An interview with Derek Deane, choreographer of Strictly Gershwin

Date Posted: 21/07/2011

As English National Ballet production, Strictly Gershwin, prepares to embark on its first UK tour, Group Leisure chats to choreographer, Derek Deane, to find out more about his creative vision, and what he hopes audiences will gain from the show.

Hi Derek, to start with could you describe the inspiration behind Strictly Gershwin?
Well it’s based of course on the wonderful music of Gershwin. The lyrics and the music of George and Ira Gershwin are so spectacular, so heart-warming, so wonderful to listen to, so wonderful to dance to; and all the inspiration really came from their words.

So it’s fair to say you’re a fan of Gershwin?
Oh I’ve always been a huge Gershwin fan, absolutely. I’m just thrilled that I got the opportunity to do this production. I had the opportunity to get away from Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet; all the things that I normally work on. It was incredibly inspirational because I was able to start working in almost another idiom and not just classical ballet. I was able to experiment with ballroom dancing, with tap-dancing, with jazz. The joy as a choreographer was to be able to incorporate all those elements.

Could you briefly summarise the creative process of putting a show together such as this?
I had to choose the different types of song and the different music I wanted to do, and I had to obviously place the importance of the ballet in with the musical element. I immediately wanted to recreate the ballet scene from An American in Paris, and also to do a classical ballet to Rhapsody in Blue. So I built it around those two pieces, with other types of dance to really mesh the whole production together - mostly with all my favourite tunes, so I was really very selfish with it! (Laughs).

How do you think that the audience will react to all of the different dance styles that are included?
I think they’ll absolutely love it because dance is so popular at the moment - all types of dance are hugely popular at the moment. It’s an ideal production for any audience because they get mouthfuls and handfuls and lots of different styles of dance - there are things there to suit everybody. I hope there will be a hugely positive response because the format through the music and the songs and the type of dance we use - including an enormous amount of classical ballet - creates an all-round entertainment.

And do you hope that by making it more accessible with the different styles of dance that it may introduce a new audience to classical ballet?
Well of course. You see, as a director of English National Ballet and after that, I’ve always fought and strived to find ways of bringing in new audiences, because for the future I think it’s very important. I think Strictly Gershwin does just that, in its format, to bring in people who wouldn’t necessarily go to see a classical ballet. They’re coming in a much more comfortable situation, and seeing classical ballet for the first time may encourage them then to see something else in that vein, like Sleeping Beauty or Romeo & Juliet or Coppelia. So what I’m doing here really is trying to kill two birds with one stone - I’m trying to entertain my audience with dance but I’m also trying to educate the audience to hopefully broaden their horizons about classical ballet.

How did the decision to tour the production come about?
Well if you look at the packed houses within the Royal Albert Hall - I mean we’re playing to packed houses every single night, which is a capacity of nearly 5,000 people a performance. I think it’s a product which is going to be hugely popular, and I think in this climate where everybody’s funding is being cut, they have to rely on productions that are going to make them money. I think something like Strictly Gershwin is ideal for that.

And touring brings the production to the masses doesn’t it?
Absolutely, and that’s the most important thing - that as many people as possible get to see it.

How will the touring production in proscenium arch theatres differ from in-the-round venues?
Just choreographic changes really, because obviously in the Royal Albert Hall all the choreography is suited to a 360-degree angle. In a proscenium theatre the audience will see it from one angle and that’s the front, so I’m having to choreograph an enormous amount and re-stage a lot to make it fit. But it will still have the same vibrancy, the same feeling as the Albert Hall production because it will have all the same elements. It’s not about cutting, it’s about re-adjusting.

Will those who aren’t necessarily aware of the Gershwin brothers and their achievements still get as much from the show?
Who isn’t familiar with Gershwin? All those incredibly famous songs… I think there’s a huge amount of nostalgia connected with all of this music but I think there’s also a lot of young people who really know what Gershwin is and what it stands for. It’s not strictly a ballet production and I think the title Strictly Gershwin tells another story. It’s entertaining on another level, in another way, and I think people will take a chance.

What do you think the new digital back-drop brings to the show?
Oh I think a great deal. It gives it a great modern feel, although of course a lot of the footage is from the past. It gives an edge to the production that brings it into the present day. I mean, the production is far from old-fashioned, I think it’s very modern and all the graphics and the film stuff really brings the production into the present day even though the music comes from a completely different period. You see those marvellous photographs of all those wonderful film stars and wonderful shots of London and Broadway and Hollywood. I think it enhances the production a great deal.

As a choreographer are you conscious that you should try to push the boundaries with each production and try to make each one different?
Yes of course, I think that’s part of my job as a choreographer to be creative in that way. It’s challenging for me to change my style - I mean Rhapsody In Blue is an extremely classical ballet; A Weekend In Paris has a lot of comedy in it, a lot of film choreography, a lot more contemporary choreography; so I’m challenged all the time with a production like this on the styles of choreography that I use.

And you clearly relish that challenge?
Oh yes I do. I can put on Swan Lake in my sleep, but this is a very, very different challenge for a different audience, and it pushes me to the limits as a director and a choreographer.

What do you hope audiences will gain from their Strictly Gershwin experience?
I think they will gain an enormous insight into classical ballet. For people who haven’t seen it before and would be slightly nervous of it, I think they’ll see how beautiful it is. I hope they will be hugely entertained by all the other elements in the production. It is my job as a choreographer to give the paying public an evening they will remember and I think this type of production will do that and hopefully create a situation where audiences will want to come back for more.

Finally, how would you sum up the show in a sentence to encourage organisers to bring their groups?
Truly spectacular!

Strictly Gershwin begins its tour at the Oxford New Theatre on the 6th October, visiting Manchester Palace Theatre (12th to 15th October); Southampton Mayflower (18th to 22nd October); Wales Millennium Centre (25th to 28th October); Liverpool Empire (1st to 5th November); Milton Keynes Theatre (15th to 19th November); and London Coliseum (4th to 14th January). Group rates are available at selected venues.

Useful contact:

English National Ballet:
020-7581 1245

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