Birmingham Royal Ballet dancer Jonathan Payn talks to Terry Grimley about making his first piece for the company...
After 12 years with Birmingham Royal Ballet, soloist Jonathan Payn has choreographed his first ballet for the Hippodrome's main stage - but we won't have to wait too long to see another of his there.
Iken, a tribute to the village in Payn's native Suffolk which lies just across the reed beds from Snape Maltings, is one of four ballets he has created for the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain, which will bring it to the Hippodrome in October.
Meanwhile, his first main-stage piece for BRB, Into the Ferment, has its world premiere tomorrow night. Teamed with The Planets, a collaborative effort between company director David Bintley, Midlandsbased choreographer Rosie Kay and company members, it marks the welcome return after a period of financial stringency of BRB's pioneering choreographic projects.
Payn, who took part in previous collaborative projects like Mozart Mass in C minor and Carnival of the Animals, has chosen to base his debut on a 25-minute orchestral piece by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, which is in turn based on a poem by Robert Burns. The title Into the Ferment is MacMillan's - the Burns poem is called Willie brew'd a peck o'maut.
"I've adopted a scenario to make it fit the music," Payn explains. "The poem is about three young men, Willie, Rob and Allan, and the story is that the three of them are caught in a storm and Willie invites Rob and Allan to try some of his home-made whisky.
"McMillan's music can be quite strong and challenging, but it always seems to have a human dimension to it. Here there's a comic element with Willie pretending he's not drunk, but then towards the end of the music McMillan has written himself that there is a more serious perspective of this being about friendship and brotherhood. The penultimate scene is the longest - a jig played incredibly slowly so that it almost sounds like a hymn.
"In the ballet I've taken that theme and developed it, so it's a piece about friendship. I've introduced an extra character, a girl, and it's about the effect this outsider has on these three friends."
When we met last week just before the Hippodrome season opened, work on the piece was suspended as The Rite of Spring, in which Payn was dancing, and the rest of the Stravinsky programme went into performance.
"It feels like the calm before the storm this week," he said. "I've been thinking about it and I can see the set is hanging up there above the stage, but I can't see my dancers at the moment or do anything about it."
What has the experience of rehearsing fellow dancers been like?
"It's a very different context, and you can't really crack the whip in the same sort of way. They are your colleagues and you give them the respect they deserve but you have to get results.
"For me it's about creating a good atmosphere in rehearsal and taking them with me. At every stage I've explained what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. I'm working with them as one of their colleagues, and trying to create with them.
"My dancers have been fantastic. If you look at the call sheet this week we're all working hard and there've been groups of people rehearsing The Planets in their spare time."
Into the Ferment will have three performances this week, but at the moment there is no guarantee of any further life beyond that.
"The dream would be for it to come back and enter the repertoire - but that is a dream. You can't get away from the fact that this is a choreographic project. But there are precedents. A good example is Ollie Hindle and several other dancers who did the Four Seasons which went into the repertoire."
Having taken his first steps in choreography when still at the Royal Ballet upper school Payn would like to pursue it in the next phase of his career, but he is under no illusions about how limited opportunities are.
He also has an interest in teaching, having been among the first company members to take its MA education course - the first of its kind for dancers who are still performing. Last year he took a further qualification to teach ballet and is now teaching at the newly-relocated Elmhurst School of Dance.
The work he has done for BRB's education department includes a memorable residency with Asian children at Anderton Park School as part of its ambitious Sofar performance project.
"It was quite a challenging experience because there isn't a strong tradition of performance and selfexpression from the background of those children. But they were incredibly creative, I think some of the most creative children I have come across. And some of them were some of the most energetic - real bounce-off-the-wall types.
"To see their faces when they were on the Hippodrome stage, in a proper production with orchestra, set and costumes, was fantastic."
So, unless they decide to switch to an entirely different field, dancers need to accumulate a wide range of skills to equip themselves for a future beyond performing.
"We have something special to offer but you could say we're highly skilled in specialist areas," says Payn.
In the meantime, he hopes that choreographing will help him to continue developing his understanding as a performer.
"I think this company is both very brave and very right to give us this chance because in this target-driven age it's a risk to put on performances of unknown choreographers. Yes, it's clever that it's £10 a seat, that's just a sensible, but there's always pressure to have overnight success.
"It's very easy for young choreographers to get stuck in the rut of a small space, but on that main stage is where we need to learn."
* Birmingham Royal Ballet presents Into the Ferment and The Planets tomorrow (7.30pm) and Thursday (2pm/7.30pm). All tickets for these performances are £10. The season ends with Les Petis Riens, Brouillards and Elite Syncopations on Friday and Saturday (Box office: 0870 730 1234).