Arts

Alan Cumming Uses Dance to Get at the Truth of Robert Burns

GLASGOW — Rain pours down, thunder growls, lightning flickers. Fragments of melancholy melody emerge from the tumult, and a lone, silhouetted figure appears onstage, moving his upper body in sinuous circles, entwining his arms and gesturing with slow deliberation. Then he walks forward, opens his arms and smiles impishly. “Here am I,” he announces.

Here he is: The Scottish poet Robert Burns, embodied by the Scottish actor Alan Cumming in the one-man dance-theater show “Burn,” coming to the Joyce Theater on Sept. 20.

Conceived by Cumming and the choreographer Steven Hoggett, “Burn,” which had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August, is an unlikely hybrid: A movement-focused show performed by a famous actor with no dance training, about a man whose medium was words.

Why dance? Why Burns?

Cumming answered those questions at some length a few days after that Glasgow performance, in a video interview from Aberdeen, where — between performances of “Burn” — he was filming the second season of a Scottish travel series with the actress Miriam Margolyes. To boil it down: He loves a challenge, he loves dance even more, and he had been thinking about taking on another physically demanding role since reprising the role of the M.C. in “Cabaret” eight years ago. (He won a Tony Award for the performance in 1998.)

Vicki Manderson, left, did the choreography with Hoggett (back to camera). Here, they are rehearsing with Cumming iin Glasgow.Credit…Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“When that ended in 2015, I was 50,” he said. “I felt sad to think I’m never going to be as fit as this again, this is it. Then I slowly began to think, No, I have one more thing left in me.” He added, “I put it into the universe.”

The universe responded. In 2018, he went backstage at the Joyce Theater after watching “The Tenant,” choreographed by Arthur Pita, the partner of his old friend and flatmate Matthew Bourne. While chatting with Pita, Cumming was introduced to Linda Shelton, the executive director of the Joyce. “She asked me if I had any dancey ideas,” Cumming said. “I do!,” he answered.

He had been thinking about Burns at that time, he said, prompted in part by writing an autobiography and revealing dark aspects of his own past. “It made me think how we don’t have a holistic picture of our icons,” he said. “Burns is everywhere in Scotland — on statues, milk bottles, chocolate boxes — he is a sort of Scottish DNA wallpaper. But we don’t really know who he is. Somehow, at that moment, the two things, Burns and dance, merged in my mind.”

He told the Joyce team that he wanted to do a dance-theater piece about the poet with the choreographer Steven Hoggett. But he neglected to mention he hadn’t yet asked Hoggett.

“It’s true,” Hoggett said in a video interview from New York, where he is working on a coming production of “Sweeney Todd.” The two men — friends since 2007, when they collaborated on the National Theater of Scotland’s “The Bacchae” — were having dinner one night when Cumming asked him what he thought about the idea. “I said it sounded fantastic and he should do it,” Hoggett recounted. “He said, ‘Good, because you are doing it, too.’”

Cumming wanted to work with Hoggett, he said, because the choreographer comes from an experimental background (he founded the physical theater group Frantic Assembly) and has extensive experience working with actors. “He brings that energy and aesthetic to the more commercial work,” Cumming said, “a more narrative-led, Pina Bausch-y way of letting bodies tell a story.”

Cumming, right, said that Hoggett, left, brings “a more narrative-led, Pina Bausch-y way of letting bodies tell a story.”Credit…Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Cumming and Hoggett began a residency at the National Theater of Scotland, which produced the show with the Edinburgh International Festival and the Joyce. Although their first idea, Hoggett said, was to look at Scottish male identity, they changed focus entirely after Kirsteen McCue, a professor of Scottish literature and a director of the Center for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, talked to them about the poet. McCue suggested they read his letters and the research of her colleague, Moira Hansen, who posits that Burns might have suffered from bipolar disorder.

“They guided us to his mental health, to his relationship with his patron Frances Dunlop, to things that aren’t so sexy, but fascinating,” Cumming said. “When you read the letters — and there are two thick volumes — you realize he is much more fragile, more florid, sometimes obsequious to rich people, a bit stalker-y to women, often depressed.”

The men began to work on movement that could evoke Burns’s states of mind, and in the process started to “find out what Alan’s body did and didn’t do,” Hoggett said. “He wasn’t going to learn a rond de jambe,” he added, referring to a step in the basic ballet vocabulary.

Instead they did exercises around some of the content of the letters: farming, writing, joy, love, lust, depression. “What happens to the body when you’re using farming implements? What does his joy feel like, where does it spring from?” Hoggett said. “What does it feel like, in the body, to be inspired?”

Every day, they would do an hourlong warm-up, then try out various exercises. Together with Vicki Manderson, who choreographed the piece with Hoggett, they would create material and construct movement phrases.

“He would try anything,” Hoggett said of Cumming. “I encouraged him to really feel whether something felt right and fit on his body.”

Hoggett said of Cumming: “He would try anything.”Credit…Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

It was hard both physically and mentally. “The sheer pain of it,” Cumming said, grimacing. “It was intense.” It was also scary, he added, to go into rehearsal and not have a structure. “Steven is used to just making things up in the room,” he said. “But actors like to have a script!”

Asked whether it had been difficult to memorize movement sequences, and eventually an hour of choreography, Cumming clutched his head in his hands. “I kept thinking, I memorized the whole of ‘Macbeth,’ I can do this!” he said. “But of course, getting the muscle memory of movement into your body is entirely different.”

He learned that to tell a story with your body, “you have to think in a different way, let the story touch you in a more nonlinear, visceral way,” he said. “It was an incredibly emotional thing to do. I felt very vulnerable, which is what I want to be.”

And, gradually, he became more sure of himself. “The exercises, zoning into the themes we were focusing on in the show,” he said, “gave me more confidence about my body and storytelling. It was a shock to me that some of the movement started coming from me.”

He also realized, he said, that he was playing both Burns and the Alan Cumming that people know. “I am asking people to look at me in a different way, and also to look at the character I play in a different way,” he said. “The form really helped tell the story.”

Cumming and Hoggett knew early on, Cumming said, that they wanted to use the genre-defying music of the Scottish composer Anna Meredith, whom they both admired. “We press-ganged her a bit,” Hoggett said. “Then she came to a few workshops, saw how forensic we were being with her music, and sent us a lot of stuff that hadn’t been released before.”

Meredith, whose memory of those workshops involves “mainly doing a lot of Scottish country dancing with an expert who had come to work with the men,” said that she “loved the ambition of the show,” and the way it revealed unusual aspects of Burns. The score, she said, is made up of both existing tracks and older, sometimes experimental, work that “I hadn’t found a home for.”

Cumming working with Manderson.Credit…Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

“It’s a mix of acoustic and electronic,” she said, “some tracks untouched, others needed edits or extensions to fit the exact length of Alan’s words and rhythms.”

Working with Meredith to shape the score also helped in creating a structure for the show, when the men reconvened at Cumming’s home in Scotland last summer. “By then, we had pared downthe topics we felt were important to telling the story of who Burns was,” Cumming said. He ticked off key points: Burns’s upbringing on a farm; starting to write; his relationship with Jean Armour (who would be the mother of nine of his 12 children); his affairs with Mary Campbell and others; his poverty, depression, and his love for Scotland and its stories and themes.

“To label ‘Burn’ as dance might be stretching a point,” Mark Fisher wrote in The Guardian, adding that Cumming has nonetheless “dared to put himself in an unfamiliar place.”

As several reviewers pointed out, there is not a great deal of Burns’s famous poetry in the show. Instead Cumming and Hoggett focus on the autobiographical content of Burns’s letters, evoking the highs and lows of his emotional life through their words, digital projections (Andrzej Goulding), dramatic lighting (Tim Lutkin) and occasional stage magic, as quills scroll independently across a manuscript and a dress rises from the floor to incarnate a character.

“When Alan is 90 years old, he can recite Burns poetry in a rocking chair, under a spotlight,” Hoggett said. “And he can do that beautifully. But we wanted to go further and do a show about the man and the way movement can reveal a reality that words often hide.”

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