Interview with Sharon Pollock
by Megan Andrews
Photo of Sharon Pollock courtesy of Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada
Sharon Pollock is an internationally renowned Canadian playwright, dramaturge, director and writer. She has collaborated as dramaturge with artistic director and choreographer Igor Dobrovolskiy in the creation of Don Juan and other ballets for Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada (ABTC).
There are many different ideas about the work of a dramaturge in dance. When you worked with Igor Dobrovolskiy on Don Juan specifically, what were your principal contributions to the project?
My contribution to Igor’s creation process is first of all to respond to the early thoughts and visual images generated by his interest in a particular subject, in this case the figure of a charming sexual predator, Don Juan being the iconic figure of such an individual. I researched and explored what other artists have made of this figure although our interest was not in reproduction or adaptation. In a series of meetings, we brainstormed and blue skied the story and characters. I supported the evolution of Igor’s ideas and vision of the piece by questioning and making suggestions. I always find the process exciting and inspiring. I then wrote an early scenario of the narrative, which could be shared with designers. I functioned as “an outside eye” as Igor choreographed. During that period, I’m looking to see if the narrative, characters and relationship among the characters are accessible to an audience. Changes occur in rehearsal that result in changes to the scenario. I responded to design concepts and/or technical effects. I adapted the scenario, incorporating changes, and wrote a “libretto” for the program. I am not a rehearsal director or associate director. I suppose I am a creative consultant when my areas of expertise are compatible with the needs of the production. Personally I am uncomfortable with labels.
The story of Don Juan has a long and varied history, arguably starting in the 1600s, and has been retold in numerous ways. ABTC’s version uses a neoclassical ballet vocabulary and music by George Gershwin from 1924. In developing the narrative and the setting for the ballet, how were the different period, cultural and stylistic references addressed?
I saw our Don Juan as an original, existing in its own world. Its period, cultural and stylistic references were of that imagined world, with that world having some resonance with the audience’s world.
After your initial work with Mr. Dobrovolskiy, do you return to the project at a later stage to work with the dancers and other collaborators? If so, what input do you have at this time?
Igor continues to refine the repertoire and I respond to the changes in personal – one could say informal – dialogue. Igor’s interested in what I have to say and I am interested in seeing the continuing growth of an original work and the reasons behind changes. Often those changes represent a practical concern, an artistic impulse, a great idea that one could not address at the premiere because of the constraints of time.
You’ve also worked with ABTC on Phantom of the Opera and more recently King Lear. Coming from a language-based practice as you do, what is the greatest challenge you’ve experienced in telling stories through a non-verbal mode such as ballet?
Because plays are documented in literary form, as in words on a page, it’s easy to forget that plays live and are realized in performance. It is that performance element that engages me in the theatre. I believe the non-verbal penetrates an audience’s emotions more acutely than the verbal. The challenge for me is not so much how to tell a story through a non-verbal mode, for example ballet, but how to integrate and employ the non-verbal in “a language-based practice” so as to heighten the audience’s engagement.
Does your work in dance feed back into your own writing and directing in any way?
I believe yes. That is one of the joys in working with Igor. I’m inspired by his dedication to his art as well as by his imaginative leaps and intuition. I’m encouraged to explore ways of marrying the “dance” (as in the physical staging) and the “music” (all aural effects) when directing. As a playwright I’m looking to create work in which the non-verbal is integral to the revelation of the play’s plot, character, relationships and meaning.
Writing in 2003, you commented on what you saw as a stasis in Canadian theatre that you linked to a financial and/or artistic deficit in the field. Has this changed? Do you feel familiar enough with Canadian dance to make a comment on what you see?
In our larger theatres, I believe we have created rehearsal, production, and administrative structures that do not support creation. They reproduce rather than create. Small companies are seduced by funding bodies into modeling the structures of larger companies, their conformance to that model being seen as a mark of stability and legitimacy, even by the artists themselves. There are still young artists and indie companies and projects that keep hope alive for me. Since I think the means of creation affect the ends, I’m not familiar enough with structures within Canadian dance companies to comment on their end product, the work. The intense focus on the work and support for creation in every aspect of ABTC’s operation is one of the things that draws me to the company
I have the impression that your concept of theatre may be as broad and inclusive as “live performance”. Do you think it is useful to make distinctions between disciplines of live performance, or are we, even now, working in a more “post-disciplinary” context?
My concept of theatre is as “live performance”. The distinction between disciplines may be useful for marketing or for other purposes, but attaching a label: dance, theatre, opera, etc., can be a block to following the creator(s) artistic impulse and vision for the work. I don’t concern myself with terms. Let others, critics or academics, decide where we are – post-disciplinary, multidisciplinary or whatever. First be true to the muse. Or chorus of muses.
*An excerpted version of this interview appears in the April 2009 print issue of The Dance Current.
Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada presents Don Juan throughout April at various locations in Québec. See www.destinationdancedanse.ca for details.
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