There seems to be a problem. ‘Perhaps if I put my head down a bit more just there,’ suggests Dawid Trzensimiech, ‘your arm could get further round my shoulder so you could hold your leg out without also slipping off my back. What do you think?’
Leticia Stock – like Trzensimiech, a dancer from the Royal Ballet – looks doubtful. ‘Ok,’ she says. ‘Let’s try it.’
As he pitches forward she leans backwards over him, wrapping her spine around his like a pipecleaner and arching her head over his shoulder, one foot pointing perilously skywards. Then the entire construction of joints and limbs trembles like a building in a quake, and gradually disintegrates into its component parts: two solid people and an empty space on the floor between them where something nearly happened, but didn’t.
‘Maybe,’ says Stock, ‘I need to hook the first leg round sooner. Again?’ This time, miraculously, the whole edifice settles into place, their legs creating one long, leaning axis around which their bodies wind like tendrils. Choreographer Valentino Zucchetti is delighted. It worked!
Zucchetti, a 24-year-old dancer with the Royal Ballet and a Genée gold medallist in 2006 who has begun making his own choreography, is presenting a special kind of performance at Ivy House, the former home of Anna Pavlova in north London. He has created a duet for Trzensimiech and Stock but deliberately left it incomplete so that they can make up the rest while the audience watches. Instead of showing us the polished bodywork of a final product, Zucchetti wants us to see under the bonnet of the choreography: how his ideas get worked out, how they rehearse together, what choices and chances they take.
Between bouts of activity and pauses for improvements, he breaks off to explain what is happening. He talks about the musical counts in the Misericordia from Bach’s Magnificat, the mechanics of balance and momentum, how the dancers’ physical and personal qualities shape the choreography. He also talks about the underlying idea of the duet: that the woman is always reaching off balance so that she relies almost unwittingly on the man’s support, as if he were a guardian angel. We start to perceive the connections between ideas and material, but something remains resolutely invisible: what is going on inside Zucchetti’s head. It may be intangible, but, I decide, there is a name for it: creativity.
Where did it come from? For Zucchetti, it just seems to be a part of who he is. ‘I was a really hyperactive child in Italy,’ he tells me. ‘I first wanted to do ballet when I was three years old, but that was too young for dance school so I had to wait… till I was four.’ A precocious child, indeed. ‘Then around the age of 10,’ he continues, ‘I remember watching a performance and thinking: if they did that bit differently, would it be better?’ Throughout his time at the Royal Ballet School (RBS) in London, then as a professional dancer, Zucchetti found himself often returning to that same question: what if? And if there is one central element to creativity, it is surely this persistent interest in possibility.
Nevertheless, that is only one side of the coin. There is the matter of material: creativity is as much about making as imagining. I asked Zucchetti how he started putting his ideas into practice. At the RBS, choreography is a regular part of the curriculum. Was there a method there that helped him learn? ‘I don’t think they taught you how to choreograph,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe you can teach that. What they offered was an opportunity to explore ideas, in an environment of encouragement and questioning. And the more you do, the more ideas come up. It wasn’t a method, it was more like a good atmosphere in which ideas could thrive.’
Since becoming a professional dancer, he has found working with choreographers an enormous stimulus. Sometimes his inner 10-year-old pops up in his brain and he thinks: ‘I wonder would this be better if…?’ – and squirrels the thought away. But above all, he values how choreographers open his mind. ‘I love choreographers who show you things that you never imagined,’ he says.
Isn’t there, I suggest, a conflict between his aspirations as a choreographer and his role as a dancer? ‘Actually,’ he counters, ‘I think that choreographing really helps my dancing. You start to understand both sides, think about what you can do, and how, and why. Even if you’re not and never want to be a choreographer, the experience will help you as a dancer. Definitely.”
While ballet has traditionally placed more emphasis on training and technique than on choreography, modern dance typically integrates the two more closely. Yet when I contact Lee Serle – a 31-year-old Australian modern dancer/choreographer who had spent a year with the Trisha Brown company in New York under the Rolex mentorship scheme – his answers chime closely with Zucchetti’s, even though his choreography is completely different. ‘I guess I was just always interested in making work,’ he says simply. ‘I think I learned most through being a performer and working with choreographers. Especially when they use task-based workshops to generate material. Give the same task to seven people, and you can get seven incredibly different results – so many ideas from one starting point. That’s a really valuable tool for making work.’
Trisha Brown uses this process herself, and working with her company certainly galvanised Serle’s creative juices: he made a very well received work, POV, at the end of his time there in 2010. Brown didn’t teach him how to do that, but was rather part of an environment that was, as Zucchetti would say, ‘a good atmosphere for ideas to thrive in’. The motivation came from Serle. ‘Trisha’s style uses elements I recognised from anatomical and release-based classes,’ he explains. ‘So it was like learning all that again, but now in a more creative way rather than as a technique.” He was also watching choreographer and company at work, engaging with the way that choreography is constructed, performed, received. Brown may not have been teaching him choreography, but he was still learning it.
Though Serle says he has learned most from working with choreographers, he nevertheless believes that some choreographic fundamentals can be taught. ‘When I was a student at the Victoria College of the Arts,’ he says, ‘we learnt the basic tools of composition and creating movement. How to deconstruct phrases, how to pick them apart or add to them. Dynamics, repetition, variation. Duration and placing. All those things that affect phrasing and movement. They don’t make you a choreographer, but they are incredibly helpful tools and everybody uses them.”
Zucchetti and Serle are young dancer-choreographers who speak from their own experience. What might a choreography teacher have to say? Kate Flatt and Jennifer Jackson have been running the choreography course at the Royal Ballet Upper School since 1999. I’m interested in what they’re doing for several reasons: because classical ballet has a reputation for prioritising technical training over creative education; because I’ve just seen their student showcase and am impressed with the results; and because a number of keen choreographers have emerged from their course, including Liam Scarlett, Kristen MacNally – and Zucchetti. So, I put a blunt question to the choreography teachers: can you teach choreography?
I put a blunt question to the choreography teachers: can you teach choreography?
Flatt’s answer echoes Serle’s. ‘I don’t think there is a set of rules that will produce a better choreographer,’ she says, ‘but there are some fundamentals that you can inculcate.’ Like Serle, she talks about space, time, dynamics, composition. ‘Beyond that, you can expose students to a range of approaches, and encourage a habit of making. You can give them types of task that will bring material out – and then it’s a question of helping them to realise what they’ve found.’
‘You can’t teach creativity,’ she continues, ‘but you can spot it. So a lot of what you’re doing is reinforcing students’ intuitive understanding of what they can do and what they could do.’ Jackson adds an important point: ‘It’s also valuable for them to understand the art form, its history and aesthetics,’ she says. ‘Understanding them helps students develop a more dynamic relation with their own art. It’s why we ask them to make connections between their choreography and technique classes, we don’t see them as separate. Even if they only want to be a performer, they can start to look at the choreography, not just at the way the choreography is being danced. Which is quite a mental shift.’
Flatt and Jackson are both fiercely proud that the choreography course has become an integral part of the RBS curriculum rather than an optional extra. ‘The school education is divided into “training” and “academics”,’ says Flatt, ‘but we completely cross that divide.’ They recognise that this outlook produces challenges. ‘There can be a lot of obedience in the ballet world, and training can become very connected to ideas of achievement and perfection,’ says Flatt. ‘But creativity isn’t about achieving perfection: it can be quite messy! So we always say: don’t try to achieve the end result before you’ve found the journey.’ She ends with a pithy and open-ended piece of advice to teachers: ‘If you have creative students, you have to work creatively with them.’
So working with creativity can be as challenging for teachers as it is for students. Imogen Knight is an RAD ballet and modern dance teacher at the Colours of Dance School in Cambridge, and confesses that working ‘choreographically’, whether for creative classes or end-of-term showcases, makes her anxious. ‘I’m not very confident choreographing,’ she says, ‘whereas in technique class I know where I am.’ But a recent RAD CPD workshop with Karen Berry really opened her eyes and boosted her confidence. And the biggest surprise was to realise what she had been doing all along.
‘Take any dance teacher,’ she says, ‘and they’ve reimagined something as basic as a battement tendu in a hundred different ways, for students of different ages, different genders, different personalities. They’ve pictured it in terms of the foot, or the posture, or the phrasing or the feeling… Teachers do this instinctively all the time, but we don’t necessarily see that it is already a framework and a foundation for choreography and creative work.’ Instead of having to learn a new subject, Knight realised that she already had the ‘basic tools’ for working creatively with dance: an understanding of space, time, flow, image, sensation; a responsive mind; a will to communicate. She just needed to mobilise them.
And she has. ‘For the first time this year, we did a summer school and had choreography classes, using some of the ideas and tasks that I’d learned from Karen Berry’s workshop. We’ve now built weekly choreography classes into our timetable. It’s been fab! You’re reinventing all the time, so your grow alongside your students. The whole experience has had a real positive impact on our school.’
Once again I think of that potent and unpredictable current called creativity. Start looking for it, and you can see that it underlies an entire art. You can see that it churns together dance with choreography, teaching with learning, possibility with practicality. You can see that some people feel it running in their veins, and that others notice. And yet you can never actually see it – only the difference that it makes.