As her new show opens at the Royal Opera House, renowned choreographer Aletta Collins tells Caroline Bishop that she could have had an entirely different career, if only her mum had let her.
Aletta Collins has been a choreographer and dancer for over 20 years, with her first piece of choreography, Stand By Your Man, going on national tour while she was still at dance school. Since then she’s created her own successful company and worked with many major companies around the world, including Phoenix Dance and Rambert. She also got the general public dancing with the now annual event Big Dance, and has choreographed for theatre and opera productions including His Dark Materials at the National Theatre and Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House.
An Associate Artist at the Royal Opera House, this Christmas Collins is back at its Linbury Studio, where she previously choreographed The Red Balloon, with new ROH2 family show Magical Night, based on a rediscovered Kurt Weill score. Caroline Bishop caught up with her in the final week of rehearsals.
How did you come to do this piece?
AC: I was doing my own research into a potential Weill project because I love that world of music. I came across this piece – Zaubernacht – and it was a fantastic coincidence because I didn’t know a lot about it because it had just been unearthed. It had never been performed here [in the UK]; it’s 99 years old and this is a premiere. I took this to the Royal Opera House and said I think this would be a very exciting show to do for families. There’s not a full scenario because that was lost, so the scenario is up to the director’s imagination and very rarely do you get that sort of freedom. We do know from the score that it’s a story about two children going to sleep and their toys waking up, and that’s about it. I said I’d really like to do this and I’d like to write my own scenario. It will still be children going to sleep and their toys waking up, but I’d like to rethink what the toys are. The toys in the original are a ball, a bear, a horse, a witch, a jumping jack. So I did, and here we are now, two years on, the last week of rehearsals!
Which toys have you chosen?
AC: I decided I wanted to go for toys that were still based around the human form. I didn’t want to make a piece that was about animating objects – that would be too limiting for the dancer, for the choreographer. So all the toys that come to life are based on the human body, though there is one animal, a monkey. So what we’re not trying to do is disguise the fact that we have arms and legs and heads. Also, when they come alive [I wanted them to] come alive emotionally as well and have character. So I have a robot come to life, an action girl figure, a medieval knight, a baby doll, a monkey, a sort of fairy-Barbie type pretty doll, footballers.
You’ve worked on family productions before – what are the specific challenges?
AC: In one way I’d like to say there’s no difference. Everything I’m going to say is actually truthful for an adult show [too]. If there is a story, which there is, be really clear that you’re telling it; young people are a tough audience and if it doesn’t make sense or it’s a bit fake, they immediately smell a rat. Watch that things don’t go on too long, that it keeps delivering new information and keeps moving forwards. Those for me are the two most important things: the pacing of it and the rigorousness with the story.
Do you have kids yourself?
AC: I have two boys, aged eight and 10. They’re a tough audience! They’ve had a lot of say about which footballers should come to life; they have been my key advisors on the football section!
You were a dancer first. Do you still dance in the rehearsal room as part of the choreographing process?
AC: A lot of what ends up being in the dance has been originated by the dancers; I’ve chosen six completely different dancers because each of the characters is completely different. I really wanted each of them to have their own make-up, their own way of moving, their own take on the world, because a little saggy tiny-tot babydoll next to an action cartoon girl, you’re going to have two very different ways of moving. I work a lot to get the performers themselves to originate the movement, but then I will work physically with that to help develop it. Or sometimes I like dancing their parts so they have a sense of being able to see it, because when you are in it it’s sometimes hard to understand where you are.
Can any dancer choreograph too or do you need a particular skill?
AC: I think it’s a mixture of skill but also interest. It’s the same with actors into directors: can every actor direct? Or can every singer write a song? I think we all have the potential but it’s whether we’re interested in it.
But unlike actors and singers, dancers get to a point where physically they can’t do it any more – so choreography seems the natural route.
AC: Yes… but it’s also about, have you got anything you want to say? I think probably most dancers can make up dances, but what makes those interesting to watch is what they are about or what they are saying. I suppose that’s the challenge for a dancer moving to a choreographer, is there something that they want to share?
What was that for you?
AC: Well to be honest I’ve always choreographed even when I was dancing. Even before I had left school I had a piece touring nationally [and] at the Seoul Olympics. It’s been quite a strange, unusual career that I’ve had two things happening side by side. But I’ve always enjoyed the potential for humour. I’m not saying every single thing I’ve done has been funny but I’ve always enjoyed humour and looking for ways to tell a story interestingly.
You’re an Associate at the Royal Opera House – is it important they stage work like yours to help make the venue more accessible?
AC: Definitely. I think it’s really important, and that’s what makes it such a fantastic organisation as well, that on any given night there can be some of the world’s best singers and on the other stage quite a radical, experimental piece of opera. In the same way that we could have The Nutcracker or one of the beautiful big romantic ballets on the main stage and then something very different with a very modern vocabulary. Hopefully it will gradually [make people realise] that the opera house is open to everyone, that there is more there than just the big classic repertoire, that there are new exciting things happening as well.
Earlier this year I did Anna Nicole on the main stage which was a new very different sort of opera, so it’s not that the main stage is only doing classic pieces. To change a perception of an institution takes a long time and I just hope that if the Opera House continues producing new, exciting, alternative work then that will keep opening the doors.
Do you think programmes like Strictly Come Dancing have opened dance up?
AC: Yes exactly. The idea of going to watch somebody dance is maybe not so strange. Definitely over the last four, five years it’s been shifting. You think, those people at Wembley just watching people dancing, that’s quite a big change isn’t it?
What would you say are the defining moments of your career?
AC: It’s doing the new work that is always exciting: doing a new Harrison Birtwistle when Glyndebourne opened, or Thomas Adès’s Tempest at the Royal Opera House, and Big Dance. And a piece I did last year – which wasn’t a huge piece – for Cocteau Voices, has been very important to me. But I’m terrible, every single project I’m on, at the time, is it! So this! And the first piece that I made, called Stand By Your Man, which I made at school.
I think it’s taken me a long time to build my confidence. For good or bad, I’ve always been very lucky, if that’s the right word, I’ve always been challenged. I’ve always found myself in a place where I’ve thought ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ which has been very challenging but has also pushed me to really try to do it. But I’ve never really spent very much time in that place of going ‘oh yeah I can do this’ because everything has always been such a challenge. You walk into a room and there’s nothing. You’ve got to create it all. And that can be quite [intake of breath].
Did you want to dance from an early age?
AC: From about seven. I went to dance because everyone else did in my class. Then at about eight years old everyone left dance and went to Brownies. I said “can I?” and my mum said “no, I’ve just bought you a new pair of ballet shoes, you’re not leaving until they’re worn out”. And they were the thickest leather ballet shoes so that by the time I could have left I was in, that was it. I could have been Head Brown Owl by now if I’d left! Were you a Brownie? [Yes, I say] Was it really good? I was so jealous!