Their stunning work with light and space has earned Russell Maliphant and Michael Hulls a unique place in British dance. But all is not rosy, they tell Sarah Crompton.
Russell Maliphant looks like a dancer. He is compact and elegant, with a finely drawn, expressive face and a way of moving his arms and stretching his body whenever he wants to explain a particularly complicated point. Michael Hulls is tall and rugged, with an unruly mop of dark hair. He doesn't look at all like a dancer, though he did used to be one.
Sitting side by side, the men look unlikely friends, let alone soul mates. Yet they are probably the most important creative partnership in modern British dance, making works of such haunting, delicate beauty that anyone who sees them is likely always to remember the images that unfolded on the stage.
In works such as Shift and Critical Mass and in Broken Fall, for Sylvie Guillem and the Ballet Boyz, and Push, a duet for Guillem and Maliphant, they have won huge acclaim and carved a unique place in the world of abstract dance. And the reason the work is so original is that their two complementary talents are working towards one end.
Maliphant choreographs the steps and Hulls provides the lighting, and they see themselves as equal collaborators. When you meet them, this professional partnership extends to finishing each other's sentences. Like this:
"Collaboration means what you do affects what the other person is doing," Hulls starts. "Because it is a fashionable word, it's used when someone is working with some other person. But that's not collaboration, that's just doing a job. Collaboration is where whatever someone brings, it is going to change what someone else is doing…"
Maliphant chips in: "And it has the opportunity of bringing out more than that person would do on their own. Because we are all limited by our own…" "…imaginations," says Hulls, quick as a flash. "And the most exciting things are the things you could never imagine on your own but that you get to by some interaction. That's creativity."
They met through the radical improvisational dancer Laurie Booth, who had asked Hulls, who had dance and theatre training but no experience in lighting, to light his work. Maliphant turned up, at a point when, after years with the Royal Ballet and then with Michael Clark and DV8, he was wondering whether he wanted to go on dancing. Booth's work excited him - and his rapport with Hulls was almost instant.
"I could find the light," he says. Hulls is even more poetic. "He could dance on the edge of a light and would dance in a certain way that would be different to the way he would dance if he were in the middle of the light. I felt that was great."
Through touring, and spending time together, the men discovered that they shared similar tastes - they would walk out of the same performances, buy the same type of knives ("That was a particular thing in Essen," laughs Hulls), and decided that they wanted to work together. And that is, broadly, what they have done, for the past 15 years.
But for a choreographer to want to work with a lighting designer is far from easy. Each piece they make together requires them to have access to lighting in a darkened space in order to be able to explore their ideas, to make the light a player in the action.
They are both very funny about their early years, about the difficulties of creating pieces with no funding, about rehearsal studios in the back of beyond where the black-out curtains kept falling off the baking windows, and hours were spent messing around with gaffer tape. But out of that struggle came pieces that brought them recognition, works such as Shift, a solo where Maliphant dances with his own shadow.
What is shocking is that even now, when they are absolutely at the top of their game, feted wherever they perform, they still have no guaranteed funding from the Arts Council. They are backed by other institutions: Maliphant is an associate artist at Sadler's Wells and Hulls has a similar position at The Place. But, to get Arts Council funding, they have to fill in a form for each project they undertake. "If we get the funding then we get as many co-producers as we can, and get as much time in the theatre as we can, so we get an opportunity to work in light," says Maliphant. For a lot of the time, though, when a theatre is free, they can't hire dancers because they don't know whether they are going to get the go-ahead. Funding for their work last year on a piece eventually called Transmission (which forms part of the programme Maliphant's company brings to Sadler's Wells on April 6) was initially turned down by the Arts Council.
Work was due to start in mid-July, but the money only arrived in early July. "How do you keep the dancers?" asks Maliphant. "There is no security." "We never know where the next wad of cash is coming from," says Hulls. The company could apply for revenue funding, which would give them funding for a number of years, but, says Hulls: "That's a nightmare. You have to do x number of regional workshops, x number of regional performances, having a whole educational department and going into schools. There are so many boxes to tick, and it is nothing to do with artistic calibre."
Maliphant is particularly incensed, in his own quiet way, with the idea that his teaching of other dancers does not count as "educational" work by the Arts Council's own criteria. "I've been dancing for 35 years. I think I can help people who have been dancing for 10. There is no point in me teaching good toes, naughty toes to non-dancers. It's not time well spent and it is not money well spent to have me doing that."
Their determination to follow their own vision thus leaves these two talented men in their 40s - Maliphant with three young children to support, Hulls who cares for his wife Michèle, who has cancer - fighting to make the work that they want. "It is an unstable working environment," says Hulls. "And that may have creative benefits. But, after a while, you just want to know you can get on with it."
"I'd just like one studio in the same place for a good period of time. That would be really nice," says Maliphant, wistfully.
They laugh a lot as they talk; they are not moaning. But it is hard not to feel that they should be better supported by the Arts Council when the work that they create is so inspirational, and they are so committed to it.
In a lecture they gave in February, they described how different pieces came into being. Each has a different genesis, but all are ultimately informed by the way light can create space and dance can fill it. They showed the way one piece, Two - originally created for Maliphant's wife Dana Fouras and danced more recently by Guillem ("a complete delight to work with") - grew out of a block of white light placed on the floor.
When the dancers moved through it, their hands flared as they caught the edges of the light. Hulls thought it was a nice effect, but he didn't know what to do with it. It took Maliphant to see that you could forge an unforgettable image out of the way limbs move through light.
It's a fine example of the way these two men work, enhancing each other's ideas, and it is why, increasingly, neither wishes to work with anyone else. "There's only a certain amount of work that I want to do and I want to do this, not other stuff," says Hulls. Maliphant adds: "What could be better than working in a small group with great people? If I went into a large company, I would be working to their tune. Is that progress? Is that success? For me, there are hard things about our lot, but there are great things about it as well."
"It would be nice just to be able not to have the sleepless nights," says Hulls. "Yeah," Maliphant agrees. And with that, they're off into a rainy afternoon, to find another rehearsal room and create a bit more magic with dance and light.
The full article is published here: www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3651068/Me-and-my-shadow.html