Juanjo Arqués takes the audience on a journey through colour in his new ballet, Ignite

David Mead looks ahead with choreographer Juanjo Arqués to Ignite, the latest in the series of Ballet Now commissions at Birmingham Royal Ballet

Ignite by Juanjo Arqués, a co-production between Birmingham Royal Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, may take William Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, as its inspiration but, even more than the painting, the ballet is distanced from realism. It may be just as colourful and dramatic but it is not a representation of the events of October 16, 1834.

Look at the painting and the first things that catch the attention are the bright oranges and reds of the flames, their luminosity magnified by the dark blues and greys of the sky and the bluey-green of the Thames. There are lots of human figures in the foreground but they are hard to discern as individuals. The painting typifies Turner’s preference for poetic atmospheric effect. It is very much an artwork about effect and the atmosphere of the evening.

Just as Turner used colour to convey the drama of the spectacular blaze, and the magnificent light and heat of the burning, Arqués explains that his ballet takes the audience on a dynamic colour journey. He aims to trigger the eye and mind of the spectator as he translates symbols, themes and colours from the painting to the stage.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1832)Photo Wikicommons
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1832)
Photo Wikicommons

Arqués may be a new name to British ballet audiences but he has already met with critical success on the continent, including for Dutch National Ballet where he is presently Young Creative Associate. He grew up and began his training in Murcia, Spain, and tells how he would also practice on his own to the only piece of classical music he had, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Listening to it on his Walkman, he would create his own short dances. “I started to visualise figures and do lots of turns, chainées, fouettés. I was just creating a lot of solos at home.”

His interest in choreography resurfaced during his spell as a dancer with English National Ballet, when the opportunity arose to participate in choreographic workshops. After moving to Dutch National Ballet, he created his first work for them, Minos, in 2010, followed by Consequence for the company’s 50th anniversary in 2012, the same year he decided to turn his focus completely to choreography.

His most recent work for Dutch National, Homo Ludens (Playing Man), made in 2017 as part of the company’s Made in Amsterdam programme, was described as “a short thrilling work of light, colour and movement,” with the choreography “innovative, tough, contemporary ballet, keenly structuring the elements of dance, design and music.”

Juanjo Arqués in rehearsalPhoto Ty Singleton
Juanjo Arqués in rehearsal at Birmingham Royal Ballet
Photo Ty Singleton

Arqués was attracted to Ballet Now because of the size and reputation of Birmingham Royal Ballet, and that it was an opportunity to do something with a new score. “That was an important goal in my career. I wanted to play with new music and a large group of dancers.”

For Ignite, he explains that the choreography follows his analysis of the ballet, starting from the vivid hues of the flames at its centre. Working closely with dramaturg Fabienne Vegt and composer Kate Whitley, he constructed a work in three movements. “The dynamic line of the ballet builds up in ‘Fire’, cools down to a calm and continuous movement in ‘Reflection’, before coming back to a high crescendo in ‘Burn’, ending with the darkness that follows.”

Within each movement, the ballet explores the different qualities and symbolism of the colours. “The deepest colour, red, is interpreted by the principal Fire Couple. The blue and grey tones of the sky and the river, inspired two other principal roles, Sky and River, who contrast with the red-hot fire figures,” Arqués explains.

“It is an abstract ballet,” he says. “It has organic elements but fire doesn’t have a personality. The dancers are figures.” The choreography and music guide the audience, he explains, and gives a sense of structure. “But there is no story to follow,” he emphasises. “Everyone should follow their own story, just like when I looked at the painting and followed my story. I looked at this point, then I went to another one and another one. Everyone should analyse art the way they want to. The act of watching is very free and personal for everyone.”

Delia Mathews and Mathias Dingman rehearse IgnitePhoto Ty Singleton
Delia Mathews and Mathias Dingman rehearse Ignite
Photo Ty Singleton

There is no political message in the ballet, stresses Arqués, while admitting it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with the uncertain nature of politics and the world today. The fire occurred just two years after what has come to be called The Great Reform Act (actually The Representation of the People Act 1832), that redrew constituency boundaries, disenfranchised 56 boroughs and broadened the right to vote to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers, and in towns to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more. For many, the changes did not go far enough. Most working-class men were still excluded from voting, while women were formally excluded completely.

Despite suspicions, there was no foul play. Apparently, the Clerk of Works needed to dispose of a load of old tally sticks, used in the voting process until 1826 but now obsolete. They should have been burned safely inside two furnaces but, trying to speed things up, labourers put in too many at once, setting fire to the chimney. The building had long been thought to be something of a fire trap, and so it proved. Still, the fire did lead to the construction of the impressive edifice we have today, although, that too is now seen to be riddled with problems that are going to require it to be closed for five years and that are going to cost billions to sort out.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in rehearsal for IgnitePhoto Ty Singleton
Birmingham Royal Ballet in rehearsal for Ignite
Photo Ty Singleton

When it comes to the dance, Arqués says to expect movement that reflects the nature of the fire, sky and river. “I visualise beforehand the movement or quality of movement I am looking for. Of course, Birmingham Royal Ballet is a classical company, so I have to work within that code, but when we talked about the choreography and the intention of the movement, we went into a very organic way of moving where the body functions as a figure, not as a human. So, fire doesn’t have a fixed shape, but is always alive. When we create movement, I look to have the body work organically from point to point. This is a little bit my signature style anyway.”

It’s a style born out of experience. “When I was a student I got to see a lot of ballets by Balanchine. My teacher was very interested in Balanchine technique, so in his school we did a lot of that. Apollo was one of the first ballets that I fell in love with. Then, I went into a Forsythe period. At English National Ballet it was more about the classics and lifts. I remember David Wall was one of my mentors for that. I loved partnering. I would lift everyone. You will see a lot of lifting in my work now. Hans Van Manen. I did a lot of ballets with him, and had a lot created on me.”

But there is no one prime influence, says Arqués. “I like to collect information from everywhere, everything that I have done, or been involved with or that I see. From each, I take different things. Then I analyse things and just do it my own way.”

Juanjo Arqués and Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in rehearsal for IgnitePhoto Ty Singleton
Juanjo Arqués and Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in rehearsal for Ignite
Photo Ty Singleton

Ignite is very much a collaboration. Choreographer, dramaturg and composer talked a great deal. Arqués explains how Whitley would send samples and how he would ask if they could go more in a particular direction. “I just expressed how I visualised it. She told me she likes to create with shapes and figures and colours. I like to play with colour. There is one section where all the reds are coming and she uses trumpets. For me, that is the perfect instrument for red because it is the loudest/strongest.”

Arqués has known Vegt a long time. “She was a dancer with me at Dutch National Ballet before she moved to NDT and then studied dramaturgy. I am very interested in dramaturgy myself. I see a lot of classical ballets that lack it. We have a very close collaboration. We talk a lot about my ideas. Her role is to organise, guide and help answer my questions. For example, I needed to organise how the fire was growing, so we talked through the stages. It was out of those discussions that I realised we needed one dancer, and external element, represent more oxygen, who is ‘in charge’ of taking the fire higher.”

For the designs, Arqués turned to Tatyana Van Walsum, who created the 32 striking mirrored and moveable boxes that formed the set for his 2017 work, Witnesses, for Junior Ballett Dortmund. The set for Ignite features mirrors too, this time in huge panels. “I think that having a set with mirrors ties in with the idea of reflection. Also, we double the presence of the dancers. We create more effect from the colour and the light bounces off them and creates different shapes. The mirrors will be tilted. I would like to have shifted them more but they are too heavy.”

Coming back to the audience, Arqués says, “I just want them to enjoy the ballet, to have a journey with the eye, to follow their own intuition and to see it their own way. I do want to challenge them and I am playing a little bit with the mind of the spectator, but at the end of the day, they are in charge of making sense of what they see, not me.”

Ignite premieres on Wednesday October 3, 2018 at the Birmingham Hippodrome as part of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Fire & Fury programme, before touring to the Theatre Royal, Plymouth and Sadler’s Wells, London. Visit www.brb.org.uk for details and booking links.

In Amsterdam, Ignite will be performed by Dutch National Ballet from Friday June 14, 2019 as part of their Van Manen, Forsythe, Arqués programme of three new ballets from three generations of choreographers. Visit www.operaballet.nl for details.