When a Spice Girl Met a Contemporary Dancer
The British choreographer Jules Cunningham is a creator of brainy, austerely meditative works that have taken on the gender-warping themes of the poet Kae Tempest and the dark emotions of the playwright Sarah Kane. Melanie Chisholm is a pop star (Sporty Spice or Mel C), a member of the Spice Girls, the all-female group that was a global sensation in the 1990s, and is still resoundingly famous.
Not much overlap, apparently. But for the past week, Cunningham (who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they and them) and Chisholm, alongside the dancer Harry Alexander, have been performing onstage together to packed audiences at Sadler’s Wells in Cunningham’s new work “How Did We Get Here?,” which runs through Sunday.
Set to an extract from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” songs by Nina Simone and Janis Ian and an electronic score by Wibke Tiarks, the calmly contemplative trio shows the influences of Cunningham’s career — 10 years with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (no relation), then another three dancing with the Michael Clark Company. Long-held balances, elongated, balletic lines and abrupt switches of direction and dynamic are asked of all three performers, tempered with more tender, personal interactions. (And yes, Chisholm and Cunningham have a little singing moment.)
How did they get there?
It turns out that there is quite a lot of overlap between Cunningham, 43, and Chisholm, 49, who are both from the north of England, and who both studied dance seriously in their teens before going on to performing careers. (Chisholm studied ballet, tap and jazz dance and went to the Bird College performing arts school — which Alexander also attended — before joining the Spice Girls.) And Cunningham was a Spice Girls fan who subsequently followed Chisholm’s career as a solo artist, and had long admired her dancing and her presence.
When Cunningham met up in March with Alistair Spalding, the artistic director and chief executive of Sadler’s Wells, they mentioned that they would love to work with Chisholm.
“Jules told me that Mel was a role model for them,” Spalding said in a recent phone interview. “We weren’t thinking that Mel would be in the piece, but I said, ‘Why don’t we get you together and see what happens.’ Next thing they were heading for the studio.”
He added: “It might look like getting a famous person to come in, but it was really an artistic idea, and I knew that Jules had the integrity to make something real out of it.” (The critics agreed, praising Chisholm for her integration with the two, far more experienced, concert dancers.)
In an interview backstage at Sadler’s Wells over the weekend, Cunningham and Chisholm talked about their unlikely meeting of minds and bodies, and about what they learned from the process. Here are edited extracts from the conversation.
Jules, was Alistair taken aback when you mentioned that you would like to work with Melanie?
JULES CUNNINGHAM He was a bit surprised, knowing the kinds of things I do. This seemed like different worlds colliding, but since I was a young person, the Spice Girls have been very present for me. I feel like they are in the world more than religion; you hear them referred to all the time. But the mind is a bit of a mystery — you imagine possible collaborations, dream about things without really knowing what could happen. It’s part of being an artist.
Melanie, what did you think when Sadler’s Wells approached you? Were you familiar with the contemporary dance landscape?
MELANIE CHISHOLM Not at all. I did tap, ballet, modern, jazz dance at college, but contemporary was a world I found intimidating. I had worked in musical theater a bit, had seen some ballet, some dance on television, but almost nothing contemporary. So when Alistair came to me, I thought, are they pulling my leg? For a young person growing up in the north and wanting to be a dancer, Sadler’s Wells was just an amazing, legendary place.
I felt I had to explore it even though it was daunting.
How did the first meeting go?
CHISHOLM It was like a cup of tea with a friend!
CUNNINGHAM We talked for ages. A few days later we went into the studio, which is when Harry joined us. We did a warm-up together. Then, it was about trying things out, getting to know each other’s physicality, how Mel felt in different situations. She was so physically trained that I never felt there was a gap between what we could do and what she could do. There was so much she had in her body. That’s the subject of the piece: what a person physically holds, how the body speaks.
I had that idea from the beginning, but when you work with dancers, you are working through other bodies and that gives you different ideas. You need to let a piece take its own shape, find a balance between knowing what you want and allowing it to happen. We talked a lot about the emotional body. It’s a kind of intelligence that isn’t always recognized.
CHISHOLM I remembered that that’s the joy of being a dancer. You are so in tune with your body, the way it can really affect, or reflect, the way you feel emotionally. The piece is about life, about emotion, about feeling, and I had to show my life and my experiences.
The process was fascinating for me because it’s such a different world to the one I’ve inhabited. When you are rehearsing for a concert or a video, you learn the choreography just beforehand. This all took so much time. Sometimes it tested my patience, but it reminded me to get back to the creative process, to allow things to breathe and grow. The trust between the three of us couldn’t have happened without the time we took.
How did the score evolve? Melanie, did you have any input?
CHISHOLM Not at all, it was all down to Jules. Their musical knowledge is very eclectic and has opened a new world of sound to me, like Meredith Monk, who inspired the little bit of singing that we do together. And the opening number — a Nina Simone version of “Stars,” all about the experience of fame — I identified with immediately.
CUNNINGHAM That track was the starting point for the piece. There is a video on YouTube of Simone performing it, and you can feel the emotion in every sound she makes and note she plays. I wanted to find a way of being with all of that in the dance, not leaving it to the side.
How has working together influenced you?
CHISHOLM Dancing has reminded me of so much I loved and left behind. I feel so inspired watching Jules and Harry and the whole team making music, lighting, costumes, and their dedication to the art. It has been an education in patience — for me and for them, because it took me so much longer to memorize the choreography, to have the stamina and ability.
I work in an industry in which you are expected to do things in a certain way, and this has given me the courage to tear up that book and trust my instincts as an artist. I am going back to the studio to make an album this year, and I am going to be brave.
CUNNINGHAM I’ve been forced to push myself in different ways, and that got me out of whatever place I was in mentally, and into a completely different space, which I am so grateful for. I have some thoughts about what I want to do next, but first, I want to reflect on all of this.
CHISHOLM If you work with another Spice Girl, I will be extremely jealous.