Interview: Fleur Darkin Q&A

Friday 9 April 2010

Fleur Darkin

Since 2000, Fleur Darkin has been making dance for the stage and screen. In 2003 she was nominated for the Jerwood Choreography Award. Theatre collaborations include two productions with the Everyman, Liverpool and the choreography on Virgins with John Retallack and Company of Angels at Soho Theatre. Fleur has choreographed in theatres, schools, universities, nightclubs, castles and prisons.
Darkin Ensemble perform her latest work – Augustine – as part of the Spring Loaded season at The Place on 1 & 2 May.

You have a degree in philosophy and you have also worked as a writer. Has your interest in language informed your choreographic language?
The body is a language maker. As Morrissey said, “Nature is a language, can’t you read?” I find the body hard to ignore.
Sometimes I think I will go mad because I’m deafened by all the tics and shakes and information that comes out of bodies. People on the street tell you their
innermost desires and fears just by walking! Or another example, if I’m watching Newsnight and Jeremy Paxman is making a point, I’m not listening to the words, I’m listening to the voice, to the tone, the tone that insists it is right, the ambition straining the body. Turning your optic on the body is a great way to see the world; you can’t be fooled by what people say. Action is everything. And that’s who Augustine is, here is a young person who knows the world is rife with hypocrisy and double standards, and her body expresses her dissent.

When did your interest in dance first start?
It started with my mother, who was a dancer in Tamla Motown clubs in Brixton in the 60’s. She had tremendous style and rhythm and she encouraged me. I used
to get stopped at weddings and school discos and be asked, “Where did you learn to dance like that?” Plus music was a strong part of our household, and dancing
was my imagination responding to the sounds. Then I discovered Michael Jackson, aged 7. I had a video of The Wiz and Thriller and his live performance of Billie Jean at the Grammies, where he first did the moonwalk, and the crowd spontaneously screams with excitement – I watched that video every Saturday for about two years! I lived in the inner city of Bristol and breakdancing and hip-hop was a big scene so I used to tag along to burn-offs. I was the 7yr old girl stood at one side of the circle clapping and body-popping around twenty-year-olds!

Did you train in dance – and where?
I had an amazing training. Firstly my mother, whose credo was “do your own thing – be original” She disapproved of copying so that set the standard. My formal
training started in a spare bedroom with mirrors down one side and makeshift bar, in a two-up two-down on a terraced street: the Susan Nash School of Dance. Miss Nash was formidable, she taught ballet, jazz and tap, and like so many ballet mistresses, she was fierce and committed: her head in another world. She planted glamorous images of the West End and Broadway in our young brains. I did a foundation course at Thamesdown, under Marie McClusky and the late, great Pete Purdy. In one year we worked with: Janet Smith, Doug Elkins, Nigel Charnock, Brenda Edwards, Gary Lambert, Candoco. Then Northern School of Contemporary Dance, under Namron who was fantastic, but at this point I was getting restless to choreograph… after a stint at Alvin Ailey and NYU I switched to Bretton Hall where I was taught by Chris Lomas and Dr. Jo Butterworth. They were outstanding teachers, Chris as a champion of community dance and Jo as an analytical brain for choreography. Between the two of them and their knowledge, I was very lucky to be there at that moment.

Can you remember the first dance company you saw?
The first company I saw was London Contemporary Dance Company at the Bristol Hippodrome. I was 14. They performed Christopher Bruce’s Rooster. It shocked me, it knocked me out, it was like someone shaking me by the spine and throwing me into the air. I could not speak afterwards. Everything about those dancers; their strength and sexiness and power… they were heroes! I truly felt I would die if I couldn’t do that. I was going through a cynical teenage phase and their energy and joy at dancing, it lifted that angst out of me, and destroyed it. I knew right there, “this is it for me”. So much of what we do as choreographers is to inspire. To me, the disciplined dancers, who eat healthily and train rigorously and develop expertise about what their bodies are capable of, and can teach that expertise, they are heroes. They teach us how to live. So much of what we see and read about is fake… people are lauded for ridiculous reasons; they wear designer clothes or they’re rich… this is heroic?! But dancers, a great dancer who is striving for perfection, you cannot beat that energy; you cannot beat that health, that affirmation of life and that greatness. I actually believe it is divine. I saw that energy in the London Contemporary dancers then, and I got it.

Your new work Augustine is based on photographs taken by a doctor of his patients in 19th century Paris. What so inspired you in these photos?
The piece started in the Brotherton Library, when I was a dance student. I came across a book of black and white images of a teenage girl contorting herself. She was my peer, going through the motions of Graham Technique, enjoying the performance for camera. The girl is wearing a bathing suit, and,
when scrutinized, one realizes the bedding that surrounds her is in fact a padded cell. After researching her, I discovered these photographs were taken in 1894
at a hospital in Paris. The Salpetriere was a notorious asylum where Paris’s untouchables – its mentally ill, prostitutes and the desperately poor – were locked away. Some 4,000 patients – overwhelmingly female, were kept in the basement. I found out that this girl was the doctor’s favourite: her name was Augustine, and she was fifteen years old. So begins the story…

Who or what are your main influences?
For Augustine, they were specific. First I was in the world of teenage girls, who are at that vital cusp of womanhood and sex. We played with the photography of Francesca Woodman, a lot of her work inspired the design, to me her work is what the world looks like to Augustine. Guy Hilton the designer was a big inspiration in terms of the protocols he set for research and rigour. And then a dancer brought in Nijinsky’s notebooks that he wrote when he was “going mad”. And what is written in there is so true and startling, it inspired a lot of the work.

In general, I am looking for wisdom, so anyone who is saying things based on rigour; of thought, of research, of daring. Ideas with eloquence and integrity
and style, ideas that are not being beaten down by common sense. William Forsythe I would single out, as having such a deep knowledge of the dancing body, and for being a generous teacher.

I recently sat in the second row at Sadler’s Wells and watched Sylvie Guillem. Her grace is just awesome. So that was an influence, I really want to work
with her, and dancers like her, who fill an entire theatre with just that discipline pouring out of their skin.

What’s your favourite book?
I love *James Joyce, Marguerite Duras, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Walter Benjamin, Georges
Perec*… these are the first that come to mind.

The biggest bonus of my job is I hear music all day. At the moment I am listening
to Patti Smith, Mozart, Fourtet and a lot of Gypsy music from Eastern Europe and Egypt because we have it in
the show, and it makes you have to dance.

And film?
I like films for the writing. Writers like David Chase or Charlie Kaufman or Godard who understand loss and memory and the irreversibility of life and who write so staggeringly well.

What is your usual starting point for a new work?
An idea that makes me want to work and slave to find the truth!

In Augustine you’ve worked with a composer who usually works in theatre. Has that collaboration brought new elements to your work?
Sarah Moody is so talented it’s almost a joke; just having her in the rehearsal studio was a non-stop inspiration. The music she produces goes through your blood! Our audiences love her because she gets them in her sway with that rhythm and sound. Now we’re on tour, she travels separately with her equipment, and only when she arrives at the theatre and starts setting up, then I can relax. Casting Augustine was tough initially, but she came on from the beginning and just her sheer talent meant I never lost faith in the project, her music carried me through all kinds of challenges; that is the power of her as an artist. For Augustine, she is the heartbeat. I honestly believe the real Augustine would have danced to her music. It is in the gypsy tradition in that it makes you want to leap out of your chair, but she is doing a lot of electrical stuff live with delay pedals and loop boxes, so she brings this defiant, electric punky edge. She is Augustine!

What it’s brought to my practice is I don’t think I can go back to pre-recorded music. When you’re young and you’re making a piece on no money, needs must, but
from here on in, it’s quality or forget it. Music is too sacred to take for granted.

If your life’s work hadn’t become dance, what might it have been?
Well, isn’t this the trouble, that we can only have one life? So, through dance I’m an artist, a writer, a teacher, a campaigner, and… a member of the audience.

What’s happening next for you & the Fleur Darkin Ensemble?
Disgo will be the next touring show. It is about the complex decisions and improvisations that happen on dance floors every Friday and Saturday night. Did you know 4 million people dance in clubs in the UK every weekend? That is a lot of choreography, and best of all it is choreography with a job to do: seduce; impress, secure you’ll be bought a drink, help you forget… etc. I’ll be trying to channel my love of pop culture through that show and I want to present it so that the audience can dance too.

And right now, touring. We won’t be happy until Augustine is seen throughout Europe by its intended audience (which is everyone, young, old, black, white, male, female, any classification you can think of!). Augustine knew that classification was destruction and so this show is for anyone who ever felt outrage at the deadening of possibilities… anyone who desires to challenge the dominant hypocrisies of the day and make their life a thing of integrity. It’s my turn to grab the audience and shake them and say, “get out there and do something beautiful!” Artists are a symbol of freedom and this is a responsibility I take seriously.

See Augustine at The Place on 1 & 2 May
For tour details visit the Darkin Ensemble site:

Article posted April 2007

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