An Interview with Julie Cunningham

An Interview with Julie Cunningham

Choreographer Julie Cunningham’s newest work, Rambert presents Julie Cunningham & Company, is a site-specific performance, located on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall. In anticipation of this new work, Julie discusses the ups and downs of working in a location, her love of choreography and plans for the future.

Why did you decide to start your own company?

It’s not really for very interesting reasons – mostly I decided to start my own company for practical reasons. To get paid you need to have a company, and once you start to make more work you need more structure to make that happen. It helps to have that company structure to organise your work (laughs).  So as I said it’s not very interesting.

So how did you come up with the idea of site specific performances?

Well I’ve been a dancer for a long time, and a lot the time was with Merce Cunningham in New York. We did a lot of performances in different kinds of venues like museums and galleries and outdoor performances as well as in the theatres. I guess because it’s something I’ve been doing in my career as a dancer it doesn’t for me feel totally unusual or out of the blue. I think it’s a really nice thing to think about where dance comes from and particularly the social dancing that happens in public spaces; how it’s become more formal in theatres. I wanted to keep some of the formality of the movement that I do and put it in a more public, or public feeling, place that has something more informal to it.

How do you think this affects your choreography?

So, for example, just before I started working on this piece for the roof [of the Royal Festival Hall] I did a commission for the V&A museum. That space really affected how I made the work, and that can be practical as well: like if the floor is concrete we’re not going jump on the floor and hurt ourselves. But I was also really affected by the architecture and the objects at the V&A. I think there’s already so much information in a place like the V&A or the Southbank, so you have to think about that when you make the dance – you have to allow for all the other information the audience are going to take in.


Are there any plans for anymore site specific productions in the future?

Well I don’t have anything in the near future, but I’m definitely really open to seeing what comes up.

“it’s a really nice thing to think about where dance comes from and… the social dancing that happens in public spaces”

So obviously there are a lot of benefits to site specific performances, but do you think there are any limitations to the format?

Yes. I mean we’re doing an outdoor performance for the Southbank, so obviously the weather is really going to affect that. Not just if it rains – we’d have to change the plans and do it indoors – but also the wind. If the wind is strong because it’s quite high [on the roof], that makes it more challenging for us to balance. I think also what I was saying about the, almost the excess of information that takes place in a site specific or outdoor context becomes a challenge, and you really have to think differently than if you were in a theatre, which is just a black box that frames the work. So you have to think – well no – that’s not really a limitation. I think you can think about limitations as ways of opening other doors.

You spent time at Theatre Koblenz in Germany doing classical ballet, do you think this has affected your choreographic style at all?

I think… that was quite a long time ago. I mean obviously I trained in classical ballet and also in contemporary dance, but I feel like my biggest influence is probably from Merce Cunningham and that technique or way of thinking about moving. I mean there’s definitely classical in my background but I feel more strongly that the contemporary style is where my choreography lies.

You are the inaugural Leverhulme Choreography fellow, in what way do you think this will impact your career?

I think it already has impacted my career in a big way and I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities that have come out of the fellowship. It’s given me the time and space to develop my practice in a way that I couldn’t have done without it at this early stage in my career. So I hope that I will be able to sort of set myself up in a way that I will have a much stronger idea of how I want to work, and I hope that I can continue that as I move forward.

Has it been nice to be back with Rambert, as you trained with them?

Yeah so I trained at the Rambert school. It’s a really different organisation than I’ve been in before, so it’s been nice to be connected to Rambert. But also I’ve felt very free there, you know they haven’t said ‘you have to do this… you have to do that’. It’s been quite free, sort of like an open invitation to just do my own work and share with them what I’ve been doing.

Your work tends to challenge traditional gender roles within dance, do you think this new piece will continue that trend?

Yeah – is the simple answer. I don’t know… I don’t ever feel like I’m trying to challenge it. I’m just doing what I feel I want to do – yeah for me it doesn’t feel so challenging, but I can see how it is.

How did you first get into choreography? When did you decide that you wanted to choreograph as well as perform?

There was a moment in my dancing career where I had a pause, and had the time to explore what I would want to make, in a way that I hadn’t had before. I hadn’t had such a break, and it sort of came out of that. I don’t know… it was something I really wanted to do but I wasn’t sure if I could actually do it. So it was a year of thinking and trying little things and seeing how it felt, and it felt really different, and like a really big other way of being in myself and expressing myself very differently from being a dancer. It just felt really great and like a big opening of a whole other part of myself.

“I think you can think about limitations as ways of opening other doors.”

So with contemporary work costumes don’t seem to play as big a role as they do in traditional ballets, do you spend a lot of time considering your costumes or not particularly?

Yeah I do actually, I think that even if they’re simple it’s still really important and can really change the atmosphere of the work. I do spend a lot of time thinking about it and its usually quite last minute that I’ll know what I want it to be. I do though, have a lot of thoughts and ongoing kind of thought about what would be best.

Merce Cunningham is obviously a big influence on you and your work, but would you say there are any other major influences?

I mean also Michael Clark, I worked with him for a few years, and also being in London, that’s been a big influence as well.

Finally, how do you choose your locations for these site specific works?

Well actually it’s often put to me, in the last few incidences people have come to me and said would you like to do this in this location. So then I have some time to think about what that would be: what’s possible within the time and the budget you know? So recently people have come to me asking, rather than me choosing. It would be interesting to choose one, I think that’d maybe be the next thing.

So do you know where you would choose then?

Um I don’t know, I’m not there yet. I’ll let you know! (laughs)

Is there anything else you wanted to say about the performance coming up?

Well for this piece I’ve been working with two Rambert dancers and then two dancers who I’ve worked with for the past few years. So that’s been really different as well because obviously I don’t – well I know the Rambert dancers, but I’ve never worked with them before. So that’s been a really different thing for us to come together as a group, especially when we have quite different practices. But that’s been going well, which is a nice surprise.


Image: Stephen Wright

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