'I hope other companies will sit up and take not': Birmingham Royal Ballet's A Brief Nostalgia coming to Hippodrome as part of new scheme
Saudade is a Portuguese word, pronounced ‘sowdadjay’, for which there is no direct English translation. Google offers the word ‘missing’, but that doesn’t come close to describing the bittersweet emotions it conjures up.
Now these feelings of longing will be interpreted through dance when a brand-new ballet, A Brief Nostalgia, opens at Birmingham Hippodrome.
It’s part of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s ground-breaking Ballet Now scheme to nurture emerging artists and is created by 25-year-old Australian choreographer Jack Lister and 28-year-old Scottish composer Tom Harrold, with design from Thomas Mika.
The trio have worked together over thousands of miles and several time zones to create a 30-minute ballet, which receives its premiere in Birmingham on September 19 in the Autumn Mixed Bill, before moving on later to Sadler’s Wells in London and Brisbane, Australia.
It’s the fourth commission from Ballet Now, which helps the development of emerging choreographers, composers and designers who show originality and world-class potential. Over five years it will support 30 new artists – 10 choreographers, 10 composers and 10 designers – giving them mentoring and access to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s resources.
Ballet Now goes far beyond encouraging new choreography. The commissioning of scores is particularly adventurous and has produced new music from Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of Sergei, who wrote A Sense of Time for Didy Veldman’s new ballet earlier this year.
The creative spark for A Brief Nostalgia came from Jack’s discovery of saudade, and it was the main idea the choreographer conveyed to Tom when they discussed the music.
Tom explains: “Saudade is how you feel when you are longing for someone or something but can’t quite put into words what you are feeling.”
Jack expands: “It doesn’t have as much darkness or weight as grief. It touches on the pain of loss but is more about the beauty of having experienced those feelings.
“The ballet is about how memories can shape and carry us, and the rush of triggers when you smell or see or hear something.
“It’s an abstract piece without a narrative. The title is just ambiguous enough, neither happy nor sad.”
The set design by Thomas Mika is of cold, stark, concrete walls, but Jack is encouraging the dancers to conjure up memories.
“They will see a meadow from their childhood, or the wallpaper in their grandparents’ house, or how someone’s skin felt to touch,” he says.
The ballet is being created as he goes along, with plenty of input from the cast of a dozen BRB dancers, and it’s fascinating to watch rehearsals in the Birmingham studio.
Jack is a dancer with Queensland Ballet who is increasingly focusing on choreography after creating his first piece four years ago. This is his biggest project to date and his first with another company.
He’s thrilled to be involved, saying: “It’s an amazing opportunity and I can’t believe I’m actually here.
“Creating new ballet is incredibly important for the art form. This is a risky thing for Birmingham Royal Ballet – giving someone like me, who is no-one and super green, the opportunity to create a piece for the main stage. Yet I haven’t been given a single restriction or had anyone say no to anything. I’ve been able to use anyone in the company, which is incredible.
“I admit that when I was first commissioned, the sheer scale of it did make me think I was out of my depth. It was daunting but exciting.”
After an initial meeting of the creative team in Birmingham in January, Jack didn’t get down to the nitty-gritty of choreography until his return in August.
He explains: “I’m quite an unorganised person so I didn’t arrive with the ballet fully formed, with all the steps. I don’t have all the answers, I value having conversations with the dancers, who are beautiful artists. We’re doing it on the fly and some of the steps come about by happy accident.
“I have listened to the music a lot and I am full of emotions and images. I have a general idea, but also no idea, of what the steps are going to be and what exactly is to happen until we build it.”
This project is Jack’s first experience of Birmingham and he admits to being pleasantly surprised by the city.
“I came to London four years ago on tour with Queensland Ballet but went no further. People told me Birmingham is nowhere near as good as London so I came with terrible expectations. But there are beautiful restaurants and lovely areas to hang out, and there’s so much going on.”
Tom, who lives in Manchester and whose bold, intense and exciting music has been played by orchestras around the world, says: “The ideas that Jack and Thomas gave me were so clear that the music just fell out of me as soon as I sat down at the piano.
“Two months after being commissioned last November, I’d written 20 minutes of dark, ominous music. I’ve just finished it, all 430 pages of parts for 27 instruments, comprised of 852 bars and 24,858 notes.
“My music can be extremely dramatic at times. It’s powerful and direct. I started the piece really big and bold, but Jack said we needed to start quietly. I’ve always just written for myself before, but I’ve enjoyed collaborating.
“I’ve had to learn to communicate my ideas to non-musical people – I’m used to discussing complex ideas with musicians. That can be but now I can talk to dancers and a choreographer about my music and I’m totally ready for my next ballet!”
Tom, whose work Raze opened the Last Night of the Proms two years ago, adds: “It’s very exciting to work with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, with their incredible reputation, and the brilliant musical mind of conductor Martin Georgiev. They’ve been very generous with their rehearsal time.
“Ballet Now is a fantastic scheme. To be trusted with a 30-minute ballet at such prestigious venues is thrilling, especially when I’m only 28. I hope other companies will sit up and take note.”