There are plenty of classical choreographers working today who have mixed the language of ballet with just a timid dash of modern dance. But Ashley Page is unusual in having gone deep into the aesthetic of various modern choreographers while remaining steeped in the discipline of his own training. In doing so he has not ended up with a compromise of styles but with a language that is both personal and new.
He was born in Rochester, Kent where he trained locally before joining the Royal Ballet School. As a student, he danced the Gypsy Lover in Ashton’s The Two Pigeons and performed in MacMillan’s Danses Concertantes at the School’s 1975 performance. In 1976 he joined The Royal Ballet, becoming a Principal in 1984. His repertory has ranged from the classics to modern works and he has created roles in ballets by Ashton, MacMillan, Bintley, Tetley and Alston.
Page began choreographing in 1981 when he created a work for The Royal Ballet Choreographic Group, but he dates his real interest in choreography from his first encounter with modern dance – Richard Alston’s Soda Lake – which he described as ‘a revelation’. Fascinated by the discovery of choreographic languages that involved a completely different logic from that of ballet, he watched as much new work as he could. When he finally came to make his first work for The Royal Ballet he was eager to apply the same spirit of discovery and analysis to his own language. In A Broken Set Of Rules (1984) he set out to strip ballet down to its bare essentials, rediscovering for himself the rigour at the heart of classicism. But at the same time he was ready to break some of ballet’s rules – to find new ways of co-ordinating familiar steps and positions; to add contemporary curves and twists to the dancers’ torsos and to give an extra raw force to their moves.
A Broken Set Of Rules marked the start of a varied and prolific career during which Page has developed his craft by working with dancers from many different backgrounds. Between 1986 and 1990 he forged a close working relationship with Rambert Dance Company, creating three works – Carmen Arcadiae (1986), Soldat (1988) and Currulao (1990) for its largely modern-dance-trained performers. During the mid-1980’s he also collaborated with dancer-choreographer Gaby Agis on works that drew heavily on ‘release’ technique, a style with fluid, improvisatory and weighted movements which are the complete antithesis of ballet. In addition he made works for Dance Umbrella that used modern and classically trained performers to contrast and combine opposite styles of dance.
This juxtaposition of classical and modern also informed the television dance Savage Water which Page made for Channel 4 in 1989, as well as subsequent work for Turkuaz Modern Dance Company, for the dance theatre group Second Stride, for The Royal Opera’s production of Cherubin, Red Dream Sequence for the Conservatoire de Paris and Access All Areas (in collaboration with Redha Bentiafour) for Dutch National Ballet. But, just as important, it has continued to influence the work he has created on The Royal Ballet’s dancers – resulting in a style that ranges from airy formalism to blunt, earthbound moves.
Page has used several pre-20th Century scores for his work, including Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.1 for Piano (1989) and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies nos.6,15 and 17 for …Now Langourous, Now Wild… (1996); but it is 20th Century composers who most obviously parallel Page’s spiky rhythms, asymmetrical lines and fiercely compressed phrasing. Not surprisingly, he has choreographed Stravinsky several times, for example Renard (1994) and Ebony Concerto (1995), and also Poulenc for Sawdust And Tinsel (1998). He has worked with many of today’s composers, including Michael Nyman for A Broken Set Of Rules, Colin Matthews for Pursuit (1987) and Hidden Variables (1999), Orlando Gough for Currulao, Sleeping With Audrey (1996), Room Of Cooks (1997) and When We Stop Talking (1998), David Lang and Michael Gordon for Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1998) and John Adams for the monumental Fearful Symmetries, which won the 1994 Time Out Award and the 1995 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production. In Two-Part Invention, Page drew on the full palette of his dance language using a score that contrasted the heroic lyricism of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto with the urgent minimalist pulse of Robert Moran’s 32 Cryptograms For Derek Jarman.
Collaboration with visual artists has also played a major role in the evolution of his style, with Deanna Petherbridge, Howard Hodgkin, Jack Smith and Bruce McLean all creating designs for his early ballets. This collaboration has taken on a new emphasis since the 1990’s as Page started to explore narrative possibilities within his work. While never attempting to follow a logical plot, his recent choreography often creates fragments of character and situation, which imply a larger story. Intensive, pre-rehearsal discussion with designers Antony McDonald, Jon Morrell and Stephen Chambers (whose paintings influenced Sleeping With Audrey and Room Of Cooks) have helped to shape the ideas as well as the visual look of Page’s later work, as has input from composers like Gough and Matthews. In This House Will Burn Gough’s large-scale jazzy score actively define the choreography’s energy while Chamber’s architectural set and Morrell’s costumes create its spatial and dramatic structure.
West Australian Ballet in Perth premiered Page’s latest work, Lollapalooza, on 24 May 2002.
Biography by Judith Mackrell, May 2002
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