Dancers in Dialogue

A spotlight on Transitions, the world’s first graduate dance company

4 Transitions Dance Company. Photograph by Chris Nash

“Will you hold this, please?” I look up from my notebook to see a young woman pressing a length of string into my hands. A beat later she slinks away, leaving me to fumble with the thread as its other end is pulled taut by a man swaying across the room.

The exchange is one of many idiosyncratic moments in Cristian Duarte’s “And,” a half-hour contemporary piece commissioned for Transitions, the graduate dance company at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. I’m in a studio on an upper floor of Herzog & de Meuron’s Stirling Prize-winning Laban building in Deptford, custom-built for Trinity in 2003, watching the 12 members of the company rehearse Duarte’s work. It involves interaction with the audience (hence the string incident) and is one of three they’ve spent the spring touring around the UK and Europe. The dancers stand to attention as artistic director David Waring offers some observations on their most recent performance, in Cyprus: “There were a lot of individual successes in this one. But I have to remind you, don’t make yourself more important than the work. The piece has to be in dialogue with the audience, not just you.”

My visit comes two days after the Cyprus show; the dancers have returned to their home turf to rehearse—and, in the case of a few, rest their sunburned feet—before heading off to perform in Malta later in the week. Then it’s back to London for the final leg of the tour, which at that point will have taken in some 15 stops over three months.

David Waring. Photograph by Chris Nash

“I was in Transitions myself as a student, so I know what the experience of touring is like and certainly what it meant for me,” Waring tells me after the rehearsal. “It’s different now that there’s a master’s degree associated with it—that’s something that sets us apart from other institutions, along with being the first company of this kind of course.” Indeed, Trinity Laban blazed a trail in 1982 when Bonnie Bird, a first-generation member of Martha Graham Dance Company and then-director of Trinity’s Dance department, established Transitions to help young dancers make the move from student to professional; and again in 2009 when it incorporated an MA in Dance Performance into the programme. Each autumn new recruits replace the former troupe, and over the course of a year they work with three professional choreographers to create an original touring repertory. The company has produced some distinguished alumni, including Sir Matthew Bourne, and inspired similar programmes at universities and dance colleges around the UK.

“My entire life I’ve thought about becoming a performing artist, so I’ve used this year to find out if that’s really what I want,” says company member Sophie Tellings. “It’s a taste of that life, with extra training and research.” Most of the company’s dancers are, like Tellings, recent graduates of BA programmes, though a fair few come with professional experience under their belts, like Sarah Oakley, who spent seven years performing and teaching in the US before joining Transitions. “I wanted to do a master’s and found out about this postgraduate performing company, which isn’t really a thing in the States,” she explains. “It felt different and right for me.”

Waring says Oakley’s path is an increasingly common one. “Initially the company was aimed at younger people, but dancers are these days are much more interested in reflecting on their practice within an educational framework, and we’re seeing a lot more apply who already have professional experience. This brings a whole new dynamic and is really raising the bar. These dancers bring a level of maturity—an understanding of what it’s like to be in a company, what’s expected and what professionalism really means. They often have a different perspective on what study is and show more refined skills, having worked with choreographers and not just teachers.”

Transitions Dance Company. Photograph by Chris Nash

The company typically fields between 60 and 90 applications each year, accepting just a dozen in the end. The 2016/17 class is split evenly between men and women and British and foreign recruits, though Waring says these aren’t set parameters. “It’s often the case we have a number of different nationalities, but the gender split happens or it doesn’t. Last year we had three men and nine women. It’s all about who’s in the room during auditions and who we think can handle what’ll be asked of them. We want to challenge them but not make them struggle in a way that alienates them.”

There are no prescribed personalities either. “You get jokers, you get serious ones; it’s a mix,” Waring tells me. “We’re not aiming to create a company that looks like ‘this,’ whatever ‘this’ is; I don’t like the idea of clones. I want a group of people who think differently, dance differently, perform differently, engage with the work in individual ways. I want to create something of interest that only diversity is capable of creating.”

As soon as the autumn term begins, the dancers begin working with the choreographers charged with the year’s rep. This year’s line-up: Cristian Duarte, Oded Ronen and Charles Linehan. “They were all really different,” recalls Oakley. “Different personalities, styles and expectations about how we were to work, different ways of communicating with us—we had to adapt to each. They did all incorporate an improvisational factor into their work, though, which I wasn’t expecting.” Fellow dancer Sean Murray elaborates: “Oded’s piece is completely set, but he used improv to set it, while Charles’s incorporates sections that we’re allowed to play around with on the night.” And then there’s Duarte’s, which is entirely improvised by the dancers, with just musical cues and prop assignations to guide them. “It’s all about physicality and things we have to execute within the score,” explains Murray. “I’m really interested in researching improvised performance, so it’s been especially useful for me to be part of.”

Waring steps in around October to assume the role of rehearsal director: “I have to be sensitive to how I’m leading the pieces forward—I need to allow the dancers to develop their performance skills while keeping the pieces true to the choreographers’ original intentions. That’s quite a delicate balance.” He also leads separate classes for technique training and oversees the tour, which lasts from February to May.

The dancers characterise the tour as one of the programme’s most gratifying aspects. “The best part is all the travelling—being on trains and planes with everyone,” says Murray. “And performing in such different places. The theatre in Cyprus had really low ceilings and a long, thin stage, whereas in Buxton we performed at the opera house, with its massive stage and proper wings and boxes. Climbing down off this huge, high stage was a real experience.”

Transitions Dance Company. Photograph by Chris Nash

A key challenge is navigating the variety of settings and audiences. “We’ve been to places where we had a very small audience, some nights with mostly elderly people, others with just kids from schools. You perform and people react completely differently,” Tellings notes. Another is getting to grips with the “very full day” of a professional dancer on tour. “Our usual routine is arrive at the venue the evening before, sometimes do a workshop that night, take company class the next morning, then take a lunch break before doing a tech run—a full run with lighting and everything,” explains Oakley. “We have dinner, and then it’s the show. You learn how to go in, do what you need to do, and then go again. It’s very strange but useful; you’re forced into all kinds of experiences.”

Like the tour, the coursework accompanying the programme is aimed at practical application. “We have papers and lectures, demonstrations and assessments and stuff, but not in your normal classroom-based, paper-producing setting,” says Oakley. “It’s all based on us experiencing the modules practically.” The single biggest piece of work is a summer research project, a practice-based dissertation of sorts. “As soon as the last performance is over, they have until September to get their teeth into that,” says Waring. “The projects are presented formally or informally, depending on the shape it takes—it could be a lecture demonstration based on an investigation into a certain type of movement, or perhaps a performance in the graduate showcase that involves gathering data from the performers on their experience of performing in a live, critical context.”

For Murray, a highlight of all this “has been realising that I really want to make my own work. Working with different choreographers has helped me understand what I do and don’t like, how I might do things differently in a situation. It’s formed my ideas of what kind of things I want to create myself.” For Oakley too, being part of Transitions “has solidified what I want to do next, which is teach at a university level. I came here to be a student again through the lens of teaching. Instead of taking this information and applying it to a professional performing career, I’ve been more interested in thinking about creating in a university setting. My experience here has been a great stepping stone.”

The dancers go on to talk about the more trying aspects of the year—a tiring schedule, intimidating workshops, a sense of isolation from other students at Trinity—but they make it clear there’s little they’d change. Waring looks thrilled when I report this. “That’s great to hear. My intention is to nurture and support these young artists. This is a repertory company; the students have to be challenged to become more versatile, to really face their strengths and weaknesses, so they can understand what their interests are and leave here more focused on those. I’m so glad to see they’re taking ideas with them and figuring out there are types of work they don’t want to do.

“What I see on stage with these dancers are people in dialogue with what they’re doing,” he continues. “They’re not just in repeat mode or there to show off and let the audience sit back. The tension is ensuring that the dialogue they have with what they’re doing on stage is just as interesting for the audience to witness as it is for the dancers to battle with. It’s about rigour in that way.”

Transitions Dance Company performing Cristian Duarte’s “And.” Photograph by James Keates

Having watched one of their final shows, I can attest to this tension and its evolution from classroom to stage. With Duarte’s piece, a certain liveliness not readily apparent in rehearsal emerged in the presence of an audience, the dancers’ exaggerated expressions funnier and more engaging in this performative context. As they filtered into the aisles and rows, dancing among (and in some cases, on top of) the viewers, this too took on a giddy edge, far less sombre than it felt in the studio.

The accompanying two works, though different in mood and structure, share the released-based technique of “And” as well as its academic approach, eschewing tricks in favour of a methodical execution of movement and ideas. From a viewer’s perspective, the show feels aloof at times but also prompts many interesting trains of thought—why is it so uncomfortable to have the barrier between stage and audience broken, for example? How can a dancer lend depth to pedestrian choreography? Are props a help or hindrance to conveying themes?

For Waring, advising the dancers on how to inspire and engage with such questions not only affirms his aims as an educator but also feeds into his own artistic development. “Leading this company is very much part of my practice as a performer, as a mover. While I support and nurture them, their feedback and performance ideas and expressions of interest and perspectives all help me. That’s a really special dynamic.”

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