Under the umbrella title of Devotions, the McNicol Ballet Collective is presenting a triple-bill of work by its founder, Andrew McNicol in the UK this June.
Devotions features the premiere of Moonbend with a score by Perfume Genius and designs by Louise Flanagan. Of Silence has music by Pēteris Vasks. An extended version of the company's 2021 creation, Bates Beats with music by Mason Bates, completes the programme.
Andrew McNicol talks to Paul Arrowsmith.
When we first met ten years ago for an interview for Dancing Times, you told me: “A dancer is limited by repertoire and casting. Choreography is limitless. I didn't want others to make choices for me. Choreography represents what I want to investigate and explore.” Over the past decade, what have been your choreographic highlights – and how does the Collective fit into that?
As a choreographer I am interested in the deep connection between movement and music and telling stories, portraying powerful emotions through dance. Being an independent artist means I have the opportunity to work with – and get inspiration from – a wide range of dancers from all over the world.
I'm lucky to have created works for The Royal Ballet, Joffery Ballet, Royal Ballet Flanders among others. Viviana Durante also invited me to be an artistic associate at English National Ballet School which is a wonderful opportunity to work regularly with some of the future stars of ballet.
Being from Hull I am also really pleased to have become the first associate company with the New theatre there.
McNicol Ballet Collective allows me to connect with other artists to develop and showcase my choreographic voice and present adventurous new works on stage and screen.
We premiered our debut programme, Awakenings, in 2021. Then in 2022, we had the chance to perform at Latitude Festival, [a British music festival] which was great to introduce our work to a wider audience, and we were also invited to present work at the Emerging Choreographer contest in Biarritz, France.
We last met five years ago when the Collective had a showing at the Lillian Baylis studio at Sadler's Wells – including your Poème de l'extase. Since then, we've all experienced the black hole of the Covid pandemic – what impact did that have on you and your work?
Covid had a big impact on the Collective, we were set to premiere our works and then everything closed. I'm sure every artist will tell you the same thing about how difficult the uncertainty was during that time for our industry. The positives of Covid though were that it gave me time to reflect on the works we had planned to present.
Our debut programme included two new works that weren't originally planned, a reimagined Firebird set to Stravinsky, and Bates Beats. It also made my mission to present bold ballets that explore contemporary themes, our struggles and triumphs, even more important.
Again, from ten years ago, you told me: “I am busy – but not satisfied with where opportunities exist.” Is that still the case?
For me, it's been important to proactively create opportunities to make work as well as respond to opportunities and commissions from companies as they arise. I enjoy creating in a range of contexts, at different scales, and with different pressures, from full-length ballets to one-act abstract or narrative pieces. It's that mix of projects that I find artistically nourishing.
How do you balance the Collective and your other assignments? Which takes priority?
I don't see it as one or the other, I find great value in building my own projects through the Collective as well as travelling to work with companies internationally. The learning, experience and insights gained from both kinds of work complement each other and provide a different kind of artistic nourishment. I am incredibly ambitious for the Collective, and I love the challenge of building something from the ground up in a way that can have longevity and be sustainable in the long term.
I see there are six performances of the Devotions programme – why not more?
I'm very proud of this upcoming tour and can't wait to share our work but touring ambitious programmes across the country is expensive, and I'm thankful for the support we receive from Arts Council England, The Linbury Trust and Garfield Weston Foundation that makes this all possible.
While nothing can take away from the power of a live performance, two other important strands of our work are our workshop Unbound Dance Days, a full day of dance activity for aspiring young dancers, and our work on screen gives people the chance to see our projects for free, no matter where they are.
Tell us more about your digital work…
Our digital work is important. We have collaborated with Sam Assert a few times now, and recently released eight short ‘ballet beauty' films across our channels: Screen — McNicol Ballet Collective. Sam filmed a piece I created for Royal Ballet Flanders in Antwerp and it's there that we met and began what has become an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding collaboration.
Creating dance films that we can share for free with audiences around the world helps break down barriers for people to enjoy and be moved by dance. I'm very interested in using film work on stage as well as I think it can help bring another dimension to live performance.
How do you select your performers and collaborators? Or do people seek you out?
It's both and it's an ongoing dialogue. I look for originals, artists who are generous, honest and who want to contribute to an environment where brilliance can flourish.
[For Devotions, dancers include Kristen McGarrity, formerly with Birmingham Royal Ballet and a lead in Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris, Winnie Dias, a former dancer with Hamburg Ballet, Casey Nokomis who has danced with Viviana Durante Company and Vienna Festival Ballet, identical twins Laurie and Josh McSherry-Gray, former members of Royal Ballet Flanders and English National Ballet respectively and Shevelle Dynott, formerly English National Ballet. Rin Ishikawa and Joshua Fickling are members of the Collective's apprentice programme.]
Away from the Collective what have been your other projects? I know you did Cinderella for Tulsa Ballet…
Yes, I was thrilled to create my first full-length, for Tulsa Ballet. It was an incredible experience; I'll be forever grateful to Marcello Angelini for trusting me and guiding me through the process. Creating a full-length ballet requires a “village” and is a herculean effort, probably a three-year process from developing the designs and direction to creating in the studio and then finally bringing all the different elements together. I'm incredibly proud of all we achieve together and I'm excited to see where else this ballet might be performed.
How much or how little were you influenced by other choreographers' versions?
I knew the [Frederick] Ashton version, but during my research I looked at as many versions as possible, not just ballets but films, musicals etc. A new Cinderella is a huge investment for a company, that will stay in the rep for 15-plus years. With this in mind, the question becomes how do we create something that makes sense today but that will also feel fresh and relevant [in the future].
How was your collaboration with Jérôme Kaplan? He's a super stylish designer…
Jérôme is a wonderful designer, and as a person he has a brilliant sense of humour. We spent some time together in Milan working on the costumes for Cinderella and it was a masterclass in attention to detail, use of colour, understanding form and shape. We're already talking about the next collaboration, so I'm excited to work with him again.
What is your role with English National Ballet School and what have you coming up with them?
Viviana Durante invited me to be the school's first artistic associate in 2021. I had worked with them a few times previously and have created five works in total for the students so far. Including a remote work called Gradus during Covid – which was choreographed over Zoom and across multiple time zones. I also created Of Space and Time for all three-year groups that was filmed in bubbles, socially distanced at the Roundhouse by the BalletBoyz. For the end-of-year performances this July they will perform Of Space and Time in front of a live audience for the first time, at the Peacock Theatre [in London].
What other future projects are in view?
It's an incredibly exciting time, I am creating a new piece for National Ballet Portugal, heading to Jacobs Pillow this summer, Joffrey Ballet are restaging Yonder Blue, Tulsa Ballet will present Celestial Bodies for a second time. I've recently created a solo for [Royal Ballet principal] William Bracewell, as well as working on a project with Laura Morera that is very close to my heart that I hope we can bring to fruition.
And how will we see the Collective developing?
I would love to continue developing our relationship with our partner venues, building the dance audience in Hull, and reaching out to new venues to introduce my work to more people. 2025 will be our fifth anniversary, so we are looking to create something especially ambitious for that.
The McNicol Collective performs Devotions at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Theatre (10 June), the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds (21 June) and Hull New Theatre (23-24 June).
Paul Arrowsmith has been watching dance for 45 years after Peter Wright's Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet was his baptism in dance in the UK. He wrote for Dancing Times between 2010-22, reporting from China, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, along the way interviewing Alessandra Ferri, Akram Khan and Miyako Yoshida among many. He has a particular interest in design for dance and has profiled the work of Natalia Goncharova, Jürgen Rose, John Macfarlane and Anthony McDonald. Paul collaborated with Sir Peter Wright on his memoires Wrights & Wrongs and in 2016 was programme consultant for the BBC documentary, The Ballet Master: Sir Peter Wright at 90.