An interview with
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.
How they met
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
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
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?
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?
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”.
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?
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
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?
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,
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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
CH: THAT’S fortunate!
The successful partnership - Chris's
point of view
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
What I was surprised about...it’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…
AE: ….After the event
Appreciation on the web!
Interview ©The Benesh Institute August
Go back to see the Powerpoint
version of this interview