INTERVIEW: Royston Maldoom

Jane Coyle talks to Royston Maldoom about Exile and Northern Ireland

For the past thirty years, choreographer Royston Maldoom has been the initiator and leader of an enormous number of dance projects all over the world. Now resident in Berlin, he recently published his autobiography – in German – and, when we spoke, was just back from doing promotional interviews in Switzerland.

After this flurry of activity, he says he intends that the year 2010 will be one in which he eases up a little, but his idea of rest and relaxation would leave the average person gasping for breath. Not for him a cosy armchair or a lounger in the sun. The plan is to look up old friends in familiar places like Lima and Venezuela. In Maldoom’s world, work and pleasure are indivisible.

At the end of this month, he returns to Northern Ireland, where his association dates back to the 1990s and the halcyon days of Ulster Youth Dance.

'We had a terrific time,” he recalls. “Youth dance here was flying ahead, thanks to the vision and support of Denis Smyth, the performing arts director of the Arts Council.

'We used to get huge audiences for our big annual performances like Carmina Burana. There were regular workshops and classes all over the place and a solid infrastructure was taking root. Then the Arts Council policy changed.

'Now, while the rest of the UK is following our early example, dance in Northern Ireland is fighting for survival. It’s a terrible shame. I always enjoy coming here, but it saddens me to see the way that things have gone down.'

On 1 April, the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey will be the venue for Exile, a dance performance choreographed by Maldoom and focusing on the theme of children and families in exile. Its development has involved almost 100 young people from across the North and has been facilitated by Dance United NI, whose artistic director Mags Byrne first met Maldoom through Ulster Youth Dance.

'In 2007 I was invited to create a large-scale dance piece with young people for Luxembourg European City of Culture,” he explains. “They wanted to use John Adams’s music Harmonielehre with an orchestra, but when I heard it, it sounded impossible. I thought that the kids would be as confused as me!

'In Luxembourg, large numbers of foreign workers come in and out to work every day. Living in Europe, one is acutely aware of the tension that exists between those who live in a place and those who come and go. I came up with the idea of people being in exile and I decided to make a piece that would examine the emotions and feelings of travelling and being away from home.

'It is a universal theme, although in Ireland, of course, the concept of exile has very deep-rooted connotations. But I am not going to make a piece that is directly about the current situation in Northern Ireland. That’s not the way I work.'

Maldoom was instrumental, with Byrne, in setting up Dance United NI in 2007. The two had worked together over many years on a projects involving street children in Ethiopia and had formed a passionate belief in the ways in which dance can transform individual lives. The company generates a prolific ongoing programme of work, over which Maldoom is artistic consultant.

All of this is a far cry from a childhood spent on the family farm in Hampshire, followed by studies at agricultural college. It was while he was staying with friends in Cambridge, that the 21 year-old Maldoom was dragged along to see a film about the Royal Ballet. In it, Rudolph Nureyev danced the solo from Corsaire.

'I hadn’t the first idea about ballet,” he laughs. “But I was caught up by the music, the emotion, the physicality – and by Nureyev. Within four days, I’d enrolled at a dance school in Cambridge. And that was it.'

He went on to train at academies like the Rambert Ballet School and the London School of Contemporary Dance and was offered a choreographic commission by the Royal Ballet School. It was the start of his love affair with choreography.

In 1980, he became dance-artist-in-residence for Fife and kicked off the dizzying round of workshops, summer schools, dance festivals and community dance performances, for which he is known the world over.

'I came into community dance by chance,” he says. “Like everything I have done in my life, it was completely unplanned. There was no philanthropic or philosophical intent. It was just a job. I thought, these people can’t even dance, they are not professional. That was typical of the attitude of the time. But then I saw what was happening and the positive effects dance was having on their lives.'

He went on to direct dance projects in Lithuania during the independence movement, in Croatia and Bosnia during the Balkan Wars, in South Africa during Mandela’s election, as well as projects in Peru, Zimbabwe, Georgia, the USA and throughout the UK. With Byrne, he established the Adugna Dance Company in Ethiopia, which gives young people the opportunity to be educated in dance, choreography and teaching and they continue to support the struggle to keep the company going.

His project Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle, in which 250 children participated, was the subject of an award-winning documentary and notched up yet another of the many prizes and honours – including an OBE - showered upon this engaging international figure, who has been instrumental in nourishing and creating dance in our own backyard.

Exile is at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey on Thursday 1 April at 8.00pm. Bookings on: 028 9034 0202.