City of a Thousand Trades
Meet Miguel Altunaga
Deborah Weiss speaks to Miguel Altunaga, Choreographer of City of a Thousand Trades
Born in Havana, Cuba, Miguel Altunaga, choreographer, dancer, photographer and ﬁlm maker,
best known in the UK for his long association with Rambert, is about to premiere his ﬁrst commission for Birmingham Royal Ballet, City of a Thousand Trades, which is described as a love letter to the city of Birmingham.
I want the audience to connect with the piece, with the music, with the dancers and feel that they could be there, be one of themMiguel Altunaga
He claims he’s not sleeping well. ‘As a choreographer, the responsibility is a whole different story! I’m learning a lot about myself, how to lead, not to do too much or too little, ﬁnding a balance. Also things about scheduling, planning, meetings – it’s big because it’s a very important company. I’m very proud to be here actually! Ideally I would like to continue to dance and choreograph, but to be honest, I really enjoy seeing dancers and artists doing my work. I love collaborating and creating.
‘The commission came about because I submitted a proposal to Ballet Now, a platform for emerging choreographers. There was an idea to do something that really represents the city. It’s not only Birmingham, but I wanted to make something that audiences could connect to their own city and own journey. Birmingham has this name in the UK but also across the world. It’s known as the workshop of the world, with all the opportunities that it offers. It’s a city that embraces people’s dreams, realises their ambitions. It becomes more emotional, not just about bricks and mortar, but more human, about the people. What do you trade for a better life?’
It’s the biggest project I’ve ever done… The atmosphere in the studio is fantastic, they all work so hard – that’s what I will take with meMiguel Altunaga
The music is an original score by Belgian composer Mathias Coppens. He has managed to reference the different cultural backgrounds within the city, alongside Heavy Metal. Altunaga explains, ‘It’s basically a classical score but it also embraces the different communities. It was complicated because he’s in Belgium. We have been working for a whole year, doing loads of Zoom meetings and trials. I always try to create a friendship, good chemistry, an honesty where he is allowed to tell me what he thinks and I do the same. When we are working, we’re focused on something that is greater than ourselves. We talked every evening about what to keep, what needed changing. I have also spent hours with Madeleine [Kludje, dramaturg and co-Director from Birmingham Repertory Theatre], trying to work out how to put together something that is cohesive – because I want the audience to connect with the piece, with the music, with the dancers and feel that they could be there, be one of them. It’s a challenge because I love things that are abstract, but it’s good for me to work with something that has more literal moments, to get the audience back with me.’
To date, Altunaga has worked mostly within the contemporary genre. It was interesting to discover that he ﬁnds ballet dancers thrilling to work with. ‘I love every dance form. My experience is that ballet dancers are able to do everything as long as you coach them well, with the right energy.
‘As a choreographer, you physicalise everything, so they can see what you want. I’ve always loved classical ballet and thought one day I would be in this position, but in order for them to understand me, I ﬁrst have to understand them. With contemporary choreographers, they set you tasks and you ﬁnd your own voice. Classical dancers wait to be told what to do. You are the choreographer, they are the dancer. It’s amazing! The craft really sharpens. We did a lot of drama workshops. They were so eager, it was great. We tried to create a cast where there is no hierarchy because it’s about the people of the city, so it’s very diverse. I also wanted a sense of community. It’s about growth, dreams.
‘It’s the biggest project I’ve ever done. I’m very positive about it but the best thing is that I’m learning a lot. The atmosphere in the studio is fantastic, they all work so hard – that’s what I will take with me. It’s been a great experience, it couldn’t be better.
‘I have my goals. I love the physicality, musicality, emotions and I know I have basic things that I go towards, but I really want every single piece I do to have its own personality. Each piece should have its message and it shouldn’t be about me. It’s much bigger than me.’
Deborah Weiss is a former principal dancer who danced primarily with London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) and the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich. Since 1993 she has been a freelance dance writer and critic.
Amy Stutz speaks to Madeleine Kludje, Co-Producer of City of a Thousand Trades
‘What do you trade to build a new life?’ asks City of a Thousand Trades. Described as a love letter to Birmingham, it’s a celebration of the city’s richly diverse cultural and industrial heritage.
I spoke to Madeleine Kludje, Associate Director at The REP and Dramaturg and Co-Director of this new ballet, about how the city inspired this show.
‘City of a Thousand Trades looks at the thousands of people that have traded something to be here. Whether that’s for a better life, or just a different life,’ says Madeleine. ‘When people move to a new city and they have so much hope – hope to build that life that they want. We explore those people’s dreams and aspirations in this show.’
This piece is about Birmingham but it’s about all cities as well. Every city can connect in some way, as it portrays the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautifulMadeleine Kludje
This ballet tells the story of how Birmingham became known as the City of a Thousand Trades at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Skilled workers migrated to the city from throughout the Commonwealth, creating a melting-pot of cultures and the city we know today.
Over the course of 20 years, Oral Historian Helen Lloyd interviewed hundreds of different people around Birmingham. ‘It was about getting their experiences of what it means to be in Birmingham,’ says Madeleine. ‘We looked at Lloyd’s interviews and interviewed people ourselves.’ These stories then shaped this powerful new ballet.
‘Miguel and I wanted to hone in on the storytelling,’ explains Madeleine.‘People who love going to the ballet will love this. But people who don’t go to the ballet at all and have felt like there has always been a barrier there, can use this as a way to get into it. ‘They will get to see a ballet that speaks their language because it’s about connection. We hope people see themselves within the story. ‘We got a real insight into people’s experience of Birmingham, and we’ve used elements of those testimonies within the music of the show.’
Composed by Mathias Coppens, it isn’t music you’d usually expect from a ballet. To carry the narrative, Mathias has creatively intertwined the testimonies with spoken word from Birmingham Poet Laureate Casey Bailey and sounds within the city.‘Yes, we have strings because we have an orchestra playing,’ Madeleine explains. ‘But we also have electric guitar which nods to Ozzy Osborne and the heavy metal inﬂuence on the city. Everything you’ll hear links to Birmingham in some way’.
We look at City of a Thousand Trades in the very literal sense because Birmingham was known for the silk trade and the metal industries. We have percussionists on stage that make sounds that represent the factory trade in Birmingham. This really creates the feeling of building a city.’
The dancers, just like Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet Carlos Acosta, have fed their stories into the piece too. They’ve lived these experiences moving to Birmingham to achieve their dreams.
‘Carlos was talking to me about how important it is to do a ballet like this, to talk about what people have traded for people to see themselves and their experiences reﬂected on stage,’ says Madeleine. ‘He really connected with the piece and the emotional journey as he reﬂected on when he ﬁrst moved to the UK from Cuba, not being able to speak a word of English and learning to ﬁt into a new environment.
‘I’ve learnt through working on this piece that we all go through the same feelings and emotions when moving to a new city. Because we want to do better, for ourselves and for our families and to ﬁt in.
‘This piece is about Birmingham but it’s about all cities as well. Every city can connect in some way, as it portrays the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful.
‘We want people to connect emotionally with the stories in this ballet. To remember that feeling when they ﬁrst came to the city and what they went through to build their life here. It’s not easy, it’s hard work and we all experience the highs and lows.
‘People think it’s the bricks and mortar that make a city, but it’s the people. City of a Thousand Trades is a love letter to the people that make this city and the way we all connect, because together we will thrive.’
Amy Stutz is an arts and culture writer based in the West Midlands. Amy runs a successful blog that champions the best in theatre and cultural events across the UK.
Mathias Coppens, Composer of City of a Thousand Trades
You compose extensively concert and film music, is this your first commission for ballet?
I have written different kinds of music, including concert music, soundtracks, theatre and opera. Together with conductor Michiel Delanghe, I have an ensemble for contemporary music, completely dedicated to music theatre. But this is my ﬁrst opportunity to write a ballet piece, which I’m grateful for.
Coming from Belgium and growing up with the work of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui this is a dream come true. As a pianist I did accompany dancers at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp, so I know some insight into ballet.
Well, the electric guitars were inspired by Black Sabbath, that says enough I think!Mathias Coppens
What sort of musical challenges did this present?
Miguel told me his approach would be very cinematic, but he also wanted an intense and very physical show. We almost immediately agreed on
a lot of percussion, since he’s also a percussionist and as a Cuban he speaks the language of rhythm very well.
At the same time we wanted soulful strings and the cool of electric guitars. All these elements had to blend together and mix with electronics, quite a cocktail of elements! The most difficult task was to go organically from one scene to another implementing musical material that would connect these diﬀerent worlds and create a unity.
The soundtrack is influenced by Birmingham’s industrial heritage – how did you approach this?
Well, the electric guitars were inspired by Black Sabbath, that says enough I think! The score also has a massive percussion set up, the instruments are broadly divided into two categories, with metal instruments representing the trades, and drums representing the global ethnic diversity that exists within Birmingham. We have an anvil that represents the smithing and large metal industry and a small anvil used in the jewellery business, there is a brake drum (from a van) that represents Birmingham’s famous motor industry, there also is a washing machine drum representing electrical engineering,
a railway track, some scaffold pipes, because we’re literally constructing a city on stage, and we have bottles which are obviously referring to glass making and brewing.
On the other hand all the different drums represents the different communities in the city, orchestral percussion for the UK or Europe in general, roto toms for North America, a surdo for Latin America (Brazil), bongos (Cuba!), djembe for Africa, doumbek for the Middle East and a dagu for Asia.
The score uses a lot of unusual percussion, how was it writing
for all the different instruments – did these provide any particular challenges?
It was a challenge, not only to ﬁnd an interesting way to combine all these different sounds and playing technics, but also because the two percussionists are on these big towers, far from the other players, not being able to really communicate with the conductor.
There’s also not a lot of space for music stands, so they basically have to memorise everything, which I’m really impressed by! And then I also had to do research in how I had to write for non-Western instruments, which patterns would work on, for example, a doumbek or a riq, not really in my comfort zone being a pianist myself.
It also didn’t help that we had to make the entire show using zoom, because Kevin Earley has a lot of unique instruments, which I could only check out online. It’s pretty amazing that I’ve never met Kevin, or anyone else from the creative team, this show is really a pandemic baby!
What have you enjoyed most about the collaboration with Miguel, Madeleine and the rest of the team?
We had so many online meetings and for some unique reason there was always so much energy coming out
of my computer screen. It is really an honour to work with such a bunch of super-talented and creative people who are at the same time kind, humble and caring. This is deﬁnitely not the last show we will make together!
Behind the scenes
Birmingham to the World: the making of City of a Thousand Trades