This isn’t a sponsored post. BrumHour is invited to review productions at Birmingham Hippodrome throughout the year.
By Diane Parkes
An Interview with Rosie Kay ahead of Fantasia
The World Premiere of Birmingham-based Rosie Kay’s new work Fantasia is at the Patrick Studio in Birmingham Hippodrome on 25th and 26th September. As a fantasia, it is just that – a colourful mix of fantasy, magic and surprise.
The choreographer, who is perhaps best known for her works Five Soldiers and the Commonwealth Games Handover to Birmingham 2022, is this time using dance to play with ideas, expectations and reality.
Set to music by classical composers including Beethoven, Bach and Vaughan Williams, Fantasia features three female dancers in a piece inspired by concepts of ideals and beauty.
I had a sense that everything I was going to see, whether it’s dance or theatre or movies, was actually quite miserable and ugly and about how terrible everything is.
So I started thinking about beauty and I was reading philosophy and Nietzsche who talks about how beauty is so much more than we think it is now. The Ancient Greeks believed there was a strong relationship between beauty and truth but beauty now is seen as very shallow.
Today beauty is just about superficial appearance but actually, it’s about so much more than that. Beauty has become separated from all the other ideas associated with it. For example, beauty can be terrifying – if you think about nature it can be beautiful yet also awe-inspiring at the same time.
There are three women dancers in the show and I play with the idea of them looking ‘pretty’ and presenting themselves but there’s a relationship between beauty and philosophy and melancholy.”
To explore these ideas, Rosie’s choreography sees the dancers performing together and breaking off for solos in a series of different scenes inspired by the idea of a classical fantasia.
I used to play the piano a lot and I always loved Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor – I was fascinated because the structure of it is really crazy!
I discovered that a fantasia is a piece of musical composition that breaks all the rules.
I love fantasias that take you on flights of fantasy. The most famous is Disney’s Fantasia film but a fantasia generally is a chance to play and explore. Also, the word is just magical – we’re not in a ‘fantasia’ world at the moment. If we stop in rehearsals to talk about the news of the day we have to stop and remind ourselves we really want to be looking at truth and beauty!”
Rosie Kay was born in Scotland and trained at London Contemporary Dance School. After performing with companies across the world she formed Rosie Kay Dance Company in 2004. Her works have included site-specific productions such as The Great Train Dance on Severn Valley Railway and Ballet on the Buses with Birmingham Royal Ballet.
And Rosie has taken on some difficult subjects to explore through dance. Over the past decade, Rosie has created and toured a trio of works all looking at the human body and how it is affected by external forces. In 2010 Rosie created Five Soldiers: The Body is the Frontline which examined war and the body, and which earlier this year was expanded into the larger production Ten Soldiers. In 2012 she choreographed There is Hope which looked at the body and religion, and last year she toured MK Ultra which focused on the body and politics.
For Rosie, Fantasia is a breath of fresh air after tackling such weighty subjects:
These have all been really big narrative pieces and, as a choreographer, after creating these works, I need to not make work about ‘stuff’, I need to come back to my craft and why I’m a choreographer and not a director. It’s like a physical need in me to make a piece which is just about dance.
That’s the start point for Fantasia – I really wanted to make really complex dance material. And then it’s a question of ‘what is that about?’ which led me to Fantasia.
That’s not to say that Fantasia isn’t also packed full of ideas. Rosie has been busy researching sources as diverse as philosophy, composition and art through to neuroscience and theories of modern beauty – then bringing them together into the work.
We’ve been looking at John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing from the 1970s and how we bring our own perspectives when we look at art. For female dancers, who use their own bodies in their art form, this has been revelatory. We’ve also been talking about the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. She was a contemporary of Caravaggio and her work is just as beautiful as Caravaggio’s but from a female perspective.
Her father was a painter who trained her to paint and his assistant raped her when she was a teenager. She took the man to court but she ended up getting tortured to see if she was telling the truth or not – despite the fact the crime was done to her!
So in the piece, we are finding moments where we can be a picture of beauty but we’re also looking at what’s really going on behind that picture. There is the Baroque beauty but there’s also anger and sentiment and pain and inner monsters – and then back to beauty again.”
Rosie has long been fascinated by the links between our minds and bodies and has worked with neuroscientists to test how people respond to dance emotionally:
I was part of a big research project in 2009 which was trying to discover whether you have an empathetic connection with the dancer when you watch dance. I choreographed a piece which was then tested with detailed verbal feedback and also with brain scanners.
The same three-minute dance was danced to Bach, just to breath and to more modern techno music. The research showed humans have a strong reaction to dance to classical music, but we also have a strong reaction to the dance just with the breath – it seemed to fire up a part of the brain which was the body-to-body response.
So when people say they respond to dance such as 5 Soldiers from the gut, they really do – it’s an empathetic response to what they are seeing.”
All of these ideas and the music of composers from Vivaldi to techno have helped Rosie create Fantasia. But although the context is rich, Rosie is clear that audiences will respond to the piece even if they know nothing beyond its name.
The dance, the performance and the performers will speak for themselves, you could just come in and watch the whole thing and it doesn’t matter whether any of this research is in your mind. A lot of it doesn’t matter for the audience – it’s for us, as creators and performers, so we know what we are playing with. The audience doesn’t need to know it – but they should feel it.
There should be an emotional journey, it should have peaks and troughs and climaxes and quiet valleys. I want people to feel really emotional but also to laugh and find it funny but by the end of an hour it should be like they hear the world and look at the world anew.
In some ways it’s quite a traditional piece of dance, it’s even got tutus, but it also breaks all the rules so it surprises us. I’ve gone off in my own direction – this piece gives me the liberty to challenge myself as much as possible.”
Rosie has worked with many of Birmingham’s arts companies including Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet, DanceXchange and last year she was named an associate artist of Birmingham Hippodrome. She’s also choreographed The Proclaimers’ film Sunshine on Leith and was a research associate at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford.
Living here and working in Birmingham I just feel so lucky at the moment, I’ve become better established over time particularly with the success of 5 Soldiers and MK Ultra. But I’ve always wanted to keep challenging myself and Fantasia is just that.
It’s like a cornucopia of so much dancing – everyone will be filled to the brim. I don’t think I’ve ever made a piece with so much non-stop technical dancing and yet it’s in this beautiful baroque world – it’s a real Fantasia.”
Rosie Kay’s Fantasia is performed at the Patrick Studio, Birmingham Hippodrome on 25th and 26th September, with a post-show talk on 25th September, birminghamhippodrome.com