Mark Bruce Company returns with a triple bill of cinematic dance theatre

David Mead talks to choreographer Mark Bruce about his new Phantoms programme, which premieres at Frome’s Merlin Theatre on February 3, before touring.

“It’s great to be building towards performing before a live audience; to share all we’ve been creating in isolation with the real world. Nothing can replace this experience,” says Bruce.

The Phantoms triple bill will be an evening of very different choreographic styles, he promises. “Green Apples is a blast. Folk Tales is quick footed, articulate and intricate. All the pieces entertain, but Phantoms is a darker reflection on things.”

Mark Bruce

The show’s title work is a dance theatre tale of love, tragedy and revenge, set in a place where our phantoms roam free. A work emblematic of the cinematic dance theatre Mark Bruce Company has become known for, it promises dream-like characters in a beautifully savage world falling into chaos, culminating in a surreal, classic showdown on the road.

With a creative team that includes the reuniting of long-term collaborators Phil Eddolls (set), Guy Hoare (light) and Dorothee Brodrück (costume), it certainly should be visually arresting. “Every scene and every character is archetypal, and deals with different states of being, of how we allow these states to lead us, drag us, and the subsequent consequences. It has the feeling of an Ancient Greek tragedy, wrapped in a retro thriller adventure in a futuristic savage garden of Eden.”

On that Greek theme, Bruce says there’s quite a bit of Orpheus in the work, which wasn’t the intention. “I think the Greek tragedy thing is interesting. So often with Greek mythology, I don’t set out to emulate it, but when I look at what I’ve edited and put down, I find that the connections are always there and that they have always been there.”

Bruce’s main challenge in creating Phantoms was that he wanted to compose the music as well as the choreography. “I think the music was really knocking on the door for me to get it out. I had a real backlog of things I wanted to look at. Lockdown gave me the opportunity to do that. It’s something I have to deal with all the time: having lots of ideas and having to be really strict with myself. I can drive myself crazy with it. I think I can probably get quite difficult to live with. The discipline of actually having to write the songs was quite good. I wrote twice as many songs as I used, but I’ve had to put a lid on them and say, ‘Now I’m going to make a piece with these ingredients’.”

Mark Bruce’s Phantoms featuring Eleanor Duval
Photo Mark Bruce

He says the choreography was probably the last thing to come through. “I wanted it to be driven by what the music (on which he has also been working with celebrated jazz pianist Gareth Williams and West End singer Eva Todd) was demanding. I like to make music that has space in it, so that there is room for the dance. Then you can get a dialogue going with it. I think the actual steps came when everything else was more settled.”

Bruce continues, “What I do with the songs, is try and find an area of ambiguity with them. So, you feel that there’s a narrative but you have to engage with it yourself to decide what you feel it is. You have to make your own mind up; the narrative slips into thoughts really, about states of being. The songs that I like, do that. The rhythm of words, the way they are put together, give you images from dreams or associations. You’re trying to build this jigsaw of the world which you then present to people, having edited it and given it space. Then you see what the world is. I learn from that as well.”

Also new is Folk Tales, danced to seven pieces of music by English folk singer, guitarist and songwriter Martin Simpson. “He’s a great guitar player. Amazing technique. So many subtle accents. I discovered his music when I was at Rambert School back in the ’80s. His approach to his instrument has strongly influenced me choreographically, particularly his combining of different right-hand techniques, and his use of open tunings. How he plays it inspires a lot of vocabulary, a lot of steps.”

Watching Eleanor Duval and Jonathan Goddard working on one of the numbers, it’s impossible to disagree with Bruce when he describes Folk Tales as being very ‘steppy’. “It’s going to be a killer [for the dancers] because it’s all very nippy; quite a lot of allegro and one number after another. It’s also quite a celebratory piece, I think, although some of the ballads are quite dark.”

Mark Bruce Company’s Folk Tales with Jonathan Goddard and Carina Howard
Photo Mark Bruce

In that rehearsal, Duval and Goodard also illustrated perfectly the craft and importance of how you deliver a step. “We spend so much time on the detail. The way you do detail completely changes the essence of the phrasing; and dancing for me is so much about the essence of the phrasing. You look at all the great choreographers, and the phrasing is one important way of how they put their stamp on it,” says Bruce.

He explains Folk Tales is a made-up folk language with lots of influences from different styles. “Each piece is different. Some are like a jig, but I’m also using classical steps but done in a certain way. I’ve also been working with Jon on something kind of influenced by tap steps but not.” He explains that some of the numbers, such as ‘Betsy the Serving Maid’ and ‘Beaulampkins’ tell the story in a very traditional way, although the instrumentals are more difficult to pin down. “It’s been a pleasure to do because you can just get involved in the craft of the choreography with the music.”

Mark Bruce’s Folk Tales with Jonathan Goddard
Photo Mark Bruce

Completing the triple bill is Green Apples. Inspired by the raw power of the music of American rock duo The White Stripes, the ten-minute piece was very popular when first seen in 2006. “It’s just me responding to the music, explains Bruce. “It’s such fantastic music; so simple yet so clever. I just say down and choreographed it as it heard it in my head. It was a very popular piece and it’s really nice to bring it back and perform it for a generation that will never have seen it before.”

Bruce says it is great to be in the studio with dancers Eleanor Duval (appearing in her eighth company production) and Jonathan Goddard again. Referring specifically to Phantoms, he says, “As always Elle and Jon are able to lure us down into the darkness; to emerge embodying its power, mystery, humour and a myriad of emotions and truths.”

Mark Bruce’s Green Apples
Photo Mark Bruce

He laughs as he says he can be “quite dictatorial” at times but admits the pair have a huge influence on the work. “They are my inspiration. It feels like a collaborative journey of discovery all the time. Eleanor can be very specific about ‘my character would do this’ or ‘I know what you’re asking me but what about this?’ or ‘I feel like this’. It’s the same with Jon. They have so much licence. I love giving an idea for a character to someone. It’s like, I see this in you. Here’s a little thought. You inhabit that. You dance that character. And then we build something wonderful together. And that is the most rewarding thing of working in this field, of working with other people. You’re not communicating verbally a lot of the time, you’ve transcended that. That’s something really special. It’s very collaborative.”

For the triple bill, Duval and Goddard will be joined by Mark Bruce Company regular Carina Howard, Christopher Thomas and Bryony Harrison.

Mark Bruce’s Phantoms featuring Eleanor Duval
Photo Mark Bruce

Among the tour venues is the iconic Wilton’s Music Hall in London. Tucked away down an alley between Wapping and Whitechapel in East London, the restored but still slightly ramshackle Victorian music hall oozes mystery and myth. “It was that venue that really made me say that I was going to do a Dracula. The intimacy of it suits what I do. We don’t need any digital special effects. It’s all old-fashioned smoke and mirrors. It’s an honour to be in that venue and to be part of that tradition. It’s like being in a dream there,” Bruce says.

For those who cannot get to a live performance, good news is that Phantoms will be filmed straight after the tour, although how it will be distributed is still being discussed. “The work is so filmic, and I want to make films. We’ve now had the studio five years and it’s something we’re pushing more.” The film work also helps with the choreographic process, he believes. “All the different crafts inform each other all the time.”

Bruce’s new programme promises much. He says he hopes it will invigorate and inspire, and that Phantoms itself might stir and trigger the subconscious, allow it to breathe and perhaps even take over for a while.

Phantoms by Mark Bruce Company opens at the Merlin Theatre, Frome from February 3-5, 2022, before touring to Theatre Royal, Winchester; Wilton’s Music Hall, London; Dance East, Ipswich; and Salisbury Playhouse.