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Connectome: Cutting-edge ballet from cutting-edge science

A new theory about what creates our memories, personality and intellect has influenced Alastair Marriott's new ballet.

By Gerard Davis (Royal Opera House Programme writer)

28 May 2014 at 11.23am | 3 Comments

In 2012 Dr Sebastian Seung, Professor of Computational Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a book called Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are. In it he argues ‘Our identity does not lie in our genes, but in the connections between our brain cells – our own particular wiring, or “connectome”.’

The notion that a person’s memories, personality and intellect may all be encoded in their connectome greatly intrigued Alastair Marriott and he used it to crystallize ideas that had already been emerging for his newest ballet:
'It gave me a framework and starting position to base the whole work around. I mapped out certain emotional aspects of a life – interactions with other people such as infatuation, spirituality, loss and finally chaos and order – which I derived from my interpretations of the music. You start and finish life alone but you change over time so you have a very complex connectome by the end.'

For the music, Marriott selected four separate pieces by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

'I felt like they belonged to some kind of a cycle. One of the things about Pärt’s music is that, whether you’re religious or not, I think we all have a sense of spirituality and that’s what his music speaks to. Before composers like Pärt, John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, contemporary music had become very disjointed but they made it okay to feel emotionally involved again. I found it interesting to juxtapose that against a cold scientific explanation of why we experience all our very deep feelings.'

Profound emotions were something that Marriott had to go through when he first began planning Connectome, and the choice of music turned out to have a far bigger impact on him personally than he could possibly have envisaged.

'My father died just as I was starting the ballet and at first I wasn’t really sure if I could concentrate on making it. He’d always been interested in what I was creating and, because he loved singing, I’d taken him recordings of the four choirboys who auditioned for the ballet’s second movement to see which one he liked. He actually chose the same one that conductor Barry Wordsworth eventually decided on and I’d hoped that he’d be able to see the finished result. It definitely affected my choreography, and if it made the outcome sadder than I’d initially planned then that’s part of my own personal connectome.'

Marriott deliberately chose a small cast in order to keep things intimate. The one female dancer in the piece is central, but alongside her character and the two other Principals, he’s used four dancers who aren’t yet such familiar names on the cast sheets.

'Although you can see all three of the main characters’ connectomes growing I think people will identify most with the woman. I’ve worked with Sarah Lamb many times before – she’s a fantastic dancer and knows what sort of movement appeals to me – and I really wanted to work with Natalia Osipova for the first time. She has this thoroughly modern ballerina body, capable of huge extensions and massive jumps, but her incredible technique is not the foremost thing in her mind, it’s the artistic element that she’s aiming for; she’s an exhilarating combination of classical ballet and free movement. We’ve had a very positive experience with all the dancers in the studio. The four boys I chose as soloists are actually from the corps but I made ballets on them when they were still at school. I think it’ll be exciting to see some of the most famous dancers in the world next to these very young men who haven’t really had the chance to show off their talents on the main stage yet.'

This is an extract from Gerard Davis's interview with Alastair Marriott and designer Es Devlin, which you can find in full in the programme book. This is available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.

The Royal Ballet's Mixed Programme of The Dream, Connectome and The Concert runs 31 May–13 June 2014. Tickets are still availableConnectome is dedicated to Walter Marriott, 1941–2014.

Connectome is given with generous philanthropic support from Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman and Marina Hobson OBE.

This article has 3 comments

  1. Michael responded on 31 May 2014 at 5:03pm Reply

    I find it odd that you can't include in this piece - or anywhere else on the website that I have searched - the details of the four pieces of music being used. It would have been very useful before going to tonight's première.

    • Gerard (Content Producer (Social Media and News)) responded on 4 June 2014 at 3:39pm

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Unfortunately, the above text is only an extract and the list of music is included elsewhere in the programme. However, the four Arvo Pärt pieces used in Connectome are: Fratres (1992), Vater Unser (2011), Silouans Song (1991) and Wenn Bach Bienen gezüchtet hätte… (2001). Hope this helps!

      Thanks,

      Gerard
      ROH Programme writer

  2. Margaret responded on 1 June 2014 at 10:27am Reply

    I would agree with the above comment and after seeing the ballet last evening, was surprised that the singer was not listed in the programme, especially as that was a very beautiful part of the ballet.

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