Navigating the routes to ‘being’: Julie Cunningham talks process & fire bird

Words by Katie Hagan.

“It’s my own story, I guess, exploring the contradictions within myself. I feel like I am so many different things in my own body and making fire bird was a way to reconcile the ways of being that I experience.”

Dance artist Julie Cunningham has accumulated an array of dance identities over an illustrious career. The dancer trained at Rambert, moved to New York to dance for the Merce Cunningham Company and then returned to the UK to work with the Michael Clark Company. After absorbing various techniques or as Julie elucidates various ways ‘to be’, in 2017 it was no doubt time for the emerging choreographer to create their own company. 

Three years later, the award-winning artist has a sold-out Barbican Pit run to their name, fellowships, and is performing an abstract interpretation of the well-oiled ballet ‘The Fire Bird’ at NOW 20, programmed by The Yard Theatre

Originally performed by Ballet Russes in the pre-war utopia of 1910, ‘The Fire Bird’ was conceived by the collaboration between artist Alexandre Benois and choreographer Michel Fokine, who drafted in Igor Stravinsky to create a score which captured the zeitgeist of the 20thcentury.

As we speak over the phone, Julie expresses to me that when setting the fire bird there was less interest in rehashing the well-loved ballet and more focus on the enduring enigma that is Stravinsky’s irresistible music. For Julie, the music ignites all that is personal and intimate; it is Julie’s opportunity to spend 45 minutes digging into and stripping away parts of the soul which otherwise wouldn’t be uncovered. 

Refreshingly, Julie has released ‘The Fire Bird’ from the shackles of meaning and has boldly decided to make a piece of work purely because the human body enjoys dancing to it. And we will be fortunate to see a body bare itself onstage; encountering all its fibres, complexities and histories to a piece of music which has stirred listeners for well over a hundred years.  

“The music is so powerful. I can’t even say I’m listening to it, as it feels way more sensitive than that. I try to embody Stravinsky’s score so there is no separation between me and the music. I want to be completely connected to all of its facets so it is inside of me, so I am filled to the brim with sound.” 

Such a lucid relationship with the music hasn’t meant the creative journey has been without disruption. When we start to speak of this process, Julie explains being caught between wanting to make a solo and laying in total fear of embarking on an independent piece. The conversation cooled on my part, as admittedly I’d been accustomed to (some) artists being very optimistic about how they make work. Sensing my trepidation Julie calmly put me at ease, informing me these forces, tensions and uncertainties are vital to the creative journey. 

“When setting the piece, I would do the whole 45 minutes even if I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d play and repeat; I’d note the things that I would do in relation to the music, and then I’d create a map of the space and fill in more details as and when.” As creators we often let reflection fall to the wayside, in doubt of not making the most of the precious time we do have. Julie has identified a process which is realistic yet organic, where there is faith in what will be or not. “The fire bird is set but there is still scope for possibility – for me to find things. Things will reappear if they are within me.”

In terms of what will emerge from Julie’s body, can we expect anything from fire bird? There’s no place for linearity here, I’m afraid, and rightly so! “My work is connected with my personal history and lived experiences.” Whose life is straightforward? “Sometimes I get put into the queer box and that is fine because I am queer, but that doesn’t mean my work is all about that. It is part of who I am, so naturally it’ll be present in anything that I do. The movement always comes from a need to do what I want to do and feel present within whatever I am exploring.”

“For that reason I try not to think that my work is one thing or another. I don’t really want to repeat myself! It is important for me to keep growing and continuing to try things that I am not comfortable with.” 

I omitted some of the stock questions I usually ask purely because they dripped from significance. But as I began to tie-up the phone call, Julie said I’d missed one from the list I’d presented to her hours before. I was a bit embarrassed and feared this was the greatly-anticipated question. Damn. “I want to be a painter”, Julie interjected gleefully. “I imagine that it would just be so nice… it’s a physical thing and another way to think.” 

Perhaps in the not too distant future, painting might become another way for Julie to ‘be’. 

Julie Cunningham Company’s fire bird runs at NOW 20 festival, The Yard Theatre from 28thJan – 1stFeb, to catch it before it flies away, get your tickets here

Image: Johan Persson.