Outside of the ballet world, Adam Cooper rose to popular prominence as the lead Swan in Matthew Bourne's male Swan Lake for Adventures in Motion Pictures. On film, he appeared briefly as the adult Billy - again playing the Swan - in 2000’s Billy Elliot. Cooper has had success in musical theatre in On Your Toes and Singin' in the Rain, both of which he choreographed and starred in at Sadler’s Wells, Guys and Dolls and Zorro. Also in musicals, he’s choreographed Grand Hotel, Side by Side by Sondheim and Carousel and directed Simply Cinderella at Leicester Curve.
I had an association with Richard Rodgers before I even really realised it. Growing up, I used to watch all those great old movies of Oklahoma!, The King and I, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, but I didn’t know who’d written them all because I was very young at the time. When I choreographed and was in On Your Toes, in 2001 in Leicester and then later in London and Japan, that was my real awakening to Rodgers. I remember thinking at the time that the music was so fantastic: not just the songs, but the dance music. It was so impressive and it had a kind of narrative about it.
With this project, I had a meeting with impresario Raymond Gubbay about four years ago. He’d been having discussions with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, and they were very keen on somebody creating a completely dance-based show using Richard Rodgers’ music. Having grown to love it, I absolutely jumped at the chance.
First, I listened through every single piece of Rodgers’ music out there, which took me about three months. Then I started working it up. I got a great musical arranger, Richard Balcombe, on board, and together we tried to piece it together as a whole evening. I didn’t want it to be just one number following another like a Rodgers revue. I wanted it to have a narrative that linked it from beginning to end, and I wanted it to feel like a complete score, rather than little bits and bobs. So, I’ve used two of his existing ballet scores, “Ghost Town” and “Slaughter on 10th Avenue”, to end each act, and the rest Richard has put together brilliantly so it all flows from one into another.
When I was selecting which music to use, a kind of geography became very evident to me. Rodgers is sort of unique in the fact that he could write – and brilliantly - in whatever style he wanted. So I put his music into six categories and attached geographical regions to them. There’s swing jazz, then there’s ballroom waltzes, then there’s Ghost Town which is sort of Russian. Then we go to the Far East with The King and I and “Flower Drum Song”, and then the Wild West with Oklahoma! and State Fair, and we finish up with “Slaughter”, which is back to a sort of American jazz ballet. Then Richard and I went through our favourite pieces which matched those sections and started putting it together along with the narrative that was coming out through me.
Adam Cooper in the dance studio (photo: Barker Evans)
It’s just music, no singing. That’s a question we pondered early on. I decided it would be great to listen to Rodgers’ music without the lyrics. It lets you almost imagine the score in a completely new way rather than following the words and what they’re saying. I wanted this to be a music and dance narrative rather than a word narrative, and that kind of liberated me to do whatever I wanted.
I didn’t want to get narrative heavy, but I did want something to link everything up together. So I came up with a very simple story line which is basically one man who is searching for the ideal woman and he keeps picking the wrong ones. And he goes on a physical journey, from one place to the next, as he’s looking.
Rodgers seemed to evoke places so well in the way he wrote his music. Most composers tend to stick to one style of music, certainly in that era they would have. But Rodgers loved the challenge of taking on new styles, from beautifully grand waltzes to hoedowns. Because of the variety of styles, sometimes it sounds to me like we’re using the work of six different composers: Rodgers does it all and makes it look effortless. His music is also very expressive. He’s what I call a narrative composer. He obviously had a clear storyline in his mind when he was writing. I’ve put my take on that, but as a choreographer, I always find his music tells me what to do.
I didn’t actually want to be in Shall We Dance myself. I was asked to - actually, I was told to! I love dancing, I love performing still, but I’m not that keen on choreographing, directing and being in a show at the same time because it’s a hell of a lot of work and it’s difficult to pull off. I’ve done it a couple of times before and it’s not easy. Having said that, I’m absolutely loving doing this even though it’s killing me. It’s great music, we’ve got great dancers – including Sarah Wildor, my wife, who I haven’t danced with in almost four years, since we had a baby, and Emma Samms (of Dynasty fame), who’s kind of returning to her roots, having trained at the Royal Ballet School. We’re all really enjoying what we’re doing.
What I want to achieve with this, and what I think we are achieving, is just a genuinely great celebration of Richard Rodgers the composer, and a great celebration of dance. It’s six very different styles of dance - which you don’t normally get in one show – and it allows us as dancers to express ourselves in many different ways. And it’s a big show. There are 25 dancers, a marvellous band of 18, six very different sets from Paul Farnsworth, and hundreds of costumes. It’s a high-energy, joyful production and, hopefully, on many levels, a great evening out.
- Adam Cooper was speaking to Terri Paddock
Shall We Dance – A Tribute to the Music of Richard Rodgers runs at Sadler’s Wells from 29 July to 30 August 2009 (previews from 23 July). To view a show trailer, click here.