British choreographer Chris Hampson is a man with a bit on his plate at the moment. He was back in New Zealand to oversee the production of Cinderella, which he first choreographed for the Royal New Zealand ballet in 2007. I caught up with him on the streets of Wellington, midway between packing and heading to watch night two of Cinderella. Just hours after the show he was at the airport for his flight to the Northern Hemisphere, where he’ll be starting the next stage of his career, as Artistic Director for Scottish Ballet. It’s a long way between Courtney Place and Glasgow, but he’ll have no time to sit and contemplate the changes – he’s due in the office within 48 hours of landing.
Chris, how did the premiere go?
It’s always tricky putting a show together like this, there are so many different elements coming into play – you’ve got the orchestra, whether the tempo is going to be right, then of course the dancers are very nervous and excited to have an audience, and funnily enough with a show like this it’s an audience that they really need, its got lots of comedy in it.
How many casts do you use for this production?
We’re fielding 3 casts this time, which is great, 3 different Cinderella’s, 3 different sets of stepsisters, and stepmothers as well. There is lots of characterisation, and they all do it slightly differently. It’s always worth a repeat viewing.
How long have you been working with the Royal New Zealand Ballet?
I’ve been working with them over 10 years now, my first production was back in 2001, and then my 2 big main productions I created for them were Romeo and Juliet and, of course, Cinderella.
What’s it like coming in and working with new dancers as a guest choreographer, is it a difficult thing to get your head around?
I’m used to it, that’s my job. But it’s great, because it brings a real freshness to the production. This production is in the 2nd outing for the company, but 50% of the dancers are completely different, so it breathes new life into it for me. I always approach everything with that in mind, if I feel like the dancers perhaps characterise something differently, I’ll adapt it for them.
What’s actually involved in choreographing a ballet? How do you start the process?
I normally start way before I get to the studio. A production like Cinderella is about 18 months in the making. What I tend to do is put together a storyboard, a bit like a film director, and I try out ideas and images. I don’t really do any actual choreographing until I’m with the dancers, which is quite late on, so I tend to just formulate ideas. I listen to the music, a freakish number of times! I know that music inside out and back to front. The key for me is really listening to the score.
Do you feed off the dancers creatively, once you’ve got them in front of you?
Absolutely. The dancers bring in their own personality and their own take on the character they’re trying to bring alive. The stepsisters in this production are a real case in point. Tonight it’ll be Abby Boyle and Bronte. They do it completely differently to the two that did it last night. Because they’re comedic roles, I slightly change them so that it fits them a bit better. Abigail plays it as a real intensive older bossy sister!
Have you taken more of a traditional or modern approach with this ballet?
A bit of both really. The story is the story; it transcends generations, doesn’t it? But I’ve tried to make it move at a fast pace, which I think audiences are used to now, but keep traditional values, which is the story of rags to riches. The audience invests in that journey, along with Cinderella, and sees how she battles through it and makes it to the top. Essentially I would say it’s traditional but with a really modern slant on it.
The costumes are a mix of eras, aren’t they?
That’s right, and I often say to my designers, “make the production timeless,” so when we come back to it, it won’t be dated, we won’t be able to say, “ oh that was done in the 80’s, or that was done 10 years ago.” Tracy Grant Lord has done the design and she’s really done this brilliantly, with the colour, the shape, the fabric she uses.. I always describe Tracy as classy, and that does come through in her designs, they have a timeless feel to them.
How do you make a ballet your own? Do you have any signatures?
I think there are signature steps in my work, and I know people watch my work and go “oh you know, that’s totally what Hampson does.” I think it’s probably the musicality that comes through quite strongly. I’m able to comprehend scores in a very, very detailed way, and I think that comes through in my choreography.
Tell me about your next job – you’re on the plane to Scotland in a few hours?
That’s right, it’s so exciting, I’m going to be the Artistic Director for the Scottish ballet and I start on Monday at 9am. I’ve done a lot of prep work, and I’m so excited about it, it feels like the right time to be taking on a job like that, and for the first time in about 20 years I’ll actually be in one place for a while. I’ve been going once around the world every year, pretty much, and although I say that I’m going to be 2 feet in one place, the Scottish Ballet is a touring company, and it is the ambition to be international. So I’m hoping that I can bring Scottish ballet overseas, hopefully to New Zealand!
So when will we see you back on New Zealand shores?
I’m back here in December, I’m judging the Genée International Ballet competition, and I’m really excited about that. New Zealand is really lucky to be hosting it. It’s a big international competition that tours the world, and I’ve worked on it for a number of years and I was thrilled when I heard Wellington has been chosen to host it. It’s a bit like the Olympic games for ballet!
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