In the Netherlands, the Canadian-British Russell Maliphant is best known for the choreographies he has created for the French super-ballerina Sylvie Guillem. Now he has taken a second ‘French inspiration’ as the starting point for a new creation: the work, and parts of the life, of the famous sculptor and artist Auguste Rodin. After having premiered in Paris and having been presented a few times in London, The Rodin Project will now be the opening show at SPRINGDANCE. “The robust physicality and movement Rodin managed to capture in his sculptures have been an inspiration to me for the past 25 years.”
Exactly one hundred years ago, Sergey Diaghilev, the inspired leader of Les Ballets Russes, made a strong appeal to Auguste Rodin. Rodin, one of the most respected artists in France at the time, was asked to give a favourable opinion on L’Après-midi d’un faune, in answer to all the criticism that had been poured over Vaslav Nijinsky’s openly erotic choreography. Although it was established soon after publication that the letter signed by Rodin in the daily newspaper Le Matin had not actually been written by him, he did agree fully with its content. ‘No part has ever brought out the Russian dancer’s extraordinary qualities like L’Après-midi d’un faune, in which he presents the beauty of antique statuary and shows himself the ideal model, which I would be too glad to reproduce in stone.’ And the latter is what Rodin did. The exhibition Danser sa vie at the Paris Centre Pompidou recently displayed some of his sculptures of dancers, including a magnificent twenty centimetre statuette of the ‘god of dance’, as Nijinsky was called.
Just down the road from there, at the Théâtre National de Chaillot, Russell Maliphant’s The Rodin Project had its world premiere late last January. And the striking coincidence is: this performance would probably not have materialised without Nijinsky. Or, to be more specific: without After Light (2009), Maliphant’s contemporary take on the choreography Rodin was asked to defend almost a century earlier, Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune. Maliphant: “I had been asked to create something for the commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and took inspiration from some pictures of Nijinsky, and especially his drawings as well. To me this represented a completely new approach: working in the rehearsal studio surrounded by all these books, and developing a choreography from that. It gave me the confidence that I can do something like that, and that it may be good to do it again: departing from existing material and elaborating a piece based on those foundations.”
It is not surprising that he should choose the work of Auguste Rodin. 25 years ago Maliphant, now aged fifty, first visited the Musée Rodin in Paris and was immediately taken with the artist’s works. “I thought they were fantastic. The robust physicality and movement that he has managed to capture in his sculptures. His magnificent water colours, prints of which I bought back then, I still have on my wall at home.” There even was a time when Maliphant considered becoming a sculptor himself – after having given up dancing and while it was still uncertain whether he would make it as a choreographer. “I attended an evening course, but when I was offered more opportunities to make choreographies, I realised that I can also express the things I want to bring across through dance.”
And, he says, it is not that he waited all those years before doing something with his fascination with Rodin’s work. “My ideas about movement and form have been informed to some extent by his sculptures, by the way he shaped the body, the turns, the curves, as if the body moves in a spiralling motion. Those are elements I had used before, in earlier choreographies.”
The Rodin Project is Maliphant’s first full-length production. This is part of the reason why he chose to divide his choreography into two parts. “At first I wanted to take inspiration from his bronze statues for the first part, and from his marble statues for the second, but I soon discovered that the two would not contrast sufficiently. Rodin made all of his sculpture in clay first, after which they were moulded in the different materials. So only the material would vary.”
So on second thought Maliphant decided to take Rodin’s water colours as the starting point for his first part, and his sculptures for the second. The fact that the Musée Rodin currently has an exhibition on Rodin’s water colours and drawings is purely coincidental, the choreographer says. “But it is a happy coincidence, especially since his water colours are much less known than his sculpture.”
Maliphant’s idea was to have the first part of his choreography take place on the painter’s canvas. “But, with my design team I soon concluded: not a flat canvas, that would be too one-dimensional. Using lots and lots of cloths, we have, as it were, sculpted the space first, instead of first sculpting the bodies.” The cloths were draped across the platforms and set pieces which are displayed ‘stripped’ in part two. “It added a softness to the whole thing, something I had to adapt the choreography to, as it turned out during rehearsals.”
However, thanks to the off-white cloths (Maliphant had to abandon his idea to project the colours from Rodin’s water colours onto the set and the dancer’s bodies due to lack of funding) and the gracefulness of the choreography, the first part also evokes other associations. It seems to take place inside an artist’s studio and to refer to times gone by – Rodin’s, but also those of his inspirations: Michelangelo and Greek and Roman sculpture.
In part two Maliphant works his inspiration – Rodin’s statues – into a contemporary choreography in a pared-down black stage setting. The platforms and the geometric set pieces play an essential role. “Those beautifully twisted bodily figures that Rodin created can never be repeated on a completely level dance floor, but you can recreate them by ‘draping’ a dancer across a set piece. And the muscular strength of a bent leg in Rodin’s work cannot be imitated unless the foot feels the opposing force of the platform.”
Like Rodin’s work, Maliphant’s choreography displays a mix of female sensuality and male strength and muscularity. In order to underline the contrast he selected dancers who would, besides being experienced in contemporary dance, also have a background in urban dance styles such as hip hop, especially popping, and capoeira. “In After Light I worked with a fantastic dancer (Daniel Proietto – ed.), quick and light, a master at turning. But I knew that for The Rodin Project I would need a different kind of male dancer. Dancers who would add more ‘weight’ to their dancing. And in addition, especially Dickson Mbi, who specialises in popping, is also able ‘freeze’ his movements very beautifully, as if he were a living statue.”
The good thing is that Maliphant has worked the urban dance into his choreography in a very restrained way, in no way out to be spectacular. “I was not looking for a demonstration of some tricks, I have unravelled the elements of hip hop dance and tried to find a way of using these, and combine them with elements from my own, fluid, lighter movement vocabulary to forge a new unity”. In which, by the way, each dancer has retained their own style. “Thanks to their different backgrounds, one and the same movement will look different every time. They all have their own colouring and qualities, like Rodin’s sculptures.”
Maliphant answers the question if he has taken inspiration from Rodin’s life as well, in addition to his work, by saying: “It is very difficult to separate one from the other.” The same goes, he says, for Rodin and his lover, the model and his colleague Camille Claudel: “Their connection was so strong, they shared the same passion about their work and when you look at their sculptures you will see a lot of similarities. In the way they used weight, the way they allowed body parts to ‘drop’, but also in the emotional resonance of their work.”
So Maliphant does not deny that one of his dancers in part one represents Claudel as a model. “Sometimes the female dancers will take on a character, it can be Claudel, but also any other artist’s model, whereas there is also a scene in which one of the dancers takes on the part of a sculptor.”
And one of Claudel’s best known pieces, L’age mûr (The Mature Age), seems to make an appearance at some point in the performance, alongside some of Maliphant’s favourite Rodin-pieces, such as Les bourgeois de Calais (The Burghers of Calais) and La porte de l’enfer (The Gates of Hell), which he both calls ‘very choreographic’. But he never displays the sculptures directly, without adaptation or a personal interpretation. And because of their overfamiliarity, he has completely steered clear of Rodin’s most famous creations, Le baiser (The Kiss) and Le penseur (The Thinker). “Things like those should be left alone. Just like you shouldn’t use, as I heard and saw being done recently, the music of the Nutcracker in a commercial for fruity candy.”
About Russell Maliphant
Russell Maliphant (Ottowa, 1961) was educated as a dancer at the Royal Ballet School in London. For a number of years he danced with the classically oriented Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, where during a special project he was discovered by ‘bad boy’ Lloyd Newson, who asked him for his then ground-breaking dance company DV8. After DV8 Maliphant danced with the even more eccentric Michael Clark Company, in Laurie Booth’s group, and elsewhere. Booth especially encouraged him to make his own choreographies. “During the improvisation lessons and workshops Laurie showed me how you can colour a space and which types of brush strokes you can use. And how important your use of light is in the process.” (Since the start of his career as a choreographer Maliphant has been collaborating intensively with lighting designer Michael Hulls, ed.).
Maliphant started out making solos and duets. “But I was never satisfied and didn’t want to stop until I was. I had to prove to myself that, by working hard and intelligently, I could do better.” He succeeded: more and more commissions followed, including one for a double duet for the British BalletBoys, a production which caught the attention of superstar Sylvie Guillem. At her request Maliphant made the Olivier Award-winning Broken Fall in 2003, and in 2006, the full-length programme Rise and Fall, good for a National Dance Award for Best Choreography. More (award winning) collaborations followed, including the solo Two, which Guillem performed late January at the grand opening of the Holland Dance Festival. At the same time the choreographer created a furore internationally with his own Russell Maliphant Company. Guillem calls him “ a poet, someone who creates poems in dance. In his choreographies he will often play with contrasts – strength and weakness, high and low energy. He uses very simple means, but in the end, everything falls into place in his works.”
The Rodin Project - Russell Maliphant Company
Thurs 19 & Fri 20 April / Stadsschouwburg Utrecht / 8:30 pm
Astrid van Leeuwen is a dance journalist who works for Het Nationale Ballet, De Telegraaf, Den Haag Centraal, Dans Magazine and other publications.