Man: My guest today is the choreographer Amy Martles, who’s put together many diverse dance productions; everything from classical ballet to modern stage musicals and experimental modern dance – the list goes on. Amy, tell us, how did you get into choreography in the first place?
Amy: Well I got the performance bug as a kid – you know, we’d put on plays at primary school. Dance was a part of that, though it wasn’t ever to the forefront particularly. Gymnastics was the thing I excelled at, and it was my sports coach who suggested trying private dance classes. She saw something in the way I used my body to communicate feeling , and thought that might be worth developing. She was right. I naturally leaned towards rather athletic dance styles, and there wasn’t much of a repertoire for that, so creating dances was the natural way forward. I like to do my own thing, and movement and gesture are a very effective means of communication . That whole idea’s always fascinated me.
Man: So, do you need to be a good dancer to be a good choreographer?
Amy: Well, when I was a dancer, I had the experience of working under a choreographer and I keep reminding myself how that felt – how frustrating it can be when the choreographer just seems to be trying out ideas on a whim – and you’re the guinea pig. You know, after a long tiring session, that’s the last thing a dancer wants. Any choreographer worth her salt would pick up on that and call it a day . I’m not sure you have to be an exceptional dancer yourself though, and I know of choreographers who hardly ever set foot on stage themselves – and certainly couldn’t reproduce all the steps. Because that’s not the point really – it’s more what you bring out in others.
Man: Sure. Talk us through how you go about creating a new dance.
Amy: Well it really depends – like, sometimes I’m commissioned for a show where the music, the narrative – that’s all in place and I’m working within those constraints – and that’s the challenge. Other times it’s an idea that comes first and I work with the composer to create something coherent that could be performed as an original piece of dance – and that’s just as challenging, but in a different way. For that I create the final version with the dancers, seeing what their bodies can manage, which moves are more achievable or visually effective. It can be pretty experimental and almost random – like, you might see a movement that really works by chance – if, say, a dancer slips and creates a particular shape – and you make something of it .
Man: Right. So what do you aim for in your work?
Amy: Well, I have to feel that everything comes together as a unified whole, that we’re saying something to the audience that’s honest and meaningful . That means having harmony and balance in everything – the music, the dance steps, the costumes and the lighting, and they’re all equally important. Sometimes you can see a piece that has originality and groundbreaking steps, but performed on a set that’s distracting, and the message gets blurred. I want to enhance people’s perceptions not confuse them – I want them to understand what I’m doing and the idea I’m trying to put across. So it’s more about them than me really, but it’s certainly not about impressing them with flashy moves or anything like that.
Man: I’ve heard choreographers are very choosey about which dancers they’ll work with. What do you look for in a dancer?
Amy: For me, it’s got to be someone who’s ready to collaborate in anything and explore any options without pre-conceptions. I’m pretty intolerant of dancers who go in for introspection or whose egos need massaging. Actually, in some ways, working with students is more straightforward because they’ve got the basic training, they’re desperate to learn, but they’re not weighed down with expectations . I guess I like the idea of the blank canvas best. But if I am working with professionals, then it’s more collaborative, and that’s nice too. We develop a conversation about the work and through that something emerges – it’s a coming together of minds, so always stimulating.
Man: And if you’re asked to work on a new production of a well-known piece, is it a very different approach?
Amy: I think I stay true to the spirit of the piece – and to my own instincts. All art is created to speak to contemporary audiences. Even productions of historical dramas end up being about today’s concerns. That’s inescapable. But I wouldn’t set out to change the underlying ideas in a piece. I know people will inevitably make comparisons with past productions, and I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not my starting point. Actually more of an issue for me is the gulf that people perceive between the experimental original piece and the new production of a known work – because it just isn’t as wide as they imagine. Sure, the starting point is different, as are the practical considerations – but if you’re talking about the essence – the choreographer’s vision – her craft if you like – then for me there’s hardly a gulf at all .
I just drifted into office work – having no particular qualifications to speak of. I didn’t mind that it was nine-to-five or that we were always chasing impossible deadlines. I mean, that’s what kept the people in our section on our toes. No, the thing I couldn’t stand was all the sitting about in front of a screen . Even though I went to the gym at lunchtime, I still never really felt fit. Gardening’s certainly put that right. I’m outside in all weathers, but I love it, and although the money’s nothing to write home about, I really feel that people who employ me are grateful – that’s worth a lot to me .
The trouble with our office wasn’t so much the lack of space; I could put up with that – it was the sort of people you had to work with. I mean, sitting in front of a screen for six hours at a stretch, you needed a bit of light relief, but nobody there could see the funny side of my anecdotes I’m afraid . I’m much happier in hairdressing. I chat all day, and you never know who’s going to come in next. My boss is a real laugh and I feel that I’m really expressing my creativity when I suggest a new style to a client  – even if it doesn’t always work out as I intended.
People think I went into nursing because I wanted a more caring job, but that wasn’t the real reason. Sure, it’s nice helping people, but we used to do that in our office too. No, it was having to do everything by yesterday that got me down. We were always in a rush because the bosses couldn’t get the scheduling right . Although the hours are a bit irregular, I’m actually a bit better off as a nurse , so it’s a real win-win situation for me, because I had been expecting a cut in my standard of living. I’m calmer and feel more in control of my life and, in a year’s time, I’ll be fully qualified.
I went into office work because I had good IT skills. I thought it was a good career move. It never occurred to me that I’d find it stressful just being there. I mean the hours weren’t that long but we were all packed into this really small area . It was quite well-paid, but it just wasn’t worth it. As a window dresser for a big store I know that what I do will be seen by lots of people and could have a big impact – that makes me determined to do it as well as I can . I love that feeling. And there’s no grumpy boss breathing down my neck all the time either!
I thought I’d get promotion eventually and that’d help me re-engage with the job. But when I did, it made no difference. I couldn’t care less whether we met our deadlines or not  – much to my colleagues’ disgust. I just did my hours and looked forward to going home. I’d no commitment to it anymore. Plumbing’s such a contrast. It’s a small company but they’re paying for my training and that makes up for the drop in salary. What thrills me is that people look up to you when you say you’re a plumber , even if I’m not fully qualified yet. It means you can do things they can’t. I never felt that as an office worker.