Stephen Baynes’ ballets are famously beautiful, often exploring themes of memory, love and loss. In the ’80s, Dame Peggy van Praagh encouraged the Adelaide-born dancer to flex his choreographic muscle. Today, Stephen is The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographer and has worked with companies worldwide. Edge of night features two beloved works by Stephen. In the first of two interviews, we chat to Stephen about Rachmaninov, writers’ block and his achingly romantic At the edge of night.
You’ve used the Rachmaninov score to inspire your choreography in At the edge of night. Does the choreography come before the music or the music before the choreography?
Never the choreography before the music. It’s usually a matter of finding a piece of music or knowing a piece of music. Apart from a couple of commissioned scores where there’s been an idea, and the music has been written after that idea, the music is always the primary motivation for the choreography.
If you could ask Rachmaninov one question, what would it be?
I’d ask him how personal his Preludes [the music used in At the edge of night] are to him. Are they autobiographical in any way? I’m sure that’s not something he’d let on! There’s a certain dialogue in them; each of them paint a little picture and set a mood. I sometimes think about the way music assists film – it does the same for choreography. So you imagine a scene, a story, a mood or an atmosphere in the music.
What are the kinds of feelings you want the dancers to communicate on stage?
Each of the Preludes are a little different. The ballet is very oblique, and very cryptic. It’s about a woman looking back on her past. But it’s left open for interpretation; I left it open deliberately. It’s mostly pas de deux, so they naturally have a romantic feel about them. One pas de deux features a dancer who’s an idyllic youth, in the bloom of first love. Another is parting. And another is just a memory. So they have their own stories.
You’ve choreographed works on many companies around the world. What’s it like to be back working with The Australian Ballet?
Well, dance is the same everywhere, really. But the advantage of working with a company where you know the dancers is amazing. You don’t have those barriers to break down. You need to know what your dancers can do. It’s that sort of ease in the studio where you’re not struggling with a stranger. Instead, you feel completely comfortable. Then again, I’ve always said it’s very dangerous to be completely comfortable, but choreography is very exposed. It’s one of those art forms you have to do in public; you can’t do it on your own. When you’re familiar with your dancers you feel more comfortable trying new things, so there’s more room for experimentation.
Do you ever experience the equivalent of writer’s block?
Sometimes you get stuck in the studio, and you freeze, and the dancers are just standing there. But you just throw out some steps out and try something. Once there’s something in front of you it’s very easy to work through that feeling. But in terms of writers’ block before you’ve even started the choreographic process? Well, not really. There’s always a piece of music or an idea that gives you the impetus to start.
Do you have anyone in your creative circle who you bounce your ideas off?
My design team, mostly. Richard Roberts, Michael Pearce and Anna French have been the main ones I’ve worked closely with in the past. I know some directors, too. There’s no one I talk to about choreography, though. You’re kind of on your own on that front!
Image: Stephen Baynes and Daniel Gaudiello. Photography Christopher Tovo