Genau zehn Jahre ist es her, als der aus Charleston, South Carolina stammende Robert North als Choreograf und drei Jahre später als Ballettdirektor an die Vereinigten Städtischen Bühnen Krefeld und Mönchengladbach kam. Anlässlich der Premiere von „Teufelskreis“ sprach der Fotograf und Autor Ingo Schäfer über seine Arbeit mit dem Ballet Ensemble des Theater Krefeld Mönchengladbach und seine aktuelle Produktion.
Ingo Schäfer: Mr. North, you have produced over 100 choreographies and you have worked with more than 95 companies worldwide to this day. What is your personal formula for success?
Robert North: I don’t think I have an actual formula for success and I should say I don’t think all the ballets I’ve done have been successful. Quite a few of the ballets I’ve done have been popular. It could be different from successful. Have they been successful with the public or have they been successful enough to last into the future? That would be real success. Are they successful with the critics? Sometimes not so successful. (North smiles)
I think what the public likes about my ballets is they can understand them, I use music that I think is popular and very likable, full of rhythm and I try always to put in a lot of dancing. I also like to do stories and the public likes stories in ballet.
Do you have a defined process for creating choreography?
The process I use for creating choreography over the last ten years has changed a bit. I used to do choreography in the studio directly on the dancers. But more and more I’ve started doing the choreography myself separately then coming in and trying it out on the dancers and changing it accordingly. But for me it's always important to get the right music immediately. And then to think what is the dance language that should go with this music.
Musicality is essential for me and I keep working harder and harder to find ways to be-come more musical.
The process I think changes very rarely for me depending of course whether it is written music or it’s music that has been specially composed for the ballet I’m working on. For in-stance I’ve been working recently with André Parfenov, our pianist. Sometimes I get him to come in and write the music to my choreography. I said this is what I want to do: „Now you play along like it’s a movie or a film.“ And at first he found that strange but then after a while he got to like that. In that way the music suits exactly the dramatic intent.
How important is experiment and improvisation in your work?
Experimental choreography and improvisational choreography is something I have not done a lot of. When I am choreographing myself, that’s what you are doing, experimenting and improvising, but when you are asking dancers to do that, that’s a different technique. And occasionally I ask the dancers to try their own things but mostly I give them very spe-cific ideas about what to work on. So, dancer experimentation doesn’t have a lot to do in my choreography.
What does the term „craftsmanship“ mean to you with regard your profession?
Craftsmanship for me is the essence of choreography. I know that many artists during the 20th century thought craftsmanship wasn’t very important and that it was the concept that was the most important thing. Which is fine, but for me the craft’s side of it is the most im-portant side. And then hopefully something artistic and poetic comes out of that. But skills, choreographic skills for me are essential. And I was lucky enough to work with choreogra-phers that had a lot of these skills. Martha Graham had incredible choreographic skills and technique. My first director Bob Cohan new about skills, taught choreography, understood where you had to start from. Luckily I got to work with people like Paul Taylor, Merce Cun-ningham, I got to watch Frederick Ashton choreograph, Kenneth McMillan, many great choreographers, and I saw their skills. So, craftsmanship is very important.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to the profession of the choreographer?
First of all find a choreographer that you really like and then try to work with him or her. Try to join their company, get permission to be around their work. So you understand their method of choreography. Look for situations, companies that offer possibilities to choreo-graph, because that’s the most difficult thing: the actual possibility to have a few dancers you can work with; other than working on yourself and doing solo concerts. It’s a great advantage to be able to have at least five or six dancers you can work with. Possibly a big company as well because then you can try the whole range of choreography.
Look for companies that offer choreographic workshop possibilities because some compa-nies offer these possibilities, other companies never offer them. For instance here we’ve had two choreographic workshop possibilities, but in about eight years. And the company I worked for initially, The London Contemporary Dance Company, had choreographic work-shops every year. We had the possibility, so for me that was a very good place to learn how to choreograph because the only way to do it is to try.
Try to work with as many choreographers as possible. It’s not always that easy but there are certain companies that you can get into that have a large repertoire, and you can see a great range of choreography.
What should be done that a creative and dynamic classical and modern ballet sce-ne will still be be an integral part of our future cultural life?
I think it is a very important and a very essential issue in our society. I don’t think you realize how lucky you are here in Germany with the amount of support that the arts get. I think you give five times as much money as they give in England. So already you are at an advantage here. But I think it’s important that the public, the general public realizes how important the arts are to their society. Of course the difficulty is often the arts are focused in an elite part of the society and somehow this has to be broken down in a way. It’s never going to be totally popular. I don’t expect the arts to be as popular as football for instance. (Although apparently they are pretty nearly as popular as football. The number of tickets sold are apparently roughly equivalent from some statistic I’ve once read.) But to see that the arts in the society are essential. Why do we always remember the great artists of the past? I think we know more great artists of the past than we do great politicians.
So we say, oh in the past, we were so important, what a great culture, we had Goethe etc. We need to do that today. We have to make sure that the art we do has a direct response from the public. We’ve got to get the public in here. That doesn’t mean we only do popular musicals. Popular musicals to help of course but we have to find art from the past and new art because actually the public once they have seen all the old art they want something new. We have to find a way of dealing directly with the public, of keeping the public big enough to be relevant in the society. That and public support from the politicians. And I think any smart politician will understand that it is very useful to have a successful theatre company, a theatre itself in their community. It is actually economically useful. The restau-rants, cafés, shops benefit, even the parking and transport gains.
They discovered in New York that theatre was the second biggest industry after Wall Street. So they cleaned up 42nd Street which had become a very „seedy“ side of New York with porn cinemas, drugs etc. and expanded the theatre district investing a lot of money. And it paid off. So if politicians don’t see the cultural value the arts have in society perhaps they can understand the economic advantages.
In „Teufelskreis“ you are dealing with the negative aspects of modern society at a time of digital revolution. Media manipulation, social networks and virtual addiction. What influ-ence does the current social, political, economic and environmental situation have on your work?
Well, „Teufelskreis“ is actually an ironic ballet. It’s a humorous look at modern society, making fun of things like the media, computers, addiction. But of course they are serious subjects, I’m not saying they are not but in „Teufelskreis“ everything turns out fine, in a sense. And we have a pretty good life with these problems surrounding us. So it’s not a really heavy ballet about the economic situation, the political situation today … It influences me and I like to have a message, but for me the message isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is to find a subject that I can get obsessed with or a piece of music that I find fascinating. Something that gives me the opportu-nity to put dancing on the stage. As opposed to something that gives me the opportunity to get across a very strong political social message.
We have just done „Pinocchio“ and I felt too it’s important to put across the message that, you know, lying is wrong, because Pinocchio lies and he gets a long nose. That looking after each other is important Pinocchio learns to be generous in the ballet. We are doing another ballet called „The Sleep of Reason“ which is a much more serious ballet with Schostakowitsch music which is more about war and death and what’s happening in places like the Middle East or what happened in the first and second world what happened in Russia between the two wars. But still for me the important thing is to communicate what the music is saying, not the overall social message. Many people are very good at doing this in ballet, it’s not my main priority.
I think artists have an obligation to have a look at the world and make comments on it, particularly if they have something relevant to say. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said „An artist is like one of these birds you take down in the mines. When the bird dies you know it’s time to get out.“ An artist should ha-ve that kind of sensitivity. They should be aware when things are getting bad or getting good and respond to it. For me, the artist in the different media have their various responsibilities. In the vi-sual world, in the painter world or the film world they have a responsibility to teach us about how to see things. In the dance world we have a responsibility about showing you how to move, how to dance, what dancing really is. The great dancers and choreographers I think have shown us this.
I think my favorite dancer in the whole world is Fred Astaire, and he is a fascinating mover. You watch him, you go „Yep, that’s dancing.“ Even Baryshnikov said the same thing. He told the famous story that he, after his performance, thinks „Well, that was pretty good, I did a pretty good job tonight.“ He goes home, he turns on the TV and there has been an old Fred Astaire film and he goes „Oh my god, that’s what it’s really all about.“ What I think that was very generous of him. But, true.
“Teufelskreis” mit dem Ballett des Theaters Mönchengladbach Krefeld hatte am 6. Mai 2017 Premiere. Weitere Vorstellungen: 21. Mai, 21. und 27. Juni, 17. und 14. Juli 2017; Sämtliche Fotos (aufgenommen bei den Bühnenproben): Ingo Schäfer
Biografie Robert North
Der gebürtige Amerikaner Robert North erhielt seine Tanzausbildung an der Royal Ballet School London und am London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Er tanzte u.a. in der Martha Graham Company in New York. 1981 wurde er Künstlerischer Direktor des Ballet Ram-bert, 1990 Ballettdirektor des Teatro Regio in Turin. Weitere Stationen als Künstlerischer Leiter waren das Göteborg Ballett, das Corpo di Ballo Dell’Arena di Verona und das Scot-tish Ballet. Robert North schuf über 100 Choreografien, u.a. „The Annunciation“, „A Stranger I Came“, „Bolero“, „Romeo und Julia“, „Elvira Madigan“, „Living in America“, „The Russian Story“, „The Cradle Will Rock“, „Eva“, „Ragazzi Selvaggi“, „Orlando“ und „Car-men“. Robert North hat mit über 95 Ballettcompagnien weltweit gearbeitet: u.a. mit dem Stuttgarter Ballett, English National Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Ballett der Oper Rom, New Zealand Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, La Scala in Mailand, Ballett der Staatsoper Hannover, Hamburger Ballett, Hong Kong Ballet, L’Opéra de Nice, San Francisco Ballet, Le Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, Zürcher Ballett, Ballett der Semperoper Dresden und dem Ankara State Ballet. Er gewann zahlreiche Preise, u.a. den Golden Prague Award für „For My Daughter“, 1999 einen Preis in Reggio Emilia für sein Kinderballett „The Snowman“. Seit Januar 2007 ist Robert North Choreograf an den Vereinigten Städtischen Bühnen Krefeld und Mönchengladbach, wo bereits „Troy Game“ und die Uraufführungen „Bach“ und „Tschaikowksys Träume“ zu sehen waren. Sein dreiteiliger Ballettabend „Tempus Fugit“ wurde 2008 mit dem Theateroscar der Rheinischen Post als beste Choreografie aus-gezeichnet. Seit der Spielzeit 2010/2011 ist North Ballettdirektor am Theater Krefeld Mön-chengladbach.