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Interview with Choreographer Alistair David 11

By Open Air Theatre


Alistair David with Director Rachel Kavanaugh in the rehearsal room

With the choreography for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers attracting such reviews as "a dazzling display of balletic warfare", "exhilarating", "barnstorming...packed with nimble charm, exuberance and leaves you breathless", we caught up with Choreographer Alistair David to find out how dance has shaped his life, and the challenges of bringing this iconic show to the Open Air Theatre.

How did you get into dancing?

I’ve danced all my life. I used to just dance in the street, a neighbour said to my mum that she takes her girls dancing and would I like to go? I went and I loved it from the off. Before long I was dancing every night of the week, and then my mum realised that it was something I should take further. I went to stage school, and then I went to a series of ballet schools. It’s all I’ve ever done, I can’t do anything else.

What inspired you to move from dancer to choreographer?

I had been very successful as a dancer - a lot of West End, and I’d danced for the RSC. I’d done a lot and most dancers know that when you approach a certain age, you only have a few years left and you start to make decisions about what you want to do. I’ve always choreographed; I won a choreography competition twice at ballet school. It is something that I had always done but had never taken it seriously. Then a very famous British choreographer said to me that if I wanted to be taken seriously I should stop dancing. So I stopped officially 10 years ago.

Why did you want to work on this particular project?

Simply because it’s a big dance show! When Tim (Sheader) first told me the title I was so overwhelmed because I’ve had a bit of connection with this show all my life. I played a suitor at ballet school, but I really wanted to be Gideon. I remember being very upset, but I loved doing the show anyway. It was also the first full book musical that I ever choreographed, about 12 years ago. I just think it’s a great, silly, entertaining show and I was really excited about doing something different when I heard Gareth Valentine was doing the dance arrangements, I thought I can stay faithful to the film but put my own little spin on it.

What is the relationship with the Director?

I had a few meetings with the Director, Rachel (Kavanaugh), prior to rehearsals beginning, where we would sit, go through the script, talk about what we wanted to keep, cut, move, and change. Once we get into the actual rehearsals, it’s a proper collaboration – it’s the best part of my job when I get to work with somebody like Rachel; we’re a team, we work together, there is no sense that “that’s your bit”, we just do it all together.

Harvest Social

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 2015

Can you talk me through the process of choreographing a big dance show such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?

I begin at home, I have a little office where I sit and listen to the music and I basically make notes - how many bars, or counts there are in each section, and then write my thoughts. YouTube is a great tool nowadays you can have an idea of something and then you can search for it. For this I ended up watching a lot of male Russian dancers because I wanted it to have that very butch but balletic, regal feel when the boys transform.

Then I went to the studio with my assistant Emma Woods and Leon Cooke, one of the boys, where we spent 8 days just throwing each other around. Sometimes we spent 2 hours on maybe 8 counts; we just needed to work things out and we knew we wouldn’t have time in the studio. By the end of those 8 days I had pretty much choreographed the whole show though you’re always thinking that once you get it on the floor things might change. Then I go into rehearsals proper, with my armour of steps.

Was the Harvest Social a daunting routine to choreograph, knowing how famous and well-loved the original Barn Dance is?

There is pressure there, as that is one of the moments that people are looking out for. It’s daunting because it’s 8 minutes long, so I did a lot of preparation, a lot of listening to the music, working out what story I wanted to tell. I don’t watch any film of the show that I am doing, I don’t want to be in any way influenced even subliminally.

What about this show makes it special, and why should people come and see it?

It’s special because it’s made for the outdoors, if ever a title is suited to this theatre, it’s this. Laura Pitt-Pulford and Alex Gaumond are an excellent leading lady and leading man. We have a cast of fantastic dancers; really athletic and acrobatic. It looks lovely, and there are some surprises. We’ve taken a fresh take on a title which has some fairly dubious sexual politics; Rachel has done a fantastic job of addressing that for a 2015 audience. I‘m really proud of my choreography, it’s just a special evening in this space.

What have you got lined up next?

Next I am working on a really exciting project with director Lyndsey Turner. She’s just finished directing Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet so is really hot right now. Laura Wade is adapting Tipping the Velvet for the Lyric Hammersmith, which should be a really exciting, new, unique theatrical experience. I’m really excited about it because it’s brand new and will have all sorts of surprises.

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