An interview with Christopher Benstead

by Sylvia Villa

Composer Christopher Benstead has worked intensively in the world of dance and theatre for over forty years. He is currently a part-time lecturer in music for dance at the London School of Contemporary Dance and the Rambert School and is working on a new orchestral score for a ballet company in Germany.

How did you get into writing music for dance? What attracted you to writing for this particular artform?

It all began some 40 years ago, at Dartington College of Arts. I was there to study music (violin being my first study) but had the opportunity to dip into the other art forms – and it was dance that spoke to me. I even ended up performing as a dancer in one of the end-of-year performances! Subsequently, forming a small touring company with Janet Smith back in the 1970s, I had the opportunity to immerse myself deeply in the fascinating world of creating sound scores for dance. I loved (and still love) the diversity it brings to my composing work; the challenges of moving from composing for full orchestra (current project with choreographer Robert North for a ballet company in Germany) to being a solo musician with piano and laptop (working with contemporary chorographer Andrea Rauch in Slovenia) to working with an ad hoc band of musicians in Mexico, South Africa and Palestine (in the world of Community Dance with and for disadvantaged children).

Did you have much knowledge or experience of dance before you composed music for a dance-related project?

No, not specifically. My background had been in classical music (along with a passion that grew in my teens for Soul, Tamla Motown & Jazz!).

What sort of research do you do in order to prepare for a project? Do you have a particular method?

Part of the beauty of being involved in the world of dance is that there is no specific formula; there are no hard and fast rules. Each project brings its own relationships and challenges. But it is the collaboration I most value. That is, that the research usually constitutes continuing dialogue with the choreographer/dance-maker, finding a common language, discovering a sound palette, a style – and often immersing oneself in writings (prose/poetry/biography), paintings, nature, theatre – whatever might seem relevant to the current project. Allowing oneself to absorb different influences and then to find one’s own individual voice.

Describe what the relationship between music and dance means to you.

The relationship is crucial to me – but that relationship can come in so many different forms! I still regularly play for contemporary dance classes as I love that direct, immediate response to the dance. It’s like instant composition – in a highly structured way – which, of course, is not usually the way one approaches composing for a piece of choreography (squarely-balanced phrases, obvious count structures, regular use of 8-count phrases). But it does teach the musician a huge amount in terms of the interpretation of dance through music – albeit, in a highly formalised way. Beyond that, for me the joy of composing for dance comes from the enormous diversity in sound/movement possibilities – but I am always searching for a connection with the dance, through my music, literal or implied.

Do you think that writing music for dance requires a different approach compared to writing music for a different artform?

This is a tricky one. Naturally, when composing for dance, the composer is shaping and moulding their music/soundscape to the form of the choreography/piece. Therefore, some may find a certain frustration in not necessarily being able to go where the creative urge takes you! Simply because, one has to learn a degree of flexibility about one’s creations – to not be overly precious about your work to the point of not being prepared to change and adapt what you have created. I find the process of composing for film similarly challenging and exacting – and it often occurs to me that there are strong parallels with this process and composing for dance.

How do you navigate a working relationship with a choreographer and/or dance company?

I think this is fundamentally a process of trust-building and respect for what each party brings to the table. Ideally, each voice is heard and ideas taken seriously, considered and discussed. I know that, personally speaking, I relish being able to feed off ideas and thoughts from choreographer, designer, lighting designer and dancers too and (again, from a personal perspective) to be equally considered and valued in the creative process. Don’t be afraid to express and share your ideas!

What advice would you give a composer looking to write music for dance? (What would have helped you when you were starting out or working on your first project?)

I was extremely fortunate in my early days of working with dance; I had met and connected creatively with an inspirational choreographer/dance-maker who openly encouraged creativity and exploration; so I learnt through trial and error. I would highly recommend having a go at playing for a dance class. If you are of a mind to, also take a class or two yourself! Beyond that, explore the hugely varied mixture of dance available on the internet – explore all styles; keeping browsing till you find something that grabs you. And then pursue that. And as and when we all can once again, go and see as much dance as you can at the theatre – everything from the big venues (Sadlers Wells for example in London) to all the small-scale arts organisations, youth dance groups, community groups, dance for people with learning difficulties and physical disablities, dance for Parkinsons, dance with older age groups, classical ballet, jazz, hip-hop… there is so much! Immerse yourself in it all and then seek out a dance-maker/choreographer who has inspired you – and be brave! (There are also various courses available around the world for emerging choreographers and composers. Again, the internet can be a wonderful tool!)

How would you describe the role of music within a dance production? Does this change depending on the nature of the project?

It most certainly does (change depending on the nature of the production)! Just think, for a moment of the extreme contrast of the role of the music in, for example, the musical ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ to that in Merce Cunningham’s ‘Summerspace’. Basically, the role of the music can be just whatever the creators (choreographer/composer) choose it to be.

Do you have any opinions on the current state of the ballet and dance industry and how that affects the creation of new music for dance?

The challenges currently facing the arts world, and in particular that of the dance world (classical and contemporary) are huge and unprecedented. A discipline that relies upon and openly celebrates the close proximity of and physical relationship between different and differing human bodies is being shockingly decimated by the severe restrictions we are all currently living under. In ‘normal’ times, dancers (being the amazing athletes they are) depend entirely upon being able to gather together to practice their art – be it in daily classes or on the stage. Funding for dance has always been in crisis; somehow, dance always comes bottom of the pile where funding is concerned and many people around the world fight constant battles to change this. Happily, over the last decade particularly, the enormous benefits dance offers to all walks of life is being revaluated and celebrated and this can only be a good thing. So, in theory, opportunities for future creative collaborations and in particular (for our purposes here) opportunities for composers interested in writing for dance are broadening and increasing. Let’s hope that the way forward will become clearer to us all as time goes on. Good luck to one and all – and never give up!

Composer Christopher Benstead has worked intensively in the world of dance and theatre for over forty years, composing more than one hundred and fifty scores in a wide range of styles from full orchestral to chamber, choral and electronic. He has been commissioned to compose for, among others, Rambert Dance Company, English National Ballet, London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Cambridge Theatre Company, Royal Danish Ballet, Gothenburg Ballet, Nevada Dance Theatre, Freiburger Tanzteater, Ballet du Nord, Scottish Ballet, Amici Dance Theatre, Scottish Dance Theatre, Red Ladder Theatre Company, Gyori Ballet, Stopgap Dance Company, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Ballett Krefeld and BBC Radio and Television. He has created musical scores for large and small-scale dance and theatre companies, youth and community groups, radio, television, and film throughout the UK, in Europe, the Americas, the Far East and Africa.

His work as composer for community projects has focused mainly on work with disadvantaged children across the globe, particularly in Cambodia with EPIC Arts, South Africa with the Austrian-based s2arch charity and in Mexico for the British Council. Most recently, he has been composing for a series of documentary films titled 199 Little Heroes, about the journeys children make to school all over the world as well as collaborating with theatre director Alan Lyddiard and The Performance Ensemble, creating work for people over the age of 60 in Yorkshire. Christopher has produced and recorded a series of albums for dance teachers and is one of the UK’s most distinguished and experienced dance class accompanists. He is currently a part-time lecturer in music for dance at the London School of Contemporary Dance and the Rambert School and is working on a new orchestral score for a ballet company in Germany.