FOCUS | LEARNING EMPATHY THROUGH NARRATIVE DANCE

ISS2018 Director Terence Kohler spoke with INTERNATIONAL SUMMER SCHOOL'S FIRST "Choreographer in Residence" Cathy Marston to discuss her approach when creating narratives through dance and how she engages dancers during her creative process.

 

Terence Kohler: When did you know that choreography was something you were interested in and what place has it taken in your life?

Cathy Marston: Looking back, I’ve always been choreographing, but I didn’t know it until I went to the Royal Ballet School in London at the age of sixteen. Since then it’s been the driver of my whole career - even when dancing myself, I was always looking at my work from a choreographic perspective. 

 

TK: Storytelling is making somewhat of a comeback in the dance world lately. Having always creating narrative ballets, why do you think stories told through dance are important for us today?

CM: I think stories told through any form of expression are important. Through imagining what it’s like to experience someone else’s journey we learn empathy and develop our emotional intelligence. As a dancer or choreographer, this journey is even more intense as we literally ‘embody’ someone else’s story, or try to find formalised expression of our own stories through our bodies. As an audience member, sometimes images and moments - especially coupled with music - can speak louder than words. Dance can say some things more powerfully and directly that words cannot - and of course vice-versa. Dance can also allow - and challenge -  the audience to interpret in a way that provokes more involvement than words, because it’s a language that we are often less confident with, despite reading body language on a daily basis!

 

TK: Only recently you created a new ballet upon the theme of Hamlet in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, however from the perspective of Gertrude. What compelled you to follow this direction?

CM: I often look for untold perspectives in classic stories - actually influenced by Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which he tells the story of two very minor characters in Hamlet, while Shakespeare’s play takes place in the shadows. Perhaps because I’m now a mother, and having recently had a son, I was drawn to her story! Anyway I felt that she’s a major player in the piece but gets very few lines, and has been rather overlooked in my opinion. I also felt she’s often written off as a ‘negative person’ which I didn’t think was necessarily the case, and so I wanted to investigate!

 PHOTO: COURTESY OF CATHY MARSTON

PHOTO: COURTESY OF CATHY MARSTON

TK: How do you approach narratives? Do you always try to translate stories through dance exactly as they are written on the page or do you have other approaches?

CM: I like to interpret, lift up the flaps and find the ‘undersides’ to the story. Sometimes I consider a story from a different perspective to the author. I often take an expressionist approach to using the ‘group’ as a chorus, amplifying and visualising the protagonist’s journey or emotions in a more abstract way. 

 

TK: How would you describe your creative process once you’re in the studio working with dancers? Do you tell them exactly what to do?

CM: No, I work very collaboratively. we discuss the story, the characters and the relationships between the characters at length. We develop movement by writing lists of words which describe these things more and more abstractly, and then translate these words into movement. This becomes our ‘alphabet’ for the piece, and we draw upon it as I start to put scenes and dances together. It’s always key that we remember the motivation of each movement. 

 

TK: What qualities do you look for in dancers when you travel to new companies?

CM: I love dancers who have a good technique - often but not necessarily a ballet base, but who are open, hungry, creative, curious and passionate. They should be generous team members, as a story is never about one person only, and the whole is always bigger than the sum of its parts. 

 PHOTO: COURTESY OF CATHY MARSTON

PHOTO: COURTESY OF CATHY MARSTON

TK: So often we hear people through all walks of life claim they are not creative. Do you agree with this?

CM: Creativity is a word that makes me nervous, as I don’t really understand it, and yet I know that it’s something I’m supposed to be! Perhaps other people feel the same - and if they don’t do jobs that are ‘obviously creative’ they assume that they are not? I suppose most people make, shape, organise, invent things in their lives, be that a dinner for friends, a walk in the park or the way they approach their email inbox in the morning! All of this is creative in some way. 

 

TK: How would you describe your relationship with creativity and the creative process?

CM: I like to develop systems, and ‘methods’ of stimulating my creativity, because we work in teams, with ‘working hours’ and ‘commissions’ rather than alone in our homes - you can’t wait for the spark of genius to flare whenever it wants! But luckily those teams normally ignite my creativity, so as long as I’m prepared with some ideas when I enter a studio it’s never been a problem!

 

TK: Do you think studying choreography is important for young dancers?

CM: As a dancer, I think it’s crucial to understand what you are dancing. This means understanding a choreographer’s intentions, how they are trying to express those intentions and how you might help! I also think that dancers must not be robots but dance as human beings - which means understanding the meaning and context as well as the technique of the choreography.

 

TK: What can students expect from your choreographic workshops at ISS2018 in January?

CM: We will make, shape, organise and invent too! We will also imagine and embody the ideas we imagine!

 

Cathy Marston will the International Summer School's first "Choreographer in Residence". As part of this role Cathy has curated a large component of the create.dance program, and will be developing a new ballet for youth.ballet as well as giving choreographic workshops to the senior.dance program.

 

#ISS2018

9-19 January, 2018