The first Sunday in April sees the debut of a new British ballet company: McNicol Ballet Collective. Choreographer and director Andrew McNicol spoke recently with David Mead.
Andrew McNicol brims with enthusiasm about his new McNicol Ballet Collective and his opening From Life evening. Still only 27, he’s already made a name for himself as a freelance choreographer with works for the likes of The Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet School (where his elegant Sea Interludes to Benjamin Britten’s score of the same name particularly comes to mind), Joffrey Ballet, Ballet Vlaanderen (Royal Ballet of Flanders), New English Ballet Theatre and Ballet Central. But why take the plunge of setting up his own group?
It is a brave thing to do, he agrees. “I got the idea when I was doing a project in New York. I was really aware of this idea of a collective and people coming together to create new work but I wondered why it wasn’t happening as much over here as it seemed to be over there.”
A pilot project proved there was interest and that dancers would give their support. “Based on that, I thought there was great value not only for me as a choreographer working that artists that I find really inspiring or that I want to make more work with, but also for dancers to work on new work.”
The idea, he explains, is to create new ballets, original dance films and special collaborative projects, working with dancers from some of the world’s leading ballet companies. “And we’ve got to be brave. That’s at the heart of it. It’s about taking risks and experimenting.”
The evening’s entire programme is choreographed by McNicol, whose style is described as ‘neoclassical’. When asked quite what that means, he laughs. “Great question! It’s tricky. I guess what I can say is that I trained in ballet. I love ballet and my language comes from that base, but perhaps with more freedom on top and a little bit more grounded-ness than the classical form as its usually known. So, while it’s rooted in classical ballet, it has more freedom and extends that language.
Featuring four world premieres for the stage, the evening is headlined by his title work From Life performed to music by Bach. In Ecstacy meanwhile is to a newly commissioned score performed live by composers Nicolas Thayer and Setareh Nasfi. The music promises as much as the dance. Antwerp-based Thayer, who has composed for Dutch National Ballet, Ballet Vlaanderen, Sydney Dance Company and West Australian Ballet, works across neo-classical, electronic and rock music; and is noted for drawing together of disparate musical ideas. Iranian born pianist and composer Nafisi similarly pulls together the threads of her personal musical journey, incorporating influences from classical, jazz, electronics and Eastern disciplines.
Completing the line-up are Of Silence, featuring music from Peteris Vasks and designs by Emma Bailey, winner of the 2011 Linbury Prize for Stage Design for Roy Orbison in Clingfilm at the Royal Opera House; and Bates Beats performed to music by Mason Bates. In addition, the award-winning film Of Silence will be shown alongside a four-minute backstage documentary on the company.
The film idea came up after McNicol worked with Belgian filmmaker Sam Asaert while making a piece for Ballet Vlaanderen. “Again, we did a bit of a test and that went really, really well.” The pair then collaborated on Of Silence, which has already been shown in San Francisco, Canada and Russia, and that picked up the StandardVision Showcase Award for Artistic Achievement at the LA Dance Film Festival (click here for the trailer). “The reach has been really amazing. It’s an additional platform that we can use to get the work out to a wider audience. It was just a small idea originally but it has gone on to have a bit more emphasis.”
McNicol says, “This will be my first full evening. Four different pieces, which is kind of frightening and exciting all at the same time. It’s really different from creating just one piece and it going into a programme that you may or may not know. With this, I have to design the whole thing both musically and in terms of themes and ideas. So, I’ve been trying to create very distinct work that shows the different styles of what we are doing.”
As always, he explains that he takes huge inspiration from the music and the dancers. “A lot of the themes we are exploring in the work are rooted in and come from the music. The dancers have brought a lot too. Amazing dancers. To see them dance is so inspiring, to see them with and alongside each other is so thrilling.”
And quite a cast list it is, one that includes principals Laura Morera from The Royal Ballet, and Nancy Osbaldeston and Gabor Kapin from Ballet Vlaanderen. They will be joined by William Bracewell from Covent Garden, Laurie McSherry Gray from Antwerp, and Giulia Frosi and Gareth Haw from the Semperoper Ballett in Dresden.
“I have worked with some of them before, and some I’ve wanted to work with for a while. It’s always been about finding the right time and the right platform. I think what’s really amazing about this kind of thing is the autonomy and extra opportunities that it gives to dancers, who are most motivated by new creations, things being made for them and with them, and that’s what we’re giving.” It compliments what they are already doing with their home companies and is something most artistic directors now see as a positive thing, McNicol agrees.
“The umbrella theme, ‘From Life’, speaks of what I am trying to achieve. I want to create something that is very human, something that people can really feel. I want to get to those core, essential, timeless, emotions that a lot of people can relate to and connect with.”
McNicol is adamant that From Life is no one-off evening. “It’s been way too much work for that. I like to think of it as a taste of what’s to come. It’s really about putting this new body of work, four new pieces, out there so that people can see what we’re about, what we are trying to do. Hopefully it will generate more support and interest. The ambition is to be doing one new programme every year, with then festivals and other programmes around that.”
Speaking of festivals, he reveals that one of the pieces will be performed in Biarritz in May. “I’ve been invited to a kind of young, emerging choreographer platform that’s happening there, which is fantastic. Which piece is still to be decided; it’s between two.”
Summing up, McNicol says, “Everyone is so up for From Life. I’ve really taken time to build this properly and now we can put it out there. We are all tremendously excited for what’s ahead.”
From Life by the McNicol Ballet Collective is at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London on Sunday April 5, 2020, at 7.30pm.
For tickets, visit https://www.ucl.ac.uk.
For more information, visit www.mcnicolballetcollective.co.uk, or follow Andrew McNicol Choreographer on Facebook.