ALEXANDER WHITLEY, Artistic Director and Choreographer
What do you do?
I am a choreographer and artistic director of Alexander Whitley Dance Company. My job at its most fundamental involves working with dancers to create performances for stage. This could be for my own company of dancers or other companies. It also involves teaching dance classes for both professional dancers and students. I also collaborate with other artists where dance or choreography is involved but might not be the main feature of the project. A lot of my work as a director includes planning and managing the running of my company, which involves a lot of emailing and work on my laptop!
When did you first realise that you wanted to be a choreographer?
I first got interested in choreographing when I was about 21. I was dancing in Birmingham Royal Ballet at the time and was given an opportunity to make something for a workshop the company was holding. I really enjoyed the experience and got a positive response to the piece I made. This got me really curious about other choreographers’ work and made me want to learn more about dance in general.
Where did you train and what qualification did you get?
I trained at the Royal Ballet School. When I was studying there wasn’t an official qualification that students graduated with, although I think this has now changed. I also don’t have an official qualification in choreography as a lot of what I have learnt about it has been through direct experience of working with other choreographers. When dancing in a company like Rambert you have the opportunity to work with a lot of different choreographers on creating new work and being part of their creative process teaches you a lot about how to choreograph. I have also taken part in many choreography courses which are specially focused on teaching or discussing particular aspects of choreography. Although none of them have come with official qualifications, they have been very important in me gaining experience and are also recognised within the industry as being important steps to becoming a professional choreographer.
What kinds of things did you study?
It was quite a strict training focusing largely on classical ballet, although we did study some other forms including, character, Scottish, Irish, Morris, contemporary and tap dancing. We also studied dance theory and choreography but at the time I wasn’t enormously interested in it!
Do you have such a thing as a typical day?
A typical rehearsal day when I’m working on a production would involve starting with a class to warm the dancers up, starting at around 10am and which lasts roughly an hour and a half. We then rehearse for a couple of hours before having lunch and then continue rehearsing until around 6pm.
What personality traits or skills do you need to be a good choreographer?
I’m not sure that there are specific personality traits required to be a choreographer as there are so many approach it and a huge variety of styles of choreography. Often the work of a choreographer is reflective of their particular personality traits. There are some traits that are probably quite helpful to being a good choreographer, such as being observant and imaginative with regards to how movement can be organised and having a good feel for music. It requires a lot of communication with people such as dancers and collaborating artists so having good interpersonal skills is also helpful!
What do you love most about your job?
I love that I have the opportunity to learn more about subjects that inspire me, to continually learn more about dance and the capabilities of the body to express ideas and emotions. I love that I get to work with amazing artists from other disciplines and develop a broader apperception of art in general. And I love the variety of experiences I have in being a choreographer – through the range of people I work with and situations I find myself in. It is anything but mundane.
Are there any bad bits?
There are always bad bits, but you can’t appreciate the good bits without them. I spend more time answering emails than I’d like to but that’s a necessary part of organising the work I do in the studio. There are also times when the pressure of trying to making a ‘good’ piece of dance makes it less enjoyable, or when things don’t go to plan. There’s quite a lot of being unsuccessful involved in success and this isn’t very enjoyable but something you have to learn to get used to.
What advice would you give to a young person wanting to do the job you do?
I’d advise them to take any opportunity they can to create something. Making dances involves getting people together and having a space to do it in so it’s not as easy as some other art forms, but I’d encourage anyone that has an interest in it to get their friends together and make use of any space you can get into, however unsuitable it might seem. I’d also encourage them to keep making more irrespective of how they feel about what they’re making. Choreography is a skill and requires practice like any other discipline. You’ll get better the more you do.