The Glass talks to choreographer Russell Maliphant about The Rodin Project
As a choreographer, whose signature style has been described as having a “sculptural quality”, Russell Maliphant’s life-long obsession with the human form and its artistic representation is brought to life in The Rodin Project in more ways than one. Still very much a project, this is a study borne out of the artist’s gaze and an attempt to reflect – or perhaps capture fleeting shadows from – the sculptural essence of Rodin’s work, from indelible visual stamp of his masterpieces to the weight of their physical presence.
“Rodin himself had sculptures from antiquity and was always covering them or covering parts of them so that he could see more clearly the parts he thought were beautiful. He would take a sculpture and wrap a cloth around a part of it or might take a jug and have a figure coming out of it. He was always looking at things in a variety of ways ... and that was really interesting to me.”
Although some critics have questioned the project’s ability to translate from static finished pieces, Rodin’s sculptures evolved through their very own production: his maquettes were handed over to a line of people, who would interpret and produce the large pieces, which in turn he would go and view, then finish. As a starting point, the collaborative aspect of Rodin’s work is very much a reflection Maliphant’s own artistic process, from his long association with lighting director Michael Hull and set designer Es Devlin to commissioning an original score by Alexander Zekke.
Equally the period in which Rodin worked is a very rich source of inspiration, “Following Rodin who followed Michael Angelo who followed classicism ... a huge amount of knowledge and history has come down and found its root in different forms.” But rather than trying to recreate their weighty substance he is extrapolating in reverse: from the concrete representation to the dynamic flow of a living, breathing, and dancing human body.
This project explores a new vocabulary beyond the comfortable fluency of his previous body of work (such as the critically acclaimed After Light and his work with Sylvie Guillem) – expanding into a hip new lexicon that encompasses Dickson Mbi’s “popping”, Tommy Franzen’s “crumping”, and Jenny White’s “hip hop”. By wanting to represent the textural weight and solidity of Rodin’s work, “movement took me to a language of different textures ‘popping’ gave real muscularity, a physical weight and heft. With each dancer having their own vocabulary and style it was like choosing the materials for the different textures.” Interestingly these dancing styles do not have a classical forward presentation but move in a circle, “like the 360 aspect of a sculpture with a profile from every angle”.
Just as an artist begins with sketches and maquettes, Maliphant’s Rodin Project began with a very strong vision: structurally the piece has two parts representing Rodin’s watercolours and his sculpture. Working with Devlin his aim for the first part was to create a three-dimensional space that would reflect the transition from canvas to sculpture, a series of drapes were suspended that could be pulled forward and backwards, literally sculpting the space around the dancers. For the second part this softness is replaced by the harsh incline and geometry of polished surfaces that, like the plinth and material of a sculpture “could change the configuration of the body”. The vertiginous duet performed by Dickson and Tommy on The Gates of Hell in this section perfectly illustrates Rodin’s own relationship to the piece which he reworked endlessly, adding and subtracting body parts, until his death.
Whilst on the road for its European tour, Maliphant made changes after each performance, bar the one he missed in Huddersfield. What results is a constant revision or “chipping away” at the piece which will eventually reveal its structural integrity. “It’s a little like those dot drawings, you have to look at it for a really long time before the image reveals itself’ and perhaps therein lies the purpose. As a project that turns around Maliphant’s vocabulary of response, the performance of course engenders another response: that of the audience to his work. “Generally I try to look at what people like or don’t like about the piece to see whether that marries with what I think about it, and if not how do I state it more clearly?”
Just as we are drawn to Rodin’s sculptures again and again for their weighty heroism and fleshy display on a plinth, Maliphant is engaging the audience in a study of form whilst reminding us that you cannot cast a response: it is constantly changing and depends very much on your literal and physical perspective of the moment. One thing is for certain, you will want to see more.
Nico Kos Earle
The Rodin Project can be seen at the following venues:
December 3, 2012: The Guggenheim, New York, USA December 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 2012: The Joyce Theater, New York, USA March 5, 2013: Wyvern Theatre, Swindon, UK March 7, 2013: Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, UK March 12, 2013: The Lowry, Manchester, UK