Saturday 9 July 2016

Double the energy - I chat to Ella Marchment & Leo Geyer about Constella Opera Ballet

Constella Ballet & Orchestra, Helios Collective - Stravinsky Renard - 2015
Constella Ballet & Orchestra, Helios Collective - Stravinsky Renard - 2015
Individually, both the director Ella Marchment and the composer/conductor Leo Geyer both have history; both are young and both have founded their own companies. Ella's Helios Collective has presented some highly innovative small scale opera productions, whilst Leo's own orchestra has developed into Constella Ballet and Orchestra. And the two worked together last year on a programme which combined Stravinsky's Renard with The Soldier's Tale.

Ella Marchment
Ella Marchment
Now they have joined forces to develop Constella Opera Ballet, a company intent on combining opera and dance with performance in unusual and innovative venues. I met up with the pair of them at the Royal Opera House, where they were rehearsing, to catch up and talk architecture pods, coal-mining, the Brontës, orchestral music from Auschwitz, and gardening.

Individually I have known Ella and Leo for some time, first seeing Ella's work in 2013 when Helios presented The Bear Goes Walkabout which combined Walton's The Bear with a specially commissioned pieces from Philip Ashworth and Joel Rust. And I first reviewed Leo's Constella Orchestra in 2012 when they performed a programme which included Stravinsky's complete Pulcinella. In fact Ella directed by opera The Genesis of Frankenstein with Helios last year, and she emphasises that her work with Helios will continue in parallel with her work with Constella.

Leo Geyer
Leo Geyer
Ella and Leo have spent the last nine months re-focusing Constella as Constella Opera Ballet with a new artistic vision which places opera and ballet on equal terms, fusing the two together. Both Ella and Leo feel that they are the first company to do so in this way. The two first met 18 months ago and talk of a co-production led to their double bill of Stravinsky. They enjoyed working together so much that they decided to pursue it, seeing something unique. Ella found it very different to the way she would rehearse an opera, finding the more collaborative process very appealing.

Rather impressively, they have four major projects planned for the next two years, with the main focus of their activities planned until 2020. The company has great support too, not only do they have a series of innovative partners but support from the Royal Opera House means that they have been rehearsing there.

Interviewing Ella and Leo jointly is quite an experience, both are full of ideas and enthusiasm, almost finishing each other's sentences and clearly feeding off each other artistically as ideas and information tumble out.

Their main project in the coming year is The Canary Boys, which involves an architecture firm (Studio Evans Lane), coal miners and a media organisation (the Media Trust). The architecture firm is designing a bespoke touring installation, creating a pod from a converted shipping container which will use hydraulics to double the performing space, whilst TV screens will create an immersive space. The pod will tour, giving new audiences a preview of the full Canary Boys a work inspired by coal-mining which combines opera, ballet and play with music by Leo.

Short performances in the pod will introduce the work to people who might not go to the theatre, offering free bite-sized samples incorporating play, movement and song, almost like a trailer for the full show, and to raise awareness of both minority arts and heritage (the last deep coal-mine in the UK closed last December). So The Canary Boys is more than a simple music theatre piece, and both Ella and Leo feel they have a duty to keep heritage alive, otherwise a vital part of UK heritage would be lost. It clearly appeals to them that they will be combining two potentially opposed things (opera//ballet and mining heritage) both of which are fighting for survival.
The company has been doing outreach workshops at schools in Kent and in Barnsley, two areas associated with coal mining. The children had no experience of opera or ballet, to collaborating with them to create a big theatre piece meant making unexpected discoveries as they engaged with a mixture of art-forms.

Constella Ballet and Orchestra - Clown of Clowns - 2015
Constella Ballet and Orchestra - Clown of Clowns - 2015
Neither Ella nor Leo has any family links to coal-mining, but their dramaturg working on the piece has connections both to the Kent coal mines and to the new Kent Mining Museum in Betteshanger Park, built on the site of Kent's last working coal mine. Ella happened to be working with the playwright Luke Barnes (writer of Bottleneck) which led to him writing the libretto for The Canary Boys, an incorporating into it a lot of mining history. Luke had never done an opera before and the process of creating the piece between Luke, Leo, Ella and their team has been very collaborative.

The larger scale piece will be performed in tandem with the short taster performances, but not in traditional theatre spaces. Instead they will be using underground or industrial spaces, so that the experience the audiences have, either in the pod or in these performance spaces, will echo the confinement. Ella feels that the opera experience is very much about environment, what is around the audience in order to create an experience rather than an event. And this is a thread running through a lot of the work Ella has done, not just with Constella.

Whilst The Canary Boys is the company's main focus at the moment, they are also evolving a piece about the orchestras of Auschwitz. This came about because Leo was commissioned to write a small piece in memory of Sir Martin Gilbert, the historian who specialised in modern Jewish history. Leo did a research trip to Auschwitz and met the archivist there and discovered the collection of orchestral scores which were used by orchestra playing in the camp. The music has been barely looked at by historians and never played since the camp closed. Leo returned to Poland recently, and spent three days at Auschwitz studying the music.

Whilst Leo will be writing the original commission, there is so much material and so much to tell that he and Ella are creating a larger opera ballet for 2018 which will incorporate music which Leo has found in the Auschwitz scores. Whilst Leo will be re-imagining the music, the result will have a different sound world to Leo's regular musical style; the music is tonal, and Leo found a surprising sense of optimism in the Auschwitz scores.

Another project involves the intriguing combination of architectural sculpture, dancers and garden designer. Conversations with Forms will culminate in a garden for the Royal Horticultural Society Garden Show at Hampton Court in 2017. Both the garden and the music being written are inspired by Barbara Hepworth's garden in St Ives. The garden will be designed by Bethany Williams and Stuart Charles Towner (who together won RHS Gold Medal Winner and Best in Show at the 2015 Hampton Court show) and will incorporate a performance platform where a small group of musicians and dancers will be able to perform. As the piece will be performed during the Hampton Court show, Ella and Leo regard this as a good way to expand to audience reach, and expand the way opera/ballet can be consumed.

It will be a rather abstract piece, reflective in mood. The performance element can be removed from the garden context and will be performed like this at Morley College who are one of the sponsors of the piece, which is also supported by the Barbara Hepworth Estate.

Glasstown in masterclass 2015
Glasstown in Helios Collective's Formations Masterclass 2015
Another piece in the planning stage is Playing with Glass, involving the Brontës. This arises out of Glasstown a piece inspired by the Brontë sibling's early stories, which Ella and Leo were developing with writer Martin Kratz and choreographer Jaered Glavin and which they tried out at the Helios Collective's Formations master classes last year (see my article). Since the masterclasses they have gone back to the drawing board, re-structuring it and introducing more speaking. They both feel that they are getting close to having a performing version of the work. Glasstown will be performed with another Brontë inspired work, Shattered Love which evokes Charlotte Brontë's obsession with her teacher Constantin Héger using the letters Charlotte wrote to him (which were kept by his wife). The piece looks at how Charlotte Brontë falls apart between writing the letters, and uses the music of Arthur Butterworth (who live close to where the Brontës were brought up). As it is the character of the Brontës which links the two works, it is appropriate the performances will be linked to the Brontë Society's bicentennial celebrations (Charlotte's 200th anniversary this year, and Branwell's next year).

It is evident that Ella, Leo and Constella have a lot of work ticking away over the next few years. Some of these are big works, with large artistic teams, and they are involving Ella and Leo in a very collaborative way of working. They have a lot of support as well, not only from the Royal Opera House, but the National Coal Mining Museum of England is supporting the new coal mining piece, with Morley College and the Tate St Ives supporting the garden piece. Both feel that these projects have enabled them to expand beyond simple co-productions with other theatre companies. Another major sponsor, announced at a press launch on Monday 4 July, is Hadlow College which is to be founding sponsor of the travelling installation for The Canary Boys. Also announced was that the company's patrons are the conductor Barry Wordsworth and the choreographer Kerry Nicholls.

Both Ella and Leo are obviously fizzing with energy, and having been silent for a while, it will be intriguing to see the results of their work.
Elsewhere on this blog:

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