To the question “What is it about?” there is often a short answer and a long answer. In the case of Vivien Wood’s new dance work, the short answer is there in the title.
The piece, to be premiered at Newcastle’s Dance City next week, is called Exile.
But Vivien’s not really a short answer kind of person. The one-time Royal Ballet School prodigy turned choreographer agonises over her art, striving to meet the high standards she invariably sets for herself.
You can see this effort written across her face during a break from rehearsals at Dance City, which commissioned Exile as a contribution to the current Lindisfarne Gospels cultural programme.
And, to be fair, this is not a short answer kind of piece. Billed by Dance City as a beautiful work of physical theatre and “a visual and aural journey through life”, it brings together internationally renowned vocalists, physical theatre artists, musicians and dancers. Several of these have come from overseas... and some have not.
Vivien’s husband Bradley Creswick, ace violinist and leader of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, is one of those who will assemble for Exile and it seems he was in at the start of it.
“Two years ago I was working on a duet – music and dance – with Bradley and we chose a piece of music by Bela Bartok,” recalls Vivien.
“I started to research Bartok to find out when he wrote it and discovered he was dying of cancer at the time. He was living in New York, having moved away from his home in Hungary because of the Second World War.
“He was in exile and cut off from the source of his inspiration which was folk music. He hated the noise of the city and found it really difficult to write there.
“There was something in this piece of music that was so touching and so dark. It got me thinking about exile in all its different forms and a new piece of work started to take shape.”
Dance City were keen to support the piece and offered Vivien a residency, enabling her to use its facilities. Exile is being presented not just as part of the Lindisfarne Gospels cultural programme but as part of its own Discover series, encouraging audiences to try something different.
The classical composer Bela Bartok, who was married to a Hungarian Jewish pianist called Ditta, went into exile in the United States in 1940 to escape from the Nazis and died there five years later of leukaemia.
Thinking about her own friends, Vivien says she could list many who were living in exile either voluntarily or because of external factors such as war.
“I called it Exile but it’s very much about different forms of exile,” she says, explaining that it’s possible to be exiled not just from a place but from a period of time.
“I love the story of the old Greek woman who insisted on returning to her own village after the war. They took her back, she looked around and then said again, ‘No, I want to go back to my village’. Everyone she knew had gone and to her it wasn’t the same place any more.”
A more current and possibly more benign form of exile is exemplified by two of the performers in Vivien’s piece. “She is Spanish, he is American. They want to get married. He wants her to live in California but she doesn’t really want to live in California, so they’re going through this sense of exile as well.”
Flying back over the years to way before the Second World War is the inspiring story of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels, created in his honour in the 8th Century.
Linking her evolving piece firmly with the Lindisfarne Gospels cultural programme, Vivien found inspiration in the story of the monks who carried Cuthbert’s remains from Holy Island and embarked on a long journey through unfamiliar territory before putting down roots first in Chester-le-Street and then in Durham.
Finding layers within layers, she reflects that the Gospels themselves tell of the exile of Jesus as he went about preaching to his disciples.
Vivien herself knows what it is to be away from familiar territory and her nearest and dearest.
Born in Gateshead, her father was a builder but also a fan of classical music. When Vivien, as a child, started going to ballet lessons, he could empathise. She remembers him buying her a record, Scheherezade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which was used in a ballet.
In 1971, when she was just 11, Vivien went to London to take up a coveted place at the Royal Ballet School, leaving Gateshead and her parents behind.
Hugely talented, she nevertheless ran into problems with her diet. In an earlier interview with The Journal she recalled how she was advised to lay off chocolate because she was “a bit stocky”.
She was put on a different diet to the rest of the children in the school and during a three-month spell with the Paris Opera was told she was too thin to dance.
Anorexia nervosa wasn’t a widely known condition at the time. Vivien’s parents sent her to a psychiatrist.
At the age of 18, and seemingly poised to join the Royal Ballet itself, Vivien walked out of the Royal Ballet School. “It was like being on a roundabout,” she said. “I thought I’d get off.” Later she bumped into Michael Clark, another talented Royal Ballet dropout, and forged a new career in contemporary dance, travelling the world with Clark’s exciting, highly-rated company.
It was when her mother fell ill that she returned to the North East and another seemingly paradoxical kind of exile, away from the brilliant dancers and busy dance world of London. She has never made much secret about missing all of that quite badly and says: “There’s still a part of me that would like to be there.”
But her new tack is to bring some of the excellence she has seen in London and Europe back to the North East to inspire those following in her footsteps.
In this sense, she and Dance City are on a similar mission. Developing a dance culture in this region is the aim and that means encouraging young dancers and choreographers to put down roots here... and not, perhaps, be forced to go into exile.
But as we speak, exile is on our minds. “It is a collaborative piece and everyone is bringing their strengths into the studio and offering their ideas about what exile is,” says Vivien. “We’re keeping it very human.”
She talks about a set with books and candles, about a score featuring folk and classical music including Bach and Beethoven (forcibly exiled from the world around him by encroaching deafness) and about an ensemble of nine or 10 performers.
A good friend, dancer and choreographer Fabien Prioville, proved a guiding light. “I rang him up for help,” says Vivien. “He flew over and spent a week with me. We talked through ideas and images. He let me speak and then he said, ‘You’ve got so much research... now you’ve got to get rid of it’.”
The result of all the thinking and creating will be seen in the piece which will be premiered at Dance City on July 18 at 7.30pm. You can also see Exile at St Mary’s Church, Holy Island, on August 4 at 6pm and 8pm. Tickets for both of these from Dance City on 0191 261 0505.
Exile will also be performed at St Mary’s Heritage Centre, Gateshead, from August 6-11 and 13-16 at 7.30pm (tel. 0191 433 6965) and in Durham Cathedral on August 17 at 8pm (tel. 0191 332 4041).