David Mead talks to English National Ballet’s much in-demand Associate Choreographer, whose extended version of her jazz ballet premieres at Sadler’s Wells on October 9.
“It’s been a really fun piece to work on,” says Stina Quagebeur of Take Five Blues, now extended from its 2020 digital programme beginnings, then performed as part of English National Ballet’s Reunion quintuple bill in May 2021. Much of that is down to the music, from Nigel Kennedy’s jazz album, Recital, she explains. “It’s brilliant. I absolutely love it. It’s so interesting to choreograph to. You never get bored. There are so many things in the music, so many layers.”
Back in 2020, Quagebeur was only allowed fifteen minutes for the piece. “I remember struggling really choosing which tracks to use because they were all so good.” When offered the chance to extend it for the forthcoming triple bill, she leapt at the opportunity.
The original work was made just as everyone was coming out of lockdown. Making something upbeat was important, she felt. The extended version has kept that uplifting feel with the nature of the music is as important as ever, she says.
She recalls everyone having such a good time creating it. “We were in this Covid bubble. We really didn’t see anyone else. It was almost like our own little company. We were so excited to be back in the studio. It was still relatively stress free. The only thing we did was go in and do that, and go home. It was very special.”
Quagebeur was allocated eight dancers: an unusual combination of three women and five men. “I had one couple, a guy and a girl, so they could partner, and I had two men who lived together, so they could partner. With the rest, there was no contact allowed. It did shape the piece.”
Although there is a little more partnering in the extended work, it is set up in much the same way as the original, with the same number of dancers, she explains. “I wanted to keep that kind of intimate space they were in. It has a real personality. Each dancer has their character. There’s no big pas de deux number. It is still very much a very playful thing.”
Quagebeur recently retired from stage, her final show being an emotion-packed performance of Akram Khan’s Giselle at the Theatre Champs-Elysees in Paris, coincidentally also Rojo’s farewell. “It was a nice final goodbye, to a production, but also to a role that meant so much to me as a dancer.”
But never say never. She says, “It doesn’t mean I’ll never go on stage again, but in terms of very physical work, definitely my body won’t take it. I don’t think my back can last too many more arabesques! But I love theatrical roles, so maybe it’s not an end to something like that. It takes a lot of energy to keep in shape at that level, and I really want to have more time to explore choreography and research.”
Quagebeur’s interest in choreography started young. She recalls recreating the dance of such as Cullberg Ballet and the Béjart company who she saw in Brussels as a child. “I think it’s been a passion from the very beginning. I think dance is an expression, and for me, the creative element was an important part of that.”
Creating for a professional company was always a dream that she had, but Quagebeur admits almost giving up on it. “Opportunities are hard to get. I spent a long time at ENB creating for the choreographic workshops that we did. Any opportunity that came my way, basically.” But nothing really happened until Rojo arrived and, after doing two or three pieces on a small scale, she got the opportunity to do Nora. “You really do need someone who will trust you and give you the opportunity to go for it.”
It is still harder to female choreographers to make their mark, she feels, but equally, and while accepting fully the importance of and the need for diversity to be promoted, she says, “You do get to the point where I would like to be chosen just because of my work, and not because I am female.”
It was sometimes strange combining choreographing and dancing, she admits. “One minute you are dancing with the group, and then you are at the front of the room directing it. It does give you the advantage of knowing people really, really well, what they are really capable of, but it can get tricky. There are pros and cons, definitely.”
Being made Associate Choreographer has given her the flexibility to go outside and do other projects, she says. “That was really important: to start developing with other people, with other dancers. Those other projects include Nostalgia for Northern Ballet, part of their present Made in Leeds programme. “But, this year, I am mostly doing a lot of small projects with the company. And because I’ve only just retired, we are kind of in a little transition.”
In her more abstract pieces such as Take Five Blues, Quagebeur sees her style as a marriage of a strong classical base and a contemporary ease. Meshing the two, finding a middle ground, helps make classical ballet more relevant to younger audiences, she considers. Unlike Forsythe, “which is right down to the extensions and full body,” she describes her work as having “a real looseness in the flow and in the style of it,” although she feels it is something still developing as she finds her own unique approach.
Narrative work is very much a favourite, though. “I love taking the audience on a journey emotionally. I want them to get sucked in. I want them to really feel something, whether relevant to their own lives or something else, and to relate to dancers as human beings. Just touching people. That’s what I really love doing. It’s much more challenging as well because it’s not just the steps and what you can do with them, there’s all the intention of the movement, the meaning of the movement.”
Quagebeur says that working with Akram Khan has influenced her a lot, especially in terms of making characters human, in terms of the intention of movement and the acting. “I think what I’ve learned as a dancer, as Myrtha in Giselle, is that embodying that character, becoming that character and really physicalising from head to toe is so important.”
She enjoys trying to explain and explore emotions that are sometimes hard to express in words. “There are certain feelings that are so hard to describe but that can be embodied in dance.” Nostalgia, for example, has a bittersweet feeling, a kind of longing for the past, a time no longer there but with which there is still a connection, she says. “It toys with those emotions and feelings and kind of builds a narrative, not necessarily a linear narrative, maybe more an emotional journey. It’s kind of sad and happy at the same time, and I wanted to capture that.
Looking ahead, things look busy for Quagebeur. She reveals she’s in discussion about a few things in America while, more immediately, she starts work in December on a new piece for the Badisches Staatsballett in Karlsruhe, the premiere of which is slated for May. “Funnily enough, they saw Take Five Blues and happened to be planning a jazz evening. So, it’s more jazz! And a jazz band! I think I’ll be jazzed out by the end of next year!” she says laughing.
Stina Quagebeur’s extended Take Five Blues premieres at Sadler’s Wells, London, from November 9-12, 2022, as part of English National Ballet’s EK/Forsythe/Quagebeur programme.