Choreographer Christopher Bruce is living his best life. Not because of a pandemic-induced epiphany but from decades of dancing. He exercises in the morning and plays piano before rehearsing. He has little interest in using screens. Self-discipline comes naturally to him.
Bruce’s career dictated a lot of these practices and he has built a reputation as one of ballet’s star choreographers with countless dances performed by companies from Houston Ballet to Nederlands Dans Theater. Now, at age 76, Bruce reflects on a lifetime of work inspired by world events, personal experience and music. It was the latter that prompted him to create Rooster, in 1991, to eight of his favourite Rolling Stones tunes.
Ballet Ireland presents Rooster in Dublin later this month, adding to the list of more than 20 ballet companies across three continents that have performed Bruce’s most well-known feel-good ballet, full of stylised strut and swivelling arms to recognisable music. Rooster’s many accolades make it hard to believe that its debut almost didn’t happen.
“When I just completed the ballet in 1991, the director [of Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve] came to me, ashen-faced and said, ‘We’ve been refused permission to use the music’.’’
As it turns out the Rolling Stones didn’t own the rights to the recordings. In the 1960s American businessman Allen Klein created the company ABKCO as an intermediary between recording artists and record labels. Klein and his company worked with high-profile artists such as the Rolling Stones and acquired the rights to their music, but the Stones’ relationship with ABKCO ultimately turned, leading to lengthy litigation. High-profile lawsuits and accusations of tax evasions went back and forth for years. Fast forward to 1991 and those legal wranglings nearly meant the chopping block for Rooster.
“When I got back to London I had a meeting with Mick Jagger and he helped me,” Bruce explains. “We got the rights, but when it came to the second production with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, we had the same problem again. He helped sort it again and after that, touch wood, it’s been okay.”
That’s great about the music rights. But a meeting with Mick Jagger?
“He was a lovely man. He came to the opening night of Rooster with London Contemporary Dance Theatre so he got to see it. Yeah, that was special.” After that, the pair worked together on a video for one of Jagger’s songs.
Despite Bruce’s choreographic stature, he maintains an understated demeanour. Growing up in Scarborough, he began studying ballet at his father’s insistence, who saw dance as a way out of a working-class life for his children. Bruce knew nothing about dance upon enrolling in his first ballet classes, but like so many others, he got hooked by the combination of music and athleticism.
“Having polio as a child was one of the reasons I danced,” Bruce explains, “and then I had the reoccurrence of the symptoms of polio, where I began to lose muscle in my right leg again. I was told at the age of 45 that I only had a year to be able to walk unaided. I redoubled my exercises, worked with a personal trainer and now I very rarely use a cane or stick.”
Bruce’s dedication to dancing began at a young age, and caught the eye of the notoriously demanding ballet director Marie Rambert. An émigrée from Poland and former dancer with Serge Diaghilev’s superstar company Les Ballet Russes, Rambert moved to London after the first World War and started the Ballet Club, offering performances around the city. During the second World War her company evolved into a full-time touring operation, making its own wartime contributions in venues from factory canteens to theatres, presenting familiar story ballets and new works. Renamed Ballet Rambert, the company helped build a loyal dance audience throughout Britain while at the same time laying the foundations for its own future in London. When Madame Rambert asked Bruce to join in the 1960s, it became a kind of home base for much of his career.
Not only did Bruce cut his teeth as a dancer with Ballet Rambert, but he worked as its associate director in the 1970s, associate choreographer throughout the 1980s and ultimately became artistic director of the later renamed Rambert Dance Company from 1994 to 2002.
“Looking back, the great thing about Rambert was that you were given an opportunity. If you wanted to make a ballet, you could go to the director and ask,” Bruce says. “I was allowed to make work and fail, and still have another opportunity.”
He laments how difficult that would be for choreographers today. “I think the pressure on them now is so great. Often when creating you discover something by accident when you were trying to create something else, and that’s what you’ll use,” he says of his process. “You’re always accumulating material, but then you throw a lot of it away and use the nucleus of it. That’s when you make a piece that really is a little bit special.”
When working, my favourite time is being in the studio with the dancers making something and we come up with something new
Themes of Bruce’s ballets have run the gamut; Cruel Garden’s inspiration came from the works of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Sergeant Early’s Dream is set to British, Irish and American folk songs. Ghost Dances, created in 1981, has been performed the world over, and its motifs of love, compassion and death were sparked by a letter Bruce received from a human rights activist whose husband had been tortured and killed during the Pinochet regime in Chile in 1973. Set to traditional South American folk music and with skeleton-like costumes evoking the Day of the Dead, Ghost Dances still manages to portray a sense of hope in humanity’s ability to overcome oppression. The ballet’s continued resonance at the present moment is not lost on Bruce.
Dancers who work with Bruce comment on how he weaves structure, themes and personality into his creations. Martin Lindinger, Ballet Ireland’s general manager, danced with Ballet Rambert under Bruce’s direction in the early 2000s, and remembers how exacting he was in rehearsal.
“He’d definitely let you know if something wasn’t right,” Lindinger says, “and you didn’t want to disappoint him. Yet what he taught us went well beyond the movement. He was interested in personalities and themes, and not always with a story. Aside from that there was something very gentle about him. He was very much loved wherever he went.”
Bruce spent nearly 10 years working as associate choreographer for English National Ballet and during those same years went back and forth across the Atlantic as Houston Ballet’s resident choreographer. Dominic Walsh, a principal dancer with Houston Ballet at the time, remembers how Bruce would create his own movement vocabulary with gestures or language specific to that dance.
“What he did with [choreographer] Lindsay Kemp to create Cruel Garden was genius,” Walsh says. “To this day it is one of the most riveting productions I have danced. I think I was 19 or 20 when I first interpreted the role of the Poet and that shaped how I interpreted everything afterwards.”
The creative process still motivates Bruce to re-stage his most popular ballets when he would otherwise be content tending his garden in Somerset and spending time with his family. His wife Marian also danced with Rambert, later designing costumes for her husband’s work, and their son Mark has forged his own path as a choreographer. Three of their grandchildren currently take ballet lessons.
“When working, my favourite time is being in the studio with the dancers making something, and we come up with something new,” Bruce says. “I come out of rehearsals two hours later and I’ve got 30-45 seconds of a dance that didn’t exist before that moment. And that is incredibly exciting.”
Bruce says any new ballet of his starts with an idea. “Then it’s about inventing the movement and creating a structure. I need a parameter so I try to discipline myself to work within a framework which I’ve set for myself. Then I work on a vocabulary that is particular to the work. So, therefore in Rooster, that opening solo was all built on gestures about the preening cockerel or a young man about to go out on the town. I work with metaphor, analogy. I have to say that making my work is always fun. I enjoy it.”
Next on his agenda is a ballet to Leonard Cohen songs. While Jagger might not be able to help with securing music rights this time, Bruce remains hopeful the project will move forward.
“This is the Big Work. Like an epitaph. It’s about a troubadour on the road, just as Cohen was and as I have been. So in a sense their lives merge and I’ve got strong ideas for that. I could make that starting tomorrow if my body holds up.”
Ballet Ireland presents Christopher Bruce's Rooster as part of Bold Moves, April 16th-23rd at the O'Reilly Theatre. Tickets available at takeyourseats.ie