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The Music Man

Posted on March 1, 2017

Jonathan Gray met Michael Corder, the British choreographer on the eve of his 60th birthday in 2015

Michael Corder has been making ballets for 40 years now. A graduate of The Royal Ballet School (RBS), he joined The Royal Ballet in 1973, but soon began to choreograph after receiving encouragement from Leslie Edwards, the then director of The Royal Ballet Choreographic Group. From modest beginnings, he has since gone on to make highly successful works for some of the world’s leading classical ballet companies. Corder’s pieces are known for their fluent musicality and rich, distinctive use of classical vocabulary, and within the past 14 months alone he has staged productions of his Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet and The Snow Queen in Lisbon, Oslo and Vilnius.

Born in 1955, Corder lives in the Victorian terraced house in London he shares with his four cats. Talking to him across his kitchen table about his life and career, it becomes apparent that this highly experienced and animated choreographer is passionate about classical ballet, but Corder also reveals this passion developed from his first great love: classical music. “From the earliest age, I adored classical music, and I used to spend all my pocket money buying records. I loved Stravinsky’s music for Petrushka, for example. Music inspired me to dance and then to choreograph; I learned to play the piano, I did music O Level. Music means the world to me, and I have always thought it vitally important for choreographers to have a knowledge and understanding of music. I don’t read musical scores like Mark Morris, whose work I admire, but I do have a really good ear and a passion for the music I am creating to. I really know the scores I work with inside out, and I listen to them over and over again.”

This dedication to music is, however, a quality he believes is sometimes lacking in other dance professionals. “I’m always surprised when a colleague has no background knowledge of the music they are working to. It’s extraordinary actually, and quite worrying, but I strongly believe young people can be guided in their musical development. When I was director of dance at English National Ballet School a few years ago, I felt a lack of attention was paid to classical music on the curriculum, so I set up a musical appreciation course devised by composer Julian Philips in an attempt to educate the students. I hope it made an impression on them.”

Music and ballet are central to Corder’s life as a creative artist, and as a consequence he has plenty to articulate about the direction in which he feels the art of classical ballet is heading. “I was pretty astonished at the National Dance Awards recently to hear people say when presenting awards that they couldn’t tell the difference between classical and contemporary choreography any more. Have people really lost their ability to distinguish one from the other or was this merely an admission that so much of what is presented by ballet companies these days has been handed over to contemporary choreographers? We have been travelling in this direction for quite a while, and although I believe ballet must continue to develop and be open to new ideas, I think we are coming to a crisis point in classical choreography. We should be celebrating the differences, not mourning them.

“We don’t accept this blurring of boundaries in other areas of endeavour. In sport, for instance, we don’t think that tennis is the same as table tennis or badminton, or that tennis is football! Each sport is no less important than the other, and their rules have been maintained, with participants expected to become experts in their own continually developing fields. Dance is not as rigid as that – which is a good thing – but how on earth can you develop classical choreographers of the future if you don’t encourage people to create new classical choreography based on a classical language and technique? Musical understanding and appreciation is also central to that.

“‘Mentoring’ is the new buzz word, which is fine in principle, but that entirely depends on who is doing the ‘mentoring’. I was lucky enough to emerge under the directorship of Kenneth MacMillan and at a time when Frederick Ashton was still a creative force in The Royal Ballet. They both took an encouraging and supportive interest in my work for which I remain eternally grateful. But how can you develop musically literate, classically based choreography under the guidance of contemporary choreographers who have had no classical training or performing experience whatsoever? You can’t. It’s complete madness!”

Michael Corder rehearsing dancers of the National Ballet of Lithuania in The Snow Queen.
Photograph: Martynas Aleksa | National Ballet of Lithuania Archive.

Corder believes many company directors have lost faith in ballet as a living, evolving art form. “Classical ballets are now being presented as museum pieces, or ‘heritage works’ and the lion’s share of new creations are mainly offered by directors to contemporary choreographers. Even new productions of the classics are being offered to contemporary choreographers with no experience of working with disciplines such as pointe work, pas de deux and corps de ballet work. Some serious questions need to be asked. Are audiences really asking for this from ballet companies? I don’t think so. This issue is being driven entirely from within the companies themselves by people who should know better and often with the collusion of marketing departments who are still describing  the latest piece of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ as ‘cutting edge’. And the traffic appears only to go in one direction. Classical choreographers are hardly ever asked to choreograph for contemporary companies.

“I’ve thought this for a long time, but now it seems finally to be publicly acknowledged when people say the difference between ballet and contemporary dance has disappeared. As in all things, the reality is far more complex than that, but it suits a certain cohort to promote this idea, and, of course, it’s nonsense and a disaster for the future development of the art form.”

Corder is convinced that in order to create a successful classical ballet, the choreographer must have a firm foundation in its techniques. “In the same way you have to have classical training and technique at the highest level to sing or play classical music, you can’t be a classical ballet dancer or choreographer without a rigorous technical, musical and psychological foundation in ballet. Here, the ‘British’ style was founded and developed in the 20th century when Ashton created works on Margot Fonteyn, many of them masterpieces. It’s a tradition that is relatively new, in comparison to say the French or Russian traditions, but I think it’s unrivalled in choreographic creativity and quality. Only George Balanchine could match Ashton in quality, but even he did not have Ashton’s range. Yet the powers that be seem to have completely detached themselves from that extraordinary and unique line of choreographic tradition and development.

“Classical ballet is one of the greatest expressions of European culture, and it has been exported successfully all over the world, but I feel we are starting to lose our traditions because we are neglecting the foundations of the art form – we throw the baby out with the bathwater at our peril. This is not something that is done in the world of classical music or opera.”

Michael Corder rehearsing Norwegian National Ballet’s Yolanda Correa and Joel Carreño in Romeo and Juliet.
Photograph: Erik Berg, The Norwegian Opera and Ballet.

How does he find recent contemporary choreography, then? “It depends on which choreographers you are thinking about. Of course there are highly successful artists with something to say and the ability to say it, but many of the works performed on classical stages only look good because they are danced by superbly trained ballet dancers, and my feeling is that not many of these works will last the test of time. Contemporary choreographers, with some notable exceptions, tend not use the same kind of technical and musical knowledge that is inherent in ballet training. I’m bored by limb wrenching, contortionist, rhythm-bashing works that are often pretentious, portentous and lacking in humanity, with psuedo-intellectual programme notes longer than the piece itself. There are now so many of these generic pieces around, it’s become mind-numbing.”

So, what does he think about the UK ballet scene today? “To be honest, I feel at odds with many aspects of it. We have five major ballet companies, and yet, as a successful, award-winning choreographer, I currently have no new commissions or even revivals of my ballets in my home country. There is definitely a loyal audience for my work, but they are not getting the chance to see it here. I was astounded when my Snow Queen was dropped from the repertoire of English National Ballet (ENB) by its current artistic director, even though it was hugely successful with audiences and critics both on tour and in London, and proved to be one the company’s biggest box office hits, during its premiere run in 2007 and its revival in 2010. The production was paid for by British taxpayers, but if they wanted to see the ballet now, they would have to travel to Vilnius or Vienna or Prague. The way ENB dropped The Snow Queen was also very upsetting. The sets were sold without my knowledge or the designer’s permission – it was all done, literally, behind our backs. Pretty disgraceful behaviour. It made no sense, either artistically or financially.”

When I ask Corder what this neglect at home means to him as a creator, he replies: “I have actively had to seek work abroad and I’m very happy to do so. I love travelling, working with new companies, new dancers and reaching new audiences, but what is going on in the UK? Most countries have only one national ballet company; in the UK we have two based in London alone. Surely company directors have a duty to show the nation as varied a repertoire as possible? Especially by experienced, successful home-grown choreographers! You don’t go to a major art gallery, for example, and expect only to see paintings by one or two artists.”

The choreographer also believes there is a wider international problem with ballet: “I think this problem with ballet in the UK also occurs worldwide. Companies actually seem to be scared of being ballet companies. I have great respect for company directors; they have huge jobs to do now, but, at the end of the day, they are ultimately responsible for what goes on stage. It’s alarming to see so few new classical ballets being presented, but another frustration is that the same handful of choreographers are working with all the classical companies, often in co-productions, which means that at least three companies all have the same show. It makes sense financially, but it does mean the field of opportunity has narrowed for other choreographers. I read recently in Dancing Times that three major classical companies presented triple bills in New York within weeks of each other with exactly the same three choreographers on the bill. That’s absurd.

“Conversely, I was told recently by a director they wouldn’t add one of my works to their repertoire because it wasn’t ‘unique’ to them, even though it had been hugely successful elsewhere. As nearly all big productions are co-productions now, where is the logic in that statement? Nobody says we won’t do Swan Lake or Manon because someone else has it in the repertoire. I have even been told by one director of a national ballet company that my work is ‘too classical!’ I pointed out that they were running a company with the word ‘Ballet’ in its title!”

However disheartened he is about the current UK situation, Corder remains upbeat about the progression of his own career: “I have enjoyed the last couple of years enormously staging Cinderella, Romeo and The Snow Queen abroad, and have lots of ideas for new ballets, too. I’m keen to do a version of Les Liaisons dangereuses and have been for a number of years. Julian Philips has already composed two of the three acts of music for me, which also incorporates the music of Rameau, but I’ve not found the right company to place the ballet with yet.

“I am also interested in doing new productions of the classics. Ironically, of all the composers I have created to, Tchaikovsky is the one I have never used. I would love to do a Swan Lake or a Nutcracker because the scores are so wonderful, but, inevitably, what I really want to do is new ballets. I have lots of varied scores up my sleeve. One important and challenging recent commission was Stravinsky’s beautiful Le Baiser de la fée which came from David Bintley at Birmingham Royal Ballet. I am delighted there are plans to revive this in the 2016–17 season. In the meantime, I am following up other creative opportunities and I will be staging The Snow Queen for Manuel Legris and the Ballet of the Vienna State Opera later this year and for the Czech National Ballet in Prague in 2016. I am confident the production will eventually return to the UK in the future, I just have to be patient, something I’ve learnt over a long career. I’m excited about entering this new decade in my life. I feel I’m at the top of my game and I’m looking forward to new creative opportunities.” 

Michael Corder’s House of Dreams for Ballet Black dance is at the Barbican from March 2-4, before going on tour. Click here for more information

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of Dancing Times 

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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