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28th May 2020 |
The Process: Choreographer Alexander Whitley


Ever wanted to become a professional dancer, or choreographer. Have you sat there and wondered what it takes to choreograph, and dance for the likes of Royal Ballet? Well look no further.


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Born in 1980, Alexander Whitley is a London-based choreographer working at the cutting edge of British contemporary dance. Having trained at the Royal Ballet School before moving into contemporary dance, he is now the artistic director of Alexander Whitley Dance Company he has developed a reputation for a bold interdisciplinary approach to dance making, producing technologically innovative and thought provoking stage productions as well as exploring the creative possibilities being opened up by new digital platforms. He has also created work for several of the UK's leading companies including the Royal Ballet, Rambert, Balletboyz, Candoco and Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Alexander's Dance Company is set to perform a never seen before piece of work at our upcoming Grime Ballet event, along side Female grime sensation, Lioness and we wanted to get the scoop on all things Alexander Whitley.


How did you get started within the industry?


My professional career began with Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2000. I started ballet when I was 3 years old and left home when I was eleven to train full time at the Royal Ballet School. It was at BRB that I choreographed my first dance piece and that really changed things, leading me to take more of an interest in contemporary dance and eventually to join Rambert Dance Company. I spent the latter part of my performing career working with Wayne McGregor who’s been pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance for several decades and gave me a lot of support in developing my own work. 


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Coming from a rural community in Cumbria how did you first come across ballet?


I was lucky to have a really good teacher (Michele Burrows) in the neighbouring village to the one in which I grew up. Her brother (Jonathan Burrows) danced with the Royal Ballet and so I was able to go and see performances and meet him, which had a big impact on me as a young boy. He’s since become one of the most influential and experimental British choreographers and has mentored me throughout my career, so I was fortunate to have some solid support from a young age! 


Was it a hard transition when you stopped dancing to focus more on choreography?


No, fortunately that it happened quite naturally, perhaps because I’d put a lot of effort into building up a profile as a choreographer alongside my performing career. Then I was offered associate positions by Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House at the same time which gave me a much safer platform from which to make the transition than might otherwise have been the case. 


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Was there a reason you decided to open a contemporary dance company, over other forms of dance?


It’s most obviously because it’s the genre of dance I was working in as a performer, but I guess that reflects the fact that it’s where my interests took me and the place where I find most inspiration in watching other choreographers’ work. Contemporary dance is a very broad category, though, including many different styles, techniques and traditions, all of which tend to get blended up into hybrid forms these days. My company’s work still very much reflects my technical background in ballet but looks to situate it in the context of modern ideas and issues, especially in relation to digital technology.


How do you balance your work life with your downtime?


Not always very well… It’s difficult to switch off from work when you’re running your own company, as I’m sure many people can relate to. But having a young daughter has forced me to think differently about my priorities and when to stop checking my emails! I find yoga to be very helpful in maintaining a state of balance in my life. 


Can you walk us through what your process is when first constructing a new performance?


It really depends on the starting point for a piece, which could be an existing piece of music, a form of technology or a subject I’m interested in, but generally I start off by experimenting through the use of tasks, improvisation and open questions with my dancers, from which we build up body of movement material. We often end up with way more material than we need, but then ideas are refined down or thrown away and gradually organised into a piece along with the other collaborative elements. What I think sets dance apart from other art forms is that the work can only really be done when I’m in the studio together with the dancers, offering movement ideas to them and responding to how they take them on in their bodies. I love how live and collaborative this process is and things can often end up in a very different place from where you imagined them going at the start of the day. It can be frustratingly hard to pin down but also full of pleasant surprises.


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What was the inspiration behind your latest dance piece, ‘Strange Stranger?’


Strange Stranger was the first in a series of works exploring the impact of big data on the human condition and takes inspiration from the idea of the ‘data shadow’, the online profile we develop through our routine interactions with technology. The title is borrowed from the philosopher Timothy Morton’s writing and his claim that the more you know about something the stranger it becomes. The performance is set within an interactive light installation which tracks and responds to the movement of the four dancers in the piece. In between performances the installation is also open to the public who can explore how their movement leaves traces within the space. 


What advice would you give to aspiring choreographers?


Take every opportunity you have to make something and don’t get too attached to the outcome of what you make. Practicing as a choreographer isn’t easy as it tends to require a lot of resources just to get started, so there’s often a lot of pressure on the few opportunities you’re given. I always try and think about each piece I make as part of an ongoing process rather than a singular event.  


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Do you have a career highlight?


Having my first solo show at Sadler’s Wells in 2017 was a very special moment.


What’s your goal for 2020?

Do more yoga. Meditate more. Spend less time on my phone. 


Favourite Book: Very hard to choose just one, but Humankind by Timothy Morton is probably the most inspiring book I’ve read in the past few years. 


Best book on Dance, or choreography: The Corporeal Turn by Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (more philosophy, but movement related philosophy nevertheless!)


Best website for inspirationSynchronous Objects by William Forsythe. It’s over 10 years old but still an amazing resource for anyone interested in gaining a deeper insight into movement and choreography.


Favourite way to relax: Playing cards, although depending on the game this isn’t always very relaxing! I love cooking and have recently got into fermenting things like kombucha and kimchi, which I find a good way unwind and keep me healthy! 


Best advice on dealing with Creative Block: Go for a walk or, even better, have a dance.


Best podcast I’ve listened to recently: Sam Harris interviewed Barbera Tversky about her recent book, Mind in Motion, which is a fascinating discussion on the relationship between movement and thinking.


Best piece of advice I’ve ever been given: In the context of running a not-for-profit company: You’re not writing enough funding applications if you’re not getting lots of rejection letters. Helps with what is otherwise a soul-destroying feature of my job.


Best Life Advice: Your thoughts aren’t you, they’re things that happen to you.

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So there you have it. Lot's of great insider information, tips and tricks to help you get started within the world of dance, or propel yourself to greater heights. To be in with a chance of meeting Alex, seeing the performance, and get stuck into some great workshops make sure to grab tickets for our upcoming event, Grime Ballet, on the 30th January.

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