Part two of this dancing tale takes me to Belgium where, as part of my professional singing training, I had to go running in snow, sing en pointe and experience other ballet disasters. I left you with mud on my face, or at least the good news that I wouldn’t have to put mud on my face, or indeed on any part of my body, when I sang for the Pina Bausch Dance Company’s performances of Glück’s Iphigenie en Tauride at Sadlers Wells.
Coincidentally, I had actually seen this dance company perform in it’s home town of Wuppertal when I was 22.
Three months after I graduated from the Guildhall School of Music, I saw an advert in the Stage newspaper for singers to go and work with a theatre company in Belgium. It didn’t give much information but said that dancers and singers were being auditioned from across Europe. I’d been almost entirely unemployed, despite my earlier exciting brush with professional work at the Adelaide Festival during my final term of Music College. I turned up at the Riverside Studios and was surprised to see that there was no pianist. I sang my aria unaccompanied and then one of the audition panel asked me to sing it again whilst he chased me around the room. (Nothing surprised me after my Opera Factory experience). Then I had to stand for a long time with my knees together looking cross and focused. (Perhaps another skill I could use in later life…..)
I was then asked to sing a straight note whilst a plump man with small, round glasses held my neck and pushed my larynx in. Now this I did find a bit strange. I found out later that he could tell a lot about the health of my singing mechanism and also my musical ear by what happened to the resultant pitch. It should drop as he pressed then, when he let go, bounce up, hopefully slightly above the original note and what happened next gave him his answer. I was pronounced fit and healthy and sent off home somewhat confused.
The following week I received a letter telling me to pack my bags and meet at the station in order to catch a ferry to Belgium. From there we would be taken on a bus to a castle called Alden Biesen near the German border. The letter said I could expect to be away from home for two years.
So, with trepidation and a VERY large suitcase (no helpful luggage wheels in those days) I struggled onto the train and met up with one male dancer and four very tidy ballerinas. We arrived many hours later at the snowy castle and were given a meal before we went straight into a workshop rehearsal with the director Jan Fabre. He’s the man at the front of the picture with a look of James Dean about him. The rest of the people are the colleagues I had to leave behind.
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We had to stand in a line with our knees together and look cross for a very long time. (He had bowlegs, so this was natural to him and very uncomfortable for us). People were dropping like flies, indeed actually getting cross and storming out. I was determined to complete the task – even though I didn’t quite know exactly what the task was. At midnight we were allowed to crawl into the small beds in the small but cosy dormitories and fall asleep, exhausted. The next morning the singers had a ballet class while Mr Fabre took the dancers running in the snow and when they returned it was our turn.
I have never really been a sporty person and if anything was going to break me it was going to be this. The picture is taken in a much warmer season. The snow was thick and I was so unfit that the freezing air burnt my poor, shocked lungs as I struggled for breath! He was like a Sergeant Major shouting at us to get a move on. This is how things went on for two months and there were many changes of personnel as new people were brought in on the bus and lots left crushed to return home.
We worked for long hours on fitness, improvisations and movement based on the libretto, which Jan Fabre had written. It was gruelling and challenging but I grew to love it. We didn’t have a voice coach but the gentleman who had pressed my larynx in the audition turned out to be a cross between a scientist and a speech therapist. He had a piece of machinery which he measured the amplitude of each note I sang on each particular pitch as I changed the shape of my mouth. The idea was that there was an optimum shape for resonance in the mouth for each note and vowel. Interesting stuff!
The only time off that we had was between Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Some of the dancers decided we would go on a two-hour bus trip on our night off. We were traveling to Wuppertal in Germany to see the legendary Pina Bausch Dance Company. It made a big impression on me – particularly because a lot of the dancers were clearly quite old. All of them had such a wonderful strength and presence on stage.
Back at the castle, our dancers were a mix of classical ballerinas and one male modern dancer. There was a lot of work where the dancers had to be en pointe. One day Jan Fabre had a mad idea that the singers should be singing en pointe too. Despite no dance training whatsoever, naively, I eagerly agreed to try. We were all taken to the nearest town of Maastricht to buy lovely, pink ballet shoes. There I discovered that there is no left or right – you have to make that happen with the sweat of your feet moulding the toes – ouch! It’s all about balance and lifting your core upward and a lot of concentration. All those hours standing and looking cross would surely now be of some use.
I have inherited my Grandmother’s feet. Quite wide, but with a very even curve to the end of my toes. (Wodgies as they’re affectionately known in our family). This physiological trait was to stand me in good stead as I sturdily caried on with my pas de bourrée as the girls with dainty, slim toes cried with the pain after two minutes wearing the lovely, pink satin instruments of torture.
Here is a wonderful x-ray I found of the position a dancer’s foot has to take in those beautiful pink shoes……. which were by now coincidentally Bic-biro blue. One of the things Jan Fabre is best known for in the modern art world are his paintings using the Bic biro – Bic Art. One of the things we spent a long time doing was colouring anything that didn’t move with our Bics. Costumes, furniture, ballet shoes and even the enormous cloth which would hang at the back of the stage!
My sister just reminded me about the weekend I had said I was briefly coming home to England. I was due to get the ferry from Zeebrugge but the trains were delayed to the port. I had no idea why. I decided to stay with a friend in Antwerp instead. That was the fateful night of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster that killed 187 people. I was booked on the following boat. While I was drinking Belgian beer with my friends, my sisters were trying to get through to the disaster helpline and when they eventually did they were asked if they had x-rays of my teeth for identification. I rang them the next morning as soon as I woke up and turned the news on – these were the days before mobiles of course – they were rather pleased to hear from me!
Work carried on at the castle but sadly the music never arrived. It was supposed to be written by Polish composer Henryk Górecki but news came by post that the score was delayed because he was ill. This was a few years before his wonderful Symphony of Sorrowful Songs catapulted him to international fame. Eventually Jan Fabre decided that in the absence of music he would have to make a dance/theatre piece to perform. He had to satisfy the funding bodies that had paid for our extended stay in the castle.
The singers were to be sent home and I was so disappointed to leave all my friends and let them carry on with the piece which I felt I had put so much of myself into creating – and not to mention all the things I had coloured in with my Bic biro!
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Two years later I was called by the company and asked to go back to sing in the completed production as the music had finally arrived. I had already moved to Cambridge with my husband-to-be and also joined the Swingle Singers, so I was unable to return to finish the job.
Many years have passed and after the music rehearsals at the Warehouse, the London Voices arrived at Sadlers Wells to rehearse with the Pina Bausch Dance Company. I was eager to see how the opera had been translated into movement. Our main problem as singers was that we were split in half on either side of the stage in balconies. It was very dark and cramped and we were a long way from the conductor so keeping our ensemble tight was going to be a challenge. The good thing about not being in the pit and being raised up was that we had a good view of the dancers on stage.
The design was very sparse but the stark lighting and choreography magnificently transported the music to a different level. When we got to the dress rehearsal, the girls (and some of the boys!) were delighted to see that the two main male characters were dressed only in skin-coloured micro fibre briefs. This meant that their perfectly-honed bodies were highlighted. Their disarming nakedness during their Pas de Deux made us feel like we were prying on the friend’s very private grief at their impending separation. Every leap and elegant stretch illustrated their pain – there was something almost religious in the way they were presented – their ribcages stretched taught as they hung backwards over the edge of a table for the opening of the act as the two friends wake up in some sort of prison. The light streaming onto their entwined bodies from a blinding spotlight above. Like two cadavers – an almost brutal image.
But oh – the perfect bottoms! An audible gasp escaped from the girls of the chorus as the two dancers slowly turned and stood looking upstage. Treating us, to what we later described as “the money shot”. Certainly, a moment to look out for every night during the four performances.
Another favourite moment for me was the angular, almost puppet-like choreography of the dancer who played the evil Toas. He came on stage wearing a huge, outsized, rigid leather overcoat which he then stepped out of and left standing alone on the stage. The dancers told me that even thought this piece had quite a few younger dancers, the average age was still 38 which is very old for a ballet company. Now Pina Bausch has sadly died, the company will carry on re-creating her famous choreography for as long as they can as an homage to her work.
The audiences and critics liked the show and Roslyn Sulcas writing in the NY Times kindly mentioned the choir and the excellent conductor.
“If you didn’t know the story of the Euripides play, or understand the German lyrics, there would be much of Iphigenie that would be incomprehensible in narrative terms. But Bausch’s ability to organize the stage space in contrapuntal blocks of movement, imprinting the stark, pared-down dance upon the eye, offers another kind of theatrical meaning, and establishes the dance as equal partner to the music. (Jan Michael Horstmann is the sensitive conductor, with London Voices the fine choir.)”
For me, Iphigenie and Pina Bausch brought back many great memories from those two eye-opening jobs, which I was lucky enough to do at the beginning of my very varied career as a singer.
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I love you Heather Cairncross, and I LOVE your blog!