An interview with Grant Olding

by Sylvia Villa

A Tony Award nominated and Drama Desk Award winning composer for dance, theatre, film and tv, Grant is best known for writing the songs for One Man Two Guvnors, the hit National Theatre show starring James Corden which played in the West End and on Broadway for over three years. Other highlights include his many scores for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and the Bridge Theatre as well as his TV work for the BBC. Grant’s close working relationship with choreographer Drew McOnie has seen them collaborate on three dances pieces – Drunk (Bridewell Theatre), Jekyll & Hyde (The Old Vic) and in 2021 the Northern Ballet Company premieres his new ballet Merlin. Grant is an associate artist at the Curve theatre in Leicester.

Banner image: (c) Paul Clarke

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

I’ve always collaborated closely with choreographers when composing for musicals and plays but never thought I’d get the chance to write for pure dance. Then I worked with Olivier Award winning choreographer Drew McOnie on a production of James and the Giant Peach and what he did with my music blew me away. So we hatched a plan to make some work together that was more dance based and the opportunity came about a couple of years later to make a song and dance cycle called Drunk. That was an eye opening and inspirational experience for me working with a small company of hugely talented dancer/singer/actors and so I was thrilled when Drew approached me a couple of years later to write the score to his first full length dance piece for the Old Vic Theatre – Jekyll & Hyde

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

I started ballet lessons at age three and continued quite seriously until I was sixteen, so I have a good grounding in what it means to dance and what dance led theatre feels like. My sister was a dancer and choreographer (she now runs a dance school) so I grew up in quite a dance orientated world. I trained as an actor rather than a musician and even after I graduated I found myself dancing in big west end musicals. Now after seventeen years as a composer ensconced behind a piano or computer I find myself writing a ballet (Merlin), sitting in a dance studio with the Northern Ballet company watching class and being completely in awe of these fantastic dancers and the commitment and talent that it takes to perform at that level.

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

No particular music research unless a style of music is called for that I’m unfamiliar with. Mainly I just try and get as close to the story and characters as I can. I need to feel the story from the inside so I can help the choreographer realise their vision and be sure we’re telling the same story. So I sit with the synopsis for a long time reading it over and over, talking to the director/choreographer, looking at any visual inspiration that is available and just dreaming my way into the music.

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

I feel like they’re two sides of the same coin – the dance isn’t complete without the music and vice versa.  I can’t think of the music without thinking about the dance so the relationship is absolute. I feel like the music needs to make the dance happen. When the orchestra plays, the company must be left with no option but to dance. When writing a score for Drew we very rarely discuss dance or music we only talk about story and trust that we each know what we have to do to deliver our side of the piece.

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

I think there’s more emphasis on the music to help tell the story in dance; it’s taking more of the responsibility in communicating emotions and meaning where dialogue would normally be doing a lot of that work. But I don’t think I approach creating the music in a different way or think of it a different way, I just know that the score will be foreground rather than background so every choice about every note, every interval, every metre, key and rhythm has to be the right one for that moment or I run the risk of confusing the audience and telling the wrong story.

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

As with any other creative you’re working with, communication is key. Discussions about tone inform how the piece will be made and what you’re all aiming for. My relationship with Drew is ideal, we have very similar tastes and we both love to get stuck in to story and structure. We respect and admire each other’s craft but are happy to stand back and question artistic decisions. I don’t like to talk about music specifics with a choreographer, I prefer to talk about the emotion of a piece, or an image that needs to be conveyed. The most important aspect of any working relationship in my experience is trust, respect and communication. If you have those three things with a choreographer or any other creative than you’ll be having a jolly time. Also I’m often at my happiest if the opportunity comes to write and make music in the room where the dance is happening. There’s nothing like the give and take of collaborating in real time with a choreographer and a company of dancers, each being inspired by the other and creating something so closely knit that you can’t tell where the music stops and the dance starts.

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’d say try and be around dance as much as possible. Maybe that is a workshop situation, or auditions for the company, or even just the next production the company are making. But spend some time getting to know choreographers and dancers. See how they work. Learn what they need.  Watch as much dance as you can. Listening to dance scores is useful but watching a production is much more useful and watching some rehearsals even better. On a practical level ask questions of the music department and try and get to know the musicians you’ll be writing for. Sit in wherever you can with brilliant creatives and keep your eyes and ears open. Everything you watch and hear will make you a better composer.

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

I tend to work on narrative pieces where the music drives the dance, but obviously some pieces require a more abstract approach to the music. The vision of the choreographer always tells me how to approach a piece. All I’m trying to do is help deliver their vision.

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?

I’m thrilled that dance companies are opening the doors to composers not traditionally from the dance world – coming from a theatre/tv/film background I’m incredibly grateful when I get the chance to make some music for dance. It’s exciting and very important that large scale original dance pieces with original scores continue to get produced and you can’t help but be worried about what Covid-19 means for the whole industry. I hope that when the theatres reopen and dance starts again the programming won’t be affected too badly. It would be a tragedy to see only bankable revivals wheeled out. New dance needs to be supported and new music too.