An Interview with Rosie Kay


On November the 1st the Brunton welcomes
Rosie Kay & her quality dancers, currently
Touring the UK with the wonderful Fantasia

Hello Rosie, first things first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
I’m originally from the Borders of Scotland (from a tiny place called Chirnside), I grew up near London, in Devon and then in Edinburgh. I spent a few years working aboard as a dancer in Poland, France, Germany and the USA and I currently live in Birmingham, where I’ve lived for the past 16 years.

When did you first develop a love of dance?
My parents say I danced before I could talk, and for me dance seemed to be integral to my understanding of myself and the universe. I began ballet at 3 years old, and although I took it incredibly seriously, dancing through my teenage years, I never thought it would or could be my career. I discovered contemporary dance when I was 17 and realised this was what I wanted to do. I feel very lucky to be doing what I love everyday, but it can be tough at times.

How did you get into choreography?
Making dances was always really important to me- I used to do it in my parents living room, and then I started making dances in the school gym after lessons. I loved dance, theatre, art, music and history, and I felt that dance had a special way of saying something to the world. I saw as much dance as I could, particularly growing up in Edinburgh as a teenager there was amazing companies coming to the International Festival each year. I trained at London Contemporary Dance School, where I learnt choreography and loved making dances, although I never got very good grades! Then, throughout my career performing I made small works- solos and duets that I performed at Edinburgh Festival Fringe (often at Dance Base). It was after I moved to Birmingham that I began to really create larger, longer works and get funding support which meant the company could grow. Currently we are Associate Company at Birmingham Hippodrome, one of the biggest theatres in the UK.

RKDC Rosie Kay's Fantasia image Brian Slater 6.jpg

Photo: Brian Slater

You’re currently touring a show around Britain, can you tell us about it?
A ‘Fantasia’ is a composition that breaks all the rules and I wanted to have something that was on the surface purely about music, dance and the experience of live art, but underneath would have more layers, meaning and research. It’s a wonderful way to spend an hour, watching three incredible dancers at the peak of their performing and technical powers, but in another way it’s to think more deeply about beauty, empathy and the world around us. We premiered the show in Birmingham and it’s then been to Liverpool on tour. The response has been incredible- it’s so wonderful to come out of a theatre and everyone is talking and laughing- there is a real sense of joy and exhilaration by the end. After Musselburgh we tour the UK until the end of November.

How do you think Ballet is adapting for the 21st century as an artform in general?
Gosh- that’s a huge question, and it depend which perspective you’re looking at it from. I am a contemporary based choreographer, but I have danced ballet since I was three, and even been a performer in a ballet-theatre company. It is an extremely important dance form to me personally and in Western art. When I was a student, choreographers like William Forsyth were really modernising ballet and taking it to totally new places, which was so inspiring. I thought this would naturally continue, and you can see some elements of this, for example in the way that in the UK Wayne MacGregor is Associate Choreographer to the Royal Ballet. He is a contemporary dance choreographer, but his work translates on to ballet dancers bodies. To be honest, I thought there would be more cross-disciplinary work between ballet and contemporary; it’s such an exciting area of development, but for quite a few years I haven’t seen as much of it as I’d like. Maybe that’s why I decided to attack it myself.

What compelled you to create Fantasia?
I’d finished a huge trilogy of works that explore really big, serious political issues. These were the body and war (5/10 Soldiers), the body and religion (There is Hope) and the body and politics (MK Ultra). I’d had to be very concerned with their meaning, their narrative qualities and the reception from audiences who might confront issues they may know about, but have not seen in such a way before. This has been hugely rewarding and taken me to places I’d never would have expected (particularly with the Army). However, I really wanted to focus my choreographic powers on a purer form, so chose music, dance and emotion as the starting point. Music, dance and emotion are probably always my starting point, but using them alone forces you to think more creatively, and to push yourself choreographically. I wanted to test what I could create, what the dancers could accomplish, and to challenge the audience in what they see and hear. I spent several years working with neuroscientists on a project that examined how people perceive music and dance in the brain, and what effect this has on them. This research has been a strong starting point for me, and I followed up with a visit to the center for Music in the Brain in Denmark. This approach, that is both pure but also deeply researched has been the starting point for Rosie Kay’s Fantasia.

Can you tell us about your research for the piece?
With the Watching Dance Project, I created a 4-minute work of dance that could be performed identically with either Bach, silence (and the dancer’s breath) or to electronic music. We performed it and conducted intense audience research with the viewers. We then repeated the experiment with people watching the dance on video screen while they were in an fMRI scanner to see how their brains reacted. The biggest contrast was between the Bach and the breath/silence dances. When people watched the dance performed with the Bach music, they talked of the pleasure of finding patterns and repetition and putting the music and dance together in their heads. This was backed up by the scanners, which showed that the areas of the brain that lit up were connected to pattern recognition and mathematics. When people watched the breath/silence dance, some people talked of loving it because it felt real, authentic, visceral; they could see the effort of the dancers and they felt connected to them as humans. Other people talked of how much they hated seeing the dance in silence- because it felt raw, visceral and sweaty! This was backed up by the scan results which showed a very different part of the brain that lit up- that which is linked to body-to body connection- what one could call gut response. People love that feeling or hate it- I can’t control that but I can understand that people will take different things from the same piece of dance and music.

Who are your dancers & how are they doing?
My dancers are three female artists, whom I have worked with before and love working with. Carina Howard joined the company last year for MK Ultra, Shanelle Clemenson and I started working together about 4 years ago and she has been in MK Ultra, Modern Warrior and Fantasia. Harriet Ellis joined the company in late 2016 and has performed in MK Ultra, Modern Warrior, 5 Soldiers and 10 Soldiers. It been such a lovely experience for all of us- we all love to work really hard, and somehow this piece has pushed us all way out of our comfort zones- it has been really challenging as each part of the show has had to use different methods to be made and requires different skills from the performers. Working with an all-female cast has been so great- we’ve all laughed a lot and cried a little bit too!

What music have you chosen & why?
The whole structure of the work took several years of listening to music and dancing to the music. I created a playlist of about 200 tracks and then spent time alone dancing to them, seeing what came out of my body and finding the tracks that moved me and stimulated my ear choreographically. I then whittled this down to about 25 tracks and handed it over to the composer Annie Mahtani. She made the final choice of tracks (although I had some rules on what had to be in there and in which order) and then she handed back a playlist in the order she felt gave the right balance to an hour show. It needs thought to have highs and lows over the length of time, so she put it together like an evening’s concert. The show’s bedrock is Baroque music, which encompasses Vivaldi, Bach, Purcell and Telemann. We break this up with some 20th century piano by Hungarian composer Kurtag, and we also have works by Beethoven (Moonlight Sonata) and Vaughan Williams (Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis). There are strong links through the use of piano and Vivaldi, but each piece of music had to move and inspire me individually as well as work as a whole concert.

RKDC Rosie Kay's Fantasia image Brian Slater 2.jpg

Photo: Brian Slater

Has Fantasia changed much in the weeks it has been on the road?
I love seeing the dancers start to play with it. At first you really don’t know what reaction you will get. There is a lot of humour in it, but in dance, you are not too sure if the audience will get the playfulness and humour or not. It was wonderful to hear people laughing and in Liverpool they really got it! I always rehearse the day before and on the day of the show- it is so technically demanding, we have to keep making sure certain sections are getting tighter and tighter and more detailed. The dancers can’t kick back and let go- they need to stay very tight and on it.

You’ve got 20 seconds to sell Fantasia to somebody in the street…
Forget all our current troubles- come and watch some beautiful, emotional, clever, intelligent dance. I guarantee that by the time you walk out of the theatre you will feel better about the world and maybe even want to dance yourself!

Rosie Kay’s Fantasia

Friday November 1st

The Brunton, Musselburgh


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