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English dancer, now a choreographer and part of the American dance scene, Gemma Bond is the ultimate company colleague. At her happiest working in the creative process, she moved seamlessly into the role of choreographer. Classical ballet is her signature style, but given her unique accent. She is active in initiatives to support new choreography. With her ballets in the repertoire of major US companies, she is now preparing for her choreographic debut at the Royal Ballet.
ICONS: Tell us about your dance career and moving into choreography.
Gemma Bond: I danced with the Royal Ballet in London and the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York and enjoyed being part of the ensemble in big companies. I never wanted to be the principal dancer and always gravitated to being in new choreographies, either for workshops or main stage. As a dancer, I was always interested in what else was happening and ready to explore something new. I’d won third prize for a choreography at the Royal Ballet School (RBS), but at that time I was only focused on getting into a company. Towards the end of my dance career, I became nervous performing on stage, but doing more choreography I felt so very much alive and I realised that is where I should be.
ICONS: What influential figures and mentors have helped you become the artist you are today?
GB: When I was at the RBS, Christopher Wheeldon came back from New York and created a ballet for the School. I was 11 years old and the only one in my class to be chosen. It was a huge deal for me. When I joined the Royal Ballet, he did two works and I was in both of those. Then at ABT he made another ballet, so he’s somebody who has always been on the journey with me and a big inspiration.
When I joined ABT, they were not doing new works. Then Alexei Ratmansky came along and it was incredible. I realised how much I had missed the creative process. Benjamin Millepied was also starting his choreographic career and he asked me to work with a small group creating new works. And I thought, ‘this is heaven!’ Then ABT started a choreographic initiative for women, and I signed up.
ICONS: You seem to be the choreographers’ choice. Why do you think this is?
GB: Actually, I’m not very good at learning choreography - but I’m good at remembering the intention. When choreographies became more contemporary there was more collaboration. I would shine because I was never intimidated. Sometimes I’d get the steps wrong but the intentions right and choreographers would like that and go with it. And I was always happy! It’s really encouraging for the choreographer to have dancers who are excited about what is happening.
ICONS: What inspires you to create?
GB: The music is everything for me. Very rarely I’ve had the concept and then tried to find the music, but nothing came. So, what I normally do is to find music that I really love and then I just keep listening to it like a film score. I start to hear what I want the ballet to look like and visualise the type of movement. I’ll create a sort of mind map in bubbles, jotting down all the ideas that I get from it.
For my piece for the Royal, Boundless, I have music by Joel Roukens. It’s like Stravinsky in that you can’t count it, but it’s easy to listen to and has such power behind it. The third movement made me think of Rite of Spring – so that goes into a bubble. Then that takes me to Nijinska, and I love Les Noces, thinking about what makes it unique, but without doing the same thing. That idea goes in another bubble and I’ll try to incorporate a bit of that kind of movement as an inspiration.
ICONS: Why is this current project important for you?
GB: My colleagues tease me because I’ll get as nervous for a choreography for a festival with 10 people as for a work for a big company. The biggest thing is wanting to give the dancers something they’re really excited to perform. I’m from the Royal Ballet, but I haven’t been back, and if there was a time to make my best work, this would be amazing. Sitting in the auditorium and watching a performance, I had a ‘pinch me’ moment, like I can’t believe I get to show a ballet here.
ICONS: How do you begin your work on a new piece, and what resources and circumstances do you need to have in place?
GB: I always start with the designs completed. In the beginning, I didn't and I'd be disappointed because the designers would watch the rehearsal and create something that was not the look in my mind. So now I definitely like to have the designs in place, the music in place, the structure of the piece. I need to know how many dancers there are and who is doing what so I can start to build movement.
I'll do a few days in the studio by myself, with the music. I just improvise and see how I move naturally to the music. Often, I don't use any of the improvised material, but it shows me what I want. I love the process. If I could make the pieces and nobody ever saw them, I would be okay. However, there are moments where I'm excited and I want to show it. But I really love the first few weeks because there are all the possibilities - it could go anywhere and that's really exciting.
ICONS: What do you expect of your dancers in the studio? How do you create movement?
GB: I like it when we’re all involved, and I think it makes for a better ballet. The dancers come back to the studio engaged, knowing what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I don’t dance full out; I don’t have the stamina or ability to dance as I want them to do it. I’ve been told I do ‘very interesting partnering’. I go with the idea that the men can do everything. ‘Can you do this?’ ‘Let’s see what happens’. And because I’m tiny I often just climb on them and try something. But I want the dancers to feel happy and feel like the ballet is theirs. Dancers still call me to say, ‘I'm doing a gig. Can I do this pas de deux?’ And I like to think that it's because they feel it's theirs as much as it's mine.
ICONS: You’ve talked about the intention behind the movement. How do you achieve that?
GB: Emotion can be shown easily simply by placement of the body weight, or the tilt of the head or hands – are they open or in a ballet position? Once I have the steps in place, then I start coaching and go over every detail and explain why we’re doing the movement. One can take a regular arabesque and mould it to show an emotion. Even when the audience are watching an abstract piece, I think this can indicate the feeling behind the movement.
Similarly, when I’m creating an abstract work, I like to have a narrative for myself; otherwise, it seems just dancing for the sake of dancing. I was at the playground with my daughter after school and it was crazy – all these kids 3-16 years old hanging on the gym bars, no self-awareness, no control. I was listening to Joey Roukens’ music and it seemed a brilliant score for what was going on. So, I went on a deep dive of exploring playground activities, taking elements to create movement.
ICONS: You do a lot of pointe ballets. Is this your choice?
GB: I’ve done some pieces in bare feet which I’ve really loved. When I get a commission, I’ll send them along and in reply I’ll get, ‘We’d love to have it on pointe!’ I think it’s what people connect me with and I also feel I have more range doing ballet. I work with young choreographers, and I see exciting contemporary work, but when it comes to ballet, they hold back.
Ballet is so hard, and sometimes people get set in how correct it needs to be. Contemporary choreographers working in ballet may not know the rules from the past.
ICONS: What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
GB: At 16, I was very focused on getting into a company, but I’d like to say to younger dancers, especially the ones that aren't going to get into the big companies, ‘You know, you're there for a reason and sometimes it's not to be a dancer. Sometimes it's to be that important part of the creative team.”
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MORE INFORMATION AND A BIOGRAPHY OF GEMMA BOND: https://www.gemmabond.org/
Photography © Jade Young, portrait Gemma Bond, courtesy of New York Times.
Photography © Theo Kossenas, Rod Brayman, Bill Cooper, Paula Lobo, Robert Altman, Maria Baranov, Frank Atuka, and Rachell Neville. Repertory photos of various ballets by Gemma Bond, performed by American Ballet Theater Studio Company, and others.
CREATIVE TEAM ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
Interviewer: Maggie Foyer
Executive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland
Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov
Dance ICONS, Inc., February 2024 © All rights reserved.