Interview with The Listening Room choreographer, Theo Clinkard


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Tonight Danza Contemporánea de Cuba make their Barbican debut with a triple bill of work by leading international choreographers including the company’s own George Céspedes, Olivier award winner Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and the UK’s Theo Clinkard. Clinkard’s The Listening Room premiered in Havana’s Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso in May 2016 and received rave reviews. It is an experimental piece in which the dancers respond to the music they hear in their headphones while the audience listen to an alternative score. Ahead of Thursday’s performance we caught up with Theo Clinkard to ask him about creating this piece with this incredible company.

How did your collaboration with Danza Contemporánea De Cuba come about? In the summer of 2015 I met with the Managing Director of Danza Contemporánea de Cuba and the British Council Dance Department about the opportunity of teaching and making a dance piece with the company as part of the Islas Creativas (Creative Islands) initiative. I was selected for the job and in May 2016 I went to Cuba to work with the company for three weeks. I spent one week teaching workshops and I had just two weeks to make a half hour piece.

What were your impressions of Cuba?
Cuba blew my mind! It is an incredible place. It is insanely beautiful. We lived in a suburb of Havana in a residential neighbourhood. Working in Havana was such a different experience from being a tourist. What was really striking is the spirit of the Cuban people. They are such open, loving, warm, tender and dynamic people. When you walk into the studio every dancer kisses every person in the room. What a way to start! But you soon learn that this Cuban spirit is not confined to the studio, it is a cultural thing.

How would you describe Danza Contemporánea de Cuba? What are they like to work with?
When I began working with them, 10 dancers had just left to go to Carlos Acosta’s new company and 10 new dancers were brought in straight from dance school. These dancers were young with such a rigorous training behind them but they were completely open and hungry for new information. I went into the studio with playful tasks and improvisation and I gave them permission to move how they want to move and for them to write the piece as they dance it. This is an unusual way for these dancers to work because I didn’t go into the studio to teach them steps but they flew with it because dance is so deep in their bones.

What do you think it is about Cuba that produces such talented dancers?
Cuba is such a sheltered island that it has had to develop its own identity and culture. The children play out on the street with the parents sat on a step and there is music everywhere. This is balanced with their rigorous physical training. It provides a brilliant combination, which is a pleasure to work with.

Can you tell me about The Listening Room? What were your ideas behind this piece?
I had such a short space of time that I had to come up with a strategy to work quickly. I usually work alongside a musician but this time I selected a recording of Steve Reich’s Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings to form the score of the piece. Normally dance serves the music but I wanted to create a dance that could have its own weight and emphasis. I took 20 MP3 players and headphones to Cuba. I wanted to create a disconnect between the sound and movement of the piece. In the performance, the dancers get to dance to the music on their headphones. The audience, however, listen to a separate piece of music. It creates a situation where the audience have to figure something out rather than being completely provided for as there is this sonic wall between the audience and the dancers.

I had a cast of dancers that know their form and create phenomenal shapes and I was interested in what happens if I put the emphasis on the sound and rhythm because then they don’t have to present their bodies to us. Whatever those dancers do will create interesting shapes so I didn’t want to create imagery with bodies but instead create sound as imagery. The work has a freedom to it and each time I watch it, it is different.

Photo by Adolfo Izquierdo

Are there ideas or concepts that you return to a lot in your work? What makes your work distinctive?
I like to create work where the dancers are not replaceable but rather it celebrates their diversity and explores what makes us different. My role of the choreographer is therefore as a host introducing the audience to the dancers and allowing the audience to really get to know them. I trust that my own personal style and signature will come through in what the dancers do on stage but I am not seeking to demonstrate my voice.

I am interested in exploring empathy through dance. The reason why I am making a particular piece of work is because I am trying to find the human connection. Everyone has dance inside themselves and therefore a connection to dancing. I want the audience to connect with what they see on stage and not just with what impresses the eye.

I am not looking for through lines any more in my work. This is what makes it different to dance theatre. It may not have a literal meaning or anything that needs to be explained.

What things help you create or develop new works? Do you have a favourite space, or routine that percolates ideas?
Once I am in the studio I have some basic things that I do to see how the dancers respond. I set tasks and improvisations but I don’t come in and push people in a physical sense. What is important is that they are present in what they are doing but it is not a hard physical graft. In fact, it is the presence of the performers in the piece that I choreograph.

What else is next for you this year?
In May my new full-length production This Bright Field premieres at the Brighton Festival at the Brighton Dome. Brighton Festival and Dome have invited me to become an Associate Artist and have co-commissioned the new show. It is made for 12 dancers and will be touring the UK in October.

If The Listening Room is about listening then This Bright Field is about looking and perception. In the first part of the show half of the audience join the performers on stage where they get to view the performers intimately. There are rooms and corridors on the stage where they may experience private dances. In the second part the audience watch the performers from the auditorium at more of a distance. I am interested in how the eye understands the movement differently having connected more personally with the performers.

What are the challenges of finding the time and space to create new pieces of work for your own company when you are so busy?
It is really hard balancing everything. The administration especially is such a challenge. I spend so much time booking trains and hotels – it is endless! We don’t talk about how much paperwork is involved in running a company. I have a pile of books waiting to be read. I am always trying to find time to read books.

When did you decide you wanted to dance professionally?
It was always clear that that was what I wanted to do. I always danced from waving bits of fabric round dancing to Kate Bush to starting classes aged 6, once a week, locally in Cornwall. I later went to Elmhurst Ballet School. I was offered a place in Royal Ballet Upper School but after a couple of classes I realised that this wasn’t at all for me so instead I went to the Rambert School where I felt I could be myself. My first professional job was in Matthew Bourne’s The Nutcracker.

What has been the stand out moment in your career to date?
Choreographing ‘Somewhat still when seen from above’ in September 2015 for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch was a massive moment. It is a shame it didn’t tour. Stepping into the studio with my company of 12 dancers, to make a new work was another one and I am also hoping that Thursday evening at the Barbican will be another.

What piece of advice would you give to dancers or choreographers beginning their journey?
It is import to recognise that it is not just about what you do in a studio but about how you engage yourself and what you do with your time. The dancers I work with are all artists in their own right and engage in the dance and the arts independently from me. They have curiosity of the art form and also engage politically and socially. If you are not able to meet people or engage with your peers you can’t expect to have things handed to you.

The practice of empathy is also important in the way that I engage and talk to people because it is what makes us human.