Will Tuckett Q&A
with John Coulbourn
Pinocchio is created by British choreographer and dancer Will Tuckett. Renowned for his inventive storytelling, Mr. Tuckett has received acclaim for his many works including an Olivier Award for his masterful adaptation of The Wind In The Willows. Pinocchio is his first creation for The National Ballet of Canada. Arts Critic John Coulbourn caught up with him at The Walter Carsen Centre during a break from rehearsal to ask some questions about his version of this classic tale.
I think it’s an extraordinary book but it is at times quite strange and surreal — not really what anybody thinks it quite is. It's actually the second Pinocchio I've created. Karen Kain initially wondered if I would revise that production, originally for The Royal Opera House. However, I was going to have to redesign it, re-orchestrate it, upscale it and I made it a really long time ago, so I thought, couldn't I just make a new one? Then, I could make it specifically for The National Ballet of Canada. The first one was a mix of contemporary and classical dancers and so making it for the National Ballet is a whole other ball game.
We also, unusually for ballet, use elements of text in this production, spoken by some of the dancers. Librettist and Dramaturge Alasdair Middleton also created the libretto for an opera of Pinocchio that gets performed all over the world, so he also knows the story really well. My last production was quite a straight, if slightly sentimental morality tale, whereas Alasdair's opera was closer to the original book. This time we have tried to meet somewhere in the middle!
JC: Any concern about Disney expectations?
WT: Disney's take on the story is a kind of a cute moral journey and the book is not that. The book is much more a celebration of the anarchy and, to a degree, of the amorality of smaller children who haven't quite sussed out the way moral codes function. Our characters and scenario are not as anarchic as Collodi's original but we are going a little bit in that direction.
JC: And what about those who might show up looking for Jiminy Cricket and all the Disney favourites?
WT: I think they'll very quickly know it's not Disney. In the book, Jiminy Cricket is killed very unceremoniously by Pinocchio in the same chapter that he is introduced. So, Alasdair and I decided just to avoid crickets. We're taking out a lot of the really dark sections of the original story as I think there's a huge difference between the impact of the written word and what happens when that is realized visually, but also we want to be closer to Collodi's original than the Disney film. What I think we can do is make things exciting rather than scary. It's just a few clicks a different way on the gauge and a slightly different application of the pedal, but for a family show it's really important that it works for everyone.
JC: While you're known as a major creative force in ballet, you also do a lot of work in theatre, opera and film. Do you have a favourite?
WT: It's always really nice “coming home” to dancers. I like opera singers, actors and musicians, but I do really like dancers. I like the way they work and I guess that’s because I've been working in dance the longest. I like that curious sort of osmosis in a studio where not everything is spoken — odd bits of telegraphing and stuff. I like dancers as people; their work ethic and their concentration. And I like their route into roles — with actors, there's that thing of learning slowly, starting by talking about who this person is, creating an intellectual picture and then filling it, as opposed to a dancer where you can create a climbing frame of a character with movement and then watch a dancer fill it with themselves. It's sort of the opposite approach — you end up with the same thing but it's the other way around.
JC: And, by those lights, how do the National Ballet's dancers stack up?
WT: They're an amazing company. They do two things really, really well; there's a really high technical level but for me, just as importantly, everybody understands how to tell stories. As curious as it may sound I think that is just as pertinent in abstract work. It makes total sense that there is a lot of crossover between here and The Royal Ballet. Both companies are aware of how to tell stories through dance, be that abstract, elliptically emotional narrative, or a more straightforwardly conceived story ballet and I think that's quite rare. One might think that the National Ballet would have more in common with companies in the United States, but to me it actually feels much more European in its approach. What I love is that the dancers have a kind of bigger energy that's very North American. It's as if the National Ballet has all the good things — but with added punch. And the best thing of all is that everyone's really nice!
JC: While this has always been a children's story, Pinocchio seems to have been showing up in American politics a lot of late. Will this Pinocchio have any political overtones?
WT: We started on this over a year ago, when England was still determinedly part of Europe and the idea of Trump coming to power was, to many, ludicrous. The world felt in a very different place. I think it's impossible to make something that doesn't, in some way, reflect the time we are in but I don't think people will be going to see Pinocchio hoping for a treatise on the global political situation. I hope people will be thinking that it will be great to go to the theatre and have an enjoyable evening where nobody is dictating what they should think. One of my least favourite words is “relevant” in terms of art. As soon as you've said that awful word, you watch the project get up and run off the table into the land of irrelevant. I think there will always be a place for and a desire to see theatre and dance as a way of escaping things for a couple of hours and to me there's nothing wrong in that – let’s face it, the real world isn't going anywhere.