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Interview: Dominic North Discusses ‘The Red Shoes’ and Life As a Dancer with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures Company

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Based on the film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Red Shoes comes to The Kennedy Center October 10 – 15, 2017. The Red Shoes received two Olivier awards earlier this year, and London’s Matthew Bourne, and his company New Adventures have been setting records all along. You may have seen a glimpse of his all-male Swan Lake featured in the movie, Billy Elliot, or heard about a live theater production of Edward Scissorhands. The Red Shoes affords the Washington, DC area a first-hand opportunity to experience the work of Matthew Bourne and how he brings together contemporary dance and theater, scenic and design elements. Earlier in the week, I spoke with principal dancer Dominic North about how such a complex and collaborative work comes together.

Dominic North in The Red Shoes. Photograph by Johan Persson.

Jane Franklin: A Los Angeles critic wrote about the collaborative teamwork: dancing, projection design, sound, lighting, set and costume as well as choreography. Can you talk about the dancer’s role in the collaborative process?

Dominic North: We were very much involved in the creation process. We had workshops about a year prior to the actual rehearsal period and some more a few months prior with just a roomful of six or eight people. We would task different things, try different music, different ideas in order to be prepared for the rehearsal period. I was involved in the management team and the artistic team and helping [Matthew Bourne] create my own track and creating other people’s material or the main group dances. It was great to be part of because you feel like there’s a bit of you in the show, some things that you came up with for Matt that he chooses to be in the show. It’s always a nice feeling.

Matthew Bourne goes through what you’ve created and selects parts that work?

He adapts. He says “I like that bit, I don’t like that bit, can you try this like that, how about turn that the other way.” He’ll work with you together. It’s good to be a part of.

Has the performance been in development for several years?

I think probably in his mind, he’s always loved the film. The first I heard of him wanting to do it was about two years before we opened. [The Red Shoes] was playing in London in the South Bank, and we all went to see it, and he was thinking of making it into one of his shows. He researched, went to Monte Carlo with the designer, Lez Brotherstone, and then they came up with how they would work in the theater, what things could be extended to make dance numbers and what wouldn’t work. It’s a big long process and at that point we were still touring other shows. A lot of his shows take years to come to the stage.

Your role at the Kennedy Center, the role of Julian Craster, was the original role for Chris Trenfield. 

We created it together. [Chris] actually helped create both the principal male roles, Boris Lermontov and Julian Craster.  Because we don’t do all the shows every week on an eight show week, I would do it five times and he would do it three times. And then he’d do Boris Lermontov a couple of times.

So you might do two different roles in the same production?

Most people do. Sam Archer and I do our own track but the other guys do two or three parts. If you came to two shows there would be different principal castings as well as all the way through.

Talk about your partnership with dancer Ashley Shaw. How do you work with Ms. Shaw in developing the “theatrical” elements of the performance?

Ashley Shaw and Dominic North in The Red Shoes. Photograph by Johan Persson.

It kind of starts with the basis of what the scene or dance is about.  Whether it’s a love, romantic duet, or is it a falling-apart-duet.  [We have a duet] where we’ve left the company that we created The Red Shoes for, and Boris Lermontov fired me, and then we are kind of in a bad place and we’re both not happy with our work. We have this duet that’s about “she’s not happy,” and “I’m not happy and it’s not going well.” So Matt will explain what that’s about, and it’s about our two passions and how do we show that through movement; obviously, hers being her Red Shoes and dancing and mine being composing. We had a task where we came up with stuff for that. The music plays a huge part. He’ll play the music and he’ll tell you the story through. Feel like maybe you’re here in the bedroom, one of you can’t sleep, one of you is waking up to this bit of phrase in the music, something dramatic happens here, like a lift, see where we go here, gets a bit angry, a moment here where we have a kiss…it’s all plotted out through his vision and the music and what would tell the story.

What are the physical demands of your role as Julian Craster? How do you prepare for performances?

We have class every day to keep in shape and warmed up for the show.  Try and eat well, rest well when you can, and keep up to a high standard of physical fitness. I wouldn’t say it’s easy but because you’re doing so much, your stamina stays with you until you’re not doing anything.  It’s part of being a dancer and being on tour. You just learn to do that for your day off when you can enjoy yourself. See the city you’re in, or see some friends.

Do you get to see designs for the set, projections or costuming early-on?

Before the rehearsals period, Matt likes to have a model box, maybe even the first day, and Lez is there, the designer, and he’ll talk through his visions for the show scene by scene.  He’ll have designs of what people are wearing, various models or sketches. We try to stay very true to the film. We knew what the style was going to be 1948. So it was how people would dress and hold themselves. You get into your costume fitting and get to see all the wonders, and amazing clothing they make. You see it as it’s happening.

I noticed you are dance captain for The Red Shoes. What is involved in that?

I have to help out the resident director, Neil Westmoreland and Matthew Bourne. I have to watch a show at least once a week. I help them with rehearsals and give their notes. Help with the week of casting, who goes on and does what roles.  Every few weeks I’ll have do a spread sheet with that. Generally just assisting, doing what is needed.

I pass on Matt’s or Neil’s or add my own notes however [I can be] the most helpful.

What is your day like leading up to curtain time for The Red Shoes?

[The day is] usually a class with a few notes and rehearsals.  We don’t have a double today (two performances in one day). We have a matinee today so class for an hour, an hour’s break to have some food, half hour call and then get ready. On double show days we don’t have a big note session or any rehearsal. On a weekday we have a one or two hour call. Usually somebody’s got to learn something new because someone is injured or fairing poorly, or casting has changed.  It’s kind of an ongoing thing like a big machine, and there are cogs that need changing quite regularly. Some people just being a different side of the same dance, or learning a different number they’ve never done before to cover something. Or something happens. It’s kind of a living, breathing thing, as they say.

What is your favorite piece to perform?

Matt always gets asked that, he says it’s like choosing your favorite child. I’ve only got one child, so not hard for me. I used to say Swan Lake then say Car Man then Edward [Scissorhands]. It really varies how long it’s been, I’ve been so lucky to do ten of his shows, more than anybody. I’ve done eleven principal roles. I don’t think I could actually choose anymore. It’s nice to do an original thing because there’s a bit of you in there. But it’s also nice to go back; the show I started on was Swan Lake so it always has a place for me. The first principal role I did was Edward Scissorhands. I love Sleeping BeautyCar Man is like a whole other thing. To be honest, I just end up saying they are all great.

I read that you perform with a comedy Morris dance troupe, the ‘Bo Diddlers.’  

 A lot of people ask about ‘Bo Diddlers,’ a comedy Morris dance troupe. It is a bit out there. All of the members have worked with New Adventures, or with Matt before it was the New Adventures. For a ballet upper school and lower school they had to do actual proper Morris dancing so then we started to do our own swing on it. We came up with a show, put some contemporary dance, modern dance. We do some gigs every summer when we are out of other touring. Its fun and lighthearted to do just basically to amuse ourselves, to make each other laugh. Then we found out other people liked it. It grew like that. It’s just something to do when we’re not working.

What’s in the future for Dominic North?

Red Shows until November. Next show is Cinderella in London. After that I don’t have any idea. I just take it year by year, enjoying myself and seeing what happens.

The Red Shoes plays through October 15, 2017 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.

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