A conversation with Sweden-based, British choreographer Joseph Sturdy

When Joseph Sturdy was asked to choreograph a work for the Royal Swedish Ballet, he accepted the challenge with alacrity. “I admired how Nicolas [Le Riche, Artistic Director] was trying to keep his dancers dancing. After all, that’s what we do – we’re dancers. Dance was in crisis, we were in difficult times and I felt I could deliver what he was asking for.”

A piece was needed to accompany Act 2, Swan Lake, more specifically, a ballet for the male dancers and Sturdy’s years with Maurice Béjart’s company made him a prime choice. Sonatra, using the title of Michael Gordon’s virtuosic solo piano piece livestreamed on stage in Stockholm on 23 May. It available on Operan Play until June 12, 2021.

Sturdy has been an important part of the Swedish dance scene since founding Uppsala-based Focus Dance with his wife, Marie Larsson Sturdy, in 1997. He has created around 40 works and believes choreographers should also be involved in education. His Greenhouse Dance Project, nurturing young dancers to grow and blossom, is central to his dance ethos.

Joseph Sturdy
Photo Håkan Larsson

He trained at the prestigious Royal Ballet School graduating in 1987. This gave him access to a privileged sector of the dance world where Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan were still active. He remembers creeping upstairs after morning class to watch Nureyev, Barishnikov and Bujones starting their class – literally the who’s who of classical ballet.

“At that time, I was the only dancer of colour in the school, and it was made quite clear that I would be a modern dancer, not a ballet dancer. Young dancers need role models and in the classical ballet, I didn’t see that, but I was grateful to work closely with great teachers and have access to an incredible institution. You have to be savvy, nothing comes for free. You have to be that bit more exciting and more physical to stand out. I was one of those very athletic dancers – not very Royal Ballet – so I had to look elsewhere and that’s where my interest in the Béjart company came from.

“My very first time going to visit the Béjart company, I went to take a class in Brussels. I walked into the studio and it was unbelievable! There were fabulous dancers from different ethnicities, different nationalities and different backgrounds. It was the whole world in one studio.”

Sturdy joined the company for the 1989/90 season at the decisive moment when the company moved from Brussels to Lausanne. “For me, Maurice was not just about dancing, he was a thinker, a philosopher in his way, able to get under the skin of dancers, to see what was there. He had this incredible depth in the company, not just the men, the women as well. But the male dancers were absolutely fantastic and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to go there.’

Royal Swedish Ballet in Sonatra by Joseph Sturdy
Photo Carl Thorborg

‘Maurice was a charismatic director, we toured the world, had incredible seasons and danced in huge stadium venues where masses of people gathered in the name of dance. That’s what he was about. He took dance to the masses and it was always exciting. He was very inventive and encouraged his dancers to be creative. You can look at the amount of people who have gone through the company and become teachers and choreographers. He inspired generations of people.”

Sturdy’s pioneer spirit led him briefly to join an independent group of Béjart dancers. “It was interesting to be part of something new, but it’s a tall order to work with friends when you’re quite young. You need structure, Maurice was always about structure.”

Then Berlin Deutscher Oper were doing some of Béjart’s works and offered Sturdy a job. Disaster struck during a performance of Rite of Spring when he landed badly and severed his Achilles tendon. For a dancer defined by his enormous jump, this seemed to be the end. However, Sturdy was able to turn tragedy to a new career path.

Erik Rudqvist, Hampus Gauffin and Samuele Ninci in Sonatra by Joseph Sturdy
Photo Carl Thorborg

“I had a huge identity crisis. I didn’t get the rehab I needed and I learnt a lot. It’s a fragile career. Now, in my own company I’m a great believer in structure and making sure dancers are well taken care of. In the Béjart company we were fit, doing class for an hour and a half every day and you’re on stage regularly, doing over 200 performances a year. As soon as you lose that structure, things happen. I needed to go through a mental process to understand why. I had been pushing my body very hard and you can’t always be emptying the tank. It’s all about very good schooling, very good technique, and that is what got me interested in teaching and thinking about choreography.”

“Focus Dance started from making pieces. It was a big learning curve to finance a company and bring everything together, but you learn. I’ve worked with dancers at the top of their game, but Marie and I have always been really passionate about also creating opportunities for young people. I call it sending the elevator down. It’s a tough profession and the more experience you have the better. Young dancers need armour and courage – and stage time; being on stage and having performances. It’s like a pilot needs airtime, so if you can give that, it’s extremely important. Nurturing young talent has been a very important part of the work for Focus Dance.”

Samuele Ninci and Calum Lowden in Sonatra by Joseph Sturdy
Photo Carl Thorborg

Sturdy understands well the dichotomy between the high pressure on dancers to always deliver while safeguarding physical and mental well-being. “Working for someone like Maurice, was intoxicating. It was a highly competitive atmosphere, you’re at the whim of the choreographer and never comfortable. But you are there, because you want to be there. There are many horror stories about him. That’s how it is, you have a choice. I absolutely thought this was the best ever time in my career.”

He continues, “I think the profession is better now, schools are more holistic with more understanding of the person and how that interacts with the physicality. These young dancers have to function as people. That is what they are first and foremost, then they become company members which is also extremely important.”

Sturdy celebrates the positive changes in diversity in ballet companies. “It’s incredible. I’m really pleased to see that kicking off. Without inclusion how much talent are we missing? As an Anglo-Asian choreographer, coming into this house is a small milestone.”

This article first appeared on www.dansportalen.se and is reproduced with permission.