‘When I hear music, I start seeing it in my mind’ says choreographer Russillo

Joseph Russillo during the rehearsal with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company (photo: Sherif Sonbol)

New York-born, Paris-based, international choreographer Joseph Russillo, talks to Ahram Online about his career, how music inspires his choreography and his experience with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company

Published in Ahram Online

Born in New York and Parisian at heart, Joseph Russillo has a replete career as a dancer and choreographer. In the late 60s Russillo started a school in Paris and in 1973 he created his own company, Le Ballet-Théâtre Joseph Russillo, to tour his own works in theatres in France and rest of Europe. His work as a choreographer has been recognised in France and Italy, where he worked with the most renowned ballet companies. His creations toured from New York to Beijing.

Russillo was a resident choreographer at La Scala in Milan, Italy. He was also invited to work with several renowned international composers and artists, such as Astor Piazzolla, to whose music he created Tango Rêve (Tango Dream) or Joan Miró, with whom he cooperated in a ballet-pantomime. In April 2012, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs nominated Russillo the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration awarded for exceptional accomplishments in arts, sciences, politics, etc.

Today, Russillo teaches at National and Superior Conservatoire in Paris and continues to work as a freelance choreographer with dozens of international companies. He is also a returning choreographer at the Cairo Opera Ballet Company.

Russillo’s cooperation with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company was initiated by Artistic Director Erminia Kamel back in 2004. Ever since then, Russillo has come to Egypt several times to recreate his known choreography works with the Cairo Opera Ballet.

“Each time I come back I get closer to the people and the dancers, which is very important in the process of my work,” Russillo tells Ahram Online.

“It was like a dream to come here [to Egypt]. I have always imagined coming and working with the Egyptian company. Years prior to my work with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company I came to Egypt with my ballet company in one of our tours. I always hoped to be able to work in Egypt with the people here.”

In Egypt, audiences were able to see recreations of The Rite of Spring, Tango Dream, Chess (Shakespeare’s suite). However, Russillo created choreography for over 75 ballets – a few of which bring back special memories.

He asserts that, internationally, it was Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (1976) that created a significant shift in his career. It was the first time for a choreographer to approach religious material for dance purposes. In 1984, a New York-based paper, Yonkers NY Herald Statesman announced Russillo’s return home after a long absence with Requiem Maledictions et Lumières that “uses scenes from the Bible to explore the relationship between good and evil.”

The article continues: “The first half, about the Old Testament, is set to Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. The second part, which blends Old and New Testament figures, is set to Maledictions et Lumières, which translates as ‘Curses and Lights’ by contemporary composer Patrice Sciortino.”

In 1979, Russillo suggested his own version of the ballet to the music of The Rite of Spring, which, according to the choreographer was one of his important artistic breakthroughs.

“When I came to Europe, I didn’t even know about Béjart’s choreography for Stravinsky’s work,” Russillo refers to an iconic work by Maurice Béjart dating back to 1959.

The Rite of Spring has inspired many choreographers yet, naturally, with the name like Béjart among them, there was a risk of comparison.

“My ballet succeeded to bring a new way of looking at The Rite of Spring – not that it was any better or worse that Béjart’s work. I was lucky to receive lots of positive reviews for this ballet, and it helped significantly my name and career.”

In 2006, Russillo brought his choreography for The Rite of Spring to Cairo. Stravinsky’s composition was combined with The Nile Bride to the music by Nader Abbassi.

The Nile Bride and The Rite of Spring formed one story. The first one, based on Abbassi’s music, was a legend that visually evolved towards The Rite of Spring, a story about how man destroys Earth. It’s the concept of pollution and the dancers do not resemble men and women; they look like Earth. The dancers destroy Earth and one finds that they were the cause of this disaster,” Russillo explains.

Throughout his career, Russillo experimented with many music genres: classical, contemporary, jazz, each inspiring him in its own unique way.

“When I hear music, I start seeing it in my mind. This is especially apparent with classical music, in fact, even more than with contemporary music. I have to adapt my movement to contemporary music. In classical music it becomes more natural because you can hear and see the music. There are phrases, melodies, adagios…”

In some cases, however, Russillo finds contemporary music very challenging. He recalls his cooperation with Joan Mirò (1893-1983), a Spanish-Catalan painter and sculptor. Russillo was asked to work to music by a contemporary Italian composer Sylvano Bussotti. The cooperation resulted in Le Bal Mirò, l’uccello luce, a ballet-pantomime with scenography and costumes by Mirò, performed in 1981 in Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy.

“I remember asking myself: What can I do with that music?” Russillo recalls the whole experience. “Working with Mirò, the famous painter was like a dream. And then I was with this music not sure what to do with it. I decided to use the music just like Mirò paints.” Russillo adds that he let the work direct him, at first without knowing what he would come up with.

Having worked with a number of international companies, Russillo finds particular character in the Cairo Opera Ballet Company.

“Erminia Kamel has done something very interesting for the ballet group here by bringing people from different countries to work with them. Mixing them together and having them work with the Egyptian dancers adds a lot to the troupe and to many dancers who already have a lot of talent,” Russillo asserts.

He adds that though, at times, there might be problems with discipline. This drawback, he says, is characteristic of all young ballet troupes and is not a challenge faced by the choreographers working with the Cairo Ballet Company only.

“I notice that the Egypt’s ballet dancers continue to improve, year after year. Dancers who have spent a number of years with the company become stronger and more disciplined. There is positive progress and a variety of dancers’ backgrounds allow them to create something interesting together,” Russillo comments finding that the whole synergy allows the company to become more and more interesting with time.

“For me it is very important to develop the dancer. I try not to see the choreography only but I also try my best to bring out something from the dancers, as well. Here [with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company], I feel it very strong.”

Between 17 and 23 May, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company performs Tango Rêve (Tango Dream) to Russillo’s choreography. This is the second time Russillo revives this ballet in Cairo. The first one was in 2007.

Russillo still holds warm memories about his cooperation with Astor Piazzolla in the early 80’s, to whose music Tango Dream was created. “Piazzola was a fantastic composer, musician and an artist. When we did it the first time, it had the same idea, only different personalities. It’s all about a dream. It might be simple and maybe naïve, but it brings very interesting things to life between what is happening in reality and dream. A lot of dancers live in this dream world and in Tango I try to make it happen to them.”

As a choreographer and director of a ballet company, Russillo works to keep up with the challenges of the today’s world. At times that many operas and theatres are faced with the financial problems, with a few of them closing down, many music and performing arts companies are deeply concerned about the future of artistic creativity.

Russillo underlines that “financial problems should never stop creation. There should be a way of being able to do things, to depend on older scenography, to economise … even if it is very difficult. When it comes to an idea of production, one needs to realise the challenges and adjust himself, not to discontinue what has been done before. Discontinuation would be very dramatic for the world of creation,” Russillo concludes.

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