Richard Cilli won the 50th Anniversary Ballet Competition in 2012 with his concept of a ballet based on the human brain. For the past two weeks he’s been in the studio with dancers of The Australian Ballet, choreographing the excerpt from Corpus Callosum that will feature in Bodytorque.DNA.
In your choreographic note you say that Corpus Callosum is “an ode to the human brain”. What’s the story behind this idea?
I read a book called My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who had a stroke and experienced first-hand what she’d been studying for a long time. Her whole left hemisphere shut down, so she lost her cognitive abilities like speech, maths, and her ability to tell where one thing ended and another thing started visually, so she was kind of an infant again.
She then had this spiritual experience, because the capacities that the right brain has are so different – like empathy, and timelessness. Her internal chatter disappeared. She felt like she was a gas that could never fit into her own body again.
I was reading it in the bath, and it got me thinking about how we can live in one side of the brain or the other. That’s a fairly inconceivable concept to most of us, but she was actually able to experience it. And then it just went “ping!” – a ballet about each side of the brain, and their inherent qualities.
And then what really made it click was the parallel with ballet, which has a dual nature; there’s technical virtuosity and precision on one side, and then there’s also the emotional, performative softness – the narrative, didactic part of it. Two opposite parts that work together to make something really great.
What is the significance of the title, Corpus Callosum?
That’s the part of the brain that links the two hemispheres. Also in Latin it means “tough body”, so it’s fitting for a dance work.
How does the brain concept translate to the stage?
It’s communicated through spatial structures, and temporal structures. So it’s about using quick canons, with the dancers responding to each other in quick succession, using each other and the space around them to test and define different things.
We’re using the ballet lexicon to create something that’s not ballet. Well, it is, but the way that it’s being treated is as contemporary art. It’s very smooth, languid, distorted.
It’s also nice to try to recontextualise how ballet dancers move. There’s an idea that ballet is performed to the front, that you should look out and show your face to the audience. But I wanted to make this much more a communal experience between the five dancers, to try and make the audience feel a little more like they’re looking in on something. I’m interested in taking it into a more pedestrian or natural realm, but still obviously keeping the same amount of physicality.
It’s about trying not to spell things out so much. It’s less prescriptive. The relationship between the audience and the dancers, and the relationship between the dancers themselves is a little more natural, so there’s more room to read into that.
Your experience is strongly grounded in contemporary dance – specifically, working as a dancer and choreographer with Sydney Dance Company, and also in your current role as a member of K. Kvarnstrom & Co. How does the experience of working with ballet dancers differ from working with dancers in a contemporary company?
It’s really inspiring actually, because they can do things that are far beyond my technical abilities. Obviously I have a good understanding of what they can do, so it’s great to be able to say, “Can you do an extra turn there? Can you make that leg go a little bit higher?” – these things that I like to see onstage that I can’t do myself. But also they’re very willing to just go there, without being afraid or questioning what you’re doing. They’re willing to give it a shot all the time.
You won the 50th Anniversary Ballet Project with composer James Wade and designer Monica Morales. Can you talk a bit about the design and music?
The costumes are really interesting. The material is a very shiny, almost pink Lycra, with PVC strapping that almost looks like harnesses over the top, and navy mesh panels between them. There’s that contrast between something very soft and traditional, against something hard and shiny and a little bit morbid.
The score is amazing. It’s live, for thirteen instruments. At moments it’s cinematic, at moments it’s tear-your-heart-out gorgeous, and at moments it’s atonal and rhythmical.
The idea was to try to make constituent parts that don’t make sense by themselves but when you put them together they make a greater whole, so using them in their separated versions and using them as a whole as well. It does have this echoing, canon feeling about it, everything’s constantly rolling over like a wave, and the energy peaks and troughs as well, which is great for a choreographer to jump on.
Do you see more ballet in your future?
Without a doubt. Love it. Obviously this is not an opportunity everyone gets, so I’m really grateful for it and trying to get as much out of it as I can. And also I’m so happy to be back in Australia!