Charles Linehan (that’s ‘Lin-a-han’, not ‘Line-an’) is sitting opposite me in a sterile, near-featureless hotel bar near Euston (my suggested meeting place). His eyes keep sliding over to the football on the TV in the corner while I quiz him about his choreography. Eventually a link emerges.
‘My brother was sent to do some dancing when he was young because he was a bit pigeon-toed. And I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t allowed. Then my Dad probably thought that it might improve my football (not that it needed much improving), and I did some folk dance – some hippies were teaching it near where we grew up in Cyprus.’
If football started him off in Cyprus, it was not until he was seventeen, now back in England, that he made the real decision to dance. While studying science at Canterbury College of Technology, he saw a piece by Ballet Rambert. ‘I can’t remember what it was called. It had a car crash on stage and this weird music. I thought it was brilliant.’ (It was in fact The Accident, by Zoltan Imre.)
That crash certainly had an impact: Linehan auditioned for the Rambert School, and got a place – for a while. ‘I did the two-year course, and got invited back for third year. Then they kicked me out,’ he laughs. ‘I was quite lucky though, because I got a job the next day, working in Milan with Louis Falco [an American modern dance choreographer]. That was fun, though it ended with a bit of a fiasco. I don’t know the reasons behind it, but the theatre directors were being targeted by the mafia – they firebombed the theatre and slashed the tyres on their cars. Anyhow, we all got a few days off,’ he remembers. ‘It ended up in a court case and I got some money back ten years afterwards, completely out of the blue.’
After Milan came several years of performing with companies around Europe, including with William Petit in Paris and Philippe Saire in Switzerland. It was during these years that he first began choreographing, in company workshops. ‘Fortunately those early pieces were, well … out of the British public eye,’ says Linehan, trying to repress the memory. ‘Doing everyone a favour really.’ Following a spell at the University of Michigan working on a choreographic research project, he returned to England and set up his own company in 1994 (initially called Scalectrix, it’s now, less misleadingly, plain Charles Linehan Company).
But the first piece of his I saw, The Secret (1995), was actually made for Bi Ma dance company. Another football connection: ‘In The Secret the dancers all walk on holding hands,’ explains Linehan. ‘That’s what the Brazilian football team do when they come on the pitch. It gives a really good sense of togetherness and direction.’
After this convivial walk-on, the four dancers each develop a distinctive, cryptic phrase of movement – their own personal ‘secrets’. Occasionally they’ll throw over-the-shoulder or sidelong glances at each other, as if checking to see who’s watching, and then turn away, hugging their motifs close to themselves like treasured memories. Though the dance is clearly assembled from these phrases, it’s a structure with a lot of play in it. At times the dancers are given leeway to direct, signalling to each other with arm gestures to go off stage, like being sent off pitch. The effect is both intimate and open: from the moment they walk on hand in hand the performers are knit closely together, but they’re also allowed their privacy. At the close of the piece, they come one by one to the fore, replay their little secret, and then slowly bend forwards before leaving the stage. We gradually realise that this is a choreographed version of a curtain call, as if each of the performers is saying ‘and this is me’ before taking a bow. It’s an enchanting finish, generous and innocently childlike.
The enchantment is also buoyed up by the music (Linehan always begins his choreography with the music), a gentle, jazzy score that’s bizarrely peppered with strange whoops, whistles and catcalls, the performers moving among its lush sonorities as if wandering through a magic garden. The programme identifies the music as ‘The Exotic Sounds of Arthur Lyman and the Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny.’ What on earth… ?
a jazzy score peppered with strange whoops, whistles and catcalls, the performers moving among its lush sonorities as if wandering through a magic garden
Linehan gives a wry smile. ‘It’s just beautiful music, I love it. I listened to about seventy or eighty pieces to select about six. It’s hotel music from the fifties and sixties, made for Hawaiian hotels. Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny would dress up and play, I suppose for rich American tourists to chill out to. Then they started doing bird chants in the middle of it one night, I think because they were so drunk. And it became so popular they took it into the repertoire. It’s quite nutty. The music will stay with some themes, and then it will break away into some kind of African drumming. And then they’ll do round-the-world things – like they’ll suddenly do some Japanese easy listening kind of music.’ He ponders this a moment, then laughs. ‘It’s really quite offensive.’
A similarly sumptuous piece of cool jazz was used for Linehan’s so-called Untitled Work, commissioned by Ballroom Blitz 96 and reworked for the Spring Loaded festival this spring. The eight dancers are joined on stage by the musicians, saxophonist Lol Coxhill (‘an improvisational jazz superstar’, says the programme) and hip electronic duo Ultramarine (Paul Hammond and Ian Cooper). Though the work is nominally ‘untitled’, ‘Ultramarine’ seems to me a good alternative, because the piece makes me think of waves, surf, sand. The movement is quietly fluid, the dancers tracing sinuously rippled patterns through space like the undulating lines of a Hockney swimming pool. Sometimes one person will initiate a splash of motion that eddies among the others. And there’s a constant coming and going, figures strolling in from the sides, joining in the dance for a while, then strolling off again – as if they’re walking to the water’s edge before easing gently in to this different, more sensual medium, and then just as casually slipping out to go and towel off.
As well as creating a shimmeringly laid-back ambience that bathes its audience, the dance is also a fascinating puzzle of motion, a tour de force of phrasing. Linehan builds up long choreographic phrases, then puts them together to see how they adjust to each other. Several times he illustrates the process step by step: one dancer performs a phrase, then another dancer comes in with a different movement so that the first person has to accommodate it; then a third joins in. By the end the piece has developed into a swirl of movement that’s almost too complex to grasp, with all eight dancers on stage; but because we’ve seen how it has been built up it retains a startling sense of legibility. Though this might sound like a drily technical exercise in composition, it certainly doesn’t explain the sureness of Linehan’s choreographic instinct – for the result is pure magic, conjured from movement at once rigorously intellectual and deeply sensuous, carefully crafted yet seemingly spontaneous.
‘Sometimes I’m quite mystified myself,’ admits Linehan. ‘Like, how did I manage to make that? I’ve got lots of different ways of achieving certain effects – varying how I use the music, or making up rules for improvisation, and then altering the rules. Building up constraints can give you a lot of freedom. You have freedom within those structures – to set up expectations and then throw a spanner in the works. There’s lots of things I don’t understand – but that’s what’s so interesting. And that’s why I like it so much: I’m amazed at what comes out.’
Perhaps the most tightly structured piece Linehan made was Two Seasons (1995), a diptych in which the same dance was done twice in succession by two trios of dancers, but with different scores and lighting. Actually, as Linehan explains, although the lighting and music were different, they followed the same basic outline and progression. ‘It was an experiment. I was trying to be as strict as possible. It was also limited in that the whole piece was on one plane that gradually moved upstage. It was quite a depressing piece in a way, very isolated.’
Then in A New Ground (also from 1995), Linehan used a looser triptych structure: three sections sandwiched between a prelude and a coda. ‘Each section was itself made of several parts,’ he offers, ‘with one part repeated in a different version each time. It sounds quite academic, but in fact it allowed me to do loads of interesting things, and it also stopped me from just drifting around.’ And as with the Ultramarine piece, even if we don’t register this underlying form it subliminally aids the legibility of quite complex choreography.
In A New Ground Linehan picked and mixed from a selection of Purcell harpsichord music; Sefauchi’s Farewell (1996) is its direct descendent. ‘I constructed the music from different Bach cello suites, but kept the sections in the same order they would have been in – Prelude, Allemande and so on – and then I put another Prelude on the end.’ The music was transcribed for viola by Simon Rowland-Jones, who also plays live on stage.
The solo viola evokes an aura of sweet melancholy. Between each section it is interrupted by an electronic hiss on a taped soundtrack, like the buzzing in the ears created by intense silence. In fact the whole dance seems suffused with a spirit of interruption, loss, departure. The subdued lighting often isolates one figure, leaving the others in semi-darkness. Small interactions develop between the dancers – duets, trios – but the relations are fleeting, and seem to occur across a deep personal gulf. One dancer is displaced by another; a third departs; another leaves to dance with a different partner. And even when dancing together, the performers avert their gaze, rarely looking at each other directly.
The piece maintains this sense of inward restraint until the last section. Here the five dancers begin to run and launch themselves into each others’ arms, their faces still barely registering each other – a final, summoning-up of energy that seems to be a last, failed attempt to bridge the gap between them. They return to standing and to solitude, each facing a different direction as the light fades, the dying vibrations of the viola hanging in the air like an afterglow.
Linehan’s next piece, provisionally entitled Rialto, is still being planned. As a starting point he’s listening to excerpts of scores for European art-house films from the sixties and seventies – including Mikis Theodorakis’s music for Z and Francis Lai’s music for Un Homme et Une Femme. In the meantime, he has been keeping busy: currently choreographer-in-residence at The Place, he’ll be taking part in their Choreodrome this summer, and he’s also recently made a work for Transitions Dance Company (Prussian Blue). But it’s still a very piecemeal existence, and he would dearly like to have more time with his company.
Linehan readily acknowledges the contributions of his company dancers – particularly key players Ben Ash, Rahel Vonmoos and Pari Naderi. Though he is unassuming about his own input, it is ultimately Linehan’s spirit that informs that team – and over the last couple of years he has been quietly gaining a reputation as a dancemaker with a sensitive choreographic instinct and a remarkably assured handling of ensembles.
As he sneaks another peek at the TV while fielding my questions, it occurs to me that he might have a feeling for football not just as a sport, but as a form of movement. Take away the ball and what would you see? Loose patterns generated by simple rules, people tracing interlaced paths through space, groups that cluster and disperse, shifts of pace and scale. That fluid, interactive dynamic could just as well describe Linehan’s work.
‘I’m most interested in the interaction of groups,’ he concurs. ‘I don’t particularly like duets, though there have been some very nice ones. And solos I find very difficult.’
Not that he doesn’t choreograph solos and duets, but – as in Sefauchi’s Farewell – they tend to be transient, open to being added to or broken up. He is also sparing with unison movement, which he finds overly regimented. Instead, he’ll give the dancers different phrases and weave them together. ‘It’s more fun to play around with, all those different patterns.’ Or he will echo or shadow a movement with a variant rather than duplicating it straightforwardly – like favouring assonances over rhymes. As with Siobhan Davies’s work, this gives a sense of the dancers both as an interconnected group and as separate individuals, of team togetherness and personal direction.
Linehan’s choreography is not based on issues, it doesn’t need a narrative or an external reason – like football without the ball. Where would that leave football, though? Less defined, to be sure, but more open. Instead of fixating on the ball there’s a wider range of possibilities to follow: appreciating the deft teamwork or the personal flair, spotting who’s for and who’s against, indulging the moments of joy or sadness. I think of the performers sending each other off stage in The Secret, the nifty manoeuvring in Untitled Work, the momentary surge of feeling in Sefauchi’s Farewell as the dancers leap into each others’ arms. If you’re looking for meanings, emotions, reasons in Linehan’s work, he won’t point them out for you. But the rewards are there if you make the effort: you just have to watch the dancing – and spot your own ball.