Photo Mikael Örtenheim

Dancer and Choreographer: Georgie Rose about her “Seven Deadly Sins”

Just recovering from major foot surgery, Georgie Rose, a dancer with Norwegian National Ballet since 2015, cheerfully speaks to me the day after the world premiere of a film of the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht opera The Seven Deadly Sins, which has been live streamed around the world. She was responsible for the choreography and dancing the role of Anna 2.

What are your initial impressions now that the work is completed?

I feel as if I’ve had a bit of a cerebral crash after the excitement of the opera – I’ve been in a bit of a daze. I get withdrawal because I get so obsessed when I choreograph. I live and breathe it all. When it stops, I’m in limbo and it’s when I know I’m in the right job, because the work is my oxygen.

I got to be part of the editing which was wonderful. As a dancer you would never normally be able to say what you do and don’t like or which angles look good, but I sent pages of notes through after the first edit and the director approved them. They all got adjusted! That was a new element – I’m not used to being consulted in that way.

The opera is unusual – it’s not the kind of thing I would have said immediately, was right for me. But I’m at a point in my career that I’m just so happy to try everything. The more strings to my bow, the more powerful the arrow. All these things will make me a better choreographer, a better artist. A German opera by Brecht and Weill with cabaret is not everybody’s cup of tea, but I’ve got a much deeper level of understanding for it now.

“Serenade” Photo Erik Berg
“Agon” with Garrett Smith, Photo Erik Berg

How did it all come about?

It was a collaboration. We have this women’s choreographic workshop. There’s a bit of walking on eggshells – it’s fantastic that female choreographers are being given a platform here, on an equal footing with men but we must preserve the balance. During these workshops we have had a lot of discussion about leadership. It was really interesting and I love the psychology around that. It’s not just about choreographing but how to be a leader. I felt that particularly with this opera because I had so many responsibilities. We had some seminars, listening to Marit Moum Aune – she’s directed ballets, TV, theatre – everything. We had some really good, thought provoking conversations. The opera project came up with Hanne Tømta, the director who is a friend of Ingrid Lorentzen’s and Marit’s. She’s a very famous theatre director in Norway and this was her first commission at the Opera. She needed a choreographer and Ingrid and Marit suggested me. I was really touched that the faith was there! I think they realised that this was going to need somebody who really liked to look into the depth of the concept and not just make some lovely moves to the music. They needed someone who would really listen to the score, the history of when it was made, look into other productions, someone that loves doing the background checks. I loved working on a fully-fledged piece and seeing what I could do with it. It was liberating in a way that I wouldn’t have thought.

 How was your experience of working with opera singers?

Obviously their voices are beautiful but the way they came out of their shells was wonderful. I did have to earn their trust a bit, but I had some breakthrough moments. That feeling of knowing that I had their trust – it was euphoric! I saw their potential go in leaps and bounds, their acting, their movement, their concentration. My heart melted!

I think the original plan was that I was just going to choreograph for Anna 2, the dancer. I don’t know whether it was Hanne who had the trust and was maybe curious to see my ideas or if it was a pre-meditated plan. In any other production the singers only sing. Right at the start I was keen to discover how I could play with it. My mind was a labyrinth, full of ways we could say things, this completely new potential.

“Anna Karenina” with Gakuro Matsui , Photo Erik Berg
“The Seven Deadly Sins” Photo Erik Berg

I watched them rehearsing the other piece on the bill, Gianni Schicchi, and I noticed that a couple of them had such an organic response, they were already feeling it and I just thought, brilliant! I can work with that. As somebody who isn’t a natural extrovert, I know that they have it in them but you have to find the correct way to connect to them and bring it out. I think going with a visual concept rather than describing it verbally, because they are so visual, and so emotionally intelligent helped. They were malleable – I tried to shift that idea of the emotion that you’re feeling when you’re singing, translates into the body, extends into a gesture and so it becomes like this pathway. As somebody who’s suffered with confidence “hits”, like every artist and human being, I was aware of not over-challenging too many times a day, but rather spreading it out. Although we had a very small time period, that was part of my planning, keeping your artists confident, engaged, focused and enjoying themselves. I’m reading book at the moment by the Serbian conceptual artist, Marina Abramović, and she is obsessed by the idea that the end product means almost nothing. It’s the process that’s important.  It’s the ashes of the whole project that is the product. It can be challenging and turbulent, but it still has to mean something and bring something to their lives. It shouldn’t be empty, dogsbody work to get to the end jewel.

 How did you feel about speaking on stage?

Speaking – no problem. Speaking in another language such as German, however… I was chatting with the conductor one day. He said, “I love the way you command the studio, you address the singers, you have control of the room with the way you speak, it comes from the gut – it needs to be the same when you say your lines.” He wanted me to find that same place. It was not just about pronouncing the words correctly, but about saying them with the right emotion and responding to the singers in the right way, keeping it alive. It was so alien to me but I love testing comfort zones. We’re all capable of so much more than we realise. It’s scary to think of how much potential goes untapped. And acting – it’s a different universe to ballet acting. It’s maybe something we all need to explore in this new age of dance and film. I absolutely loved it and it was so liberating being somebody else, diving into Anna 2. I missed her when it stopped. She has her vulnerability, her sensuality, her tantrums – a great array of emotions. I’ve always been attracted to the dramatic roles and I would hope that I would bring that realness and sincerity. I wasn’t always sure how it was going but there was one day when I was told, “No more intensity in those crying scenes, that’s enough!” I just felt that once I got going, I couldn’t stop!

 Did you have a very tight brief?

When you‘re allowed to do your own thing, it depends on whether that’s perceived as a dream or a nightmare, but I’ve always believed as a choreographer you should always do your research. The audience doesn’t necessarily have to see it, but if you’ve done the work, it gives you the confidence, which is harder to shake and is ridiculously integral as a choreographer – crucial! You bring the atmosphere to the room, you set the precedent for the creativity of that day. If you have a crack in the glass, that day will shatter. I am somebody that does prepare for things and this was a great test for me. How can one prepare when you are not sure what you’re are preparing for? The first thing I did was request the score as well as a translation. I did a brush up course on how to sight-read music with my cousin, who is a violinist, because I wanted to have the correct vocabulary for addressing the musical score, to refer to it with the respect that an opera commands. I armed myself with at least some understanding of how to read a score. I think they appreciated me trying. One thing I did during a lunch break was to call a meeting to talk to the singers individually, to find out what they felt about their characters. It’s important with a narrative that each person is invested in the character they’re playing. I couldn’t have done it without them. It was worth the research because on the first day we had about 12 people sitting in the front: the director, the stage managers, the conductor and assistant conductor, the pianist, a sneaky producer in the corner and of course all the artists. It was terrifying for a millisecond and then after that it was pure, uninhibited excitement. What an opportunity! It was overwhelming at moments, but my soul was so “in it” that it was worth every drop of blood.

 At the age of 7 you were diagnosed with physical Tourette’s, which made you experience involuntary tics?

Yes, I have gaps in my memory. When I was younger I used to think I’d been through some pretty rough times but now I see my past as having provided me with a huge vault, filled with inspiration. It’s really my perspective on my life in my memory, so I’m not sure it’s the best thing to rely on.

You started learning ballet with your mother, the former Royal Ballet dancer Julie Rose.

She wasn’t actually that keen on me pursuing it as a career because she knew it was a tough life so she steered me away from it. But she saw from a very early age, and it’s common with people who have Tourette’s, that I had a special relationship with music. I have to have music on 24 hours a day – I sleep with it, I wake up to it. It’s interesting, although ballet taught me to control the tics and help me develop muscle awareness, when I get tired or stressed they still come out, even now. So it wasn’t the original reason that I started ballet but my mother couldn’t deny that it was having a positive effect.

Eli Kristin Hansveen and Georgie Rose in “The Seven Deadly Sins” Photo by Erik Berg

I think we all wanted to join the Royal Ballet at the school but I have so loved the route I have taken. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to come back to England in some shape or form whether it’s visiting or guesting or creating – I will always have an attachment to England. In terms of the future, I have to think about what capabilities I have and what I can do with them. My mind is overflowing with ideas. I wouldn’t like to say that my future is limited to just Norway. It’s my home at the moment and I’m sure it’s always going to be a place with which I’ve got a very strong connection. Of course I’d love to choreograph for the main stage, Covid aside, I’d love to do a piece for large numbers. I am very inspired by the big pieces I see today and in the spirit of taking me out of my comfort zone, to do a large group number, my mind is brimming with ideas. I’d like to think I’ve only just reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my potential to create. But yes, main stage is the dream. I’m not ready to transition completely – I want the two paths of dancing and choreography to interweave for a while. I think I am going to find that there is a natural tipping point, the right moment and I hope I’ll have done the groundwork to choreograph. I know that I’m somebody who, if I was taken away from the artistic world for too long I’d lose my mind. In terms of dancing, I’ve still got a good few years inside me. I secretly feel I’ve got my best years ahead but maybe every dancer thinks that! I have been told for so long that I’m a late developer and I feel it. I think my mind and body have taken a while to catch up with each other but my choreography has helped to feel more confident in my dancing. In the light of this new age of filming and with the idea that the process is just as important as the end product, I’d be really interested in somebody filming me during the creation process. You’d bring the audience along with you on the journey. People are so fascinated now to see what goes on behind the curtain. I wouldn’t be afraid to be vulnerable or revealing, because when I’m there – it’s tunnel vision. The other thing I’d love to do is direct and choreograph an opera! It’s curious, I was perceived as being wired slightly incorrectly, but what I’m beginning to realise is, it is this vault of ”abnormal” which is untapped potential and originality.

Interview by Deborah Weiss