What is a fragment? It is an unfinished separation between parts… Fragments are separated by blank spaces or gaps; but it is in this gap that we find what it is that prolongs the fragment, what it is that the fragment is waiting for.
What the fragment is waiting for is, in fact, already there – it is that incompleteness that has brought the fragment itself into existence as such. Thus the fragment is always in a state of preparedness: to let itself be worked on, reasonably, inexhaustibly, instead of falling silent, abandoned, as if it were the secret emptiness of a mystery that no elaboration could ever complete.
Maurice Blanchot: the Writing of the Disaster, freely translated by S.F. Melrose
From the quotation by the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot chosen here along with the title of this work, the idea of a fragment – that which is incomplete – is clearly important.
I have always been fascinated by sketches, preliminary drafts, out-takes, the half-finished, the discarded. There’s something about their incomplete nature that instantly excites my curiosity, sets my mind to work imagining what might have happened immediately before and what might happen next.
Perhaps this can serve as a metaphor for my approach to choreography. I’ll often take as a starting point one image, one line of text or a movement fragment – sometimes one tiny movement I see a certain dancer perform in a special way – and a whole piece evolves from this single point by elaborating, extending and re-imagining its context.
When I first became interested in film and dance in the 1970s, there was no ‘instant access’ to the classics of cinema and ballet in the way that we have today through DVDs and YouTube. My first introduction to seminal works such as Citizen Kane and Vertigo or Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake was from a curious patchwork of photographs, written descriptions and soundtrack recordings. However limited this might seem, in retrospect it actually provided me with an important creative stimulus. It gave me an opportunity as an artist to fill in the gaps.
How fragmentary was the Prokofiev film score that is being used as the basis of the music for Rushes?
The score, as it exists on paper, consists of 24 cues for a film by Mikhail Romm that ultimately never reached the screen. Each fragment lasts from 30 seconds to at the most two minutes. These tantalizingly brief musical fragments provided a perfect springboard for my imagination. Michael Berkeley and I both felt that it was essential to stay faithful to the nature of the score, hence the idea of a series of rushes, bits of film, not necessarily in a straightforward narrative sequence – but implying a story that has only survived in fragments.
What is this ‘implied’ or ‘lost’ story?
Again I have used as a starting point a set of drafts and preliminary sketches. In Dostoyevsky’s notebooks there are seven different outlines for his novel The Idiot. In the final novel the drama unfolds between the saint-like Myshkin and the brutal Rogozhin in their pursuit of the heroine Nastasya Philippovna. In all the preliminary drafts there is only one male character, who embodies both the violent and fragile, the brutal and the good. This flawed man is in constant pursuit of a woman who does not want him. The rejection fires his obsession, which constantly threatens to escalate into violence. On the periphery of the drama is a woman who loves him, but to whom he is oblivious.
Does the medium of ballet suit this kind of subject matter?
Yes and no. Of course there are complexities of plot that you need to avoid. In ballet you communicate most of what you want to say through contrasts, through the emergence of unexpected juxtapositions. Traditionally, ballet celebrates the courteous and ‘gallant’ interaction between the sexes. When you begin to sense the currents of desire and brutality beneath this carefully observed etiquette, more complex and flawed characters begin to appear. Hinting at the brutality as well as the vulnerability within the noble male dancer, and the strength and power behind the delicate appearance of the ballerina, can be more poignant and powerful than a more straightforward and ‘realistic’ physical language. What is interesting is that Dostoyevsky manages to draw in his drafts a complex and ambiguous version of that most 19th-century of narratives, a man split between two women – Madonna and whore, earthly and ethereal, idealized and real. This provides the core narrative of most romantic ballets like Giselle, La Sylphide and Swan Lake.
Does that mean that narrative dance in the traditional sense doesn’t work now?
I think it has limitations for the audiences of today. You can’t convey all the complexities of text in dance, but the strange and sometimes miraculous synergy between movement and music can somehow make the sub-text very clear. There is no way we can say explicitly in dance who someone is, where they are or why they are doing what they do. But, if we succeed, we can give a tactile and immediate sense of how the dancer feels at a given moment about themselves and the dancers around them. This sense of the dancer’s reality is taken up by spectators and applied to the drama itself. It has to do with the emotional absorption of the moment and the way that dancers are able to convey a wealth of feeling through the smallest inflection, rather than opting for a pedestrian descriptive gesture or formalized mime. It’s the ‘how’, not the ‘why’, that dance can so beautifully convey. The ‘why’ can be left then to the onlooker’s imagination.
For Rushes, you and your designer, Richard Hudson, have been inspired by the Russian theatre and avant garde of the 1920s and 30s.
The Soviet era is littered with fragments. Abandoned, unrealized projects, the banned, the censored as well as the secret notebooks and sketches. The big and continually influential theatre productions by The Moscow Arts Theatre, Meyerhold and Vakhtangov only exist now as a few faded photographs, design sketches, some written accounts and through director’s or assistant’s notes. Three of Sergey Eisenstein’s major films (Que Viva Mexico, Bezhin Meadow and Ivan the Terrible: Part 3) only exist for us as rushes. I think that part of the fascination of this period and these artists has to do with the fact that their works are partly lost and continually must be re-imagined.
As I acknowledged right at the start, for me the creative process is tied up with contemplating what might have been there, re-imagining what has been lost. In presenting Rushes as a set of fragments, I want to compel the audience to engage in a similar process of imagining what might have happened before and what might happen after. I am inviting them to imagine what happens in between the fragments we offer them: to fill the gaps, imaginatively and creatively.