Secrets of child’s play with Rambert Dance

Norwich is among the first places to get a glimpse of a new work by Rambert Dance that shed lights of the joys of childhood and forms part of their 85th anniversary programme. JOHN BULTITUDE reports.

At first glance, it was an unusual spot to get one of the first glimpses of an exciting new piece of contemporary dance.

Step off one of the busy main shopping streets in Chiswick and you find the Rambert Dance Company headquarters where the dancers are preparing to perform in their rehearsal room in front of journalists from across Britain who are waiting to see the piece.

And no-one was disappointed.

For the autumn season of Rambert's 85th anniversary year, which sees the company return for another of their much anticipated visits to Norwich Theatre Royal this week, artistic director Mark Baldwin returns to the realm of childhood to create his fourth major work for the company, reaffirming its position as a powerhouse of new chore-ography.

Seven For A Secret Never To Be Told is a heady mix of lavish dance mixed with some wonderful childlike set-pieces which beautifully captures the innocence and intensity of play utilising all manner of props including teddy bears, picnic blankets and even some model ravens.

Taking its name from the nursery rhyme about magpies, 'One for sorrow, Two for joy…', Seven For A Secret, Never To Be Told presents the world as seen through the eyes of some mischievous children.

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Rambert's world-class dancers capture the buoyancy and natural comedy of play in this uplifting work in 15 movements as the youngsters flit like grasshoppers from one idea to the next, moving seamlessly between reality and make-believe.

The piece puts a child's world centre-stage, transporting the audience back to those bygone days when playful abandonment sparks the imagination and stimulates the creative mind.

Featuring design by Michael Howells, it is set to a newly commissioned orchestral score by Stephen McNeff — adapted from Maurice Ravel's rarely-performed one-act opera L'enfant et les sortil�ges (The Child and the Spells) — that will be performed live in Norwich by the acclaimed Rambert Orchestra.

First performed in 1925, a year before Rambert was founded, McNeff has sought to re-imagine the score as if Ravel was composing it today.

'I'd been wanting to do something with this music for a long time,' says McNuff. 'It dates from 1926, a time when people like Ravel, Gershwin and Diaghilev were at their peak, and Marie Rambert knew them all from her time in the Ballet Russes. So it was right for our 85th anniversary, it had the weight of history.'

Inspired by Ravel's music, the dancers uncannily capture the essence of childhood beautifully in a breathtaking display of dance.

For Mark Baldwin, the composer's work was a great starting point. He explained: 'Ravel was someone who re-lated to children very well. He used to write lots of pieces for his friend's children.'

And he has used his own experience as vital research for the piece. He said: 'My godson was seven last year and he was fascinating to watch. He only knows two speeds — absolutely flat out or stop — and we were trying to emulate that so they have playful little scenes.'

The experience of imagination and play has also made the project a real labour-of-love for Mark.

'It is something that has always fascinated me. You play around with ideas and come up with something brilliant. Also, within the movements, you get that wonderfully childlike summer you remember when you were seven. Everything was exciting, anything was possible and you had more energy. You could just keep going all day and feel amazing. You were wicked and naughty, have fun and look for mischief.'

As Mark explains, you can expect full on and very vigorous dance pieces. 'I really wanted to emulate the energy that a seven year old might have. I didn't want to ruin that by having too much dancing so they have playful scenes where they walk on with buckets. They have a gorgeous picnic where they play grown-up's having tea. The whole piece is peppered with these little vignettes from childhood.'

As well as imagination and creativity, in true Rambert style, a large amount of research has also gone into the piece which included one of the main dancers, Dane Hurst, spending time in a school. Mark explained: 'We organ-ised for him to spend some time with some four year olds and it was really interesting to see how long they can concentrate — which isn't long at all. It was amazing to watch them play and to have them play with him.'

Following their successful collaboration on the Charles Darwin inspired piece The Comedy of Change in 2009, the company also again worked with expert Cambridge scientist Professor Nicola Clayton — who has a background in child psychology.

Her extensive knowledge of the behavioural development of children, particularly the role of play in enriching cognitive development, firstly through imitation and then reinvention or innovation, gave the creative team valu-able insight.

'She was able to give us very simple pointers. Whatever children think, they believe we think in exactly the same way so their world is your world. Play is great for the brain. All the large-brained mammals play and she also said that imitation leads to innovation so everyone ends up coming up with their own ideas,' said Mark.

Prof Clayton indentified three key themes relating to behavioural development — play, inside versus outside and imitate or innovate — that specifically informed to way the creative team developed Seven For A Secret, Never To Be Told.

'Children spend a lot of time in the act of play,' she explains. 'Fun it might be, but we now know that play is very good for the brain and that it's only the big-brained animals that spend much of their time playing.

'For a child my world is me, and my world and your world are one and the same. But as their minds develop the tension between the inside and outside world shifts in perspective, and slowly but surely children start to see the world as adults do.

'One thing that is thought to make human children unique from other animals is their spontaneous ability to imitate the actions of others, often meaningless ones — just for fun. But being a copy-cat only gets you so far; to be an individual you need to know when to innovate, when to do and see things differently and to think outside the box. That is what creativity is all about, something children have in spades.'

She adds: 'Children don't remember the way we do, and they don't understand consequences. Everything is in the moment.'

Seven For A Secret, Never To Be Told received its world premi�re at The Lowry in Salford in September, but arrives in Norwich as part of the Rambert's autumn tour. The Theatre Royal programme will also include two other pieces.

With its electronic score by David Tudor and reflective silver pillows by Andy Warhol, RainForest is a wonderful artefact from the 1960s by the contemporary American choreographer Merce Cunningham.

'Merce died a few years ago but we have had a relationship with him for 20 years and we train in his technique as well as classical ballet technique,' said Mark Baldwin. 'This piece was designed by Andy Warhol in 1968 and it was premiered in New York and it really is a piece of genius art. It is very sophisticated. Andy Warhol suggested they wear nothing. That isn't happening but they are wearing flesh-coloured all in ones. It has wonderful choreog-raphy and it is based on animal movements. They are stalking each other and behaving like lions and tigers.'

The third piece, Itzik Galili's A Linha Curva, will be familiar to Norwich audiences having brought the house down two years ago.

The dramatic chequer-board lighting is matched by rhythmic pulses and sexual tension, with irresistible samba-inspired lines and curves, blended with a Brazilian style and contemporary dance technique.

This new version for Rambert by one of Israel's most talented choreographers is a real crowd-pleaser.

'The original music, composed by Dutch percussion band Percossa, drives the rhythms and electrifies the atmosphere to an incredibly powerful level,' explains Mark. 'We have a samba band on stage. It is wonderfully hip-thrusting, the dancers wear very little and there is a rhythmic pulse that covers the whole stage.'

n Rambert Dance Company is at Norwich Theatre Royal from November 10-11, 7.30pm and 2.30pm (Fri), �21.50-�5.50, 01603 630000,

n There will be a pre-show talk on November 11 at 6.30pm in the auditorium which is free to ticket-holders.