The Big Interview: Alexander Whitley

We speak to dancer and choreographer Alexander Whitley on 75 Watt, blending visual art with dance, and how tech is taking over…

Alexander Whitley is a busy man. The classically trained contemporary dancer has been nominated for The Times Breakthrough Award 2014, is an Affiliate Choreographer with The Royal Ballet, a New Wave associate artist at Sadler’s Wells and an associate choreographer at Rambert Dance Company. Alexander has danced with Birmingham Royal Ballet, Rambert, Michael Clark, Wayne McGregor (Random Dance), and is a founder member of New Movement Collective.

We spoke to the emerging choreographer specifically about his increased collaboration with visual artists, and the unveiling of 75 Watt, an artwork created for FACT Liverpool’s Time and Motion: Redefining Working Life exhibition.

Congrats on being nominated for The Times Breakthrough Award 2014. What does this mean to you, and what will it mean in terms of projects?

Well, first of all, it’s a huge honour to be nominated. I guess the most important thing seems to be being recognised as someone in my field that’s doing something significant. That means a lot to me. It’s only been a year or so since I’ve being putting choreography to the core of my efforts, rather than performing and working with other people… it’s really important in terms of getting the work out there and getting people to see it.

“The most challenging thing about it was trying to understand the balance between the functional aspects of  the movement involved, and the elaboration of that movement, to the extent that it became a choreography”

We’ve just seen 75 Wattyour collaborative performance made with artists Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen (above). It’s a very unusual film; you directed Chinese labourers to manufacture a completely useless (but beautiful) product, with the sole purpose of choreographing a dance around the process.

Can you describe how this all came about and what that was like to work on?

It’s certainly one of the more unusual experiences I’ve been part of! But a really interesting one. It came about in quite a roundabout way: Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, a husband and wife team, we’re nominated for The Arts Foundation Award a couple of years ago. Unfortunately neither of us won the award, but recoginsed one anothers’ work there… they got in touch when they started work on this project as they wanted to work with a choreographer. It seemed like a fascinating thing to be part of.

The most challenging thing about it was trying to understand the balance between the functional aspects of  the movement involved, and the elaboration of that movement, to the extent that it became a choreography. Because the whole idea of the piece was to design this ‘object’ on the basis of choreographic principles.

We spent a lot of time taking apart conventional consumer goods and looking at the component parts of them, and what it was about that particular object that said something about how the body moved in relation to it… [For instance] how long a piece of wire could be, so when it unravelled, how the body could be stretched; moulded plastic objects and the very details and specific movements of the hands and fingers that were required to manipulate them.

Alexander Whitley, Hertz

So this was a really fascinating way for me to think about movement, then to design an object, then also for it to be manufactured on a production line that worked… Watching the video now, I’m still curious about whether that balance between the elaboration of the movement, on top of the purely functional requirements, is quite right. It’s a really interesting ambiguity… understanding what the people are doing, whether it is in a conventional factory setting or whether it is a performative environment — I really like the blurring of that.

It was a really enjoyable process and nice to… make that connection with other artists that share a common theme but are coming at it from a completely different perspective. To me that’s a huge pleasure, to understand how dance, movement and the body can be considered.

Next year you’re collaborating with our favourite digital media artists, Marshmallow Laser Feast (on a commission for the Royal Opera House). You seem to be drawn to projects exploring our relationship with technology — why?

I think it’s partly the social circle I’ve found myself in, and the people I’ve got to know outside the dance world tend to be working in this area. It’s always been something that I’ve been curious about. I’ve been interested in technology from a young age, having gadgets and all that, there’s an interest at that level, and I think working with these artists satisfies the geek in me.

“Our communication is increasingly being mediated through technology, and it is affecting not only the way we interact with one another but also the way we move and think”

There’s exciting potential in certainly what Marshmallow Laser Feast are doing, with motion tracking and how they can convert movement from one form or medium into another; that process of interactivity with relatively new technology.

There’s a lot of work being put out there and not a lot of it is necessarily doing something really interesting. There’s a lot of quite straightforward and obvious uses of technology to demonstrate what it does; but the interest to me is to think how it can be incorporated into an artistic process in a more meaningful way.

It appeals to broader questions and themes in the contemporary world; our communication is increasingly being mediated through technology, and it is affecting not only the way we interact with one another but also the way we move and think; just think about how our gestures are incorporated into devices these days. It seems like a really fertile area.

I think it’s also a way of attracting audiences to dance; the digital arts scene is a burgeoning one… It may draw audiences to contemporary dance that may not have seen it in a more conventional setting. In a way, it’s technology that’s facilitated the increased interest in dance; we have YouTube and we can watch dance online in a way that we couldn’t five, 10 years ago. It’s viewed in a very different way now.

Who, or what, inspires your choreography?

I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of interesting choreographers throughout my dance career; but in terms of inspiration, on a fundamental level, I think William Forsythe, an American choreographer based in Germany. In terms of developing ideas and tools and techniques, he’s done more than anyone else in the last 30, 40 years, so he’s definitely a huge inspiration.

Certainly Wayne McGregor, who I’ve worked with, his choreography has followed on from a lot of what Forsythe developed. His ideas are certainly very influential in terms of my approach, but at the same time, having worked with him, I’d like to think what I’m doing is in a way a departure. Merce Cunningham, I guess he’s influential in a less direct sense; he did a lot to develop ideas around dance and the exploration of the choreographic process. It’s up to me to create a niche of my own amongst all those influences.

Laura Robertson, Editor

See more of Alexander’s work here

Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life is open at FACT Liverpool now and runs until 9 March 2014 

The Measures Taken is a 40 minute quintet in collaboration with digital artists Marshmallow Laser Feast commissioned by the Royal Opera House. It will premiere at The Royal Opera House (Linbury Theatre) May 15th & 16th 2014

Posted on 16/12/2013 by thedoublenegative