‘Us’ not ‘I’: Simon Hoy’s language of choreography

‘Us’ not ‘I’: Simon Hoy’s language of choreography

Ballet Manila resident guest principals Katherine Barkman and Joseph Phillips dance Simon Hoy’s The Distance Between in the USA IBC in Jackson, Mississippi in June. Photo courtesy of USA IBC

By Jv Ramos

Australian choreographer Simon Hoy’s choreography The Distance Between has, true to its title, come a long way.

Created last summer in Manila, it has been performed in Jackson, Mississippi and in Varna, Bulgaria by Ballet Manila guest principals Katherine Barkman and Joseph Phillips for whom the piece had been specially commissioned. Katherine emerged from both events as a silver medalist, with Joseph as her non-competing partner.

Simon was happy to have his work showcased in two of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world, and is delighted with the outcome for Katherine. But what’s most gratifying for him is going through the creative process and engaging in a collaboration to bring a vision to life through dance.

“As a choreographer, it is thrilling to find reason through the abstract-of-the-unknown or the yet-to-be-discovered, and for me creating a new work is very much an exchange of ideas – choreographer to dancer and dancer to the audience. As in any discussion or exchange of ideas, we use instinct, education and experience to find structure – in order to articulate and express a concept,” notes Simon.

Simon Hoy says creating new works is a collaboration between the choreographer and the dancers. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

The Distance Between, he shares, is a duet inspired by Orpheus and Eurydice which is considered among the most popular story in Greek mythologyAccording to lore, Orpheus falls in love with Eurydice but who unfortunately passes away. He determines to rescue her from Hades but can only do so if he doesn’t look at her as they walk towards the light.”

“When they met in the Underworld, Orpheus was instructed to not look at his lover, which is what I wanted for their dance," explains the choreographer. "This concept is the basic skeleton of my piece; and while this basic skeleton itself is very presentable, what makes it more interesting and unique is when you [the choreographer and dancers] make developments and go through that process together."

He recalls that from the beginning, things started to immediately fall into place. “The creative process between Katherine, Joseph and I was extremely fluid and the duet took shape quite quickly. I did not start the duet with too many preconceived ideas and I took a lot of inspiration from their technical strengths. Even though the duet is very physical, it expresses far more on an emotional level than merely an obvious physical reality,” shares Simon.

While he admits that the final version of The Distance Between turned out to be vastly different from what he had conceptualized, Simon avers this is only to be expected. "I’m very much influenced by the dancer’s ability and their contribution to the piece. My choreography is pretty much a collaboration. They give me as much as I can give them. It’s not me telling them what to do; it’s us discovering where we can take things."

Simon has worked with Joseph before, while it was his first time to do so with Katherine. He describes the two as extremely talented dancers who have also formed an immensely strong artistic partnership. “This strength was a vital ingredient to the duet’s final success. I am thrilled to see how Katherine and Joseph themselves keep developing the work and continue to find new meaning. I am also extremely happy to see how well this work has been received by audiences around the world and so I look forward to working with Joseph and Katherine again in the not too distant future.”

Simon at work with Ballet Manila dancers: "I am not looking for perfection. What I’m looking for now is who is enjoying this process." Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

Trained in the Vaganova method, Simon found common ground in Ballet Manila as this is also the training that the company subscribes to. During his stay in the Philippines last summer for the creation of The Distance Between, he also conducted workshops with other Ballet Manila dancers as a foundation for another choreography that he is putting together for the company.

The series of workshops that would lead up to his casting choices isn't about mastering his instructions. As the choreographer would claim, "I am not looking for perfection. What I’m looking for now is who is enjoying this process."

Formerly with the Melbourne Ballet as chief choreographer, Simon has been creating works for companies across Europe and America for more than a decade now. Asked to compare his present day choreography with his early pieces, he pauses then admits, "Today, I feel more secure about people being part of the creative process. Before, I used to be all about… this is what I want! Now, I’m more secure about letting people have a voice in the creative process. And I can take criticism much more now, too."

The choreographer tries to put his language of dance into words thus: "My choreography is about breadth. I tell my dancers to go bigger, [to do] bigger movements. I like it juicy and chunky; but my pieces are classically-based. Classical [after all] is my background."

Though Simon already has extensive experience in the field of choreography, he points out that the work doesn’t get any easier. "You always want your next creation to be better and not to resemble something you did before. But you also have to consider what worked for you in the past."

There’s also such a thing as “choreo block”, which is the choreographer’s counterpart to writer’s block, that he has to contend with. “To prevent that and to keep presenting new ideas, you need a combination of practicing how to develop new ideas and practicing how to develop works with people. When working with people, you have to accept that a lot of it [the pieces you develop together] gets thrown away. And, that's all right. That’s just part of the process! Some days are really more creative than others."

To prevent “choreo block,” Simon insists one must be open to developing new ideas and to do so with other people. Photo by Jimmy Villanueva

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