Choreographer and former dancer Ben Wright has an inspiring personal journey that we discovered during our podcast interview. As a teenager, Ben experienced bullying before being discovered as a natural dance talent at the age of 19! Coming to dance so late in life for a professional dancer is rare, but as soon as he took his first step he knew that this was to be his future. Read our podcast chat, which you can listen to here or on iTunes:
Q: Before we talk about your company, let’s talk about your own dance career, as you’ve danced some incredible roles with great companies, including London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Rambert, New Adventures and many more. Tell us about your dance career and some of your highlights?
A: I have realised now that I have been choreographing for as long as was a dancer. That is an interesting moment! When I was 19 I was auditioning for Drama school – I didn’t want to be a dancer – but through series of events, I ended up joining the youth dance company in Derbyshire at the end of the 80s. I met two individuals that really shifted the trajectory of my life. One of them was a former ballet dancer Eve Leaveaux – she saw me in a community ballet class, the first time I had ever done anything, and afterwards we had a conversation and she offered to teach me for free, so I quit everything that I thought I was going to do and I spent a year in the ballet school in Derby with pre-teens and little girls dancing around. So, that was kind of the launching pad. The other person was c, founder of DV8 Physical Theatre. Those two individuals really shifted my entire perspective about everything, about what I thought I was going to do.
Q: It is amazing to meet people who change your life. So you didn’t study dance until you were 19?
A: Absolutely not, I was one of those kids who was quite badly bullied in school for not being good at sports. Dancing was a real revelation, that I was able to be physically expressive and I have never even considered it. I kept my acting passion – I was really into theatre – but I had to drop if I was going to be a dancer. I just trained. At the beginning of my third year, I auditioned for Sir Matthew Bourne and he gave me a role in New Adventures in 1991, after two years of training. After 7 or 8 months I then auditioned for London Contemporary Dance Theatre. I didn’t get to work with Sir Matthew until 1995 when we did the original Swan Lake at the old Sadler’s Wells before it was knocked down and rebuilt. I did the role on and off for about 8 years and I created the role with Scott Ambler and David Hughes, who were playing the swan with Adam Cooper. We did a couple of national tours and ended up going to LA and then we did the incredible season on Broadway. There were gaps in between, but the last time I played the role was in Japan and Korea, in Seoul. I am going to Seoul in 3 weeks with Candoco, with my new job as the one of the Associate Co-Director of the company.
Q: Such an incredible career and inspiring story to hear and an important story in terms of being open about the bullying you experienced in school and finding an environment, where physically and emotionally you felt safe, in the dance world.
A: It was a – I sound a little bit dramatic – but I think it was a lifesaver. In terms of the generosity that Eve showed me, it was unprecedented and so it is one of the reasons why I finally committed to one life as a performing practice to choreographic practice or directing both, and also for me teaching is the enormous part of what I do and who I am. I am so very committed and passionate about working with young people. It is a different environment where we live now, a different system, and I still believe this is a life-changing force in dancing.
Q: It’s interesting that your own journey that began at 19 has a few parallels with Sir Matthew’s career. What inspired you, in the beginning, to start creating your own work?
A: I always sort of did it, I realised; I remember at my first year in Rambert it seemed a natural thing, as well as learning how to battle one’s technique, it seemed a natural thing to also want to take creative decisions and explore that. I did stage design, graphic design and art when I was in school, so having that is always present in my life. But I don’t think I really took it seriously, I am nervous when using the term ‘seriously’, I feel like sometimes I am playful and explorative.
It was in 2008 when I decided I wanted to build my own ‘home’, which was the project company bgroup. It was in 2005 that I did my first opera as a choreographer as well. I was trying to work out how I could diversify my income streams. And because I had this interest in theatre and collaboration, it seemed natural, but I tried to extend myself into other mediums.
I was lucky I met this amazing man Stewart Laing who is director/designer and he came to see a piece that I did and called ‘Tobias And The Angel’ that I had been working with a lot of community participants on and an amazing one-act opera by Jonathan Dove that we performed at the Young Vic and in churches up and down the country.
From that, Stewart gave me the invitation to come and choreograph ‘Faust’ by Gounod for Malmö Opera. My entire relationship with Malmö Opera and London Contemporary Dance Theatre all came out of that initial job. I ended up being the Associate-Artistic Director at Skånes Dansteater and I have created some of my biggest, most game-changing works. So, there were these lovely cycles and runs of experience that come when you conceive in fertile ground.
Q: You create work in the dance world, theatre and opera. Do you find one more fulfilling and, if so, why?
A: No, I don’t, I think I am always going to be somebody that is interested in a collision of art forms. It is in my blood. I am beginning to not be ashamed of the fact that I just really like putting on a show. I have an explorative practice, but I have ideas for the things I would like to see. So, I would say that probably the biggest game-changing piece I have done was ‘The Feeling of Going’, which was a commission that Åsa Söderberg who is the Artistic Director and CEO of Skånes Dansteater and she basically gave me an opera house in Malmö with full symphony orchestra and the chorus and she asked me ‘what would you like to do?’. We premiered the first version of the project at the end of 2013 – the staging of an album by the Icelandic band Sigur rós called “Go”, who Jonsi (the lead singer) gave me permission to stage it as a piece of theatre. We’ve just filmed it for TV and I just watched it for the first time. We did it in 2013, redid it in 2015 and we the final run is in 2017. It has been broadcast all over Scandinavian television. We are trying to work on how to get it here in the UK, but it is for me clear identification in terms of what I think my voice is and it is a total collision of singing, dancing, and theatre and it has a linear narrative. I think I am interested in narratives.
Q: This brings me to your own company, bgroup, which is described as a movement company. How would you describe your movement language or movement style?
A: I don’t know honestly – people have told me that I have the very liquid way of moving. I think each piece that I make has its own identity, its own set of questions, context, so I am not really interested in having a style per se. It has to be about the people that are in the room and the creative team I have gathered, the initial idea and getting everyone on board. Collaboration is the key for me and you can go in with expectations, but usually I enjoy the alchemy of getting a group of people together. We start to build it, the idea. It is the heart of most things I do.
I don’t even want to stick necessarily to be somebody that makes work in a particular size of space. Point of Echoes is in a way an experimental piece. I had just done a piece on Malmö Opera, which is one of the biggest stages in Northern Europe with a 19 metre stage. And Point of Echoes is performed on 4.5 metre circular stage. I really enjoy the idea of bringing a level of the operatic – and I mean that in a sense of how all forms collide – into proximate small spaces. I haven’t done anything since 2014 and because I went to Sweden for 4 years to work as an artistic director, it is nice to come back and find a new way of engaging the audience on this level.
This piece, Point of Echoes, is a collaboration with Stuart Warwick who is a writer from Brighton. We had this idea of doing something together and we were responding to a commission invitation from the Rural Touring Dance Initiative. I am also working with sound designer Alan Stones [who I’ve worked with] for 20 years and Will Haught who is a set designer. There is a really good blog he just wrote about how he designed the set. And Lucy Hamson is the lighting designer from The Place, that I am building a new relationship with. It is about bringing a lot of voices into the room, working out how we speak as one voice.
Q: What audience expect from that experience of being in that close space?
A: The initiative aims to bring more dance into rural locations, to audiences that don’t necessarily having wide experience of seeing dance. I tried to picture that carefully, I wanted to play around with the story and I also wanted to play around with text, so this is a melting pot, a crucible of medians.
It also has a big surround sound, so it feels like you are in a radio play. It’s a story and I try to twist the way that story is told. The environment, although it is static, circular lighthouse-esque thing in the middle of the room, we try to find a way of shifting space. It is a little bit like a cinematic episode of Tales Of The Unexpected. It is spooky and fundamentally it is a play, but it is being performed by a 3 movement-based artists and there’s the experiment to it as well as being entertainment for people.
Q: What do you look for in artists to join your company?
A: I guess it depends on the context of what the job is, but in terms of bgroup, I am interested in people that are expansive in their thinking, generous communicators, that are happy to potentially move a little bit out of their comfort zone, people that have a sense of humor, that cannot be underlined too many times! Yes, they need to be able to move, dance, express themselves vocally, but I am not interested in one sort of spectacular pyrotechnics ability, for me, it is about the person and I enjoy having my expectations about somebody challenge or altered.
People who are committed to a long conversation about what work is and how we might do it better. There are long conversations when you draw a comma next to a show because I also feel like it is a longer line living inquiry, rather than we do a show and that is the end. It is about how do we make work, how do we engage an audience, how do we tell stories, having a physical experience in the audience even if they are sitting down.
Q: Tell us about your experience of moving between the 3 roles and 3 companies you work with?
A: My time is going to get more and more focused with Candoco at the moment. I have one more commission with Skånes Dansteater, which we premiered in October this year – it’s a big inclusive piece with asylum seekers, the disabled and 8 members of the dance company. With bgroup, we have our tour, and at the end this year we will be at The Place Theatre. With Candoco it’s an entirely new trajectory.
I said to a friend the other day, I remember when I first stepped foot in a ballet class, and you have the passion and curiosity to work out how to do it, but it is also my vision for the thing that is beyond my capabilities. That is what I feel. There is a resonance with that, at the moment where I have not run a large scale MPO company before. I am doing it with one of my closest best friends, Charlotte Darbyshire, we have known each other a long time.
This is a very different kind of role, we are running a company which has been in existence for 25 years, one that has inclusivity so embedded in its heart and its DNA, and I think we are really thinking about the difference at the moment. We are only 5 weeks into the job, so it is really new and I guess one of the things we are understanding is that the identity of Candoco, you have the politics around disability, then also the nature of what dance is as an art form and those two are very rich areas of inquiry and activism.
The responsibility to ensure that we are upholding and enriching the legacy and inheritance that we already have, but also thinking how will we begin to move this into an expanded sense if you like. I think there has been a moment where the company has really shifted the perception of ability. I think one of the things I’m ruminating on the moment is how do we shift perception of inclusivity. The two of us have a very rich communication. The company is phenomenal.
We are in Sadler’s Wells in two weeks and there are tickets still available. We’ve got an amazing double bill programme by Yasmeen Godder. She is the most extraordinary, vivid, visionary, kinetic, just phenomenal. Then there is smart as a whip piece by Hetain Patel who is the visual artist. Both of the pieces were commissioned by the previous directors of Candoco, and they are a marvellous inheritance. We then go to Korea to premiere the work of company Eun-Me Ahn, which is part of the cultural Olympiad.
Q: My final question is do you have any words of advice for other emerging choreographers or artistic directors who are inspired by your personal story?
A: I guess the advice would gently shift depending on where the person was in life. If it is a young person and they are finding particular joy in what they do, just know that the more you make yourself vulnerable to a joy, that is the seedbed of passion. I think that is where passion grows from.
Stick with joy and passion because as you get older, you realize that you are moving into a profession, an industry, show ‘business’. There is a whole other level of things you need to consider – how you sustain life as an artist. I think unless you retain your ability to be vulnerable to joy and to keep your passion boiled, then it is harder.
That also means making sure you are connected to the community. Chose contentment rather than validation. As long as you are content in what you are doing, that is what ultimately matters. The engine, get down to the basic engine that is driving you. It is hard, really hard work. The community is important, the passion is important and your integrity. I think that is the thing.
Point of Echoes is on tour across the UK, for venues, dates and tickets visit: www.chinaplatetheatre.com/point-echoes
For more info on Ben visit: Benwright.info