YOU could say that this Labyrinth of Love – a new addition to Rambert Dance's touring repertoire – is the outcome of a carefully engineered blind date.
Choreographer Marguerite Donlon is based in Germany, composer Michael Daugherty lives in America. The two had never met, let alone worked together until Rambert's artistic director, Mark Baldwin, played match-maker and commissioned a new work that would involve them both. The brief was to explore the many moods of love: the ups and downs of romantic entanglements – but also the humour, the disappointments and the unexpected moments that turn everything skew-whiff.
Now that the work has successfully arrived onstage – it premiered last October and will be part of Rambert's programme at Glasgow's Theatre Royal tonight – Donlon can allow herself to register how her own journey into Labyrinth of Love was full of unexpected twists and sudden surprises. "I suppose you do settle into a way of working that feels productive, feels right for you and the team you're with," she says. And given her high-end profile as a choreographer in Europe and elsewhere, she's obviously been getting it right since she said farewell to her native Ireland (and traditional Irish dance), trained as a classical dancer, became a soloist and choreographer with the Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin before subsequently launching her own Donlon Dance Company while heading up the ballet of the Saarlandisches Staatstheater as its director and choreographer and fitting in commissions with prestigious companies elsewhere.
Loading article content
She's on record as saying: "If there was a hard way or an easy way, I would always choose the hard way." But don't rush to smell any whiff of burning martyr in those words. It's just that the engagingly chatty, merrily open and readily good-humoured Donlon reckons that it's better to test yourself than coast along, shovelling yourself into a rut. So yes, in the early stages, the path into Labyrinth of Love was quite a challenge.
She explains. "Usually, I'd pick my own composer for a piece and we'd work together every step of the way. Either that, or I'd choose a piece of existing music that I felt a response to. But, very much like a blind date, I was given Michael. He was the only specific condition for the commission, but he was thousands of miles away.
"I could sit and talk through ideas with Mat Collishaw, the video artist on the project, or Conor Murphy our designer – funnily enough, our responses to the set of poems we were thinking of using as a text for Michael's song cycle were fairly similar, so in a way I'd already started choreographing in my head. But then..."
A small, resiliently-amused chuckle escapes from her. Daugherty had opted for another series of poems, all written by women and rooted in female lives across a span of over 2000 years and ranging from Sappho to Emily Dickinson by way of Elizabeth Taylor. Donlon got to grips with that, and with the piano and soprano version of his music that arrived a month or so before she was due to start work in Rambert's Chiswick studios. "I got the finished orchestral score a couple of weeks before I started with the dancers – and, of course, it sounded completely different. Other colours, other textures. So the task then was to allow new doors to open, allow this music to have its own voice – and to listen to that voice."
In fact, that voice is not only heard, it's seen: Donlon has placed the soprano onstage, a very visible part of her choreography. Mat Collishaw's video work, with its imagery drawn primarily from nature, is a backdrop that Conlon is genuinely thrilled by – you can hear it in her voice as she describes the atmospheres created by footage of "slow-motion smoke just rising and drifting, rain falling in a way that's quite hypnotic but doesn't ever over-shadow the dancers' movement. And the exquisite floating up of little butterflies at the end of a solo, where you can hear a dancer breathing..." And she exhales lingeringly, reliving that sequence.
"They were such gorgeous dancers to work with," she says. "You can come across companies where you feel... oh, for want of a better word, they're not 'healthy' in terms of the working relationships between people.
"At Rambert, it always felt we were together as a team, facing challenges and looking for solutions that would create a beautiful spectacle for audiences, and something that the dancers themselves would enjoy.
"And for me, in the end, the unexpected challenges took me to interesting places. I'd be looking at a text that was tragic – but actually listening to music that was upbeat, and I'd be asking myself: what do I follow? Where does the movement go here? So I more or less had to knock myself on the head and say 'Maggie, let these unfamiliar doors open. Be open, yourself. Otherwise you stick to your safe path, and who knows what you miss without knowing – and how like a labyrinth of love is that?'"
Rambert Dance are at Glasgow's Theatre Royal tonight until March 2 and at Eden Court, Inverness (March 19 & 20) and Edinburgh's Festival Theatre (April 9 & 10)