David Mead talks to New English Ballet Theatre artistic director and CEO, Karen Pilkington Miksa, about the forthcoming streaming of the ballet, the present situation and future plans.
While everyone wants to be back in theatres as soon as it is possible, the expansion of online content offered by dance companies has allowed them to reach a much wider audience that would otherwise have been the case. That’s certainly true for New English Ballet Theatre, which from October 15 will be adding Wayne Eagling’s ballet Remembrance to its digital offering.
Remembrance, which had its premiere in 2018, is a 65-minute narrative ballet inspired by the romance between Marie Rambert and playwright Ashley Dukes, who first met at a dinner party in 1917 when he was on leave from the Army. After returning to the front, the couple continued to correspond regularly, during which he proposed to her. They married in 1918. The ballet is set to the beautiful Ode for St Cecilia’s Day by Handel.
Karen explains that the ballet came about when she was approached by Eagling, who had previously been approached by the librettist, Greg Billingsley in 2017. “I really liked the idea, she says. “It was the 100th anniversary of the armistice, and we wanted to do something to mark that, and this seemed perfect.”
It was also Billingsley who suggested using the Handel. Karen recalls being a little taken aback by the choice, but concedes that the storyline really worked for the music.
The main couple were originally just eponymous, imaginary dancers of the period. “Then we suddenly realised that everything fitted perfectly the story of Marie Rambert and Ashley Dukes.
The ballet opens with the couple’s wedding before flipping back in time. We see him watching her in rehearsal and being called back to the front, where he writes all these letters to Marie. “We had a look at them in the Rambert Archive. He was actually at the Second Front in Amiens, which is where the battlefield scene takes place.”
Coming back to London, a particularly poignant scene sees Rambert imagining getting a telegram. “She lived with the Muirhead’s during the war, and they had two sons and got two telegrams. So, she lived with that experience. What Wayne then did with the ballet, which makes it such a universal statement, is that he took her worry and suffering, and her imagining and translated it into a universal expression of everybody waiting and not knowing, and their suffering and the support they gave to each other.”
Remembrance was undoubtedly an exceedingly ambitious project for a company of NEBT’s size. But although much longer than the company’s ballets usually are, Karen says that the stamina involved wasn’t actually that different from a normal programme. “We’re a small company, so the dancers are in every ballet anyway. What usually happens in the break between the pieces, is a mad costume change, pulling on sweaty tights and going straight back on stage in another work.”
But there were challenges. “We rehearsed in the summer. April Dalton’s costumes were fabulous but the men’s uniforms were wool. It was hot and there were times when we really had trouble. At dress rehearsal, we nearly had a few people fainting. But the dancers’ attack and keeping up of energy levels in those hot costumes was quite something. Costume maintenance was a big thing as well.”
Visually, viewers will find the ballet a stunner. Nina Kobiashvili’s designs and Andrew Ellis’ lighting evoke period and time well. Karen particularly recalls the railway station, its clock and train lights; also the jackets, hats and gloves that everyone wore then. “We also used a lot of pictures from Marie Rambert’s biography and the Rambert Archive.”
Karen reveals that, when Remembrance premieres online on October 15, it will be alongside a film about the making of the ballet that includes an interview with Wayne Eagling and rehearsal footage. There will also be The Armoured Inkwell, a poem by Aiden Dunn, grandson of Marie Rambert, written to mark the release of the ballet and based upon the life of Ashley Dukes; and The Legacy of Marie Rambert, an interview with Rambert archivist Carly Randall. Look out too for a possible special event around Wednesday November 11, Armistice Day, and a possible screening at the Lyric Hammersmith if it reopens in time.
Turning to how NEBT has coped with the shutdown, Karen says, “It’s been quite a scrabble for us, as with everyone else. We’ve had to make huge adjustments.” She explains how they have been unable to access their offices at the Lyric Hammersmith, where the company is a cultural partner. “They can’t open the building safely because of all the disinfecting and security that would be needed, so we’re all working from home with all of our dancers and staff meeting remotely on Zoom.”
Promoting the company’s digital content has been important not only in keeping NEBT audience facing and in the public eye, but in keeping the dancers engaged too.
“They are being very diligent,” says Karen. “We commissioned a montage film called Lockdown into Light that they filmed themselves. Now they’re each doing individual films for a series we are calling Playlist. Each of our dancers is producing a two-and-a-half-minute dance video to their favourite music. Our filmmaker Alice Pennefather is working with them on some of the self-editing. So they are building their skill set at the same time. As with Lockdown into Light, we are able to pay them, albeit on a reduced rate, but they all say how wonderful it is to have something to work on.”
The first Playlist films are in final edit now, with individual premieres scheduled between mid-October and January 2021.
There have also been choreographer spotlights, and a streaming of Jenna Lee’s The Four Seasons (all still available on YouTube).
While they have been able to do class online, notably English National Ballet’s professional class, nothing can substitute a real class for stamina, Karen admits. “And, of course, there’s no grand allegro. But they are amazing. They’ve really stayed in shape, even with the postage stamp spaces some of them have.”
“We’ve had a very generous response for supporting the dancers too. We started an artist emergency fund, and we raised about £30,000 towards keeping them all on a smaller contract,” she says, adding that the company’s patrons in the main ballet companies, who coach dancers, have been great too.
“We’ve always had good contacts with all the schools because we often take their graduates into our rehearsal programme. Dancers from last year’s graduating classes at such as Elmhurst, English National Ballet School and The Royal Ballet School all had students who didn’t get to do auditions because of lockdown, and didn’t get jobs as well. We’ve been talking to them about having them visit class when we start doing rehearsal, and taking part in our fitness schemes so they can be hired for the summer programme that we will be doing. We’ve been talking to each other a lot.”
Looking ahead, NEBT’s 2020 tenth anniversary tour has been moved to similar dates from June 2021. Some negotiations are still ongoing, but the company has had a lot of support, says Karen.
That, now 2021 Love Games programme is set to feature very different works with equally diverse music that stretches from classical to electronic. In Jeux, a reflection on the power and vulnerability of the artist, Wayne Eagling pays tribute to Vaslav Nijinsky, creator of the 1913 original, and Kenneth MacMillan, who partially recreated it in 1980. Also featured are Daniela Cardim’s Vertex, premiered by NEBT in 2016; Domino by Ruth Brill, that suggests a game of human dominoes; Rosamunde by Morgann Runacre-Temple, and All in Passing by Peter Leung. Finally there is Unbridled Blood by Érico Montes, a playful response to Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata, that was to be performed at this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival in celebration of the composer’s 250th anniversary.
For more about New English Ballet Theatre, visit www.nebt.co.uk.
To read Charlotte Kasner’s 2018 conversation with Wayne Eagling about Remembrance, click here.