Sommer Ulrickson (detail) View full image

The psychology of movement

As Claus Guth’s production of The Makropulos Case nears its opening at Staatsoper Berlin on 13 February, choreographer Sommer Ulrickson explains her involvement in opera productions and her priorities

What is the typical process when you work on an opera?

It depends on the director: sometimes I’m involved in concept discussions about the vision and how it will work aesthetically, or they might bring me in at a later stage, at which point I try to understand what it means for my work with the singers and dancers.

Once it comes to rehearsals, I come with ideas of how I think I can be helpful in achieving the director’s vision. These are more or less concrete – I will have many details prepared, but the outcome always depends on what the dancers or performers bring, or how things change in rehearsal. Sometimes the size of a dancer changes everything, or they’re unexpectedly great at being funny, so I shift how I work with them.

I try to get to know the music well, and search for ways to make difficult parts more accessible, especially if it’s complicated and the dancers need exact cues. Some dancers joke that I’m a one-woman orchestra because I end up singing the different parts so they can understand what I mean. I make a basic plan of where everyone is on stage and where they have to go, but I don’t notate every step or arm movement. The dancers have to remember and we use a lot of video.

What is the difference between the work of a movement director and a choreographer?

For me, there’s no difference between choreography and movement direction, but people associate different things with those terms. Some might think that choreography refers only to actual ‘dance’ but it can also refer to every movement on stage, or the spatial relationships, or the blocking. Some directors look for a specific choreography for dance moments, while others see it as part of the entire production. Most of what I do tends to involve being a part of the production as a whole, so I usually work with everyone on stage.

What are the greatest challenges of your work?

In opera, the hardest thing is the time limitations and the hierarchy of what has to happen. I’ll have ten dancers and two singers to organise, but until it’s clear what the two singers are doing musically in their roles, and where they have to go, the dancers and extras have to wait. A scene is built on various needs, so this often means having to respond very quickly and under pressure. Sometimes we’ll jump forward or repeat something and say, ‘From bar 36,’ but that doesn’t mean anything to the dancers. We have to make sure information about where we are in the scene gets to them quickly so that everything runs smoothly.

How do you work with singers?

Some singers have a fantastic sense of where they should be in the space and what their character needs, and with others you have to pull them into a specific way of moving. The music and their voices always come first. In the last decade, I think more has been expected from singers – the demand that they are able to do more physically has increased.

For me, it’s important to work with somebody and not on, or over, them. My first move is to make sure a singer knows they can trust me. Rather than coming in and saying, ‘You need to do this’, ‘Why are you doing that?’, I ask, ‘How does this feel to you’, ‘What can we find together that will work?’ I try not to put choreography ‘on’ them, but to find something that’s unique to them.

Choruses are difficult animals. They are large groups of people who are often herded like cattle, which they don’t always appreciate. You just have to be incredibly respectful and realise that they are all individuals, each with their own issues, desires and stories. Even when you have to get them all to make the same movement, you have to understand that it’s 40 different bodies, 40 different personalities. It’s a matter of respect, knowing what you want to do and having a plan.

Do you have your own specific style?

In my own dance work, I suppose I have a visual style, but when I work with directors, I lean into theirs. The challenge is to figure out how I can take their vision as I understand it and find my own way into it, satisfying what they want while simultaneously doing something that feels like me. It’s a meeting of minds. I’m an ensemble person, so for me that’s a fun and interesting challenge.

My introduction to movement came through Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, before I was even a dancer, and one of the things I bring to most of the productions I work on is humour. In The Makropulous Case, for example, there’s a lot of slapstick and strangeness. While we work on the grand visual moments, it’s always the details that sell it.

I work very specifically with the body and personality in front of me. People are not replaceable. Corona is a nightmare for me because people are replaced, and I find that if you replace someone it changes what I see on stage. On the other hand, this is also an opportunity to adapt to what the new person brings.

I don’t create dance ‘for dance’s sake’. I come from theatre and I’m interested in watching people and bodies go through something – I enjoy the psychology of movement, the story that it tells.

How does movement relate to the music in your work?

It often doesn’t look like the dancers are dancing to the music, although they always are, but what that means is different to each person. It’s important to understand what the music makes us feel and how we can reflect that, but dance shouldn’t be an illustration – we’re trying to go further than that.

For example, working on The Art of Being Human, part of the process was to find moments where we were specifically following the actual musical ideas – the timing and accents – and those where it was more important to let the music wash over what was going on between the dancers. The English consort music we used stays within a certain range – there are no percussion or horns, so we had to find ways of adding those excesses through the physicality. The main question in the Art of being Human is what does it mean to be human – what are the positive and negative aspects? What should we be striving for as human beings and how can our art raise us to the more positive aspects? And of course, for me, the challenge was how to represent that through movement.

You often collaborate with Claus Guth – what is he like to work with?

I enjoy working with him because he always has a clear vision, and I understand it inherently, so it’s not difficult for me to find my way into his world. He’s direct and approachable. I can talk to him, I enjoy his company, and I like watching him work – I learn a lot from him. He’s simultaneously very detailed about what he wants but also open to suggestions that I make. He has fantastic ideas for movement and understands how to put things together in a choreographic way.

What advice would you give a young person starting a career in choreography?

I would tell anyone going into any creative realm not to expect that their career will be built in a linear way. Having a huge success means nothing the next day. You never know when you’re going to have a ton of work – or no work. You never know how your life is going to pan out. There’s no planning, no normal path, so you have to stay open to what comes.

What would you change if you could?

One thing I hope changes is the hierarchy in the arts where dance and choreography are always at the bottom. We have a lot of responsibility, and the physical toll is massive, but it’s generally the poorest paid positions in the arts. It’s a source of frustration for dancers and choreographers, and I hope this will start to change.