Christopher Bruce An Interview with Christopher Bruce

by Lyndsey Winship

July 2002

Rambert's retiring Artistic Director, Christopher Bruce, talks about the pressures on young choreographers, the future of the company and how he's looking forward to spending some time in the garden

Having just completed their spring tour, Rambert Dance Company are on a post-performance high. "The company is looking very strong," says Artistic Director Christopher Bruce. "They've had a lot of success over the last eight years, and they're ready for the next phase of development." Bruce is of course talking about the appointment of a new Artistic Director at Rambert when he bows out next year. Bruce took up the Rambert post in 1994, expecting to be there for only three or four years but he stayed with them for twice that, despite overseas commitments to the Houston, Geneva and Cullberg Ballet companies. Bruce is now credited with saving Rambert from extinction, and enabling the company to break even for the first time in seven years. It seems that as well as being a uniquely talented dancer, choreographer and mentor, he has a shrewd understanding of audiences and the business of dance.

As a young dancer with the Rambert, nurtured by its founder Marie Rambert, Bruce never intended to become a choreographer, and neither did he intend to become a director, yet he has excelled at both. He feels it is now time to take a well-earned rest. Bruce remained resolutely tight-lipped about his successor while discussions were taking place, but Mark Baldwin has since been named as the man who will fill his shoes. All he would say is; "One hopes that the tradition of Rambert will be handed on." And what is that tradition? "Good work, and work that engages an audience. Engaging and entertaining people as well as pushing them," Bruce explains. According to him, the secret of the company's success is simply the blend of the programme. "A mix of the more accessible alongside the more demanding." Bruce is adamant that new work need not be 'difficult' and abstruse. "New work can also be entertaining – it doesn't have to be hard. If it's good it tends to engage an audience anyway." Add to that formula uniformly good dancing – solid training in ballet and contemporary – and 75 years worth of reputation, and you've got a recipe for one of the most well-known and well-respected dance companies in the country.

Bruce finds his audiences constantly surprising, "ranging from very young to mature, and people who've seen a lot of dance to first timers". Bruce is pleased to be developing an audience for the art when he sees the stage as being usurped by the flashier forms of television and movies. "It's great that contemporary dance is playing to a growing audience." As well as developing audiences, Bruce is developing young choreographic talent, not least during the Rambert's workshop performances where young choreographers have the chance to have their works performed alongside Rambert classics. It is "the beginning of learning the craft of choreography," says Bruce.

Did he have the same encouragement when starting out? "I didn't consider that I would choreograph." Bruce reminds us. "It was only years later that I had an idea and thought I could do it. The process happened within the normal repertory, that's quite hard nowadays, there are so many more choreographers of a high standard. You need time to build up." Which is exactly the intention of the workshop performances. "I want to protect them." Says Bruce. "A lot of choreographers are knocked on the head too early. You need several goes, two or three pieces at least before you're making something strong enough for repertory. To choreograph is never easy. It's very important to be allowed to create in a protective environment." Bruce will not even be pressed into naming the most promising young choreographers. "They need to be given time, that puts pressure on them and it's not fair to others," he says, like the perfect sensei.

Bruce's own work can be theatrical and humorous, he has a great interest in visual art and is drawn to strong imagery and pure aesthetics, but his works often also revolve around serious issues. For example 'Ghost Dances' dwelt on oppression in South America, while 'Swansong' was based on the interrogation of a prisoner, and a more recent work 'Hurricane' deals with racism in 60s America. When so much new choreography deals in the abstract, how important is it for work to mean something, to make a statement? "I don't think it's important to make statements," Bruce counters, "they should come out naturally." One should "start with creating good choreography or good dance theatre. There's nothing worse than people starting with a statement and not having the choreography to back it up. You might as well just write it down."
But can dance ever say enough? "You're always limited by the form, but that's the challenge. And hopefully something special comes out of that." Bruce's responses to those challenges will surely remain in the Rambert repertoire for years to come.

So as Bruce bids Rambert goodbye, has he achieved everything he set out to do? "Yes, in terms of repertory and dances," he says positively. "My only disappointment is that I haven't been able to take the company into new premises, and that we haven't affiliated with a school – with our dancers going to teach and bringing new dancers through to the company. Nevertheless, "it's been very rewarding to see the development." Bruce's commitment to the company is total and he comes across as utterly selfless, even at this reflective stage of his career. He has a habit of deflecting questions about himself to talking about the company, but sees this as a necessary trait in a good director. "You're basically there to serve. It's like being in the forces," he laughs. His loyalty and dedication is shared by many previous dancers and choreographers who have come back to the company again and again. "Rambert is a remarkable animal," Bruce declares, "It creates that kind of spirit." For all his love of the company, Bruce is looking forward to retirement with relish. A chance to catch up on his other interests like drawing and painting. "My art was something I've always done. It’s a family trait. I've been doing some life drawing when I can, but I put most of my energy into the garden in Somerset. I love working on the land." Beyond that, Bruce is happily undecided about the future. "I have no plans, I certainly need a good rest."


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