Featured Choreographer: Rachel Birch-Lawson
Photo: Raphael Klatzko
How did you get into choreography?
After graduating from The Place (2003-2006), I combined performing, choreographing, and teaching, but quite quickly I moved my focus more fully towards choreography, and now that’s the frame through which I look at all my work. I do still teach, and I do still perform, but the core is my choreographic practice: I only really perform in my own work, and the workshops I deliver are about sharing my choreographic experience, and stimulating creativity for aspiring makers or performers. I’m interested in the unique stories that each person, each body tells, and I see my job to facilitate the performer to draw out that story.
I have a background and love of music – and can read scores well – which led me into work in musical theatre, and opera, and then into theatre. My passions are words, particularly poetry, and movement, so I’ve always sought ways to bring those together.
Can you share with us some highlights of your choreographic career and your current engagements?
One piece I’m really proud of is Frugal Feasts (2011). It felt really full, putting my whole heart and soul on stage, and it marked a shift in my making.
I’ve enjoyed the recent musical theatre works I’ve directed/choreographed for Youth Music Theatre UK (YMT), two at Sadler’s Wells/Lilian Baylis, one at the Bussey Building. These are major pieces of new writing by exciting composers and librettists, each with a cast of about 40 dancer-singer-actors, and are really exciting: we’re creating a new genre – dance-theatre/music-theatre, through-danced, through-composed and through-sung.
Another piece that stands out is Sea Story, a really magical work that toured 2014-16 – a low-tech, high spectacle show for younger audiences. We got a lot of great responses for that, and we’d love to tour it again before too long. I also choreographed a Christmas show for Cahoots NI that used magic and illusions. That was fun.
Currently, I’m working on a new piece commissioned by The Gulbenkian, supported by South East Dance, To The Moon. It’s still early in the process, but I’m really excited.
I’m also studying a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) at Trinity Laban, developing a new piece for YMT’s 2018 summer season, choreographing a music video, and developing a series of workshops to take students or recent graduates through the basics of fundraising and project management – sort of “lessons from the front line!”.
Finally, I’m proud to have been re-elected to the 2017-2019 Equity Dance Committee.
Can you tell us about some highlights and challenges of working with a creative team over the past few years?
Working with bigger creative teams, lots can go wrong – creative clashes, personality clashes, and just the stress of putting on productions with lots of moving parts. Sometimes I feel that I spend all my time outside of the rehearsal room, liaising, coordinating and responding to questions.
Professionalism is important; I don’t buy into the idea of the ‘flaky’ artist, and I have very little tolerance for people who don’t manage their time well, arrive late, or otherwise hold up the rest of the team – however I have endless patience for someone who’s struggling, overworked, or getting stuck. It’s all about communication. I also find it very hard working with people who are harsh, or give ‘tough love’ in the studio – even if it’s not directed towards me, it makes me very uncomfortable. I want a safe and supportive atmosphere.
Things that I find help include a compelling vision greater than the sum of its parts; and laying out expectations and priorities at the start of a project. I’m learning to be quicker to pick up on signs that things aren’t working, but I do avoid conflict, and avoiding a difficult conversation early on can lead to bigger problems further down the line.
It takes a lot of energy to facilitate multiple peoples’ processes, to hold a sense of safety in the rehearsal room, and to hear and value everyone’s voice. Having my core team is important: my partner Khyle Eccles is my right-hand man on most projects. We have different tastes and perspectives, but fundamentally we agree on what makes good work, and he’s prepared to challenge my ideas and critique my decisions.
How has your choreographic process and work developed over time?
It feels chaotic in the moment, but of course I can see patterns. Looking back at early works I can see the threads of my current interests and ideas that have matured into more interesting concepts.
Moving from project to project, I get to work with incredible artists, which is so inspiring, and the demands of different projects push me into new ways of working. There’s been an organic unfolding of skills and interests.
The movement material is unique to each performer: when I’ve remounted works (for example, Macbeth, in 2012, 2014, 2015 – the same production each time with different casts), I remade the choreography with the new cast members. It wasn’t completely from scratch, but each time I worked the people in the room, as they were at that time: their skills, their background, their personalities, and drew out from them specific and personal movement material.
I enjoy the interplay between different kinds of work. Sometimes I get to dig into the ‘meat’ and content of a work; other times I get to hone my skill in crafting; sometimes both. With bigger shows, with more moving parts and larger casts, it’s largely about piecing the work together, and trying to unify disparate threads.
Over time, I’ve become clearer, less compromising, and more aware of the idiosyncrasies of my way of working. It’s easy to find yourself in a place where you think something you do is patently obvious, and that it’s the way everyone must do it. Other times I think I’ve discovered something brand new, and then realise it’s standard practice!
How do you select and work with your collaborators and partners?
I grew up in a trade unionist, activist, artist household, so art as something we make with other people, for other people has always been part of my world view.
Fundamentally, I want to feel valued and heard at work, and I want other people to feel that too. This should be fun, as well as challenging; it should be a safe space to take risks, to be pushed and questioned, and where we’re all working towards a common aim. That’s what I try and ascertain when I meet a collaborator: do we share similar values? Do we care about the same things? From there, we can find a way to work.
I want to work with friendly, interesting people whom I enjoy spending time with. I look for a mix of personality, bravery, willingness (to ‘have a go’) and good humour. It’s a subtle art: sometimes you find a collaborator you really like and whose work you admire, but you can’t get on the same page creatively on a specific project; that’s hard, because you can’t be angry, or identify what the problem is. It’s about language; it’s about trying again and again to find different ways to communicate with one another until something clicks.
When I’m making work, I’m all in, so I look for that too: will you give it everything you’ve got? That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s fine – but it’s how I work. Having said that, I’m always aware that whilst we’re making work, real life is going on too – family, relationships, health, money, all the things that make up a person’s experience. I try to take that into consideration: people don’t come into the rehearsal room in isolation, and the work environment has to make space for that, I think.
What are your short- and long-term plans?
To keep building the work I’m doing! I enjoy the range and variety. I would like to expand my work in theatre, opera and musical theatre further, and also my work in vocational settings.
I’m not ambitious in and of itself – I don’t mind the size of stage my work is performed on, or how ‘high profile’ it is; but I am ambitious, in the sense that I think my work is high-quality and impactful – it makes people think and feel, and I want to continue to do that, reaching more people, reaching more widely. And that means looking for increased visibility, increased support.
What are some of the main challenges, do you think, that young choreographers are faced with today?
Where to start?! It’s incredibly difficult to carve out – and it really does feel like carving, out of stone sometimes – a career. It’s easy to feel powerless. There are the obvious challenges of making a living, navigating the closed doors, and the unanswered emails.
It can be lonely being the choreographer: you spend a lot of energy fostering community and a sense of cohesion between performers, and fundamentally you’re on the ‘outside’ of that experience. It’s important to find your home, a place where there’s trust and support to try stuff, to take risks, and where there’s a community of people who challenge and inspire you.
It’s important to keep questioning: who’s the work for? Why does it deserve people’s money, time, or attention? It’s easy to be frustrated by the box-ticking nature of funding applications, but those questions about engagement and outreach can be a chance to consider from the outset the impact you want to have on the wider world – the world beyond dance. If you’re asking for people’s attention, what are you offering in return? It could be enjoyment, discomfort, challenge, uncertainty, risk. But offer something.
You have to be able to critically look at your work and say: yes, that’s good. Objectively. Not just because I made it! I’d pay to see it. I want others to see it. I think they need to see it, because I think it will offer them an experience they won’t get elsewhere. That’s the pull that will help you keep making – that will give you the courage to pick up the phone or write an email and ask for a platform.
What advice would you give to emerging choreographers?
Find your mission, your values. Know what you stand for – what purpose you want your work to have! Care about the people you work with. Care about the people who come to see your work.
On a practical level – get good with money. Save, because sometimes work just dries up. Get confident and competent managing budgets.
Be organised. Be professional. Answer emails. Do things on time. Apologise when things are late. We’re all human! But take it as seriously as any other job.
Get involved with your trade union. It’s practical support, and a community – one of those ‘homes’.
Don’t try to be all things to all people – in your work, your funding applications, or the way you conduct yourself. Be comfortable to say no to things that aren’t right for you. Paradoxically, say yes to lots of different things, because you’ll make connections and learn along the way.
Be kind to yourself – this is a hard job: sometimes the scariest thing is when someone says ‘yes’ – ‘yes’ you can have the funding, ‘yes’ we want you to perform – because you’re already exhausted and that’s only the beginning. Then you have to get up and do all the hard work of making the piece.
Be resilient – keep going. But also take time to register the disappointments: it really hurts when a piece is rejected, or when something doesn’t work. So, take some time to be sad, and look after yourself. Then get back up again and try something new.
There are lots of downsides to this job: insecurity, struggles, finances. But I’ve learnt to embrace the upsides: the freedom to arrange my own time and schedule, travel, and a sense of autonomy. Enjoy those things.