinking I’d come back.

Actually, being in the north suited me very well. There was a small clutch of very sincere artists working across disciplines, whereas in London the dance bubble was big enough that I didn’t explore outside it. I liked the light and the weather in Newcastle. I kept staying another month and another. That turned into 25 years. Like most things in life, it was purely by chance. In the northeast there was more opportunity in a way because people had never been asked, “Can I use that building and put on dance in it?” They’d say, “Yeah, why not?” There was a sense of chancing it and being open-minded.

People in the north are less precious generally. There’s much more self-censorship and affectation in London, worrying about what’s the most current thing. Are you fitting into that or are you more modern than everyone else? Here, priorities are different. Does what you make have value? Does it have sincerity? Nobody gives a shit if it’s fashionable. People are totally interested in glamour, passion, beauty, joy. There’s something pure about that. It’s a much healthier way to make work.

Scene from BalletLorent’s Rapunzel. Photo: Bill Cooper

As a female choreographer, have you ever felt side-lined?
It’s hard to say. When I started out there were plenty of female role models about. Pina Bausch, Martha Graham, Lea Anderson, Twyla Tharp. It didn’t occur to me to be worried about my gender.
I’ll never know certain things, but many women in their 40s or 50s are suddenly discovering that they were passed over for an opportunity or given unequal pay.

This is such a competitive industry – there are so many people who fancy being choreographers. And it’s not a lot of fun most of the time, so good luck to anybody who does it, whatever their gender, because you hear “no” much more than “yes.” It’s very challenging to keep coming back for more rejection, but that is the case for every performer. Everybody needs some steeliness within them.

I’ve read articles about the lack of female choreographers and I’m not even mentioned (laughs). It’s funny. I’m female, I’m in the north and I make family work. That’s a triple whammy, which means I’m not on certain lists or in certain consciousnesses. I’m not very good at promoting myself as an individual. I don’t feature in my own work, so I’m not the face of the company. I’ve put many obstacles in the way, but I don’t know if they’re all gender-related.

Do you think there are certain traits that society nurtures in males, like having the confidence to keep coming back after rejection?
I think I suffer from fairly low self-esteem, so I’m not likely to knock on doors, saying, “Come on Royal Opera House, come on Rambert, give us a chance.” I’m assuming they know who I am and have seen my work and it’s not quite their cup of tea. I sort of accept that, rather than thinking I should fight it. That’s probably not helpful.

But there are many female choreographers who should be given a bloody good chance. I don’t think audiences get much of a say – they get what they’re given and I don’t think they have a taste for male over female choreographers.

I have so much to say being female. I know so much about what half of the population has been through, I know what it is to be pregnant, to be a mother, to be a woman in love, to be a woman heartbroken. I know all these things that count for something. I adore my dancers, both male and female, and I want to share that with the audience, to tell stories of humanity. None of us are intrinsically perfect and all of us go through really horrible things in life. I want to tell stories that help us understand we’re not alone.

Scene from BalletLorent’s La Nuit Intime. Photo: Gwen Berwick

What do you think of as your biggest achievement, something you’re most proud of?
It’s tremendously exciting to dare to think about achieving something and know it’s going to be bloody hard and not know if it’s going to work. Like with Rumpelstiltskin, having people in their 70s, 80s and 90s knitting on stage, having five and six year olds, having a young Rumpelstiltskin and shepherd daughter who are not trained and have to hold the stage for a whole scene without any professionals. Those things are risky and when you pull it off that feels absurdly wonderful!

I’m proud of carrying on through the crappy bits, dealing with the terrible reviews, the knock backs, the “what do I do now” moments when the shit hits the fan and you somehow have to just get that show on.

Do you have any regrets?
I don’t feel old enough yet. Sometimes I regret that I never did anything very youthful, like travel the world or have a year off. From the summer I left Laban everything went into the company – it was the all and the everything. I didn’t realise then that you don’t get your youth back. I might one day be on a beach in India but I’ll be a pensioner. I’ll never be young and pretty and having a holiday romance!

Yes, BalletLorent has been going for 25 years but we have to work really hard to keep going, because we’re not a national institution. The Royal Ballet is safe, we are not. We know that and, like every independent company, it’s about survival and adapting and how much you and everybody else wants to keep going. Especially in these austerity years, it’s bloody tough.

What are your plans and hopes for the future of the company?
I hope we can keep evolving and that we get our own space in the northeast so we’re not so nomadic and can offer continuing participation opportunities. It’s amazing to tour too and I want to keep that momentum going. In the future we’re looking at developing adult fairy tales alongside our family fairy tales. We have a big history of adult-orientated work and that’s been put to the side a bit. In the After Dark celebrations, we’re polishing up some of that repertoire.

BalletLorent: Rumpelstiltskin review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘energetically danced’ 

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