First published in The Herald on 18 February, 2015
Ashley Page is back in Glasgow, though in a new part of town. I meet the dancer, choreographer and former artistic director of Scottish Ballet not at the dance company’s Southside HQ but across the river at the rehearsal studios of Scottish Opera, where he’s directing a new production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, opening tomorrow at the Theatre Royal. “It’s fantastic to be doing something for Scottish audiences again,” he says one night after rehearsals, changing out of his dance shoes and into his winter boots. He always rehearses in dance shoes, he explains, because he always demonstrates the moves. For him, directing from a chair is like trying to tie someone else’s tie. “I built up a very loyal and supportive Scottish audience over the 10 years I was with Scottish Ballet. Only one of my pieces has been done since I left and it doesn’t look like they’re likely to do any more, so it feels like time to have my work seen here again.”
Page’s departure from Scottish Ballet in 2012 came as a shock to audiences, to the dance world and to the director himself. He says he still has no clear idea what went wrong given he put the company back on the international map during his critically-acclaimed era there. He is still sore about the way things happened, but mainly he’s full of bravado on the eve of his second mainstage production as an opera director.
Because for all the murky politics, that abrupt end to Page’s contract at Scottish Ballet has allowed him to launch a whirlwind freelance career. Before he even left the building he was directing a full-length piece for San Francisco Ballet, one of the world’s great dance companies. In 2013, his first year as a freelance director, he created five high-profile international works, from Warsaw to Glyndebourne to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s famed New Year’s Day Concert.
“As I get older I’m more of a believer in fate,” he says. “I never thought I would come to Scotland in the first place, but then a new director messed everything up at Royal Ballet where I had been happy for the previous 26 years and I was head-hunted for the job at Scottish Ballet. I was totally re-energised by that challenge. Then when things came to an end with Scottish Ballet I was very unhappy, but look what’s come out of it. I’m doing all these fabulous projects. I’m nearly 60; if I had stayed on even another five years at Scottish Ballet I wouldn’t have had the energy to kick-start this calibre of freelance career.”
And the shift into opera isn’t such a stretch, he says. “Music has always been my guiding force: it’s so crucial to what happens on any dance stage. I like to get right inside a piece of music. Dance should be like a visual map that helps the viewer to hear the music more clearly.” He remembers something once told to him by the composer Harrison Birtwistle, with whom he worked on several pieces including Earth Dances and Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum in the mid-1980s. “Birtwistle said that music is like a piece of sculpture that you take the listener on a walk around and show them different facets of. That has stuck with me through a lot of my dance pieces. And now opera.”
More broadly, much of the appeal of directing opera comes down to telling stories effectively, Page says. “I started out as a choreographer making risky, edgy short pieces for the Royal Ballet. Room of Cooks, for example” — a brooding piece inspired by a Steven Chambers painting with music by Orlando Gough — “that was like a scene from a David Lynch film. Really heavy on atmosphere. My work then was mostly abstract and obscure. I was just dipping my toe into telling stories, without actually telling stories.”
When he arrived at Scottish Ballet in 2002, the company needed a new repertoire of full-length classic narrative ballets like The Nutcracker and Cinderella. “We didn’t have money to commission anyone else to do them so I gave them a shot myself” says Page. “And suddenly I found I was really enjoying telling stories, and that I had an approach that seemed to work.”
He directed his first full-length opera last summer at Nevill Holt Opera, a new country-house company in Leicestershire for which he updated Puccini’s La bohème to beat-generation Greenwich Village. It worked so well that he’s back to direct the same company’s new production of Bizet’s Carmen this summer.
Gluck’s Orfeo is an obvious choice of opera for a dance-minded director, for the simple reason that it has a lot of dance in it. The original Italian version of the score was first performed Vienna in 1762, then 12 years later Gluck reworked it as Orphée et Eurydice for Paris audiences, in particular a certain Marie Antoinette. Many productions today mix-and-match bits of both editions, as Scottish Opera will be doing. Kenneth Montgomery conducts the original Vienna score, but there was no question of Page omitting the Dance of the Furies or the Dance of the Blessed Spirits that Gluck added for Paris.
“Sure, dancers and singers are a different breed,” he says when asked whether the transition into opera has been smooth. As an example, he gestures the air around him, drawing my attention to the room temperature. Scottish Opera’s rehearsal studio feels several degrees warmer than usual — “it’s because the dancers need to move without injuring themselves,” he explains. “Whereas for the singers, the air is too dry and threatens their throats.” He laughs. “You see? The beauty of cross-art-form compromises! Actually, we’re all getting along very nicely…”
Page has added eight dancers to the cast of Orfeo, but I suspect we’ll see the effect of his movement direction on every person on stage. He describes the long scene in which Orfeo (played by the mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup) and Euridice (soprano Lucy Hall) emerge from the underworld. “They’re falling out, making up… It’s a real domestic.” Orfeo mustn’t look at his wife — Hades has forbidden it — and the moment when he finally cracks must be one of the most studied gestures in all of Western culture. Page is plainly aware that he is working on the scene with singers, not trained dancers, but says he is determined to capture the potent body language needed to convey that moment.
One of the most poignant aspects of the production will be the look of it, because its designer, Johan Engels, died unexpectedly in early November. Engels had created the designs for Orfeo in the summer of 2013 then came to Glasgow last summer to work with John Liddell, Scottish Opera’s head of costume. In practical terms he had already signed off the work, but for Page, the act of realising what Engels wasn’t able to see is plainly emotional. The two first met in 2012 when they worked on the Vienna New Year’s concert together. Page describes Engels as “very gregarious, very generous. I felt like we knew each other much longer than we had. I keep expecting him to walk in. We’re dedicating these performances to him.”
Orfeo ed Euridice opens 19 February at Theatre Royal, Glasgow