Dansart Barcelona Interview Sue Buckmaster

Dansart interviewed Sue Buckmaster about her experience directing Chotto Desh.

Our Spanish speaking friends can read the interview here

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Interview with Sue Buckmaster, Director of Akram Khans’ CHOTTO DESH and Artistic Director of Theatre-Rites.

Could you describe, in a few words, your professional career?

I am the fifth generation of theatre practitioners in my family. My Great Grandfather set up a Unicycling Troupe, my Grandparents were Musicians in a Music Hall Act called the Musical Elliots and my parents were puppeteers, The Buckmaster Puppets.


I trained in Drama but remained a multi art-form Artist. I am now a Theatre Director. I set up my theatre company, Theatre-Rites with Penny Bernand in 1997, who are now an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation in the UK. Since then I have directed several site-specific shows, visual theatre productions and dance performances in the UK and around the World.

How did this collaboration between you and Akram Khan Company happen?

I met Akram through my association with Sadler’s Wells. He was doing his initial research on Desh and was looking for different influences from different practitioners. While I assisted on a small element of Desh I asked him if he would ever consider making a piece of work for children. At that stage he was not yet a father and had not yet received the incredible response to the award winning Desh.

It was a while after that this initial meeting that Claire Cunningham, a dancer who I directed in one of Theatre-Rites’ dance shows for children called Mischief (which has performed at the Mercat), suggested that Desh could be adapted to suit a family audience. Her partner, Jose Aguado, is Akram’s assistant choreographer and knows Desh intimately and she knew from her experience working with me that I would know how to change it to make it child-friendly.  Akram then responded warmly to the idea, entrusted us with the project and a two year process of adaptation commenced.

Is it your first time working exclusively with dancers? How would you describe this experience?

No, I have directed Dancers before, but always alongside a Choreographer I trust and feel inspired by. My first dabble with dance was with the Theatre-Rites show The Thought That Counts at the Barbican, London. This choreographed moving objects. After seeing this, Emma Gladstone from Sadler’s Wells asked me if I would like to select a Choreographer to collaborate with to make a commission for a Family Dance piece for Sadler’s Wells and Dance Touring Partnership UK.  I eventually selected Arthur Pita and we created Mischief which has performed around the UK, at the Mercat and NewYork and has won an award for Achievement in Dance.

Since then I have created a Site Specific performance for The Ruhrtriennale Festival called Paradise with Choreographer Luca Silvestrini and I am currently developing new choreographic ideas to inspire a new Dance Show in 2017.

Creating Chotto Desh was the first time that I have responded to existing choreographic material. adapting it for a younger audience. This was challenging, as the original Desh was, at times, quite harrowing in content, and also thrilling, as it was developing an original work which was already hugely successful and magical. It also felt very timely and important to share the wonderful work of Akram with a wider audience, where cultural diversity is a sensitive issue and contemplating the arts as a career is becoming less of an option for many young people.

The choreography of Akram Khan is immensely detailed and takes extraordinary talent. Therefore it was challenging to find dancers who could perform in it. Once we discovered Nicolas Ricchini and Dennis Alamos that journey gained momentum. They are both incredible performer/dancers who have dedicated themselves to the process of bringing this new version to life. They were a delight to collaborate with. It has already received much acclaim in the UK with its MOKO tour.

Many people ask me how much of Chotto Desh is from the original Desh and how much is new material. It took a long while to decide what to keep and what to change. For me it was important to protect Akram’s choreography whilst at the same time give younger viewers, or audiences with less knowledge of dance, a way in to enjoy it. Chotto Desh is twenty-five minutes of the original material with small shifts and a change of order. The other twenty-five minutes is new content created by me and the Assistant Choreographer Jose. Political references have been softened but not removed. I do not believe in being patronising to a younger audience. The most complex choreography in Desh was at the beginning of Desh and we moved it to the last third, allowing the audience to develop an understanding  of where the choreographic language stems from. There are more references to Akram’s younger experiences included in this show, to help our youngest audience to connect. It is suitable for 7 plus and their accompanying adults.

As director of CHOTTO DESH, what was the most challenging for you in this adaptation?

In my own work I follow my own gut instinct and can keep changing it until it feels right. For this production I needed to follow my gut but also respect the original vision of Akram. It stretched me beyond my comfort zone. I had to be brave enough to make changes but also study the original enough to know I fully understood it and could protect its essence. Akram continued to be trusting and supportive throughout the whole process and the wider team were all a delight to work with. Great care and attention was given to all elements of the production, guided by the amazing producer Claire Cunningham, whose idea it had been.

We would like to make our readers understand the importance of having young audiences/family programs in theatre; what would you tell them?

I believe that young people should have access to the same quality of Theatre and Dance that adults get. The work should also receive the same attention to detail and consideration as adult work. Some people argue that this is an investment in our future – to provide young people with art experiences that allow them to reflect on their own experience of the world.  Some people would argue that it is to inspire the Artists of the future. Some would argue that we need to give children positive experiences in the here and now, regardless of future expectation, because we want to let them know they are worth it. I also value the amazing experience you can have in an audience of both adults and children. Something very special happens when the two perspectives mingle. A truly universal and heartfelt response is conjured up which reaches beyond age, gender or culture. It is a shared experience which is inclusive to all and encourages the understanding of difference as opposed to the building of boundaries.

Akram made sense of his own culturally rich but confused life by channelling his emotions through his body.  I know that he and his Company, and myself and Theatre-Rites are committed to supporting children, young people and students to find this same form of self expression. We all hope that Chotto Desh plays a small part in a bigger desire to enable this to happen, at a time when more children are being brought up with mixed cultural heritage and many economic pressures on their family lives and educational choices.

Many of our readers are performing arts students; which advice would you give them to face their future as a professional in performing arts?

Everyone is entitled to lead a creative life and should seek out the opportunities to do so. Art is one of the most successful ways of reflecting on our lives. We all need it in some form or another. We should never dismiss it as a luxury, nor take it for granted.

A few of us are determined to make a living out of our creative lives. For this you need to nurture your talent, whole-heartedly commit, find whatever way to follow your path and ask for as much help as possible. It comes to you in many forms. You also need to be prepared for knock backs, rejections and doubts. No-one will ultimately help you stay on course but yourself. Find ways of maintaining belief in yourself. Please take inspiration from Chotto Desh, which is the story of how, against the odds, Akram became a dancer and has become one of the worlds most extraordinary artists.


What are your current/future projects?

I have currently got three projects on the go and a few in development with my company Theatre-Rites.

We are touring The Broke ’N’ Beat Collective, a music gig/theatre piece for over 13s which combines beatboxing, hip hop, poetry and puppetry. We are planning a tour of Beasty Baby, a visual theatre performance for children under 6 and their families. We are developing a new Dance show for 2017 and a future project inspired by Neuroscience. I also occasionally perform a solo show called the Puppet Whisperer which is a performed master-class revealing how I bring objects to life on stage. I shall also be supporting the international tour of ChottoDesh of which I am very proud to have been a part of.