In Rehearsal: A Sneak Peek at Linder Sterling’s New Ballet

On 12 December 2012, a small audience gathered in the Stanley & Audrey Burton Theatre on the ground floor of Northern Ballet in Leeds. A photographer and cinematographer hovered around the rehearsing ballerinas, who were adorned in neon catsuits. Electro neo-trance boomed throughout the high-ceilinged theatre, as though foreshadowing the open rehearsal we were about to witness. This was the first public rehearsal of ‘The Ultimate Form’, artist Linder Sterling’s latest performance piece commissioned by The Hepworth Wakefield, which will premier on 31 January 2013 at the opening of Linder’s retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris and will travel to The Hepworth Wakefield in May 2013. ‘The Ultimate Form’ combines the choreography of Northern Ballet’s award-winning Kenneth Tindall, a musical score by Cinematic Orchestra guitarist Stuart McCallum, and costumes by designer Pam Hogg.

Suddenly the all-encompassing soundtrack was switched off. Simon Wallis, Director of The Hepworth Wakefield, took the floor and explained that we were about to see a glimpse of Linder’s performance, which was part of the gallery’s initiative of commissioning contemporary artists to work in the vein of Barbara Hepworth’s artistic concerns. He went on to explain how music and dance were elements that informed Hepworth’s sculptural work, though these aspects of it are often left unappreciated. Specifically, he cited the rhythmic precision of Johann Sebastian Bach as a key informant of Hepworth’s sculptural practice. Hepworth had a keen fascination with the human form, and her sculptures and drawings often echoed the memory of seeing a figure working or moving in space.

After Wallace left the stage, the artist and originator behind The Ultimate Form said a few words about her vision for this ambitious collaboration. Rather than standing to speak to the audience, Linder sat cross-legged in a chair facing us, noting that any rest was welcome after working so many late nights. Despite Hepworth being a blind spot for much of Linder’s life, the artist described her intimate experience at Hepworth’s studio in St Ives one rainy evening several years ago after a performance on the beach at Tate St Ives. Linder noted that her appreciation for Hepworth’s work grew after this, as well as after reading her writings. She also acknowledged that Hepworth intended her audience to touch, climb into, and experience her sculptures in an intimate way.

In Linder’s final words before the ballet company performed, she gave a small disclaimer: all parties involved were ‘in a vulnerable position, at a point where we would never dream of letting people see our work’. The dancers had not rehearsed for three months, and were therefore about to show us a raw performance. Furthermore, this would be the first time that they tried on Hogg’s costumes or performed to McCallum’s tracks.

Linder removed herself from the stage as we waited for the seven ballerinas to perform excerpts from The Ultimate Form, which is based loosely on Hepworth’s work The Family of Man (1970), a collection of bronze sculptures installed in the landscape at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Tindall took the archetypes in Hepworth’s monumental work and presented them and tweaked them by incorporating an infusion of Linder’s montages into his work, meshing elements from both Hepworth’s figures and Linder’s collages.

In a direct reference to The Family of Man, three figures, one male and two female, posed on stage for the first dance. The females were clad in green and blue catsuits, respectively, with the male dancer in all black. Hogg had designed headpieces for the dancers, which mimicked the vertical top stones in Hepworth’s original sculpture. The suits for the females included exaggerated elbows and shoulders through the addition of sculptural elements, which Hogg is known for in her work. The first demonstration included sudden, staccato movements alternating with slow, deliberate motions. Arms echoed the action of cutting, as though playing with Linder’s notion of art-making.

The following three excerpts continued to toy with artistic structures set forth by Hepworth’s and Linder’s works, particularly with references to the implied motion of Hepworth’s sculptures and the fragmented contortions of Linder’s collages. The Family of Man invites penetration, and Tindall explored this through the manipulation of the potential within the human figure. Often the dancers of the Northern Ballet linked their bodies together to create a veritable montage, using their physical balance and strength to contort their bodies into new forms. These novel shapes constructed by Tindall and his company translated Hepworth’s sculpture into human form, and manipulated this notion further through referencing Linder’s collage technique.

As Tindall explained, he did not want to ‘give away’ all of The Ultimate Form, so the audience was left wanting more. I caught up with some of the collaborators post-performance, where Linder explained to me that she has been working on ballet collages for about four years and had always dreamt of creating a ballet. She explained, ‘I work so isolated, I can’t help but imagine a soundtrack and dancers dancing. I had to find hosts. The Ultimate Form was my pure desire; I had to find somebody to house it.

Designer Hogg confided about the collaboration, ‘I’d been waiting for years for someone to invite me to design costumes for a ballet. I feel my work screams ‘movement’ and I was knocked out when Linder approached me. I’d never met her before but I knew her by her iconic Buzzcocks single sleeve for ‘Orgasm Addict’, which I still treasure. In my most recent collections I’ve been creating shapes beyond the human form, giving my extended silhouettes a soft sculptural element, so I feel that this is the perfect ballet for me and the one well worth waiting for.’