Passages 2022 – An Interview with Choreographers Loughlan Prior and Timothy Harbour | The Flying Inkpot
Since 2015, Passages has been an independent contemporary season and platform to showcase new choreographic works in the Singapore Ballet repertoire. This year’s programme features two world premieres by Australian choreographer Timothy Harbour and Loughlan Prior, Choreographer-in-Residence with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. It also includes Australian choreographer Natalie Weir’s Bittersweet and Singapore Ballet Principal Dancer Etienne Ferrère’s Faux Contact, an expanded version of his work originally created for the choreographic workshop Made in Singapore 2022.
Aileen Tang chats with Loughlan Prior and Timothy Harbour to find out more about their new works as well as what is so special about Singapore Ballet.
The Flying Inkpot: Hi Loughlan! This is your first time working with Singapore Ballet. Is it your first time in Singapore?
Loughlan Prior: I visited the company in 2019 and so that was my very first time in Singapore. I came to see the city and to see the company, and I kind of fell in love with it all!
TFI: Singapore Ballet was supposed to have premiered your work at Passages 2020 and then of course we know what happened to derail that! Is this work for Passages 2022 the same one?
LP: It is! I’ve been holding on to the idea and the music for two years, just like raring to go. It’s great that we can finally do it! In fact, the costumes were actually designed and manufactured, and they’ve just been sitting in storage. So that’s how far along it was. It’s wonderful to finally be here and working with the dancers.
TFI: What is it like working with the dancers at Singapore Ballet?
LP: They’re so athletic and alive, and I would use the word ‘fierce’. They’re really up for trying and experimenting with anything, which is not always the case [everywhere]. It’s really lovely to feel that trust in the studio – that they’re willing to just listen to my crazy ideas. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, but they’re always giving it a go. It’s always very special in any creation period.
TFI: I think Singapore Ballet dancers are always very excited to work with new choreography and try new things. Have you had to make adjustments and changes after actually working with the dancers?
LP: My process for this work is very abstract. I had seen the company in 2019 and I knew that there were excellent contemporary classical movers. So I took that away with me and this piece of fantastic, really pulsing, thriving, excitable music. Then I’ve come in with just some very broad ideas and worked with them closely. So the piece has revealed itself as I’ve started to work with the dancers rather than me coming in with very specific choreographed steps and transposing that on to their bodies. We’ve very much worked together to be able to build and to reveal the work.
TFI: This is very different from your works Hansel and Gretel and The Firebird then because those are very much more narrative.
LP: In New Zealand, I have been doing a lot of narrative work, which I adore. But it’s so refreshing to come and do something that is purely athletic and dance-driven. You can be a lot more creative and experimental with physicality and the architecture of the body, and that’s exactly what this piece is doing. It’s not encumbered by telling a story. It’s really just about movement and sound and light combined together. I’ve really enjoyed doing both abstract and narrative, and I think it’s good to go between the two so you’re not getting locked into one genre. It keeps me invigorated and excited for the next project. I think this company is particularly good at that contemporary, ballet aesthetic. It’s like the perfect palette – a really cool box of crayons.
TFI: What would you say to convince audiences that might be less exposed to contemporary ballet, that this is a leap worth taking?
LP: I think that the dancers are athletes, and it’s like coming to watch an artist or an athlete in the prime of their career doing amazing things. It’s just insane what they’re able to do with their bodies and in an ensemble as well. In the piece we’re doing a lot of ensemble, complex shapes and moving structures. I would say the work that I’ve made is like a visual kaleidoscope. When I first came to Singapore, there were a lot of projected animations on buildings [Ed: Night to Light Festival] – the city came alive at night. And that has also somewhat inspired this piece. That’s also what I’ve tried to capture in this piece; it should be as if the audience is experiencing those projections physicalized on stage.
TFI: Besides the lights of the city and what you saw of the dancers when you first visited, what else inspired this work?
LP: The piece is called The Sound was our Ocean and I essentially started with John Metcalfe’s score. It’s treating the sound world as an ocean of possibilities. There are 6 movements and they each traverse different emotional states that are influenced by the music. I also used the literal idea of sound waves as physical waves in an ocean. The movement language of the piece is very fluid and wavelike at times and then also very chaotic. There are a lot of overlapping structures, and that to me defines the nature of the ocean as much as it does the music – how it can be calm and beautiful, or treacherous and dangerous.
TFI: You’re literally being introduced to Singaporean audiences for the first time – how would you introduce yourself in a few words?
LP: Artist, constant visual interest, cinematic pace. And trying to elicit an emotional response from the audience.
TFI: Hi Timothy – this is the third time that you’re creating a work for Singapore Ballet! The first was Another Energy in 2016 and then LINEA ADORA in 2018 for their 30th Anniversary.
Timothy Harbour: I feel so privileged to be asked back again for a third time! I think any opportunity to work with really talented dancers in a really great company is something to be so grateful for, but I think coming back a third time to this place is really special for me because it really consolidates that relationship that we’ve built. These dancers know me and I know them, and that’s something I don’t take for granted. It does make a really big difference, not just in the studio, but actually even in my imaginings in the very early stages when I’m still on my own. If you can imagine those dancers and you know who they are, what they’re like and what they could do with your ideas, you actually can go so much deeper into those imaginings – before you even arrive. So it really is special. And then of course, once I get here, it moves quickly and easily – it’s a really joyful experience.
It also, I suppose, feels like a chance to deepen the impression that I try to make as an artist. This work certainly is different to the ones that came before so I’m not just rehashing the same style of work every time. I think, “Well, I can make this for you, and then the next time I can make this. And then this time it’s different again.” So there’s that artistic journey which is so satisfying to have. When you only get one moment with a group of people, it can be great and it can be really successful, but it’s sort of shallow.
TFI: Like any relationship – you need to have time to build on and develop it.
TH: Yes, it’s like you have a great first date and then you never see each other again. But this has become more of a real relationship and I’m so grateful for it. I hope it continues!
TFI: Do you find that you tend to work with the same dancers when you come back to work with the company?
TH: I think this time round, there are many dancers that I’ve worked with intimately before, but also so many faces and some people who weren’t here when I came last time. This was actually meant to happen in 2020 so I think if it had happened then, some of the dances that I’m actually working with this time wouldn’t have even been in the company at that point. So that’s kind of a silver lining because there are some really special young dancers that have joined recently.
I think the company is in a great place considering what it’s come through. It’s quite incredible. It’s always had really strong talent at the top but it’s also very rich in talent in the middle of the company and in the young dancers that have just joined. So it bodes well for the future.
TFI: Yes, that’s really important for the company to keep growing! The music that you’re using is The Protecting Veil by John Tavener for solo cello and orchestra. How did the music inspire your work?
TH: I’ve listened to this piece for a long time – for decades – and I think for me, the word I would use is “mystical”. That was my first impression of the beautiful, mysterious world it creates. That’s what first attracted me to it. Then what I’ve done is to distill that down to more of an idea of the spirit behind it so I think my interpretation of it is that it’s like a prayer. It’s a prayer with the idea of when and if you pray, you’re putting yourself in a position of being thankful and humble. You’re acknowledging the smallness of your place in this vast unknowable universe of existence. I’ve personally had this experience of feeling like I can’t escape my troubles but I’m at peace with that because I can acknowledge that just the chance of existing is precious in itself. I think for a lot of people, that feeling of peace is found through a faith in something bigger than themselves.
For much of the piece, one of the strongest devices that I’ve used is an old one, which is two people dancing together – a pas de deux. I haven’t really done a lot of that for a while in my work. I’ve come back to that with this piece where I’m using that vehicle of two people working intimately and expressively together to get across an idea. Of course, whichever individuals you happen to choose and put together, they focus on each other and create something very unique. It becomes not just about the preciousness of existence in this big picture idea; it becomes about the preciousness of each other, and the uniqueness of each other.
I used a lot of pas de deux when I first started creating work, and it’s such a strong way to evoke emotion and to find expression and invention of movement. I got to a point where I wanted to develop other skills and I then concentrated very much on ensemble work and really painting the stage and creating a big stage picture with lots of dancers. I found that very exciting and I still do, but I wanted to come back to this more intimate expression of the duet with this piece.
TFI: I think having this piece performed now means something all the more poignant, our world having been through the pandemic in these last 2 years.
TH: Exactly, I think that’s very true. It feeds into the appreciation we all feel for these moments. We don’t take them for granted in quite the same way that we perhaps used to. That’s probably what led me to want to make work, because like a lot of us, I have been humbled by the events. I had a lot of exciting projects going and good momentum with my choreography, and this sort of dream that I was trying to live. And then the guillotine just came down on it like it did for so many of us. I had a time where I was grieving the loss of that, and then I eventually came around to being appreciative of what I had. I am in a place where if these things start to trickle back to me, I don’t take them for granted. I don’t think I ever took them for granted but they’re more precious now.
TFI: So if we go back to the relationship metaphor, you and Singapore Ballet aren’t on a first date anymore. What would the relationship be now?
TH: We’re not in that ecstatic state of just falling in love. I think we really like each other! We really know each other and we’re at that point where we see things in a similar way. I think we’re a good match and we know it, and it’s fun to be in that place. We’re certainly not old and bitter and twisted! We’re in a very good place. From my point of view, that’s how I feel and it’s a privilege – as I said before.
What’s so cool about this company and these dancers is that they are either working with a guest choreographer like me to make something new or they’re rehearsing and performing works that were made for them in just the last few years. They’re very present and they have a good strong sense of their own identity – which is to make fresh work that connects with audiences. I think there’s also a really strong sense of ownership of the work because most of it has been made on them. I’m coming in from the outside and it’s just a privilege to be contributing to that.
Hopefully, like my last piece that the company has performed again and again, it will be the case this time and if that happens, then you know this beautiful creation that you’ve made together has this ongoing life. You can’t ask for more than that as a choreographer! It’s like having two parents. You would do anything for your child and you love it in a way that no one else can, but if you have to be separated from it, the only other person that you truly know would feel exactly the way as you, is as the other parent. So this company is the other parent [of my work] and I know they’re going to take care of it because it’s as much theirs as it is mine.
Tickets for Passages are available from SISTIC:
Passages Contemporary Season 2022
11 Nov (7:30pm), 12 Nov (3pm & 7:30pm), 13 Nov (3pm & 7pm)
Esplanade Theatre Studio
The Protecting Veil by Timothy Harbour (World Premiere)
The Sound was our Ocean by Loughlan Prior (World Premiere)
Bittersweet by Natalie Weir
Faux Contact by Etienne Ferrère