David Mead speaks to Jessica Lang about her new ballet Wink – coming to The Lowry in September as part of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare Dream Bill.
After the success of Jessica Lang’s Lyric Pieces, her first work in Britain and her first for Birmingham Royal Ballet, it is no surprise that David Bintley has asked her back to make a second piece, Wink, to be premiered as part of the Shakespeare triple bill in summer 2016.
Jessica recalls David explaining that the Company is celebrating Shakespeare in dance to mark the 400th anniversary of his death, and that one aspect of his work that hadn’t been widely touched on in choreography was the sonnets.
He didn’t tell her to use them, she emphasises, but said they were available as inspiration should she like to. ‘In fact, I really appreciate it when there’s some sort of broad theme given,’ says Jessica, ‘and I quickly said yes’.
But where to start? There are, after all, 154 sonnets to choose from. Although she was familiar with the famous ones, Jessica didn’t want to let anything slip by, so she listened to them all. ‘You know, it was really difficult to just read them. It’s an overwhelming number and a lot of poetry. First I pulled the ones that I loved, then I looked for some sort of theme. We ended up with just five that have sort of very grand themes within them.’
Jessica has also dug into the history of the sonnets, looking up scholars who have written about them. ‘Is there a story? Did Shakespeare really write them? Were they meant to be published? Who was W.H.? All of those little quirks about them that are really special,’ she says.
‘Everyone asks about the title, Wink,’ says Jessica. ‘It’s from the first sonnet that I use, sonnet 43,’ she explains. ‘“When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see.” It’s literally just the first text that you hear. Also, we are marking his death. “Wink” has connections with sleep, and to sleep can be seen as to die, so it’s a play on words.’ While Wink is a response to Shakespeare’s words, Jessica says not to expect to simply see them reflected directly in movement. Rather the dance looks beyond them, to their spirit, mood and emotion. She admits to a nod towards recurring characters that feature in the sonnets, such as the Dark Lady (sonnets 127-154), the Rival Poet (sonnets 78-86), the Fair Youth (sonnets 1-126), and the Narrator: ‘if you want to see them, they’re there. If you don’t, you don’t have to. It’s not important,’ she says. ‘Well, it is, but it isn’t,’ she adds with a smile.
Having suitable music is always important for Jessica. When she was a youngster, she took dance classes, ‘but really what I was attracted to was the music. I wanted to be a violinist,’ so much so that she studied the instrument for ten years alongside her dance studies. ‘But I was better at dance,’ she jokes.
Finding the right music for Wink proved problematic though. Not only did almost nothing appear to have been inspired directly by the sonnets, but she couldn’t find anything else that would be appropriate for the ballet, and of the length she was looking for. ‘I didn’t want to introduce a contemporary composer who was disconnected from the theme, that’s not the way I work, and I didn’t want to use a classical composer who was disconnected from the history.’
The answer was to commission a score. Jessica turned to Polish-American Jakub Ciupinski with whom she first worked in 2010 when they were paired in a project at the New York Choreographic Institute, creating Droplet on New York City Ballet dancers Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall. What drew her to his music was, ‘the rhythm, drive and emotional content in it,’ she says. They have since worked together several times, including Eighty One for Ballet San Jose in 2013; Anonymous for Dance St. Louis in 2012 and i.n.k. for her own Jessica Lang Dance in 2011. Coincidentally, Jakub has a strong Birmingham connection. Before studying with Krzysztof Penderecki in Poland and Christopher Rouse in the USA, he studied for his first degree at Birmingham Conservatoire with Edwin Roxburgh and Joe Cutler.
Jessica describes their collaborative relationship as, ‘wonderful, so easy and genuine. We share ideas and always come to a point of mutual artistic desire. We see and hear the same way.’ She says that what he composed has a lot of respect for the form of the sonnets, the poet and the dance. Without giving too much away, she explains it’s orchestral, all strings and a piano, but that it definitely has a contemporary sound.
Jakub and Jessica worked really hard at not just understanding the themes, mood and feeling of the sonnets, but also their whole structure: ten syllables per line, 14 lines per sonnet divided into three quatrains, each of four lines, and a concluding two-line couplet. Those numbers became a point of departure for the music. ‘For example,’ says Jessica, ‘in the first quartet, if you listen closely, you will hear ten notes that repeat 14 times, but I’m not expecting anyone to sit there counting. I hope they’re not!’
The choreography is based on the same numbers – the ballet has five sections, a nod to the fact that Shakespeare’s plays have a five-act structure. The first and second sections are different quartets, with the third another quartet with two dancers from each of the first two. Think of them as three choreographic quatrains. ‘In between each section there’s a diff erent sonnet of spoken word; that’s the narrator, the poet if you want to call him something,’ she says.
The poet then dances in the concluding duet, the choreographic couplet that, in a modern take on things, is an all-male affair. Jessica says she did consider following the classical tradition of the main pas de deux being between a man and a woman, not least because of the Dark Lady and her themes that are woven into the sonnets, but says she was more attracted to Shakespeare and his muse, the Youth, and investigating that relationship. The ballet is rounded off with an ensemble finale.
‘I also kind of rhymed the movement,’ continues Jessica. ‘So what is front is also back. There are different endings to the same phrase. I’m not expecting anyone to see that, but what you will see is poetry. You don’t read a Shakespeare sonnet to be technical, you read it for the spirit.’
Choreography to Jessica is more than movement and music: ‘it’s a visual art world and the context of the whole concept, the full picture in the frame, is important to me’. As such, actively incorporating set designs into the dance is very much a feature of her work.
For Wink, she and set designer Mimi Lien focused in on Sonnet 43 and the idea of winking, of closing your eyes and opening them, to have a dark and light aspect. A recipient of one of the 2015 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships, Mimi is noted for using set pieces that move in such a way that they become participants in the drama. In Wink
she brings the initial idea to life through ten panels, black on one side, white on the other, each about three and a half feet tall by six feet wide, on little stands that allow the dancers to spin them. ‘They kind of look like pieces of paper, or a book, or they can be non-literal and just be objects, special dividers. And we will use lighting popping on and off, much like you’re blinking,’ says Jessica. The costumes will be designed by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Head of Costume and Costume Supervisor, Elaine Garlick.
Playing with the performance space is typical of Jessica who admits, ‘I am constantly looking at the theatre box and asking what else can we do with it other that put humans in it. Where does our imagination lead us?’
Her imagination led to Wink, a ballet ‘theatrical in a poetic way;’ about Shakespeare but, as she says, ‘very much in the spirit of being human, alive, and living in the contemporary today’.
Wink forms part of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare Dream Bill at The Lowry from Thursday 15 to Saturday 17 September 2016.
This interview was originally published in Entrechat (Winter 2015 / Spring 2016). Reproduced with permission from Birmingham Royal Ballet.