“Each piece is like one side of a coin”: Young Associates on Together, not the same

Sadler’s Wells’ inaugural Young Associates – Anthony Matsena, Wilhelmina Ojanen, Ruby Portus and Christopher Thomas – first introduced their refreshing voices to audiences at sell-out performances in our Lilian Baylis Studio in 2018.

This year, they make their debut on the main stage with Together, not the same. Working with our New Wave Associate Hetain Patel, who developed the artistic brief they responded to, they have broken away from the traditional mixed-bill mould, creating a bold evening of dance that sees two separate segments of work by each choreographer presented either side of the interval. Each section created by the individual choreographer represents a different angle of the same piece.

We speak to Christopher and Ruby about the creative journey behind the production, their personal development on the programme and what the future holds as they continue in their dance-making careers.

Can you tell us a little bit about your creative journey with Together, not the same?

Christopher: For me, the creative journey has really been about collaboration. I’ve been able to work with a fantastic costume designer from Shanghai, the composer Jordan Hunt and our lighting designer Ryan, who is lighting the whole evening and has a good idea of everyone’s pieces and how to make them stylistically different. I have 10 dancers and they’re a mixture of people that I know or have worked with before. To be working with friends is a lovely thing and it’s made the whole experience really fun.

In rehearsal with Christopher Thomas. Image: Helen Murray
In rehearsal with Christopher Thomas. Image: Helen Murray

Ruby: I really care about what the dancers in my piece are interested in, and wanted to embed this in the creative process. When we were workshopping ideas, we found that a lot of what we crafted had a kind of urgency to it. I asked them: ‘What do you feel strongly about right now? What is most important to you? What do you feel most impassioned by?’ I set movement and text-based tasks for the dancers to do, until we got to a point where we realised a joint direction we wanted to go in.

In rehearsal with Ruby Portus. Image: David Lindsay
In rehearsal with Ruby Portus. Image: David Lindsay

What has working with Hetain Patel been like?

Christopher: Hetain’s been great. He’s always available, whether that’s to come to the studio, at the end of the phone, or on email. Artistically he has been with us throughout the process and he’s really helped with feedback. He’s a real pleasure to work with.

Ruby: He’s a really nice presence to have around – he has a very gentle demeanour but is also very focused, clear and specific. He’s not intrusive in any way on the process. He’ll say to you ‘What do you need? Do you want me to tell you what I’m thinking right now, or would you rather not hear it?’ He gives you information only when you want it, which is really nice.

How would you describe your piece in a sentence or two?

Ruby: It’s pulling together elements of what people feel strongly about in our current times, but in a playful and metaphorical way.

In rehearsal with Ruby Portus. Image: David Lindsay

Christopher: It’s intense; it’s emotive. It’s perceiving a situation from two different angles: the first is inside the cognitive process of someone’s brain, the second is living the actual situation. It’s taking two very different spins on how you can portray one thing.

In rehearsal with Christopher Thomas. Image: Helen Murray

Who, or what, are some of the main inspirations behind your piece?

Ruby: We all realised that the thing we were most concerned with, and also most active about, was the climate crisis. That was the main starting point: how can we find a parallel world to tell a story through, and still make people think about the planet that we’re living on now? The inspiration really came from the conversations we were having. That and lots of 80s’ power ballads!

Christopher: I always like to draw from personal experience, because I find that’s an authentic place to come from if I want to do justice to any situation. Ultimately, what we’re showing is not a real-life situation, but the feelings experienced on stage come from a real place.

Together, not the same presents a programme of dance that disrupts the traditional mixed bill format. Can you elaborate on this, and how the pieces speak to each other?

Ruby: The pieces definitely relate to one another. In the first part, we set up this world and introduce the audience to it. In the second part, we frame it a little differently; seeing it from a different perspective and highlighting other elements that aren’t necessarily shown in Part 1.

Christopher:  Each piece is like one side of a coin. As a show, it very much feels that the first half of the production is centred around hope, and the second half feels like it’s more about devastation. That’s just a natural thing that’s happened. Could it be influenced by the type of world we’re living in at the minute? (laughs). Not sure, but it’s one of those magical moments where things just worked out that way.

The programme is also bridging all of our different styles, finding a choreographic language within itself and expanding that. It’s going to be a really varied evening, which is great for the audience. There’ll be things in there that you like, things in there that you don’t like – I think it really caters to everyone.

Sadler’s Wells Young Associates (clock-wise from top left): Anthony Matsena,
Wilhelmina Ojanen, Christopher Thomas and
Ruby Portus.

What have been your personal highlights working on the production? Have there been any challenges?

Christopher: Being able to work on 10 dancers. I’ve always wanted to work with a large group of people, so to work with that many has been a challenge, but the highlight as well. It’s been stressful a times, but you learn from those stressful moments. I’ve loved every second of it.

Ruby:  Being able to see your work in such a massive space with such amazing supporting and enhancing technology. I feel very lucky. All the technical elements in the main house are just 10 levels above anywhere else. It’s like when a photo loads half-way on your phone. You think to yourself: ‘”Ah, that’s a nice photo.”‘ But then all of a sudden it clicks into focus and you’re like: “Wow!” That’s what it’s like on stage. Everything is just so crisp.

Passing an element over to someone else to be in control of is definitely a challenge for me! I’m so used to doing it all and knowing exactly what is happening at all times. Everyone in the creative team is so great and talented at what they do, but it doesn’t mean that the work is taken off your hands – it’s just about doing it differently.

How has being on the Young Associates programme helped you develop as choreographers?

Christopher: It’s really pushed me. It’s not only meant working on things behind the scenes, but also managing myself as a choreographer.

Christopher Thomas. Image: Helen Murray

It’s also allowed me to express myself creatively. With the programme being funded by Sadler’s Wells, it’s helped me with all the things I wouldn’t have been able to explore as easily had I not been part of it: access to space, dancers, creatives and designers. Having an outlet to express myself and show my work in the Lilian Baylis Studio and now the main house is just a dream. I would never have thought that it could happen to me, at my age, this early on in my career. Usually, when you’re starting out as a choreographer it doesn’t happen right away, and so for it to have happened at all is pretty amazing.

Ruby: Learning how to manage not only your time, ideas and needs, but also the needs of others in a practical way has been a really good experience. From the word go, we’ve been meeting and collaborating with dance artists, producers, dramaturgs and even funding bodies. Working closely with our producer, Lucy Clarke-Bishop [from the Learning & Engagement team at Sadler’s Wells], has definitely made me grateful of the work that she does, and that production teams in general do, behind the scenes to bring something like this together.

Ruby Portus. Image: David Lindsay

What are you currently working on?

Christopher: I’m working with New Adventures on Matthew Bourne’s Romeo & Juliet as well as on this production – luckily we’re on a break at the minute! I’ll also be working with the Mark Bruce Company again on a piece that’s coming out at the end of the year.  

Ruby: On Monday I start the research and development stage for a new project I’m working on, which I got my first ever Arts Council funding for. The idea is to create a new work that will be presented both as a standalone piece and as part of a mixed bill alongside another work, which I previously showcased while on the Young Associates programme. It will be a new experience for me being the choreographer but also being in the work as a performer!

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

Christopher: Still dancing, still choreographing. I would really like to start establishing my own company and more of a repertoire in my work.

Ruby: It’s a tricky one – I couldn’t say in five years’ time I want to have a company. Ideally, I would be performing in other people’s work most of the time, making my own work sometimes, and having periods of work unrelated to dance, like working for a charity every few months. I’d like to do something positively impactful alongside everything else.