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The Willow Trio – The Swan of Salen (interview)

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has persisted through the ages, marking it as a ballet classic, typically performed by an enormous dance troupe and orchestra. Step up Sophie Rocks, Sam MacAdam, and Romy Wymer, the musicians who make up The Willow Trio.

Their latest adaptation, The Swan of Salen, is a small-scale multimedia production that turns Tchaikovsky’s classic on its head, combining live music from the trio on three clàrsachs, dance from Ballet Folk – a theatrical dance group that explores storytelling in collaboration with other folk artists – and a film by Thistle Ridge Films.

SNACK sits down with Sam, Sophie, and Romy to chat about their devising process, the arts in rural communities, and the clàrsach.

Can you give us a brief overview of this production?

Sam: This is a brand new multimedia folk ballet where we have taken the Gaelic legend, The Swan of Salen, which is parallel to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and fused the well-known Tchaikovsky score with brand new arrangements of Gaelic music. We perform this score live on three clàrsachs against the backdrop of a projection of our film created especially for this production, featuring new choreography from Ballet Folk.

How did this pairing come about?

Sophie: It started with us getting funding from the Glasgow Connected Arts Network to originally arrange the Tchaikovsky suite.

Romy: We found a Gaelic story that really mirrors Swan Lake, which drew in more traditional material as well. It all morphed together from playing the clàrsach, rather than classical instrumentation.

Sophie: We’re taking this classical art form to communities where traditional music is highly valued, but classical music can sometimes be seen as intimidating. It also shows those more familiar with classical music that traditional music has equal importance. Merging them together means there’s something for everyone.

Romy: The dance aspect follows the same philosophy. Ballet Folk is a company that draws a lot from the traditional origins of ballet steps and highlights those in their choreography.

The Swan of Salen – Photo Credit: Jez Ward Lumos

How important is it that you bring this production to smaller communities?

Sophie: Bringing this to those communities allows a sense of community and connection. Art can do that.

Sam: Speaking to my friends from Lochgilphead, they still talk about the first time Scottish Ballet came there, back in the 90s. For it to come up in conversation like this, it shows how much those communities appreciate large productions making the effort to tour beyond the big cities.

Romy: Even then, it’s a matter of space as well. Not everywhere has a hall that can host a full ballet.

Sophie: When we look at what art is for, a big thing we look at is audience numbers, but really it’s about connection. Even if you’re benefiting small numbers of people.

Sam: Part of us going to Gaelic-speaking communities is that it gives people a sense of ownership of the artwork. Traditional Gaelic music is music from their area; folk music is music of the people. It is the music of rural communities. To not travel it seems … bizarre.

Romy: You can’t take it and then not return it.

The Swan of Salen – Photo Credit: Jez Ward Lumos

With the recorded choreography playing in the background, you become part of a multimedia world even when you’re performing live onstage. How does that feel?

Romy: The way we do it is we have the audio track sync up to the dance, which means that there is no pausing.

You can’t stop; you just have to go for 45 minutes. I get swept up in it, it’s great.

Sophie: Transcendent is a strong word, but it feels quite meditative. You can’t be thinking too much about what your audience are thinking. You can’t be that nervous, because you’ve just got to crack on!

Sam: It’s incredibly difficult as well. Imagine a Tchaikovsky score written for an orchestra played on three clàrsachs, which aren’t chromatic instruments. It is a wild ride! We must have done it twenty times by now, including recording the album, and it’s still hard!

Sophie: People often ask whether, when we’re writing for the instruments, we have certain parts. Romy’s part, for example, has some incredible bass. If we’re doing a treble passage we have to pass it between each other.

Romy: It’s a bit like a big puzzle.

The Willow Trio – Photo Credit: Jez Ward Lumos

Where are you off to next with this production?

Sophie: We’re hitting festival season now, so we’re playing various events and then hitting the Edinburgh Fringe on the 16th of August.

Sam: However, our Fringe production is not The Swan of Salen. We have an EP out and an unreleased EP of our compositions, so we’ll be doing an hour-long Fringe show of our new compositions and Gaelic music.

Sophie: People are so open at the Fringe: they’re open to hearing lots of different things, so we can’t wait to be back!

The Swan of Salen is being performed at Kelburn Garden Party on 2nd July and Arran Fringe Festival on 30th July

Find out more about The Willow Trio

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