Dance and Human Rights:

An interview with Christopher Bruce,
Artistic Director, Rambert Dance Company
July, 1999

By Stuart Sweeney

 

Christopher Bruce is one of the UK's leading choreographers and is currently Artistic Director of Rambert Dance Company, having worked in the past with what is now English National Ballet and Houston Ballet, among others. Ballet Rambert evolved in 1935 from Dame Marie Rambert's Ballet Club. In the early years of its history, the Company performed classical ballet, including the first UK performance of La Sylphide. However, by 1966 the strains involved in being a medium-size touring ballet company were taking their toll and in a bold move, Dame Marie switched the Company to contemporary dance. To reflect this change, the name of the Company was changed in 1987 to Rambert Dance Company. They are the largest contemporary dance company in the UK and enjoy a high reputation around the world.

Bruce was an outstanding dancer with the Company and his classic performance in Tetley's Pierrot Lunaire was recorded by the BBC. From an early stage, he was nurtured as a choreographer by Dame Marie and his first major triumph was Cruel Garden, a full-length collaboration with Lindsay Kemp. Rambert recently revived the work to much acclaim. He continues to have great success as a choreographer and is known for his skill in grafting folk dance steps into balletic movement vocabulary and his use of social themes as a source of inspiration for dance works.

For the past two years, Amnesty International UK and Rambert have worked together on publicity and the preparation of schools material for Swansong, an outstanding piece of dance-drama based on the interrogation of a prisoner by two guards. As Rambert revives another of Bruce's works, Ghost Dances, I interviewed him on the theme of dance and human rights.

As a starting point, I asked Bruce why a choreographer might include human rights themes in his work, particularly as there is a view that the arts should only be concerned with creating beauty. He replied that, for himself, social and political themes emerge naturally as a reflection of his own concerns, although his aim is always firstly to create a piece of dance, rather than to make a statement. Nevertheless, he does not see a conflict between creating interesting movement and tackling difficult issues. He believes that there is much beauty in Ghost Dances and similar works, just as in the First World War poems of Wilfred Owen. Turning to propaganda pieces, such as the work of film-maker Leni Riefenstahl for the Nazis, he told me that a touch-stone is whether there is some underlying truth behind the piece, inspired by a desire to promote civilised behaviour, rather than just an attempt to shape opinion.

In the 1970s, the focus for Bruce and many others was South America and Pinochet's bloody coup against the elected Allende government in Chile. He recalls the powerful impact of meeting Joan Jara, the widow of the musician and composer Victor, who was tortured and murdered by Pinochet's forces. This meeting lead him to choreograph, Ghost Dances. He described how he took the theme of the Day of the Dead, simple symbolism and indigenous dance movements as a basis to convey the plight of the innocent people of South American down the ages and their courage in the face of adversity. Certainly, Ghost Dances has a tremendous impact and audiences in many countries have delighted in its distinctive, rhythmic movement performed to haunting South American tunes. However, it is the representation of the oppression of ordinary people, symbolised by the sinister ghost figures, which give the work much of its resonance. A recent video showing at a local UK Amnesty group meeting drew comments such as “brilliant” and “very moving”.

Bruce agrees that, on the evidence of Ghost Dances, Swansong and Cruel Garden (about the death of Lorca at the hands of the Fascists in Spain), human rights themes have provided him with a strong source of inspiration. He remains a passionate advocate for the role of dance and the arts in society and believes that seeing good work and the chance to perform, either as an amateur or a professional, can not only enrich lives, but can also be a civilising influence.

 

Rambert Dance Company is performing Ghost Dances as part of a mixed programme in the second half of 1999 and in further venues in 2000 in the UK and Continental Europe. A number of local Amnesty International groups have already had information stalls and collections in the theatres included in the tour, which continues in Cologne, London, Munich and Canterbury and other venues in 2000. Details about all of the forthcoming performances by the Company can be obtained by phoning Rambert Dance Company on +44 181 995 4246 or by e-mail rambert@globalnet.co.uk. Contact Stuart Sweeney on 01689 851501 or stuart.sweeney@which.net for more information about Dance and Human Rights.

(This article was first published in the November 1999 edition of the Amnesty International UK Groups Newsletter.)

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