The Scottish Ballet difference
Don’t expect kilts from Scottish Ballet.
Dance aficionados probably wouldn’t look for tartan plaids and merry jigs from any ballet company, no matter where they’re from. But with “Lord of the Dance,” Michael Flatley’s wildly popular Irish step-dance dance extravaganzas, touring the globe and “Riverdance” heading back to Southern California, it’s easy for a newcomer to assume a troupe from another of the British Isles might borrow from folk tradition.
But “they ain’t gonna get it,” says Englishman Ashley Page, 55, company artistic director since 2002. When the Scottish Ballet takes the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion from Friday to Oct. 16 — the first time the troupe has appeared in the United States in more than 20 years — expect a lean, clean contemporary ensemble comparable to one of Page’s favorite companies, the San Francisco Ballet, which just completed a weeklong stay in Costa Mesa. (Scottish Ballet’s U.S. tour continues to Davis, Calif., and Minneapolis.)
“What’s Scottish about it? That’s something that is asked quite often,” said Page by telephone from Glasgow. “The answer is, we’re based in Scotland and funded by the Scottish government. But the dancers are very international; they’re from all over the world. We’re just like the English National Ballet in London. There’s nothing particularly English about it.”
Like many American ballet companies, the 36-member Scottish troupe performs neoclassical ballets from 20th century choreographers, including George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth McMillan along with more contemporary work by such choreographers as postmodernist Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio.
The Los Angeles program shows off the company’s eclecticism: It includes McMillan’s “Song of the Earth,” to music by Gustav Mahler, and “Kings 2 Ends,” a brand-new work created for the company by contemporary Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo, with music by Mozart and minimalist Steve Reich. Both are abstract ballets. “It’s a typical program in that it is a sort of recognized masterpiece alongside something completely new,” Page says.
Choreographer Elo says he wanted to work with Page because they share a “curious mind” (Elo studied ballet and played ice hockey growing up). Scottish Ballet’s dancers, he adds, are “people who can dance but also have a strong personality. Not everyone is one size and one look.”
Many works in the company’s repertoire were choreographed by Page, including a well-received 2003 revival of “The Nutcracker” set in Weimar Germany. Its dark visual style is reminiscent of German Expressionist painting. Page also created modernist versions of “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Alice.”
“It’s a bold statement — and we did actually upset some of the more traditional members of the audience,” Page says of his “Nutcracker.” “But we also got a whole new audience…. The risk has paid off, because we are now an established company that does things differently.”
And how “different” is Scottish Ballet? “I suppose most ballet companies more than dip their toe into the contemporary world these days,” muses Page, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and joined the Royal Ballet in 1976. He adds, however, that the company seeks to differentiate itself by selecting works that are less frequently performed. “I didn’t want us to become part of the sort of global problem of ballet companies doing the same repertory,” he says.
“Different” was indeed the goal when Page was charged with reinventing the company in 2002. Founded in 1957 by Peter Darrell and Elizabeth West, the troupe had gone into a decline after Darrell died in 1987 and was in both financial and artistic turmoil by the time Page arrived. Page cleaned house, bringing in new dancers, a new staff and a new style. He began choreographing for the company for both creative and financial reasons — the company could not afford to commission works from other choreographers until the organization received a funding boost in 2007, generally attributed to Page’s leadership.
“There was no point in me making nice, polite neoclassical work like that being made by a lot of other choreographers,” says Page, who had choreographed for Royal Ballet and other companies before coming to Scottish Ballet. “I wanted to have my own voice, really. I use quite difficult music sometimes, quite detailed. And the design element is very important. The sets I use are quite big and often quite expensive. I worked with visual artists for the first 10 years — not set designers.” (Because of the demands and expense of touring, the U.S. tour will feature stripped-down sets and recorded music.)
Scottish Ballet’s first U.S. tour in more than two decades also represents Page’s final year with the company. His 10-year-contract expires in 2012 and has not been renewed. Although now Page cannot comment for legal reasons, it was widely reported that he is leaving because the company was offering only a one-year extension to his contract, although he would have been “eager” to accept three to five years.
Renae Williams Niles, director of dance presentation for the Music Center, said it was important to her to bring the company to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion while under Page’s direction. “To me, coming to Scottish Ballet was through the eyes of the artistic director, the eyes of Ashley,” she said. “That was very much a part of my motivation.”
Page is creating a work for San Francisco Ballet, which will have its world premiere in March — in fact, he will stay in California to work with that company after the Scottish Ballet’s U.S. tour concludes in late October. After that, he’s not sure, although he is eyeing theater and opera.
He calls his soon-to-be 10 years with Scottish Ballet a “very happy time.”
“I wouldn’t want to mar that with any kind of bitterness,” Page adds. “I want to leave the dancers in top condition and at the top of their game as much as I possibly can for the new regime.”
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