Ballet meets rock in New English Ballet Theatre’s Genesis Dance Project

Classic rock features in a ballet programme for the second time this autumn as NEBT’s Genesis Dance Project features six choreographies to tracks by the iconic band. David Mead talks to Ruth Brill, one of the choreographers.

“I grew up with rock music. All sorts of music, but rock in particular. It was very much in the house because my dad was a DJ for Radio Caroline, the original pirate radio station, and still works for them.” But while Genesis was definitely amongst that, and a lot of their music is familiar, Ruth Brill says she didn’t know the ‘The Cinema Show,’ the track she was asked to choreograph to.

Ruth Brill
Photo David Neale

The other three choreographers in NEBT’s Genesis Dance Project, Wayne Eagling, Kristen McNally and Valentino Zucchetti, didn’t get to choose their music either. “I think there was a list that had obviously talked through and agreed with the band, and then they allocated tracks to us,” Brill says.

Taken from their 1973 album Selling England by the Pound, ‘The Cinema Show’ is one of Genesis’ most striking and avant-garde compositions; one that captures superbly the essence of their progressive rock style, intricate time signatures, elaborate vocals and lush instrumentals.

The track is essentially divided into two sections. The first is guitar-based piece and features  vocals by Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, and a short flute and oboe solo. The lyrics, by Tony Banks and Rutherford, and inspired by T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ are richly poetic and full of metaphor, allusion, and imagery. That’s followed by an extended, near-five minute instrumental section with an intense keyboard solo at its heart.

“When I got it, I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ It wasn’t what I was expecting at all,” says Brill. But, because there’s quite a lot of instrumental bits, it felt like a dance piece already. In a concert, I could imagine their being artistic concepts to fill those long passages.”

Brill admits that finding her way through the track was a bit tricky, however. “But I had the help of dramaturg Lou Cope. Her light touch helped me on my way. Just bouncing ideas around helps so much to find your way through. I think the music has stretched me, though. It’s been different.”

Ruth Brill’s ‘The Cinema Show,’
from New English Ballet Theatre’s Genesis Dance Project
Photo Andrei Uspenski

Inspired by the music, Brill says she could not ignore the fact that the lyrics tell a story. “The music has very much informed what I’ve done: the kind of characters, the kind of loose narrative, the feel.” She recalls thinking, “I have no idea what, but I can do something with this. Immediately it created this kind of surreal, mystical world. That was the starting point. It made me feel something. Then I found my way through from there.”

Although it finally reaches the stage this autumn, the Genesis Dance Project was first realised as a series of short films created during the pandemic. While never been officially released, some of the content has been seen on various trailers. But while brief was to make a dance film, Brill always had the hope that her creation would later be performed live. “So, I was kind of going with a two-pronged approach. It needed to work as a film but I also had to remember while people can just sort of disappear and not be in the next shot in a film, on stage they need to go somewhere, and so on.”

‘The Cinema Show’ by Ruth Brill,
part of New English Ballet Theatre’s Genesis Dance Project
Photo Andrei Uspenski

Going back to the lyrics, Brill admits to grappling a little with how far to obey them. How much could she get away with? Not so much ignoring them, but maybe setting them aside a little, she wondered. “Because when an audience sits and watches, they do not, they absolutely do not hear and take in every single word. In a way, I think having done Peter and the Wolf for Birmingham Royal Ballet, which has a set text that can’t be changed, and where I was responding to that as much as the music, helped. It’s working out that balance of trusting that your audience are going with what they see and what they hear. But I’ve certainly tried to pull out certain words in the lyrics. And there’s projection too, which I think also helps.”

While the lyrics to ‘The Cinema Show’ have key characters in Romeo and Juliet, Brill says she sees them as more just boy and girl, she says, “More interesting is Tyreseus. In legend there are many stories but my take on it is that he’s like this seer, basically controlling the lovers’ fate. When they meet, when they don’t. So, while of course it’s about Romeo and Juliet, there’s also this third being in Tyreseus who is actually controlling it all. Then I have a corps of six. They’re like a mass, Tyreseus’ kind of minions.”

In terms of dance vocabulary, Brill stresses that NEBT is New English Ballet Theatre. “I think retaining the ballet element of it is really important, whether that’s being in a pointe shoe or not, although I actually prefer choreographing on pointe anyway. But obviously it’s rock. It’s heavy. That’s been one of the key things to kind of eke out of these classically trained dancers. To really get them to be down. A lot of the movement is kind of throw away, heavier and sort of exaggerated. I guess it’s really in the torso and the weight.

‘Watcher of the Skies’ by Wayne Eagling from NEBT’s Genesis Dance Project
Photo Andrej Uspenski

Taken as a whole, Brill says the ten-minute track “feels quite different to a piece of classical music, which tends to go up and down, up and down. This, in a way, just intensifies. It builds and builds and builds, up and up, louder and louder. It’s also kind of mysterious and goes a bit surreal towards the end.” She initially wondered how she was going to sustain its particular kind of high energy all the way to the end. “Actually, I think I’ve created something a bit exhausting. Sorry, guys!” she says laughing.

‘The Cinema Show’ does not connect into the other five choreographies of Genesis Dance Project (‘Watcher of the Skies’ and ‘Ripple’ by Eagling, ‘I Can’t Dance’ and ‘Invisible Touch’ by McNally, and ‘Firth of Fifth’ by Zucchetti) apart from the fact the dancers wear the same costumes, albeit with a few tweaks and adaptations. “My characters don’t go through into the other pieces. The pairings don’t go through or anything like that. At this point, they all stand alone. We were given free reign and allowed to create as we wished, using as many dancers as we wished, entirely inspired by the track that we have.”

‘I Can’t Dance’ by Kristen McNally, part of NEBT’s Genesis Dance Project
Photo Nina Kobiashvili

Those dancers are in for a busy evening. “They dance a lot in this programme. There’s a full first half of new work. And then all these different Genesis tracks. It’s a lot of repertoire for them to do.”

A feature of performances of this season’s other rock music ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Black Sabbath – The Ballet was how many rock fans rather than ballet fans were in the audience. Will this happen with Genesis Dance Project? “I don’t know,” says Brill. “But it will be really interesting to see. how far it reaches; whether Genesis fans see it and hear about it and come. I’d like to think that they would, because surely that’s part of the point.

Brill says that NEBT are keen to develop and progress Genesis Dance Project. Like everyone, she adds, “I’m quite intrigued to see how it lands and where it goes from here. It’s certainly a big question. How does it evolve if it’s to become a longer show?”

Genesis Dance Project forms part of New English Ballet Theatre’s forthcoming programme at the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London on November 2 & 3, 2023.