David Mead talks to choreographer Morgann Runacre-Temple and Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancer Tzu-Chao Chou about the former’s forthcoming new work.
“I’m not the first person to set something in a hotel,” admits Morgann Runacre-Temple. It’s easy to see why they should be a draw for choreographers, however. “By their very nature, they are filled with people who don’t know each other, thrown together at a moment in time. So, while they all inhabit the same space, they all have their own journeys; stories within that. There are also pockets of individuals who are actually extremely close but, thrown together in this environment, are also strangers to each other.”
Place is really important. Particularly for a short piece, setting a work somewhere that everyone has a reference for provides a way in for the audience, she believes. “I was thinking about setting a ballet in one location that the audience would instantly recognise and wouldn’t need lots of explaining; somewhere they could immediately connect with and bring their own experiences to. I also wanted to create a narrative that’s not particularly literal or linear but where threads interconnect and cross each other. That’s quite a filmic way of telling stories. A hotel seemed a perfect place.”
Runacre-Temple says she loves things like Harold Pinter’s The Servant, made into a film in the 1960s and that later inspired Matthew Bourne’s A Play Without Words. “It’s about this servant, his relationship with the man that employed him, and how the power totally shifts.”
Similarly, in Hotel, she explains that she’s not so much interested in the narrative of the guests as the relationship between the people who work in the hotel and them. “That’s another dynamic people understand immediately. It can be a quite ambiguous relationship. The power balance between those two groups of people can be played with. It can and does change.”
As the order of things unravels, the stage will be transformed from a literal hotel, a very safe space, to something altogether more surreal: a place where, she says, “strange things start happening in the night.” It is quite dark, she admits, but with a dash of humour.
Tzu-Chao Chou, who plays the “kind of manager…ish who sort of makes things happen,” as he puts it, agrees. “Some parts do feel a little creepy; like a dimly lit hotel corridor in the middle of the night. The music really helps with that. There is a bit comedy in there too. If you were a guest though, maybe there would be a feeling of, ‘What have I booked myself into?’”
That music is by Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson, who also provided the score for her and regular collaborator Jessica Wright’s very well-received new Coppélia, premiered by Scottish Ballet at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. “I’m a major fan,” says Runacre-Temple. “His music is so cinematic. It can create an atmosphere quite quickly, then shift around in that atmosphere. It also has this huge range in terms of really dramatic, almost epic, sound. But it can also be intimate and strange and magical. It’s wonderful for dance.”
A Ballet Now commission originally planned for 2020, the ballet has had a long genesis. Runacre-Temple says it hasn’t changed massively in the intervening two years, although her and Wright’s ideas around the use of film, and how it can be integrated, have moved on, not least because of their experience with Coppélia.
“Jess and I are really interested in bringing film into live performance to offer the audience another access point into the story. What it can do, that live action can’t, is suddenly change scale. It can be very tight and close up on a performers face, for example. Film also allows you to play with space and time in a way that is difficult with live performers alone.”
Their aim with Hotel is to create a playful, interactive, multimedia live performance using pre-recorded and live camera work projected onto the scenery. In the ballet, the performers will interact with images from on-stage cameras held by the dancers themselves. “It is a different way of storytelling but the two can work really well together,” says Runacre-Temple.
Sometimes they do fight for attention and it can be really hard to stop the film dominating, however, she admits. “I think Jess and I assume the film will dominate. Naturally, the eye is drawn to it because it’s brighter and bigger. It’s going to have the upper hand. It’s a question of asking whether the film on or not? Is this a film moment? If it is, then working back from there and asking what happens on stage. What do you want to see. But equally, we find that if the film is on and nothing is happening on stage, the energy drops very, very quickly. So, you have to constantly sort of bring the dial up and down.”
Incorporating live film into the action has been an interesting learning experience, says Chou. “When I’m being filmed, I can see some of what is projected although I’m not front on. But whoever is doing the videoing can see what is in the frame and can give directions to make sure the final projected image is as it should be. But the more times we do it, the more I get a feel for where my hand or whatever needs to be.”
The production is supported by The Linbury Prize for Stage Design, with the set by Sami Fendall. “She’s brilliant; so responsive, says Runacre-Temple.
Although ideas were workshopped in 2019, work with the dancers only really started in earnest in April this year. Runacre-Temple explains, “I had two weeks to do R&D, try different dancers and movement language; seeing what was interesting and what might work on film. Basically, trying to find the territory, language and tone of the piece. From that, I got quite a clear idea of what I wanted to do. And now trying to do it!”
She continues, “I always find that the more you know about a piece, the more time you need. But, for some reason, you always have more time at the beginning when you don’t know so much about the piece. Then, at the end, when you know what to do, there’s no time. It certainly feels quite tight at the moment. I don’t know what the perfect process would be.”
In terms of the choreography itself, while she’s not sure if she would call it a style, Runacre-Temple says she definitely has a movement vocabulary, which is very grounded in classical technique. “What I’m most interested in, what draws me to certain dancers, is where movement is initiated from and where it goes. There’s a kind of softness and a responsiveness in the body which means classical shapes can come out of it but then melt and reform as something else. I know it sounds weird but I like dancers who can not only be quite playful with their classical technique but to have a sense of humour about the classical form as well.”
Chou says, “I enjoy it. It’s very fluid with lots of movement of the whole body. There are some really beautiful moments.”
“Morgann and Jess’ vision for the piece has really come alive,” he believes. “At BRB, we’ve never really done a dance-film collaboration like this before. It’s been really interesting to see how it can work visually. A lot of ballets use projections these days. We did with Don Quixote, and the windmill especially, but this takes it to another level. It adds another dimension; gives it a different vibe. It’s another reflection of how the company is moving forward.”