FORT WORTH — Inspired by the early music of the Rolling Stones, British choreographer Christopher Bruce created Rooster with movement that could be easily mistaken for Mick Jagger's singular dance style. Instead, Bruce reached for the same source used by the Stones' lead singer: the preening cockerel.
"I created an analogy between the cockerel of the barnyard strutting and dominating the hens, leader of the pack as it were, aggressive, proud of his fine feathers, and translated that into the young man of my youth, getting ready to go into town in my suit and tie to see if I could pick up a girl that night," he recalls. "I usually came home having miserably failed."
Bruce's sense of humor about himself and the swinging '60s infuses the daring, charming Rooster. He made it in 1991 for the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve, where it became an instant hit. He estimates that 18 companies have performed the 30-minute piece, Texas Ballet Theater being the latest.
It's part of the company's program this weekend at Bass Performance Hall, sharing the bill with premieres from choreographers Avi Scher and Garrett Smith.
Like Bruce's other socially relevant work, Rooster contains an underlying seriousness about the battle of the sexes, the rejection faced by would-be lovers and the role of women during the Stones' early days, when sexism persisted even as the times were a-changing.
"It was there in the lyrics of the songs and the times they were created in — the mid-20th century, where chauvinism was still very much a part of society as far as the boys who I mixed with were concerned," Bruce says in an interview at the Texas Ballet Theater studios in Fort Worth. "It ended up with some depth, particularly how I used 'As Tears Go By' and 'Ruby Tuesday.' Underlying the humor, there is a more serious line about chauvinism and aggression. So it worked on several levels, not just as a happy finisher to the evening."
At a recent preview, the dancers donned the sharp costumes designed by his wife, Marian. The men wear rich-red shirts and black-velvet suits reminiscent of fashion from the 71-year-old Bruce's cockerel days, some of which still hangs in his closet but doesn't necessarily fit anymore.
The choreography, meanwhile, blends modern dance vocabulary from Bruce's training in the Graham, Limón and Cunningham techniques with his ideas about the cockiness of the title character. During a solo, Jiyan Dai confidently straightened his tie and slicked back his hair before making preening leaps as he gazed knowingly at the audience.
By coming up with a theme that made the whole greater than its parts, Bruce avoided falling in the trap of creating just a series of familiar numbers. Still, the Stones' music was central to animating Rooster.
"My take on the enduring success of the Rolling Stones is that their music is based on blues, really," he says. "The music that came out of America on vinyl, that they picked up and the Beatles and Elvis Presley got hold of too, had soul and meaning and depth.
"There is a rawness and a down-to-earth quality that seems to involve real life, real feeling, real suffering. It gave it a strength, a foundation, that has made the Rolling Stones as popular to a new generation as it was to mine 60 years ago. It wasn't just surface music. It was music that has something to say."
Bruce is best known for works that have something to say, such as Ghost Dances, based on the violence perpetuated by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and Cruel Garden, inspired by the murder of poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca by Spanish fascists.
His sensitivity to war and political violence grew out of his father's experiences in World War II, when as a soldier he suffered debilitating lung damage. The family moved from Leicester to the better seaside air of Scarborough when Bruce was a child.
"I was one of those dancers who wasn't just escaping into the fairy-tale world of the ballet. I wasn't disengaged," he says. "I grew up working class. We knew what hard times were. It's partly to do with watching an invalid father struggle to make ends meet, my mother always anxious. I've always read, and one of my favorite subjects was history. I read about the First World War because I could not believe carnage could happen on that scale. So when I started to make work, I wanted to make work about what I felt."
Bruce's father also was the trigger for his dance career. He got the idea while walking home from the pub with a friend who knew a ballet teacher. "For some reason, probably with the aid of alcohol, an idea came into his head that his children would dance. I always assumed it was because he grew up in the Depression, and it was difficult to get a job. He didn't want his kids having that struggle or even having to go down a mine or go into a factory. He learned to paint while he was convalescing. So there was a sensitivity toward the arts."
Bruce himself had polio as a baby. It left his right leg weak. He wanted to play soccer and thought ballet lessons, which he started at age 11, might help strengthen him. Two years later, he was recommended for training at the prestigious Rambert School. To this day, he says, dancers complain that his choreography puts too emphasis on their left side.
He wound up dancing as the male lead for the Rambert Ballet for many years, beginning in 1963, and eventually became associate choreographer and then artistic director of the Rambert Dance Company from 1994 to 2002 after it morphed into a modern troupe. He also did stints choreographing for the London Festival Ballet, English National Ballet and Houston Ballet, where he worked with current Texas Ballet Theater artistic director Ben Stevenson.
"Once I started, there was something that engaged me. It's one of the mysteries of my life. All my life, I've just stumbled innocently into a place where I should be," Bruce says. "It was only later that I had to admit I was lame and had a career as a dancer. I was able to adjust things to my stronger leg. Dancers used to complain that their left legs or left hips would ache because I was putting everything on my left leg without realizing it."
He thinks he may have one major piece left in him but fears he may never get to create it. It would be set to the music of the quirky American crooner Leonard Cohen. Before Cohen's death, there were talks about a co-production between Rambert and the Houston Ballet, but they have never been able to nail down a deal.
"He was an old troubadour, like myself, and I like the idea of the aging performer," Bruce explains, "so if anybody out there can persuade the estate..."
Manuel Mendoza is a Dallas freelance writer and former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News.