Sylvie Guillem in Maliphant’s Two (originally choreographed in 1998)
Russell Maliphant left the world of classical ballet to journey through contemporary dance and martial arts, turning from dancer to choreographer. Then the ballet world came knocking again.
Born in Canada in 1961, Maliphant grew up in Cheltenham and studied at the Royal Ballet School. He performed with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet) for seven years, but never felt at home as a ballet dancer (skipping about in pink knickerbockers was a particular low point). He joined the short-lived Dance Advance, which was set up to tour chamber works, and in 1988 he left ballet altogether.
He went on to explore the independent contemporary dance scene, appearing in DV8’s groundbreaking Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, and pieces by diverse choreographers including fellow ballet renegade Michael Clark, veteran experimentalist Rosemary Butcher and Laurie Booth, whose improvisational skills and particular combination of strength and flow were a formative influence. It was while working with Booth that Maliphant met Michael Hulls, who was to become not only his regular lighting designer but also his closest creative partner. He also studied a wide range of physical techniques, including yoga, t’ai chi, contact improvisation and capoeira.
Maliphant began choreographing in 1991, and founded his own company in 1996. Throughout the 90s he working in the independent sector, developing his own steely yet supple style and producing small gems such as Shift (1996) and Two (1998).
Two ballet dancers gave Maliphant a leg-up into the limelight. In 2001 William Trevitt and Michael Nunn (aka The Ballet Boyz) performed his 1991 duet Critical Mass; it became something of a signature work for them, and they soon commissioned a new Maliphant piece, Torsion (2002). This greater exposure in turn attracted the attention of superstar ballerina Sylvie Guillem, who invited him to create a trio for herself and the Boyz. The result was Broken Fall, another critical and popular hit, premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2003.
Guillem and Maliphant went on to perform together in Maliphant’s phenomenally successful Push in 2005, a duet which perfectly melded their contrasting physical personae. Some recent high-profile collaborations – with artist and film-maker Isaac Julien for Cast No Shadow in 2007, and with Guillem and Canadian director Robert Lepage for Eonnagata this year – have been less successful, but Maliphant is still in high demand. His next creation will be part of the Spirit of Diaghilev programme at Sadler’s Wells in October 2009.
Watching Russell Maliphant
Maliphant’s physical style is quite an amalgam, mixing the unpredictability of contact improvisation with the purposefulness of martial arts, the momentum of contemporary dance with the precision and extensions of ballet. Yet it never feels forced; you can’t see the seams.
Choreographically, Maliphant is an abstractionist. He works with the physics of action and interaction – tugs and leans, falls and arcs – and you can often sense the chemistry of character and feeling just beneath the carefully crafted surface. Compositionally, he’ll often use buildups or accumulations: small, simple motifs that are repeated and developed into larger, more complex patterns.
Duets are Maliphant’s forte – even his solos often feel like duets, in which one of the partners is light, space or sound. As an artist, Maliphant’s closest and most longstanding creative partner is lighting designer Michael Hulls, who has worked with Maliphant since 1994, and whose lighting is as integral as the choreography to both the creation and the performance of Maliphant’s work.
Maliphant has worked several times with composer Andy Cowton. Former Royal Ballet dancer Dana Fouras is another important partner – both as a company dancer and Maliphant’s wife.
Fouras joined the Royal Ballet in the same year that Maliphant left. They met six years later, on the day that she departed the company.
In his own words
“I’ll use any vocabulary that’s appropriate at the time … I’m as interested in the uplift of ballet as I am in the gravity of modern dance.” – Interview with Nadine Meisner, Independent, 2001
“I’d hope there is something about the relationship between the people in my pieces that’s more important than technique. There is a trust between them – there has to be, given what they’re asked to do.” – Interview with Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday, 2003
“With Mike [Hulls] the architecture of the space is always changing, opening up or closing down. It’s like breathing.” – Interview with Donald Hutera
In other words
“Maliphant’s choreography slips under our guard, arouses our curiosity and hones our gaze, without us realising the force of its aim.” – Judith Mackrell, Dance Now, 2002
“A supreme melodist of the body.” – Ismene Brown, Daily Telegraph, 2001
“Liquid, lithe choreography that can draw the spectator into a spellbinding world of heightened sensation and scintillating body sculpture.” – Debra Craine, Times, 2003
“There is something of the warrior-sage about Russell Maliphant.” – Luke Jennings, Guardian, 2003
“I’m a Mali-fan.”
Jonathan Burrows and Michael Clark. Both are choreographers of Maliphant’s generation who also began as ballet dancers but found their voice in the independent contemporary dance scene.
Now watch this
Where to see him next
See the Russell Maliphant Company website for performance dates.