Interview: Mark Bruce on The Odyssey

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Mark Bruce Company -  'The Odyssey' Christopher Tandy as Odysseus. Photo: Nicole Guarino

After his award winning dance theatre production of Dracula , Mark Bruce and company are back with a new show. The Odyssey opens in Frome this week and will be back at Wilton’s Music Hall for a month long run starting this month (23 February to 19 March). We caught up with Mark in rehearsals…

Tell us how you first discovered Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey
I read Robert Graves’ work on the Greek myths and enjoyed classical studies at school. I’ve been aware of The Odyssey as far back as I can remember. I also grew up on the Ray Harryhausen movies. I’ve never stopped having an interest in Greek myths and always return to them, even unintentionally; they recur in my work all the time.

How did it affect you when you read it?
The Odyssey opens and connects with your imagination, like all good myths it reaches deeper to subconscious levels that involve mysteries of all things. For such an unusual story to survive so long it has to have something magical. It has a great mix of high adventure, of gods and monsters, while at the same time touching so many fundamental sides of our nature.

When did you plan to turn this extraordinary story into a dance/theatre production and why did you think it could work?
It’s always difficult to remember when the decision to make a work happens, especially when living with the subject matter for so long. A work grows in you and then one day you’re working on it, someone needs to know what your next piece is and suddenly you find yourself saying “I think it’s The Odyssey” and you’re on your way! A lot of time when I’m thinking about a production it’s not so much whether you think it might work but about wanting to push yourself to make it work. With each project I do there is an element of risk. I have spent about three years working with various versions of The Odyssey and writing my version which has already been through many drafts before even reaching the rehearsal studio. I want to create a world on stage that references the ancient – that is poignant now and encompasses everything from the deeply traumatic experiences of Odysseus and many others but at the same time entertains. We are creating a very ambitious visual world.

Have you stuck to Homer’s story or played around with it a little?
I’ve also incorporated the War of Troy and other elements that I think are an essential backstory. I have come from the premise that an audience member who has never read The Odyssey should be able to follow the story. The Odyssey alone is epic and I’ve had to severely edit and pare things down, but I feel I am being faithful to the original. It will be my take on what I think it is about and some may disagree with this but the right you have with myths is to interpret them and translate what they mean to you as an individual.

Will Homer scholars approve?
I will be very interested to hear what Homer scholars think! I’ve read a lot of versions of The Odyssey and the introductions alone are very interesting; some of which I don’t see eye to eye with. If we are talking from a purely academic view, I’m sure the way I have merged and altered certain things might not meet with approval. All I can say is that those elements are still within the work, symbolising what I think they mean. I think it is important to tell a coherent story so you can strive for the deeper things within it.

Tell us about your collaborators and the production design
There’s a big crossover with the team from Dracula; this is a team of creative individuals I feel I have embarked on a journey with and we are now continuing that journey. As ever the visual world will be very filmic. The Odyssey travels to many different worlds and our challenge is to present those worlds. The set is ambitious; considering the different venues we are taking it to, I think we are pushing right at the edge of what is possible on certain stages and at the same time the intimacy of those venues will combine to produce something powerful.

You always pick a brilliant soundtrack for your productions. Tell us about the music…
I have a very varied soundtrack for this production. I have used more of my own music in this production than in any other in order to weave its identity together. The choreographic vocabulary is as varied as the musical choices because I want to add classical imagery referencing things as far back as Greek statues we see in museums. The music travels right through to musicians such as Mark Lanegan (ex-Queens of the Stone Age) who captures elements of the character of Odysseus I want to portray.

Has the success of Dracula brought new fans to MBC?
I’m hoping that Dracula is bringing in a wide audience to see my form of dance theatre because I believe that it should appeal to many people. My work is not made purely for a dance audience, it is intended to communicate to all, regardless of dance theatre experience.

And do you think The Odyssey has a similar appeal – dark mystery, enduring love, human suffering, loyalty and betrayal?
Yes, I think it does. It deals with stories that live just on the cusp of falling into another world. Dealing with mortality, immortality and mixing with immortals is a central theme in both Dracula and The Odyssey. Having said that though, they are also very different – The Odyssey is far more surreal, from a different era in story-telling and perception.

Why do you think The Odyssey will work so well at Wilton’s Music Hall…
I have lots of elements of traditional theatre in my work. An old music hall fits with the crumbling worlds I often use and I love setting work that comes out of the dark at you. It’s a challenge to get 11 dancers on stage at Wilton’s but when you do it’s immensely rewarding and the results reflect the ‘filmic’ and close-up nature of my work. Wilton’s is a chunk of history, just like The Odyssey.

What is it about the venue you particularly like…
It releases the imagination and conjurers up details of history in every corner. It reminds me of the old London, ranging from Doctor Who, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, to Hammer House and Victorian vaudeville creations. I love the authenticity I find at Wilton’s and find it a real inspiration to be there – it gives me ideas.

Mark Bruce Company The Odyssey
Wilton’s Music Hall, 23 February – 19 March – and on tour til April.
Dates & details:

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