Liv Lorent: “I was inspired by the rule-breaking women in dance”

Choreographer Liv Lorent has been creating award-winning dance in the UK for over 20 years. She established her company balletLORENT aged 20, making the move from dancer to director. Her production of Rumpelstiltskin, which has been adapted into a new retelling of the story by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, will be presented at Sadler’s Wells as part of the season marking the 20th anniversary of our current building, before embarking on a UK tour. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we spoke to Liv about the female figures who have inspired her career and her view on the representation of women in fairy tales.

What was the ethos behind setting up your company balletLORENT?

balletLORENT was launched in 1993 with a graduation quartet called Shards that performed as part of an international platform of dance in France.

We were called Lorent Ballet at that time, and I called us that as I felt somewhat “other” than contemporary dance at that point. Having the word ballet in the company name reflected my heritage in terms of coming from Belgium and a desire to create dance performances that had ethereal, romantic and narrative aspirations… it was a 20 year old’s decision-making process!

The company was unusual in the early 90s, as it was more normal to have proven oneself as a distinguished dancer before turning to choreography. At that point choosing to focus immediately on choreography, and not perform in my own work, was even more unusual than being a female dance-maker. However, I wanted to have an independent company and all the freedom of creative choice I believed that would give us.

Your latest production, Rumpelstiltskin, is based on an adaptation of the classic fairy tale by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. What attracted you both to this story?

It was one of Carol Ann’s favourite stories long before it was mine. I think we both liked the magic of the alchemy of straw turning into gold, and with this interpretation enjoyed looking at the importance of Rumpelstiltskin finding his name and having his name found, and heard rather than being “name called” and rejected from the world he inhabits. We have celebrated him as the misunderstood outsider, and elevated the Shepherd’s daughter to a woman of resilience and invention, who does much, much more than weep helplessly in a pile of straw.

Rumpelstiltskin follows on from your productions of other fairy tale classics, including Rapunzel and Snow White. What is different about your interpretations of these much-loved stories?

I think that we very much enjoy updating them for 21st-Century audiences, and championing the unsung heroism in some of the characters, and giving an audience a deep understanding of why the dark behaviour of some of the characters’ behaviour happens. So, for example, the King in Rumpelstiltskin is not a greedy gold loving fanatic out of a love of riches, but a broken man mad with grief longing for gold as it helps remind him of his Queen who died while giving birth to their child. That child is Rumpelstiltskin and his ability to spin straw into gold is born out of his mother’s intense love… the mother he never knew.

Retelling these stories allows us to offer a reason why these famous fairy tale characters go to such extremes to get their needs met; especially when those desires are so powerful such as the need for one’s own child, or the need for love. It can make the characters relatable, forgivable and more like us.

Do you think it’s important for children to see new interpretations of these fairy tales?

As a parent reading fairytales to my children, I see them as yet another way to help explain some of the more challenging elements of life in a positive way. There are many, many different versions of each story and it is worthwhile choosing your version carefully before starting to read out loud! Many of the stories contain examples of great fortitude and resilience, as well as great adventure and courage in trying to change your life. Good inspiration for us all!

Many of the stories look very different to us now, such as Sleeping Beauty being kissed awake by a Prince when she is sleeping. Some of us want a different awakening for her, and have enjoyed the film of Maleficent for this and there are many other great endings out there. I loved the latest film version of Beauty and the Beast and agreed with Belle that she rather missed the look of the Beast when the Prince was uncovered at the end! I think that the new interpretations are a vital and continuing way that these tales have been retold through generations.

How do you feel about the way female characters are presented in fairy tales? Is this something you have addressed in your productions?

It has never interested me to show a woman abused, degraded, humiliated or exploited. If a classic fairy tale is leaning in that direction we will update and reform the role. Over our 25-year history, our dancers have performed female roles with great attention to the power, the vulnerability, the beauty and the passion of women. Equally, I would say we do the same with male dancers and the roles of men in our work. In all of balletLORENT’s work we have been very driven to present female and male roles in a powerful and enhancing fashion, while the drama comes in the truth of trying to hold on being the kind of human we want to be, and sometimes failing. I am interested in compassion and acceptance for difference. We make the work with the resolutions we would like to think were possible in real life.

Who are your female icons in the world of dance who have influenced or inspired your work?

They are so many. Every time I make a work with dancers who are collaborating with me they become goddesses and heroines in the making to me! And when I was a lot younger I was fully inspired by the rule-breaking women in dance such as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham.

As a leading female director and choreographer in the UK, what does International Women’s Day mean to you?

It’s always good to bring the consciousness back to women I do think that we are all just “getting on with it” – whatever that may be – work, family and survival. It takes days like International Women’s Day to reflect sometimes on how far we have come, and yet how far there is to go. I think many of us are living in a day-to-day of unconscious bias, and yet the changes to this are moving rapidly.

Speaking of my own experience I wish that I had put up with a lot less and demanded differently, but I am from a generation brought up in the 70s and 80s. As a mother, I look forward to a better world for my daughter, and seek to arm her with much more self-confidence than I had.

I’m only now starting to feel that as a professional I have done ok; if the journey I took is in any way motivation for other women to make their own creative choices happen I can only welcome that.

Many of your productions feature a diverse cast of community and professional dancers as well as presenting intergenerational work that has featured children, older people and pregnant women. Is this something we can expect to see in Rumpelstiltskin?

As an independent dance company, we are privileged to put together a cast of people that best fits the stories we are trying to tell. Several professional dancers have been working together in balletLORENT for around 20 years now, and our shared skill-base and building of repertoire brings a great level of confidence to then be very daring and adventurous.

Some of the youngest dancers in the company have the benefit of extremely experienced mentorship, and a great family feel within the company. This foundation lends itself well to extending our arms further to include very young children and older guest performers that create an authentic feeling “otherworld” for our fairytale to play out in.

The production of Rumpelstiltskin fully enjoys this capacity within the company and will feature five year olds alongside performers in their 70s.

What do you want audiences to take away from Rumpelstiltskin?

I would like the audiences to give second thoughts to our own experiences of internal prejudice and fear against people who are seemingly different from us, and to see that happy endings are possible even if your start in life was not so good. Gold and straw are equally magical, and love is the most powerful force of all.

We know that the sheep and the lambs are a hit, so they will be well remembered, as well as the dancers’ fantastic dramatisations of their roles. We expect that the music will stay in your heart and your ear, as will the refreshing take on the story and the amazing lighting, set and costumes. The cast are unique, and audiences have been very moved by the production. Rumpelstiltskin has been made with a lot of love as well as skill.

Rumpelstiltskin runs at Sadler’s Wells as part of Family Weekend on 30 & 31 March. Tickets are available now priced at £12 for children and £18 for adults by calling the Ticket Office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.

balletLORENT is a National Strategic Partner of Sadler’s Wells.