George Piper Dances

And now for something completely different …

An Interview with Michael Nunn and William Trevitt

by Dani Crawford and Carol Herron

October 2003 -- Washington, D.C.

In the world of Monty Python that would be ‘a man with three buttocks’. In the world of dance, it would be a video clip of Forsythe’s “Steptext” rehearsed by William Trevitt whilst having his bath which is used to introduce an evening of dance by one of the most innovative companies to come along in ages. Cheeky fun? More than you know. But this clever and highly entertaining way of breaking down some of the misconceptions that ballet and dance are only about tutus and tights, have made George Piper Dances one of the hottest tickets in town.

Their good looks, unassuming ‘bloke next door’ charm, and self deprecating sense of humor make George Piper Dances founders, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt both ex-Royal Ballet dancers, the perfect poster ‘boyz’ for the challenge of opening up the world of dance to a new generation. And while they will be the first to admit that one of the secrets to their success is that they try not to take themselves too seriously, there is indeed some seriously remarkable dancing going on and not just by Nunn and Trevitt. Equally impressive are the other members of this small powerhouse company – Oxana Panchenko, Monica Zamora, and Hubert Essakow. Whoever said bigger is better has obviously not been to a George Piper Dances performance.

We recently sat down with Michael and William while they were in Washington, D.C., one of the stops on their inaugural US tour. We were quite eager to learn more about this little chamber ballet company, which in just two short years of existence has become not only a heralded success in the UK, but are now set to conquer America as well.

What do you think is the secret of your success?

Michael Nunn: I think it’s a mixture of programming. I think we’ve chosen some good choreographers to work with and the reason it’s worked is because we’ve built a relationship with them. If we like them as people then we normally work well with them. The results sort of speak for themselves, and the pieces they produce are of a really good quality.

In terms of where you are as a company today, did you have any expectations as to what level of success you hoped to have achieved by, say, this point in time?

Nunn: It’s hard to even think about being at a level. I have no idea what level we are. We just go from one thing to the next really. I think with the sort of repertoire we’ve performed and the way we do it, it’s very hard to compare us to other companies. And I think that’s hard also for venue managers to decide what size theatres to put us in, or which sort of audience, or how to advertise the company, because it is so different and each season it becomes a little bit more diverse. So I couldn’t really pinpoint a level. I think that we’re successful in that people like to come and see the show and that’s what is important to us.

William Trevitt: We haven’t actually had to compromise really yet, so we’re able to do the things we’re doing, the things we’re interested in, and work with or find someone that we like their work, or are interested in what they might come up with for us. And I think that’s what we weren’t able to do, obviously, either in the Royal Ballet or in Japan.

Nunn: We’re waiting to fail hideously. ‘Cause it has to happen. But I’m not really bothered by that because I think the 3 or 4 programs we’ve put on, people have liked. So we can maybe afford to produce a couple of bummers. What we’ll produce I’m sure will still be good, just not to everyone’s taste. I think it would be a big mistake for us just to keep trying to create successful evenings. We’ve never really thought that way.

Trevitt: If that’s the aim then we’re not testing ourselves or expanding.

The reviews here in US have been astounding thus far. Did you have any expectations about how audiences here would receive you?

Nunn: Haven’t read any reviews yet.

Trevitt: I have seen a couple from LA, but had no idea of how we were going to go down here. We knew what it was going to be like with Royal Ballet when we were here, but this is completely different.

Nunn: Expectations are different. People don’t really know what they are coming to see. But we are reasonably confident because the actual dance product is of a good quality and the choreographers are great. I would stand by any one of the pieces whether anyone liked them or not. It’s just whether they enjoy the informality of it really. Maybe a more traditional ballet audience may find it distracting. Involving the film in the performance isn’t a normal classical performance. People coming to see a pure ballet for the entire evening may be disappointed, but I hope not.

What was the switchover for you in terms of changing from classical to modern dance?

Trevitt: It was Russell’s [Maliphant] work that really made a difference for us.

Nunn: Yeah.

Trevitt: Something completely different, which as far as we could tell wouldn’t be using our classical technique at all. And the way that Russell has his dancers move, the way his choreography works, really inspired us. It was something that we really wanted to have a go at. I think one of our strengths probably is that it never occurs to us that we can’t do anything. We just assume that if we want it we can have it.

Nunn: If we work, work and work at it, it’s all possible. Classical ballet is a great basis for any dance form. I think if we were just contemporary dance trained we couldn’t work Christopher Wheeldon, couldn’t work Billy Forsythe. But the fact we are classically trained, we can work with contemporary choreographers. They were a bit dubious at first, but if you prove that you are willing to put in the work, then it normally works out.

When you commission a piece, how much collaboration is there between yourselves and the choreographer?

Trevitt: We generally let them do what they want to do, let them work in their normal patterns. We might say we see this piece as being last in the bill, or we see it being first, something like that to give them an idea of what we’re expecting. And we’ll generally say how many dancers we’d like it to be.

Nunn: We’re not such hands off directors, where we just commission something and go away and wait to see what happens. That would be dangerous. We try and steer the product as much as possible within reason.

Trevitt: And because we’re commissioning and dancing as well, we have relatively a lot of control over what we end up with.

Who picks the music, the choreographer or you?

Trevitt: It depends, but Chris picked his music for us; Russell picked it with us. We worked it, all of us together, with the composer, with various different pieces of music before we came to a decision.

Nunn : That’s a good process when you work with both the choreographer and the composer.

What are your individual strengths as dancers? How do you complement each other? What do you feel about each other strengths? You obviously work very well together, how did that evolve?

Trevitt : As dancers on the whole we’re pretty similar. What we do would be very much more difficult if we weren’t. We’re the same sort of height, same sort of build and we can dance in a similar way when we need to. We can then look more like bodies and you can ignore the personalities really because we do match up so well.

So, for instance, when Michael went to be with his wife for the birth of their son, was it hard for you (Billy) to do a piece like “Critical Mass”?

Trevitt: For the last few years we’ve been working very closely, but for 12 to 14 years before that we were quite adaptable dancers use to being thrown in on things. We’d turn up at the theatre at 7 o’clock and you’re doing something completely different than what you expected. So in a way we still have that ability and that experience to fall back on, being able to change things at a moment’s notice.

Nunn: It’s not ideal, but you need to get the show on. We had prepared a few weeks earlier, because I knew there was a chance I may have to miss one of the shows, and so the dancer was on standby. I think it’s just a case of having to, you know, just get the show on. I’m sure it wasn’t Billy’s most enjoyable performance, because I know it can be quite stressful working with a new partner. But I’m sure it didn’t show.

How did Monica [Zamora] and Hubert [Essakow] become a part of the company?

Trevitt: Monica, when we first started the company we tried to borrow her from the Birmingham Royal Ballet to do some shows with us then, but she had a badly timed injury.

Nunn: She fractured her foot, I think.

Trevitt: And we couldn’t use her, but we’ve known her for a long time, and wanted her to dance with us. It was really the same with Hubert. He was in the Royal Ballet with us and we’d known him for sometime and we liked him as a dancer very much. We also knew that we could get on well with him; he has the right kind of attitude. We need people who are experienced, and can look after themselves. Much as we’d like to have the kind of company where we could nurture young talent for a couple of years and see what happens, we don’t have the money or the time or the infrastructure to be able to do that, so we need dancers who are experienced and adaptable and look after themselves.

Are there any particular dancers that you really enjoy watching?

Nunn: Sylvie, obviously. I’m going to work with her. She’s still at the top of her trade.

Trevitt: Russell is still a fantastic dancer.

Nunn: Yeah. And his wife Dana. If you’ve ever seen her dance, she’s a beautiful dancer, she’s the real thing. They are quite few and far between and we don’t really get to see them, unless we’re interested in the choreographer and then what we’re looking at is the choreography. Dancer-wise there are, obviously, lots of classical dancers that we like.

So then, when you go to see a production, it’s the choreography that you are zoning in on or do you still try to take in the whole production?

Nunn : Different things really. I think immediately, in the first 10 seconds, you know the production values of the company. Within the first 5 minutes you know if the choreography is any good. Probably within 10 minutes you know if the dancers are any good. I don’t think we do that consciously, I think you just sort of know. And I think dancers are very critical of themselves and other dancers anyway. We’ve just got to try and get over that hurdle because sometimes we go and see great choreography with just bad dancers and we’ve got to be able to divide the two, which is difficult but possible.

Is there any choreographer that you would like to work with that you haven’t as of yet?

Trevitt: I think we have some unfinished business. We’ve worked with Akram [Khan] and Michael Clark and Matthew Bourne earlier in the year, some very short pieces. What we’d quite like to do, now that we’ve made the relationship and we know how each other works, is perhaps make something a bit longer, a bit bigger.

I would personally like to see you work again with Matthew Bourne.

Nunn: You like his work?

Love it. Like many people, his “Swan Lake” was what got me interested in dance.

Nunn : We’re supposed to be doing that in July.

Both of you dancing The Swan correct?

Trevitt : Yes, we would alternate.

Nunn: It’s something we were going to do a few years ago, when it first came up, but we were  with the Royal Ballet and there were time constraints. Hopefully it will work out

Trevitt: But first we have to try to learn it, slight problem there. (laugh)

The use of the videos has obviously been quite successful. Is this something you will continue to use or do you have other plans?

Nunn: This is just a format we’re using at the moment. We’re just enjoying this sort of process, commissioning work, showing people what it’s like to work with choreographers. I’m sure within 12 months that’ll change and we won’t use the video anymore. We might start producing full evening works or something like that. We can’t keep the same recipe forever, and we’re very aware of that. We’ve got lots of ideas. It’s finding the time to focus on them.

Trevitt: The one reason it works right now is because people aren’t expecting it. If there comes a time when they are expecting it, then we need to come up with something new. I’d rather be known for producing the unexpected than known as the people that show videos every time.

So do you have a vision of where you see the company headed in the future?

Trevitt: I think it’s important that we make it less essential that we dance in everything. We need to bring the rest of the company on and not make it rely quite so heavily upon our performances.

Nunn: I think we’ll edge more into production and collaboration with other theatre companies or dance companies. We’ve just sort of started to do that now. We’re collaborating with the Royal Ballet on a piece now; hopefully the National Theatre next year, and hopefully expanding the company a bit more. It would be nice to have a body of 10, maybe 12 dancers.

Trevitt: Yeah, but I think what we’ve learnt having a company of this size is that it’s really - I like the way the audience connects with the individuals. They know from the videos and the way we work, they know something about each of the dancers. I think it’s much nicer to have that, than a sea of people who could be anyone.

In looking on towards your non-dancing days then, which are hopefully many years down the road, do you see yourselves as artistic directors for this company or some other company?

Nunn: I don’t know. It’s hard enough work as it is, I can’t imagine running a large establishment with all the politics that are involved, basically, I think, because we wouldn’t have as much control as we do now.

Trevitt: Apart from being poor, we’re totally flexible at the moment. We just follow whatever it is we’re interested in at the time. And the restrictions of running a much larger company would mean that we weren’t able to do that.

Nunn: Scheduling 3-year plans and budgets, which is all possible, but I imagine a little dull. I mean if we have a good idea now, we can have it on the stage by Christmas. That’s what we like.

So is this the time of your life?

Trevitt: It would be if we had a little time to actually enjoy it, to look at it and think about it. It’s very all-consuming at the moment.

Nunn: It’s nice that it’s been so successful. For the amount of work we’ve put in it, it would be a little bit depressing if it wasn’t. I’m sure a lot of other people put just as much work in and it’s not successful and I do feel sorry for them.

You certainly do look like you’re having fun.

Trevitt: Yeah, I hope that comes through, whether in the performance or in the films or whatever it is; that you get the sense that we are actually enjoying ourselves.

Nunn: It’s too much like hard work not to; if we didn’t enjoy it there’s just no point. You could probably manage it in a big company if you didn’t really enjoy it, because the paycheck at the end of each week would get you through. But for us, I think we have to really enjoy it, and do what we want to do. So far so good, unless our tastes radically change and we start hating what we do. (laugh)

The first half of George Piper Dance’s US tour ends in New York City on November 9th. They will return for performances in St. Louis and Chicago at the end of February.

George Piper Dances just recently won the TMA (Theatrical Management Association Award 2003 for Outstanding Achievement in Dance); and also, more importantly, just made history by becoming the youngest company ever to be offered revenue funding from the Arts Council England.   The company’s website www.gpdances.com is under current renovation, but if you would like further information on the company or on becoming a member/supporter, the email address is info@gpdances.com

We would like to thank Fern and Louise in the George Piper Dances office for making this interview possible and of course Michael and Billy for sharing their time with us.

Edited by Jeff.

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