Millicent Hodson, Choreographer and Lecturer

By Donald Hutera

Millicent Hodson, London-based but US-born choreographer and lecturer, is renowned globally for her reconstructions of dances. She works in tandem with Kenneth Archer, who reconstructs the original designs. Their highest-profile reconstruction to date has been Vaslav Nijinsky’s seminal Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Set to Igor Stravinsky’s blazing score, this one-act ballet depicts a primitive Russian tribe sacrificing a virgin maiden to mark the arrival of spring.

Famously, the ballet’s 1913 premiere in Paris by impresario Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes caused a riot. Sacre was subsequently dropped after only seven performances. The music has since become a choreographic rite of passage, inspiring more than 150 dances. British-based choreographer Javier De Frutos alone has managed four versions. Chinese choreographer Shen Wei’s response to the score will be presented at Sadler’s Wells, London in autumn 2004 as part of the Dance Umbrella festival.
Hodson and Archer’ painstaking reconstruction of Sacre was first danced by America’s Joffrey Ballet in 1987. More recently the pair gave the piece to the Kirov Ballet in Russia.They have also worked the same magic on companies in such diverse countries as Brazil, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland, hence the following chat with Hodson about national characteristics in dance.

Donald Hutera: I’m particularly interested in your and Kenneth’s experiences in Brazil and Finland, having spent a fair amount of time watching dance in each country. I find Brazil  physically intoxicating. There’s a definite rhythm to the way people live and move on the street there, which permeates the dances that get made.
Millicent Hodson: That rhythm permeates their dancing, their football. It’s partly a result of theMillicent Hodson incredible cultural mix that’s there, the Amazonian Indian tradition, the Portuguese and other, different European traditions and, of course, the African tradition. It’s all mixed, and there’s a tradition of accepting the mix. The sense of ritual is still very alive. There are many kinds of ritual, the huge Evangelical Christian movement, the Catholicism that is still part of the culture. The African religions are actively practiced in dance.You can go to the beach any morning on your way to work and see the remnants of a festival or private ritual that someone has done.

DH: Going to the beach is itself a kind of religion.

MH: Without a doubt. And, without question, Brazil is a dancing country. They have a sense of music that is different from anywhere that we’ve worked. When we rehearsed Sacre on the ballet company at Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Municipal, we had two pianists who had never learned the music. So we had to use tape. They had a very bad tape machine that would sometimes just short out from the humidity. Everybody was dripping so much, the rooms were so wet, everyone was so wet, that the electricity would short. So I started getting the dancers to sing sections of Stravinsky. I would teach them the counts to the different parts of the music, and they would sing it. We stopped in our tracks because it sounded so beautiful, like a choir, if you can imagine Brazilians being a kind of Russian choir. They were very happy singing. They would have liked to have done the whole ballet singing it, which would be an interesting experiment.

Obviously individuals have different levels of movement complexity, but the whole idea of polyrhythmic structure was nothing to them. They have a very strong African tradition in their music, which is so polyrhythmic. They don’t worry about sudden changes in time signature, in the way that other dancers have when I teach it. They don’t intellectually count in the same way, but they hear it and just go with it.

DH: Was the company composed entirely of Brazilian dancers?

MH: Almost all Brazilians, some with more Portuguese or European backgrounds and some with less. Because they were short on men, they recruited some male dancers who had very little classical training but were learning very fast.

Sacre is a good measure of dancers’ musicality, because it makes very rhythmic demands on them as well as on the musicans. Also, the way that Nijinsky, as I understand Nijinsky, organised it, every dancer has individual rhythmic responsibilities. It’s not just that you’re a member of a group or the whole ensemble. This makes learning it a bit torturous sometimes, but it also means that nobody can fudge. You can assess people’s musicality very quickly.

And in Brazil the musicality was something very immediate, and very different from our experiences working in Helsinki with the company that is part of the National Opera.
It’s like hot and cold, Finland and Brazil. But like the Brazilians, the Finns have a very visceral sense of rhythm, very grounded and raw. There is in Finnish dancers a kind of forthrightness about their bodies that gives, to my eye, a wonderful edge to everything they do onstage. There is a kind of eccentricity that belongs to them, a certainty about themselves as ‘other’. They stand very solid before they even start.

With the Brazilians it’s about softness, pleasure and fluidity. It’s like air off the water in Brazil. Their groundedness for me is a fluidity. Perhaps it sounds trite, but all those generations of samba are just in them.

DH: It’s in the blood.

MH: There’s an essential suppleness in their movement that sometimes made it hard for them to have the kind of carved, wooden solidness that they had to have for Sacre.

DH: Were there particular difficulties in teaching Sacre to dancers in either country, or was it just that they were different?

MH: The Brazilians had to be not free. That at first was hard. But as soon as they saw that they could direct it, they were amazing. They just had to accept that they had to control things. They couldn’t just go with it. That was really exciting, to see them reach that. The Finns were something altogether different. They took more quickly to the self-control, and the sense of  individual isolation. In Brazil the idea of community is much more fluid. Where does their skin begin? They flow between each other much more freely. The Nordic thing is much more planted and autonomous. So the solitude that’s in the Sacre is very immediate to them. It’s more painful, that solitude, for the Brazilians.