Former Principal Artist Madeleine Eastoe was an inspirational dancer for our Resident Choreographer Stephen Baynes. As we prepare to revive his elegant one-act work Constant Variants as part of our Verve program, Madeleine reminisces about working with Stephen on the creation of the ballet - and tells us why it's a joy to have a Baynes work tailor-made for your body.
What is it like working with Stephen in the studio?
I found a very different atmosphere in Stephen’s rehearsals to those of other choreographers, where there’s clear command from the person at the front of the room. Stephen’s such a gentle and beautiful character. Often you wouldn’t even hear him start to speak; but you could sense the processes going on in his brain. It was very tender and intimate. He has a way of inviting you into the work, without it being a big deal, and of making you feel very special. He lets you hear the music very early on, so that you know the flavour of it. Then the work reveals itself throughout the rehearsal period.
Stephen often chose to feature you in his works. What is it about you he responded to?
I guess I was able to juice out some of the ideas that he had and take them in a direction that he wasn’t expecting, maybe with a slightly more athletic tone to them. I don’t think I fit his mould as such, but he saw something in me.
Tell us about the creation of Constant Variants.
Matthew Donnelly, Andrew Killian and I spent weeks with Stephen in the studio, no other casts, no other distractions; so it felt like it really was being created on you. There was that ability to change course if a certain leg didn’t feel right, or a line wasn’t so suitable to your physique or capabilities. And I appreciated that so much, because it wasn’t like trying to copy something else; it was about how it sat on your body. Stephen has a lovely way of making you feel right within the work. It’s an exploration, a journey together to find the outcome.
A lot of the work we did was in a trio, me with the two other boys, and that’s lovely: you feel like this special parcel being moved around. You’re barely touching the ground, it’s an incredible feeling.Andrew, Madeleine and Matthew in Constant Variants. Photography David Kelly
How would you describe the ballet to someone who hasn’t seen it?
It’s an elegant piece, with modern tones. Minimal costumes, but with little bits of bling, and velvet and mesh textures. It’s all about the line, exposing the physique. The set design has frames that fly in and out. There’s no real story, but there are underlying emotions. I think that’s true of many of Stephen’s one-act ballets. We never felt that we were just doing steps. There’s always a trail, a lingering, between the relationships of the people on stage. It leaves you wondering, there’s a curiosity. It’s like walking through an art gallery, going from room to room.
When you’re dancing it, there’s not a heavy emphasis on eye contact – it’s more that you’re able to reach out and that person is there. I loved that freedom, that trust. Stephen would often pair you up with someone you’d already worked with, or that you’d work well with, so that there was that comfort, and within that trust and comfort you could take risks. The steps are like a conversation between the dancers of the trio. Stephen used the floor, the height of the men’s outstretched arms, how much they could stretch me within their grip, and how we could wind around each other.Designer Michael Pearce's design for Madeleine's costume in Constant Variants
Tell us about the ‘Qantas lift’.
There’s a lift at the end of one of the pas de deux where I run towards the two boys and I’m held up like an aeroplane. We used to call that the Qantas lift. It was lovely for me (I’m not sure it was lovely for the boys!) – you’d be running, trying to time the leap to coincide with the last note, and then you’d go from that run into stillness, framed by the set and in the light. One of Stephen’s talents is being able to sustain or suspend a movement. Often, finding a full stop is where the drama in his work comes in. Knowing that’s what he intends to that phrase of the music, it’s nice to be able to hit those highlights he obviously craves. They’re not always to the obvious sounds, either: sometimes it’s a much quieter, more subtle layer of the music that you’re finding the pulse to.
How would you describe Stephen’s style and movement vocabulary?
It’s all about the music and the phrasing, the detail, the precision in the lower leg, creating a line. It’s not always going for the obvious. There are a lot of beautiful promenades. The girl is often gliding: in many of the duets and trios, she barely touches the ground. He obviously trusts the male dancers to sustain the strength needed for all that lifting. It isn’t all about the girl, but there is a heavy emphasis on her ability to glide. It’s as if he’s imagining the trail behind you, or thinking about you wearing some long, luscious scarf, and what it would be doing in your wake. I used to adore watching him thinking about that in the studio. Usually, as a dancer, when you’re in the intimacy of the studio, being coached by someone, their eyes are on you, they’re looking for every single detail that they can enhance. This was so far from that. It was about what was going on beyond you. And it meant you could play with the movement in the rehearsal period. You could try to find a way of phrasing it that was more beautiful, or more to his taste.
What are your favourite memories of working with Stephen?
What I found so very special when working with him was that it was a piece designed for you. As a dancer, that is such an honour. By customising the steps, he was able to personalise the ballet to your strengths and reveal you within his creation. Looking back on the pieces I was a part of, I can remember the time and place, the details and feelings: he documented a time of your life.
It was always a privilege to work with him. I really grew up, creatively, under his direction. Every time I would be chosen to do something of his, I always felt like I was coming home. Never did I expect it, but whenever it came along, I was always so happy to put my shoes on and get involved.Madeleine rehearsing Constant Variants. Photography Chris Tovo