The relationship between Choreographer and Notator

An interview with
Christopher Hampson
Caroline Palmer
(text only version)

As part of the Benesh Institute Congress held on August 5th - 6th 2000, the choreographer Christopher Hampson, and notator Caroline Palmer were invited to give a presentation on the relationship between choreographer and notator.
Christopher received a commission to work in Prague at short notice, and so Amanda Eyles, Assistant Technical Director of the Benesh Institute interviewed Christopher and Caroline.  The interview was then transmitted as a Powerpoint presentation with the original sound clips.  This Web version has used transcripts of the interviews and reduced graphics to speed download times.

The choreographer:
Christopher Hampson was trained at the Royal Ballet School, and danced with English National Ballet for seven years. He created three new works for the company, amongst many other commissions outside. In 1999, he left to choreograph full-time. He is currently working on A Christmas Carol for the Festival Hall, and a commission for New Zealand Royal Ballet.

The Notator
Caroline Palmer was a professional dancer and teacher, and graduated from the Benesh Institute in July 1999. She is currently working with Christopher Hampson on A Christmas Carol.

How they met
Caroline saw Country Garden (1988/1999, ENB) and loved it. She heard that Christopher was choreographing a new work for City Ballet of London, and got on the phone. They arranged to meet at Richmond Theatre

Caroline's story
Initially the most appealing thing to me was his musicality. I loved the way that the movement appeared so natural, and it all just seemed to flow for me.

Chris's story
CH: My ballet Dinaresade was on as part of Wayne Sleep’s tour, and I think we hit it off straight away didn’t we?
CP: Definitely!
CH: It was good, because Jonathan [Still] had explained that I was quite direct, worked quite quickly…and ……..mouth like a sewer [laughter]. So Caroline was quite prepared for our working relationship even our first meeting, I think. She didn’t tell me this until we’d been working quite some time, she said “I just have to tell you this: your language is disgusting!”

What was it like working for Chris?

AE: So Caroline, what did you find most difficult about working with Christopher?

CP: Speed. I’m probably the slowest notator that’s ever come through the course (laughs)

AE: But this was your first professional piece, wasn’t it, so inevitably...

CP: It was, yes. And I was warned that Chris was extraordinarily fast, so I knew from the beginning that I wasn't going to be able to work at his speed. So what I did was mark the music, which I'm glad, in this case, very glad, that I did, because when we needed it, I was able to refer back to that, and knew that I would have to do most of it retrospectively. I didn’t know I that I would have to do two of them afterwards (laughter)

AE: But did you find the way he used the music easy for you to understand? It's very clear musically?

CP: It's very clear, because he does not only hear the music, but he understands the music as well. So, he can read the music: if I lose my place or the pianist does, he can actually come along and say, it's this part

Chris: on familiarity with notators, and notation as a concept
CH: There were lots of times when I was at ENB when, you know, when you're just sitting around having a fag in the green room, and the notator’s there, you can just say there and then, you don't have to go running round looking at a video or something. Most of the time, the notator will know, or at least will have just watched it enough in the studio to know what's going on, know what's needed. So I've always had a really positive experience of notators.

AE: That's great. And I think that must make it much easier for your notators for you not to be questioning it.

CH: Definitely. [...] It's quite interesting, that in my time working through the Royal Ballet School, a little bit with the Royal Ballet, and then ENB, there's always been notators there, you know, I've never known any different. Caroline and I have often discussed notation in other countries, how it's used, if it's used, if it's not used, and I'm staggered that in a lot of places it is….video.

The story of Canciones, Caroline's first project
CH: Canciones was commissioned by London City ballet for a programme called VIVA, and the ballet had to have specific connections to a Latin theme, so I thought I would do it from the music and use Manuel de Falla, Seven Popular Spanish Songs. So, usual process: rehearsed, got all the way to the end of the piece, went and did the technical at the Hackney Empire with the set, the costumes, everything

Then I got a phone call from the Chief Executive, June Gamble, to say that the Manuel de Falla Foundation had refused the rights. This was three days before the premiere. The only inkling I had was that there were faxes going back and forth to Madrid, and I thought, that's just not right, because I know with ENB when I did Country Garden, which is another work which was in copyright because it was Percy Grainger…when they researched that copyright, that was just a straightforward “can we?…yes you can”, and so when I heard faxes were coming back I was getting a bit nervous.

AE: Did you have a contingency plan?

CH: No.

AE: So then what did you do when it was definitely refused

CH: I was told literally as the technical was starting.

AE: Did you tell the dancers?

CH: No, it would just have knocked the foundations out of everything, so I just carried on, finished the rehearsal, sent everyone to the pub, had a good cry. I did, I was so upset, you know, having just seen it…

CP: He had a good cry on my shoulder and said “I loved my ballet.” It was very genuine.

AE: So at that point, what were your options? To pull it completely?

CH: Yes. But obviously, that's not an option for me. But the options were, pull it completely, or redo to different music.

AE: And that's what you went with?

CH: Yes.

AE: What was your first port of call after you'd cried on Caroline's shoulder?

CH: More lager, and then phoned up Jonathan Still, who's a very good friend of mine, and you know - so fortunate just that I know I can just go can just get on the phone and explain. Whizzed round to his place that night, sat down explained the situation and said “right, we need to find something else”.
Fortunately, as with all Spanish music, things like jotas are jotas, seguidillas are seguidillas

AE: So it's the same rhythm

CH: Yes, the rhythms are all the same. We just tried to find pieces where the tempo wasn't compromised, the feel of the piece, the emotion of the piece wasn't compromised, and just tried to find pieces… if it was a youthful and joyous piece, we’d try and find something that had that dynamic to it, and the same tempo and same dance rhythm and I think we pretty much did all of them. But that was the route I took immediately - straight away.

AE: So then once you'd identified some music that you thought would work, how did you go about putting it to the choreography.

CH: Well first of all, stalled the premiere for only 10 days that we were on tour

CP: If that

CH: but I mean really three or four days working time that we had. Some pieces I think were easier than others. Some pieces just meant an extra phrase of that movement, or taking movements from ends of solos and just stitching it together.

AE: Did you actually change the steps?

CH: Very little

AE: Just the dynamics?

CH: Yes.

CP: Sometimes you had to add some

CH: Yes, or repeat something. Yes, actually I think barely anything changed stepwise

CP: It was more like you put the music to the rhythms you'd already made

CH: It was quite difficult for me really, because all my work….I always start with the music, and so it was extra hard…it was really difficult to…it was a real challenge.

AE: It must have been quite a painful process

CH: It was a bit, it was a real challenge, to have the choreography there and then match the music. Really weird. But I think it worked…to…to…to the best it could really .

AE: Can you elaborate a bit on how you felt Caroline was able to help you in that process?

CH: What was so good was just having someone there that was just clued because I work quickly, and especially because I was in mental panic, and not wanting to show it, I just wanted to get it done. So, sometimes we’d spend time before the dancers came in, like, with Roxy’s solo [Oksana Panchenko] we’d just sit and phrase it. Richard Coates who's the pianist with City Ballet would sit with us - excellent - he’d cut and paste the music. I tried to do as much as I could before the dancers got there because I just didn’t want to freak them out. I wanted them to feel as confident as they’d looked at Hackney Empire, so that the ballet didn’t lose it's strength, it's real core strength. Then when the dancers came in, we just tried to fit it on them.

Specific problems of the pas de deux
I think the hardest thing was the pas de deux, because I feel that pas de deux don't have a set rhythm all the way through, whereas all the other pieces did, whether they were a jota or a seguidillas or whatever. In pas de deux, I tend to create as if they are singing with the music. We did try and find music for the pas de deux, but in the end I just thought I was compromising the movement too much, I was pulling the movement, trying to anchor it to this new music, and it was quite a quiet, understated pas de deux, and a lot of intimate interaction between the two dancers, and I just felt it was getting compromised.

So I just did away with the music, and (laughs) broke the news to you quite gently, and in part of the ballet… a flamenco singer’s involved, and she sings all the way through… so I chatted with her, and she knew of a Lorca lullaby, and so we used that.

AE: So Caroline, how did you deal with that? This sounds like a notator’s nightmare!

CH: I've done this to her since as well!

CP: Yes, I think that was the most difficult part for me, to write a pas de deux to no music, especially as the Spanish singers don't have that sort of understanding of rhythm as…

CH: Well she didn’t, she had no musical education

CP: None at all

CH: She just sang it

CP: And they don't necessarily keep to a particular rhythm when they're singing . Also for the dancers, it meant that they were…

AE: That sounds terribly difficult for the dancers…

CP:…changing their rhythm every evening with her and obviously I had make a decision as to how to write it, but it sort of came together.

AE: So did you write it as if it were effectively in silence

CP: In silence, yes…

AE: So you find an underlying rhythm that is essentially there with give and take

CP: Yes. And tried to fit the words to the movement.

CH: We thought that was a good idea.

AE: Did you find that there were particular movements that would fall on words?

CP: Always, yes.

AE: So that gave you your framework?

CP: Yes

CH: Yes, the more they did it… they sort of grounded towards certain verses

AE: So how much did you find that the dancers deferred to you to help them?

CP: Not at that stage, it was too short, the rehearsal period. They just had to get on with it and were very professional, it wasn't
that much of a problem for them. The biggest problem was for Chris and he dealt with it..

AE: And also for you afterwards to fix it as something

CP: Yes. But again, I had Chris's help, which I'm sure is something that doesn't always happen

AE: That's true in fact, because often you find once you've notated a piece, that the choreographer then goes off, and you're left with the bones wondering where to put the flesh. So in that respect I suppose you're fortunate ...

CP: I'm very lucky….

AE: ….that you've got an ongoing relationship.

CP: Yes. We’ve got through most things haven't we?

CH: I think so…

CP: We've survived!

AE: So presumably Caroline, you have…do you have two versions of the ballet

CP: I do now, yes. So should we in…how many years?

AE: How long do you have to wait?

CP: I know it's the year I retire, I'm 65 in that year when we might be able to get the rights.

CH: A while away

CP: So we could recreate it if you like Chris

CH: I’ll probably hate it by then!

AE: Chris, presumably that's kind of amazing in a way, because without notation, you would have lost the original version.

CH: Absolutely.

The advantages of having a notator: Chris's point of view

CH: I found with Canciones a lot, that Caroline would not only ask me “where’s that fingernail on count four”, which I love doing, really looking at my work, and seeing what I really want, but she’d always ask me about what I intended; because there were often things where one of the dancers would, you know, they'd get the step I want in the studio…

CP: Maybe not quite the speed...

CH: ...or the speed, or sometimes they'd just get it and I’d go “That's it!” - never to be seen again. Ever. So hopefully, if she goes somewhere where they can do whatever it is at that speed, or with that much balance or control, then I'm confident that Caroline knows exactly what it is

AE: That's kind of wonderful, because that's also another advantage of the notation over the video,

CH: Absolutely

AE: ...because the video only shows what those particular dancers were doing

CH: Did on that day

AE: But maybe they never got quite what you really wanted, but that doesn't mean to say that you shouldn't keep trying to find what you really want if you had another set of dancers

CH: Absolutely. With the notation, too, for the de Falla, I mean, this only video that we've got of the de Falla, I mean it is nice that you can just bung it in and see it, but like one of the dancers in her solo is...what, eight bars?

CP: Eight bars.

CH: Eight bars out. She just went AWOL on that day. Eight bars out on everyone.

AE: And that's it, that's the only video

CH: That's it. So you know, if we were to recreate that and gave them the video, well it would just be wrong.

AE: But this was the first time that you and Caroline had worked together.

CH: Yes

AE: It sounds like you “clicked” pretty instantly.

CH: I think so.

CP: We're still together!

AE: I thought it was interesting, what Chris said about trusting you, knowing that you would have got that essence of the piece down, I think that's hugely important for the choreographer and the notator, to have that shared trust, that the notator can feel that they are understanding what the choreographer wants and that the choreographer can feel that that understanding is there.

CH: I know video does work…but

AE: It has limitations though

CH: It really does. With a score there has to be a person involved, and I think that has to be a much better way of working. I always joke, “you can write whatever you bloody like, because I can’t read it!”, however I know that Caroline's going to have written everything just how it needs to be and I think that the fact that there's a person in between the material that's being notated and the ballet, that there's a person in between and not a video recorder, I just think that makes for a better relationship

AE: And also surely just to have another pair of eyes in the studio.

CH: That's really helpful.

AE: Do you find that you use the notator to say “Do you think that pattern works?” Do you want feed back or not so much?

CH: Yes. Often….I don't know if I do it often, but sometimes I have turned round and said…it’s often if I don't know if I like a step

CP: Yes, not that takes any notice whatsoever of the opinion I give, but I think it's to do with the fact that somebody’s there who you can express yourself too. You wouldn’t want to ask one of the dancers if they like what they're doing.

AE: It's more like a sounding board.

CP: Yes, a sounding board.

CH: Absolutely.

AE: Which is quite valuable, because it must feel quite isolated sometimes when you're out there

CH: It's a lonely profession, with Caroline there, it's not quite so lonely.

The successful choreographer/notator partnership - Caroline's point of view
AE: So Caroline, I'm interested to know what you think are the qualities which are most important to a successful choreographer/notator relationship.

CP: Well, I think they start from the personality really, and if that works on a personal level, the rest has to…it must be easier for the rest to fall into place, and certainly that's what's happened with us, and if we have any problems we can talk about them, and sort them out, and I'm very supportive of him as a person and as a choreographer.

AE: So has it been easier than you expected, or more difficult?

CP: I think I was just very lucky to have met him as the first person I worked with, I can’t imagine working for anybody else

CH: THAT’S fortunate!

The successful partnership - Chris's point of view
AE: So Chris, what's the most important think that you need from the person sitting next to you?

CH: I think what we do have is a lot of trust. I think it's just vital. Good sense of humour (!), Volvo…(laughter) but also I think the other thing is, as Caroline said, she is really supportive, you know, not only in my work, but in everything I do, which bodes well for working in the studio, for me. It is quite a lonely profession as I've said, and with Caroline there, it's not quite so lonely.

CP: If you knew him, you'd realise, as everyone else does who knows him, how easy he is to get on with, and he has a wonderful sense of humour which immediately…

AE: It's a big bonus!

CP: Yes! (laughs) And he’s always positive. I think in this situation with Canciones 90% of people would have just pulled it, and would have said “I need my money, I've done my work, I'm off, but Chris is not like that, he gets on with it, and he’s always, always positive.

Some thoughts about video

CH: I know that people use videos, but a good example of why not to use a video is…

CP: (laughs) Do we have to go down this route?!

CH: We do, because a good example of why not to use a video is that there is one version, which is a rehearsal tape of the Manuel de Falla version

CP: The only one

CH: The only tape, and you know, I just love it dearly because it's what it was what it was meant to be. I went round, and took Caroline out for her birthday, which... I don't know if I’ll do again [laughter], because half way through the last section, the jota, she’d taped Lorraine Kelly, GMTV...

CP: Over it...

CH: ... interviewing someone from Coronation Street over it. But you know, because the notation is there, that puts my mind at ease.

Thoughts about notation
CH: I often look at your notation, don't I. Sometimes, if I've done something, she’ll say “Well, I just haven't a clue how to notate that”, and then she'll go away, find out, work it out, and then often just come up and go “do you know your lift looks like that?”and I find it amazing.

What I was surprised’s the first time I've worked very closely with a notator, and obviously with what happened with Canciones, I really had to work very closely with Caroline…was that you can get such dynamic in notation which again on the video you just can't get, maybe the lighting’s bad, or the battery’s run out in the video, or it's too far away, or whatever, but I think you can get a certain amount of… I don't know if it's right… you can get a certain amount of emotion into a score.

AE: Yes you can, you can give it a lot of…you can get a lot of the dynamics in there.

CH: Yes, because…often when we talk I'm always quite staggered, because I like notation because it is so frighteningly exact, I mean it is, isn't it, it's just…

CP: You're also interested enough to want to be part of that process afterwards, not “the ballet's finished, your job: go and notate it.”

AE: Yes I think that's the essential bit, that to get the best out of the notation it has to be a collaborative process, the notator has to be able to say, “well, what did you really want in that, did you want the energy this way, did you want it that way, and to be able to have that kind of discussion…

CH: Absolutely…

AE: ….After the event

Appreciation on the web!
CH: Absolutely
Chris keeps a monthly “choreographer's diary” on, a popular UK ballet webzine.
In March 2000, when Caroline finished the score of One month, the diary was titled “Well done Caroline”. (View diary)

Interview ©The Benesh Institute August 2000
Text transcribed and edited by Jonathan Still, August 2000
Page last updated August 8th 2000

Go back to see the Powerpoint version of this interview