Curious Conscience (2005), choreographed by Rafael Bonachela
Rambert Dance company has had as much talent as it has tribulations. The longest-standing dance company in the country, it has the chequered past of an old dog – but that’s never stopped it from learning new tricks.
The company was founded by Marie “Mim” Rambert, a Polish-born dancer with both classical and modern influences who worked with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before moving to London in 1914. The Marie Rambert Dancers gave their first public performance in 1926, and from 1931 the troupe was based at the tiny Mercury theatre. Run on a shoestring, the company – renamed first Ballet Club and then Ballet Rambert – managed to stage classy productions of small-scale pieces new and old. It was a hotbed of talent, although some of its finest personnel, such as choreographer Frederick Ashton, left to join the relative security of the Vic-Wells Ballet (which later became the Royal Ballet).
After the second world war, the company focused more on the classics. Marie Rambert said that if the Royal Ballet was the National Gallery of dance, then her own company was the Tate. Certainly, Ballet Rambert established a fine reputation and had some phenomenal successes, including an 18-month tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1947-48. The company continued to nurture fine dancers and choreographers but was often in financial trouble and continued to have difficulty holding on to its talent.
In 1966, 78-year-old Marie Rambert and her latest choreographic protege, Norman Morrice, took a radical decision. Influenced by modern dance developments in the US, they switched from classical ballet to contemporary dance in one swift move. Rambert then became the country’s first contemporary repertory company. Alongside London Contemporary Dance Theatre (founded the following year), it went on to define the mainstream of contemporary dance in Britain, influenced at first by the likes of American choreographer Glen Tetley and later by dancers such as Christopher Bruce. It became known as Rambert Dance Company in 1987, during the directorship of Richard Alston (1986-92), who brought a cooler, Cunningham-influenced style to the company.
By the 90s, Rambert was again in financial straits, but it bounced back, first under Christopher Bruce (1994-2002) and now under Mark Baldwin. A former Rambert dancer, Baldwin balances the different demands of imaginative programming, artistic experiment, technical proficiency and audience appeal.
Watching Rambert Dance Company
Rambert programmes are typically triple bills with work by choreographers with very different styles – sometimes classical, sometimes abstract, sometimes theatrical. Rambert will likely please all of the audience for some of the time. It also means that the company’s dancers, as well as being among the most technically skilled, are probably also the most versatile in the country.
Although the company still performs some of its earliest treasures, such as Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (1937) and Judgment of Paris (1938), most of its older works are lost. Current director Mark Baldwin tries to keep the company’s history alive by reviving the best of more recent works, such as Michael Clark’s Swamp (1986) and Siobhan Davies’s Carnival of the Animals (1982), as well as offering new, radically different interpretations of lost works such as Tragedy of Fashion (1926), originally by Ashton, and Lady into Fox (1939), originally by Andrée Howard. Artistic collaboration between choreographers, composers and designers is another long-standing Rambert tradition, and you’ll often find yourself looking at the set or listening to the music. Rambert also makes a point of playing music live whenever possible.
Marie Rambert was actively involved in the company right up to her death, at the age of 94, in 1982. Two of the most famous ballet choreographers of the past century – Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor – were with Rambert in the early years, as was Ashton’s favoured designer, Sophie Fedorovitch. Other ballet choreographers included Andrée Howard, Walter Gore and Frank Staff (founder of the South African Ballet); modern choreographers have included Norman Morrice (who later became director of the Royal Ballet), Glen Tetley, Robert North, Christopher Bruce, Richard Alston, Michael Clark, Siobhan Davies and Rafael Bonachela (who collaborated with Kylie Minogue for one of his Rambert pieces).
Marie Rambert was famous for her cartwheels, which she would perform on all manner of occasions. She turned her last cartwheel on her 70th birthday; after that, her husband (playwright Ashley Dukes) forbade her to continue.
In their own words
“I look at Madame [Rambert] and she looks back at me. Sometimes I’m feeling a bit disrespectful so I tweak her nose; other times I pat her cheek and thank her.” – Mark Baldwin on his ongoing relationship with the bust of Marie Rambert that sits outside his office door
“It is very important that Rambert remain a repertoire company that takes its voices from a whole range.” – Mark Baldwin, interview with Brendan McCarthy, 2002
In other words
“A company for choreographers to love.” – Jann Parry, Observer, 2003
“Rambert, for all its modernity, takes its past seriously.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2004
“It’s like having a bit of an art exhbition and a bit of a music concert rolled into your evening of dance. Added value or what?”
“What’s going on?”
(The point of a Rambert programme is to showcase a range of styles and subjects. You can count on skilled dancers; otherwise don’t get hung up on knowing what to expect.)
The Royal Ballet (Its founder, Ninette de Valois, shares the honours with Marie Rambert for establishing ballet in Britain.)
Netherlands Dance Theatre (A model for Rambert when it changed from a classical to a contemporary company.)
London Contemporary Dance Theatre (1967-1994)
Phoenix Dance Theatre
Now watch this
The video wall of Rambert’s website shows excerpts from its current repertory, including Carnival of the Animals (Siobhan Davies), Constant Speed (Mark Baldwin), Swamp (Michael Clark) and Swansong (Christopher Bruce).
Two pieces by Antony Tudor that are still in the Rambert repertory:
Judgment of Paris
Where to see them next
See the Rambert Dance Company website for performance dates.