Russell Maliphant is a very busy man. I speak to him over the phone as he dashes between rehearsals, walking along the street with the sounds of a busy, hot London all around him. I can’t keep track of where he’s supposed to be and what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s in Covent Garden with Carlos Acosta. He starts rehearsing with Sylvie Guillem next week. In France. Then they’re going to Taiwan. A lot of much less busy people might spend their whole time running around telling everyone how little time they have and how busy they are but the control and serenity that comes across in Maliphant’s work seems to also emanate from the man himself. The fact that he’s used to it by now probably helps as well.
Maliphant started as a ballet dancer in what was then the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet. He left to work in a more experimental, contemporary area, dancing for companies such as DV8 (he was in the original Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men), Michael Clark and Laurie Booth. When he started out, he wasn’t interested in choreographing himself but the process of working in this much more collaborative way did, he tells me, make him “start thinking about aesthetics more”. The seed had been planted but the collaboration that set Maliphant on the course that you might say, he has remained on ever since was working and touring with Laurie Booth, in improvised pieces of work.
These works featured: “improvised movement as well as improvised lighting. So it was composition in the moment and made me think about the use of space all the time.”
It effects how he works now when creating a new piece he explains. He’ll try something out with dancers, film it and use video editing to play around with it: slow the pace, add jumps. There’s a lot you can do now with video editing tools that is very useful for a choreographer, he explains. It was also during the time working with Laurie Booth that marked the beginning of the most important artistic collaboration of Maliphant’s career. Michael Hulls was improvising the lighting design while Maliphant was improvising the choreography. They got to know each other and became interested in the possibility of starting a process where the first element wasn’t music but light. This conversation led to some development time at Middlesex University and the creation of a piece called Unspoken which was presented at The Place in 1996, the year that Maliphant started his own company.
Many of the images that the most memorable elements of Maliphant’s work are the direct results of this collaboration. Shadows become otherworldly dancers themselves, the textures of a candle flickering find their way into the physical movement of a piece, etc. As is the case with all the best collaborations, the question of who does what dissolves and what is being created only becomes possible when you get two particular people in a room together.
The minimalism of the aesthetic that Maliphant and Hulls have developed over the years has been shaken up by some recent collaborations, most notably with the film maker and video artist Isaac Julien on Cast No Shadow:
“You’re always looking for areas to move into that expand [your] knowledge and experience. That was the first time I’d worked with film projection. For one piece, True North, we had to find a way to insert dance into it because it was already finished and that was difficult because it’s a bit strange to try to “improve” something like that when it already exists as a piece in its own right. The other piece Small Boats was made in a much more collaborative way from the start though. Something that came out of that was the idea of using projection as a light source from above and that was something we explored further when we made Afterlight, where we worked with an animator [Jan Urbanowski].”
One collaboration opens up a door to a new idea, a new possibility. This seems to be a theme of Maliphant’s career. Things don’t always move in straight lines though. They can often turn back on themselves but are transformed by the journeys they’ve undergone. His return to the world of ballet may not be entirely unconnected to his relationship with his now wife Dana Fouras, who trained as a classical dancer in Australia. Maliphant originally choreographed Two for Fouras (the piece isn’t a duet despite the name) and has recently reworked it to be performed by Sylvie Guillem. This piece was made in 2001 and its stark geometric logic clearly inspired the imaginations of other classical dancers. Maliphant found himself working with Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, who had left their positions as principals at the Royal Ballet to form the Balletboyz. Maliphant explains that he found ways of integrating that strong classical technique, that partnering, “with the language I’d been working with in the intervening period”.
And then came Guillem. Through the late 1980s, she had been a principal dancer for the Paris Opera Ballet and became their youngest ever étoile (top ranking female dancer). By the 1990s, she was in London, regularly performing with the Royal Ballet and by the turn of the millennium, she was officially declared the “world’s best ballerina” as a recipient of the Nijinsky prize. She was Giselle, Odette, Juliet; the poster up on the little girl’s wall. Guillem’s collaborations with Maliphant and her subsequent move into the world of contemporary dance might seem inevitable now but it wasn’t always thus:
“When something’s new, you don’t know if people are going to like it. To put the two of us together in the first place was a surprise at the beginning because when we started she was still at the Royal Ballet. Now it’s not a surprise. Back then, people were familiar with her for Giselle and Swan Lake. That wasn’t going to be what I would do. You do worry if the audience are going to be disappointed that you’re not giving them what they expect. You still get a lot of lines in her movement, of course, because that’s what her body falls into, but that was something we could use without it becoming Swan Lake. It was something that was still part of me too because I grew up with that.”
The piece that came out of that first collaboration was Push in 2005. Nine years later, the work has travelled all over the world, selling out theatres wherever it goes. The combination of Maliphant’s minimalist, evocative aesthetics and Guillem’s technical perfection has captured the imagination of dance audiences everywhere.
It is now returning to the Coliseum for its “final ever London performances”. I wonder how the piece has changed over the years.
“Most elements stay the same. It’s the same choreography. We might make minor changes but it’s pretty much the same. For me, doing it from age 43 to 52, a lot changes in those years. That’s an element that feels different. When you work on a piece for a really long time, it starts to stretch into the background. I mean nine years is a long time to be doing something.”
I wonder how long they can keep performing it. Maliphant is careful to only speak for himself. “I suppose the body responds to the pressures you put it through. I’m still able to do it though which is a good thing, I think. I wouldn’t have expected to still be doing it now. I doubt we’ll be going for much longer.”
Push is at the London Coliseum from 29th July to the 3rd August.