Postponed for eighteen months due to Covid, McNicol Ballet Collective at last has its stage debut next month with Awakenings, a programme of four world premieres. Following up on a conversation in early 2020, David Mead catches up with founder-choreographer Andrew McNicol.
“Losing that show really hurt,” says Andrew McNicol. “It was such a wonderful group of people who had really committed, and it was sort of at that stage in the process where we had done all the hard work. We were so close to the finishing line. It’s been quite interesting to have space from it, then come back to it, though.”
The new Awakenings programme features four works by McNicol himself, among them a brand-new, reimagined version of Firebird. Performed in what is the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death, Firebird Reimagined sees man, nature and technology come together in a modern work featuring set and costume by award-winning designer Elin Steele, Young Associate designer for Matthew Bourne’s 2019 UK tour of Romeo & Juliet, and whose upcoming projects include Kenneth Macmillan’s The Scandal at Mayerling for Scottish Ballet.
“I’ve always been drawn to Firebird, and I always thought there was scope to do something different with it. And it was nice to do something in homage after all that Stravinsky’s done for the art form. I could see Kristen McGarrity as the Firebird: her quality, her way of moving, her understanding of character and physicalising that. There seems to be something very poignant as well about it for me, the Firebird representing nature, and this tension between man and nature and what’s happening with the world.”
An original dance film of Firebird Reimagined premiered online in September, featuring McGarrity and Scottish Ballet principal dancer Evan Loudon.
Also brand new is Bates Beats an energetic, exuberant work set to a pulsating score by American composer Mason Bates. With those two works, McNicol says he has been really able to collaborate with and involve the dancers in the creative process. “It’s what everybody is really craving for.”
Alongside these are two existing works that, thanks to the pandemic, have not yet been performed live. “It’s really interesting to have something created, then put to one side, then come back to it. I don’t think I’ve ever had that opportunity before.”
Of Silence is described as an exploration of hope, connection and belonging. Like all the pieces, its themes and ideas are rooted in and come from the music, in this case a choral score by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks that has been described as “a mediation on hope.” It certainly has a sense of reaching out, of going almost beyond the notes, that from a brief look in rehearsal is reflected in the choreography. McNicol says, “He often describes his music as a kind of ‘homage to nature’ or ‘meditation on nature’, so there’s another kind of thread there. It has this sense of scale or vastness, a connecting back; and a kind of spiritual, quite centred, introspective quality. I was really drawn to that.”
Set to an original, specially commissioned score by Nicholas Thayer and Setareh Nafisi, In Ecstasy is a choreographic and musical response to the progressive Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, who was noted for his unusual harmonies and exploration of symbolism.
It sounds like a busy show for the dancers. “Everyone is in at least three of the four pieces, but they are all different, with a different emphasis. I think over the course of the evening, everyone will really have their moment to really dance, to really do what they just love to do.”
A lot of them are new to each other, to partnering each other, and to find quality in that takes time, says McNicol. “What’s nice about this process is that we have six weeks in total together, so we can really get through all of that. It feels like such a luxury after being out of the studio and doing all the Zoom stuff.”
The shutdown was hard for McNicol as it was for everyone. After the original show went, there was a sort of domino effect, he explains. “Lots of things were cancelled or postponed or pushed back. I had lined up a series of things, and knew I was OK for a few years, then all of a sudden, it was blank.”
The break gave him time to think, however. “What do I want this to look like in five years’ time? I really went deep into that and put together a five-year plan and used the time to think much longer term. It was never about one show for me. It was always about building a community and a collective of artists to work together and to collaborate and to do something in this space that we wouldn’t normally do in other contexts or other settings.”
Besides its stage and film work, as part of the collective’s visit to Hull, McNicol is also launching its education and outreach programme with the city-wide dance initiative Unbound. For the performance strand, dance artist and choreographer Bim Malcomson is creating a new work with local dance schools, to be performed as a curtain raiser for the performance at Hull New Theatre.
There’s much more. Unbound also includes mentoring opportunities for teachers and senior students interested in learning more and developing their skills in dance and performance, and a series of workshops covering dance, dance on camera, and lighting and technical skills, hosted by the theatre and Hull City Hall.
“I wanted the programme to think about the whole art form,” says McNicol. “What I love about ballet is that it brings everything together: music, design and dance. It is in its very nature collaborative. It’s important to get across to young people that you don’t have to be centre stage. There are so many other ways you can contribute and be involved. this creates some kind of blueprint that we can scale up and replicate in other areas and other communities gradually over time.”
“I am so thrilled about it. I was born and raised in Hull, so there is also something quite nice about going back to that community, and bringing these extraordinarily talented artists to inspire the next generation of young people to get involved. To be going back there with my own company is quite an amazing full circle moment.”
With an eye to the future, McNicol explains that one intention of Awakenings being a four-ballet programme is that it gives flexibility. Although this season only sees performances in two venues, he says that there are plans in progress to have further performances. “We could do all four, or just one as part of a festival, but I very much view the collective as a creation company,” he stresses. “What I really want to do is to get into a rhythm, into a cycle where people who enjoy our work know that, every autumn, they are going to see a new stage show, which we might then tour in the spring. And then in the spring, we release a new film, with the outreach work ongoing alongside.”
Although now unattached, McNicol’s dancers have all been with major companies or in major productions and come with a range of experiences. “After everything that has happened, I really wanted to use the collective platform to support freelancers. Everyone in that room has their own character and personality. I want that to be part of what the Collective is too. They are a company of originals, uniquely talented and experienced dancers.
“The other common thread is that everyone cares about the process and has this kind of open mentality and willingness and desire to work as collaborators. That’s absolutely non-negotiable for me. I want the space to feel like that. I want people to feel they can speak up. But with a focus and rigour. We absolutely have that with this group of people and I’m very proud of that.”
McNicol Ballet Collective perform Awakenings at The Bloomsbury Theatre, London on November 13 & 14, 2021, at Hull New Theatre on November 21. Follow the links for tickets and times.
For more about the collective, visit www.mcnicolballetcollectve.co.uk.