Rehearsal Director

Martin Lawrance performed with Richard Alston Dance Company for 12 and a half years before he was appointed Rehearsal Director. Now, he choreographs his own work for the company and looks after day to day life in the studio.

You danced with Richard Alston for 12 and a half years before making the transition to Rehearsal Director.  What does an average day look like for you now?

An average day for me is coming in at 10:00 so that the rehearsal schedules for the day are up. Preferably we do the schedules the day before but sometimes you can’t do it that way because Richard needs time to think about who he needs to use in rehearsals and may need to consider this over night. I also make sure that if I have a guest teacher for class, they’re in, they’re looked after and the dancers are fine. So this happens all before class.

Then from 11:00 to 12:30, I’ll either be teaching company class or observing class if we have guests coming in that are interested in working with the company.  If I’m not teaching, I am in the office on the computer trying to get budgets together, working out guest teachers, liaising with Isabel [Tamen, Executive Director] on repertoire for the tour. I always need to find time to make sure the office things are done.

Then I’m in the studio from 12:45 to 18:15 most days, looking after Richard’s work and my own work.

You have taught work to the company that you may not have performed in the past. How did you learn all the material and each role?

I’d have to go through the list, but I think there are only about 5 or 6 of Richard’s pieces in the repertoire that I haven’t done. So I have got a lot of knowledge in my head!  Sometimes you put the music on and the movements just come back instantly.

For example with Roughcut, I only did a specific part within that, so I had to learn the whole piece off the video and that was tricky because I knew a version we did in 1999 and Richard wanted to go back to the version he did with Rambert in 1990. So it felt like, to me, a completely different language.

And then it’s a case of working with the dancers, so sometimes if I have the time the day before teaching new material, I’ll look at the video of the piece.  Otherwise I’ll learn it with the dancers in the studio with the video.

If videos are clear and if Richard knows exactly what he wants from the video, I can give it to a dancer and they’ll come back with a rough outline and then I fix the details, the timing. So they learn the shape of it in another studio. When I’m teaching material, I try to be quite specific and then Richard can ‘rough it up’. 

When I’m learning a piece off of video and vaguely remember it, I’m in front of the video loosely marking it through. If I don’t know it well, or if it’s a lot of the group stuff I didn’t do when I was in the company, I’ll watch the video through first.

Did learning and retaining a large body of material always come quite easily and naturally to you or have you worked on these skills throughout your career?

I’m a geek, I’ve got photographic memory and when I get movement into my body it stays there.  I remember in 1994 I was in the fourth year company at the school, 4D, and Richard had quite a few injuries in the company. He asked me to go on tour with the company to perform Movements from Petrushka. I had the video and I had to learn the whole piece before I even came in to work with the company. So that was quite a challenge and I think that kick-started me into watching and taking in the information.

And it sounds like you don’t take in the form and then add the details later, you try to take it all in at once.

Because with Richard’s work, it’s all about music and the details are in the music.  That’s why I like being in the rehearsal process from the beginning because it’s not about learning what steps people are doing it’s actually learning the music and Richard’s musicality.

I remember Unfinished Business, I was teaching at the [London Contemporary Dance] school and he’d made about three minutes of the duet with Anneli [Binder] and Pierre [Tappon] and it took me a good couple of months to understand what Richard was really doing with the music. That was quite weird.

So if I am there from the beginning musically, I can really see how he works with the music and that’s a big part of my job. I have thousands of notepads with counts in the office.

The dancers often attack the movement slightly differently, which Richard has said he doesn't mind, yet his work always looks well rehearsed. Is a lot of this down to timing and how the dancers understand the choreography in relation to the music?

Yes. If you can show the rhythm, you can be on a different leg. Your arm could be higher than the others but because you have the rhythm and the timing in your body. The overall impression is that it’s all together.

Are there any general corrections you end up giving a lot?

I’m a firm believer in writing things down, so I encourage the dancers to write down corrections. I’ll give the same correction three times and then I won’t say it again, it’s down to the dancers to work it out. I’m there to look after Richard’s work, but the dancers are independent responsible people. They’ll often check my notes from the day before.

As a choreographer and Rehearsal Director, do you have any pointers for students rehearsing their own work?

I would say don’t clean everything too soon because I find if I get a cleaning session, it makes it ‘tunnel visioned’. Then you can take the material in whatever direction you want. If you clean something  right away, it can look rigid and you lose the possibilities of doing other things with it.

So I would say, see where the material goes so you can get a real sense of the movement in relation to the music and then once you begin to feel happy with that, start to etch and find the details in that. I think that’s what cleaning is, it’s finding what’s important about that step or the mood of the piece.