Image: © English National Ballet

The Sheffield-born film director and Stina Quagebeur collaborated on Take Five Blues for our Digital Season.

We paired film directors with choreographers to create five great short films with dance at the heart. Take Five Blues is the first of these original dance films to premiere and is available to watch starting today on our new Ballet on Demand platform.

We catch up with Shaun to see how he brought his own vision into the mix while translating Stina’s choreography to film:

What did you enjoy about filming and directing Take Five Blues, and what were some challenges?

I knew nothing about ballet coming into this. I didn’t have a clue… So at first I was really sceptical, if I’m being completely open and honest. It was more just, what do I bring to this?

It was never actually spelled out to me that this was for a digital season because people can’t go outside. I didn’t find that out until after we actually did it. So, I just filmed something!  But I kind of liked that because I think I was more free. I kind of  did what I felt was right.

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Film director Shaun James Grant.

I’m a working class kid, and my preconceptions of ballet… it is all quite alien to me. I didn’t know what to expect coming in or the personalities that I’d find, or whether it was the right thing for me. So, I agreed to go in and see the piece and meet Stina.

And to be honest with you, aside from the incredible work I saw immediately, what actually drew me in was Stina, her warmth and her personality. I just felt like I was in the room with really good people. And that just makes you want to do things a little bit more.

I knew that everything needed to be seen from a more three-dimensional space, not as though you’re just sat in the audience’s seat and looking at it from there. It needed to feel a little bit more immersive than that. I was just walking around the room during rehearsals and that’s how I came up with the plans to walk the space and film it the way I did.

During filming, I was asking a lot of the dancers because I was trying to make something that gave Stina every possible option so that we weren’t ever stuck. But also, something that felt creatively interesting. I didn’t know at the time how much I was asking of the dancers and I needed Stina to tell me how much I was asking. So it was good.

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Behind the scenes during filming of Take Five Blues © Morgan Sinclair.

How was the process of working with Stina Quagebeur?

The experience as a whole was incredible. She’s so committed to what she’s doing, but it felt like I was really collaborating and working with someone.

There was a lot of trust in how I wanted to do things, but what Stina is also really good at is seeing red flags and kind of going, “Hmm, that might not work.” And that’s really helpful for me to know, because as I said, I don’t know the language of ballet.

Maybe I do know a little bit more now, having gone through the experience, but at the time I was pretty much just looking at it from a filmmaker’s perspective on how I’d want to experience it. Which I actually think is a great thing – she’s not in my world. I’m not in her world. So what we can do is find this really organic collaboration that we’re both trying to push forward and do the right things for the right reasons.

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Shaun James Grant and Stina Quagebeur during the filming of Take Five Blues © Morgan Sinclair.

How did you develop your vision and your creative approach for the film? And other than the choreography, what other sources of inspiration did you draw from?

As a director I like to be close and intimate to people. But one of the first conversations I had with Stina was that we need to see the choreography: we can’t get too close.

Seeing the piece, it is the right thing to do because fundamentally they move as a unit. While they all have their individual characteristics as dancers, they come together and they move as one. So even though it looks like a wide shot, I’m seeing that a little bit like a close-up, because I’m seeing that unit move as one. So I still feel intimate with them.

My whole approach was about keeping it interesting. The rehearsal room is quite square: I was walking around the perimeter as they were dancing and I started seeing different lines, different shapes. I was really interested in how things looked a little bit different as you walked the space. And immediately I saw that ah, if I do this then I guess I don’t miss anything, this is fool-proof, but it’s also not lazy.

I think my piece is relatively simple in the way that I’ve approached it and covered it. But I use simple in a really positive way because I think simple takes a little bit of… (this is not a very self-deprecating statement), it takes a little bit of guts to know that it’s still going to be good.

People try and complicate, and over convolute things – even I do sometimes! –  and what you end up with is a grand mess. Stina had done all of the energy work, and it was just about me finding a way of playing around that and enhancing what she was already doing.

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Behind the scenes during filming of Take Five Blues © Morgan Sinclair.

The whole point is that I want it to feel like we were taken into the world of the dancers. In a lot of my work I love to incorporate, just on a very broad basis, what it is to be a human living in the world.

So I always try and find ways in which to incorporate that into my work, even in the most abstract of pieces – this was a challenge.

What I loved is that as I got to know Stina more, I realised how much of the same language we were speaking in terms of how we want to approach our work and how we’d like to be viewed and how we view the world.

Things about being human and connecting with people because it’s true, and it’s honest, and it’s real. I gravitate to that stuff so much and it helped that she felt like that: it meant noticing the little things that we were doing, hearing the sound on the floor, feeling the relationship between the dancers, all that stuff.

It just really helped tell that human story in this abstract piece. As a result, it immerses you into Stina’s world. I think it worked.

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Still from Take Five Blues © English National Ballet.

How was the experience different to other films you have worked on? Had you filmed dance before?

I’ve done maybe one choreographic piece in my whole career, which was okay at best. So, in some regards it’s completely different because I’m having to learn a new language, a new way of thinking, a new way of observing something, the best way in which to present it. That was probably the biggest learning curve for me out of everything.

Because for me, I’m completely channelled out of it. When I’m cutting or when I’m in the room shooting, I’m only thinking about how I feel, that’s it. I just often think, if I feel a certain way, hopefully the majority of people watching will feel a somewhat similar way.

I’m quite an instinctive director, but once again, Stina and I found warmth and connection where we understood each other and then just became really, really familiar. I felt like we were observing things in a very similar way, even though we came from very different technical backgrounds. We were often coming up with very similar answers.

And if we weren’t, I think we were very much always understanding one another’s point of view. I think that’s really important that you find that ground and you have the respect for where somebody else is coming from. That really worked for me with my relationship with Stina.

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Still from Take Five Blues © English National Ballet.

Do you have any favourite dance films?

I’m going to just say Dirty Dancing. Do you know why though? It’s the music, it’s the soundtrack. Especially in the opening half an hour. It’s just my vibe… Patrick Swayze, there’s something about it.

It’s just funny. Yeah. It’s a bit out there, but also there’s a hint of nostalgia that you feel about it that kind of rings true. You understand it to that extent, the idea of coming of age, I’ve always been into that sort of stuff.

I remember watching that as a little kid, because my sister was into anything that incorporated any sort of dancing. So, Saturday Night Fever, Dirty Dancing, Footloose, all of them. Grease is another one I really always dug – this is just my sister’s influences on me. Without her I wouldn’t have watched anything!

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Still from Take Five Blues © English National Ballet.

How did you find working with and directing the dancers?

Honestly, it was an absolute breeze and a dream. Because having watched films like Black Swan, my idea of what it is to walk into a ballet company was that everybody wants to bite each other’s heads off and everyone’s trying to step on each other to rise, to become the number one dancing queen.

So I had this stupid preconception of what it is and I’m sure there’s this very small element of that somewhere like there is in every industry. My industry is the exact same, people will try and step on your head to just get where they want. But there’s also tonnes of lovely people like with anything.

I think in general I just lucked out so much because they were just the most wonderful people to work with in that amenability for me and what I was trying to do, that willingness to just go that extra mile, and that openness. I felt very warm just walking into their house and just felt very welcomed being there.

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Still from Take Five Blues © English National Ballet.

Now that you’ve done a dance film, are you interested in doing more or what do you think you’re going to take forward from this experience?

I think movement is generally something that I will take into my work going forward – just thinking about movement and posture and how people present themselves on the screen a little bit more.

This is a project that allowed me to do something a little bit different, and there are definitely elements of what I learned from the shoot that I will take forward. If the opportunity to work in dance again comes up and it feels right, totally, I’d be down for it. I think just the harmony has to be good in the way that this was.

Find out more about Shaun James Grant here.
Take Five Blues is available to watch on demand. Rent it today for just £3.49, along with a mini-documentary by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt.