Choreographer Corey Baker explains how an idea he had in the shower went on to be commissioned as part of BBC Art’s 2020 Culture in Quarantine project and watched by millions all over the world.
Set to Tchaikovsky’s famous swan theme, 27 elite ballet dancers from renowned companies across the world performed a modern-day Swan Lake from their own home filled baths. The man behind the magic of this online video, Corey Baker, is a classical and contemporary choreographer, and former dancer from New Zealand. In our first episode of The Space Arts podcast.
Below follows a transcript of the conversation.
Corey Baker, Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space, Clare Freeman, podcast producer
Corey Baker 00:01
It’s all about ‘Who is it for? And why are you doing it?’ I think we live in a world where – I certainly feel the responsibility that – you shouldn’t really just create art for the sake of creating art.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 00:15
That’s the voice of Corey Baker, the first of many guests on The Space arts podcast. And welcome to a series which we hope will encourage you, just like Corey did, to reach out to us and apply for future arts and cultural funding opportunities with our agency.
Welcome to The Space arts podcast. Hello, I’m Clare Freeman. I’m an associate with The Space. I support their immersive audio and podcast projects as a freelance mentor. Throughout this podcast, I’ll be joined by Chief Executive of the organisation Fiona Morris, who you’ll hear from in a moment.
If you’ve not heard of us before, then The Space is an agency which supports those working in the arts sector, it’s you included, if you’re interested, pop over to the website – thespace.org – to find out about our latest commissioning rounds, and a ton of resources which are referenced throughout this series.
So let’s start with a bit about today’s guest. Someone who’s been through the application process with The Space multiple times, not just his recent project with the BBC Culture in Quarantine series and the Swan Lake Bath Ballet film. Over the years, we’ve watched and supported award winning international dancer and choreographer Corey blossom in the digital world. But when he first asked for our help a few years ago, he was full of energy and big ideas, just not too sure where to start when it came to making a digital piece of work really fly. Safe to say, he is now one of the many Space digital graduates. And fortunately for you, he shares a few tricks of the trade and lessons learned during this episode. So this is for those of you who are curious of how to turn an idea you have in the shower into an online video watched by millions. It’s a conversation Corey, Fiona and I recorded at the tail end of 2020. First up Fiona started by explaining how on earth Corey came to work with The Space a few years ago,
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 02:33
I think the first time I met Corey, he bounced into my office in Birmingham, pretty much the human equivalent of a Labrador, I would actually say
Corey Baker 02:43
I’ve been called a pit bull before, I’ll take a Labrador
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 02:47
Roll over these years. He had just completed and a couple of short film projects and he wanted to come and find out what we were what we were up to at The Space and whether or not we could help him. So we began – I had a long conversation then about how making films is brilliant and great. But if you’re going to be publishing them online, how do you reach an audience? How do you make sure that all that work and effort and blood, sweat and tears that you put into that project actually results in other people seeing it.
So that was a conversation we began and then Corey applied to one of our commissioning rounds – that we have annually – and we commissioned a film, in which he went to the Antarctic. I will let him tell you about that because it was quite extraordinary. But it’s a wonderful film. And we were delighted to support him on the making and the distribution of that. And then more recently, Corey was one of the 25 artists selected for the BBC Arts Council England Culture in Quarantine projects. But we’ll probably go into that in a minute.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 03:47
Yeah, I mean, I have to say as someone who doesn’t have a bath in my house, I did get bath envy. And if you’re someone listening, who hasn’t seen the Swan Lake Bath Ballet, we’re putting a link in our episode description to this work so you can see it. 27 ballet dancers across the world. Not just any kind of ballet dancers but some who were pretty well known. And it was all done pretty much using smartphones, it was done remotely. And what I start to find ironic about this Corey, this started with an idea that you had in the shower, not the bath but the shower
Corey Baker 04:30
You’re right. I think I have all my good ideas – if I can call them good ideas – in the shower. And you know what, there’s science behind that. I don’t know if I’ve talked with Fiona about that before, but I have a – sorry for the visual this may be planting for people – but I have (in the shower), a little waterproof notepad and a waterproof pencil that sits next to my anti dandruff shampoo. And I use it, whenever I come up with an idea, to scribble it down, because honestly, that’s the only place! And I’m no scientist as we can clearly tell. But it’s about being naked and free and open and the heat and water hitting your head. It stimulates dopamine and all of that. And so yes, I, I had the idea for Swan Lake Bath Ballet in the shower, which ended up being one of the commission’s via The Space, the BBC and Arts Council England for Culture in Quarantine, which you have kindly said, there’s a link into on this podcast. So if you haven’t seen it, I recommend seeing it! Join the 7 million people plus, who have seen it so far, because it is a hilarious three minute film. Yes, celebrating dance and creativity with 27 incredible dancers around the world.
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 05:50
Can I point out that basically, this was the first week of a global pandemic lockdown worldwide. And Corey decides he’s going to get multiples of dancers to do this in their bathroom. So yeah, that is one hell of a shower.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 06:04
So the thing is – and we actually also have a great resource in the resources section of The Space website, which talks about this – about how you get to green light, how you take these ideas and turn them into propositions. How do you go from having the confidence of having this kind of idea in the shower to knowing how to pitch it, how to think about what the right audience is? What what kind of steps do you take when you leave the shower? I guess, apart from put some clothes on? Yeah,
Corey Baker 06:56
So maybe I’ll use the example of ‘Antarctica; The First Dance‘ my first Space commission, because that had a much greater run up and development period to get it greenlit. I mean, in terms of generating ideas. I have about 562 ideas juggling at any one point. You can’t see it, because it’s a podcast, but I’m showing you my notepads with different ideas. And as in when I develop an idea, it goes into a notepad. And the idea then gets scribbled a little bit more and more and more, and I add it into it until that idea feels fully formed, then it can get its own dedicated Notepad. And I talk with friends and people I trust about ideas and get their reactions to it.
And in fact with Swan Lake Bath Ballet, the first person I told said, that’s a terrible idea. It’s awful, don’t do it. And I often think when that happens, I push harder on the idea, because I’m sort of like a toddler. And if you say no, I will go ‘well, I’m going to do it’. And that helps, actually. I really spend a long time generating the idea, looking at different facets of it, looking at the meat and the bones and the structure of any type of idea. And I very much create the vision in my head of it. And that really simply allows me to communicate it clearly to a commissioner or funding partners. And that really is key. Because a vision is what people want to get excited about. And if you can communicate it in a clear enough way and get people excited about it then everyone’s going to jump on board and help you do it. That’s all great. And well, when you’re doing it in a meeting when you’re trying to translate that in a paper application, that can be also really difficult.
I suffer from dyslexia and ADHD and I find it a real struggle to to translate my energy and vision for an idea onto paper. And, you know, I think we’re getting application processes that allow for video submission. And I think The Space is one of them, which is really, really great.
And as Fiona said earlier, it’s all about ‘Who is it for? And why are you doing it?’ I think we live in a world now where – I certainly feel the responsibility – that you shouldn’t really just create art for the sake of creating art for your own purpose. I mean, that’s lovely. And trust me I say, sometimes I really wish it could just be like that. But if we are spending money and resource and people’s time we really want it to affect and get to other people. And I a big part of The Space and my process – an artist anyway – and something I encourage everyone to do is to think Who is this for? And how am I going to get it there? Because it’s so easy to say I want to make a viral film, that’s going to reach 7 million people. But actually, there is a real, you know, greenprint to be able to do that.
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 10:16
I agree. And I think I would say, in particular, with Corey, you know, he’s had a focus about how to develop a digital practice, that isn’t just one film. And that would be the other thing, I’d say, you know, you can invest everything in one project, but it’s still got to – if you’re going to publish online – it’s got to be about the profile for you, what you believe in, what you want to say to audiences, that will go beyond that one project to the next project, and the next project – because online is a is a hard space. And Corey will definitely confirm that – you have to work hard at it, the making of the film is sometimes the least difficult bit of it. The the funding of it – which Corey is amazing at – just networking, and constantly keeping up that sense of enthusiasm.
As he said, it’s exactly that, you’ve got to be able to describe that project simply, easily in a way that people are going to remember it. And you’ve got to be clear that it is your focus at that point in time. And you may have to go back to them, you may have to go back some quite a few times to actually make that land. But you can’t then make it a destination in and of itself, it’s got to be about Corey, what Corey stands for, because that online environment, and those audiences want to have a dialogue. They don’t want to sit there passively, just looking at one project, and then moving on to something else they want to feel involved in seeing. And that means engaging. And that’s takes time, as Corey will attest.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 11:47
I think that’s really refreshing to hear because some people might look at, wow, 7 million, it’s on Iplayer here. That’s just lucky. But actually, I think what you’re saying is no, there is pre thought to it, you know, there are steps that we can take to control mechanisms. I guess the thing that I’m also thinking is, you know, a lot of people might think whether it could be contemporary or classical dance is often performed with people, you gauge the energy, use the vibe of the audience to bounce from. And then when you switch to digital, you don’t always get that kind of immediate dopamine, as you said, dopamine kind of hit. So how has that been different for you? To just almost tweak your head so that you don’t physically see the audience when you perform?
Corey Baker 12:36
Great question, Claire. I have. So you’re right in saying that dance is a lived experience. It’s not like a piece of artwork that you can take home and put on your wall, you can’t do that with dance. And it’s purely about sweat, blood and tears on that stage and feeling that sweat flick from a sexy dancer onto your hair in the front row – to enjoying the patterns and the depth and that live camaraderie in the theater, it’s an amazing feeling and nothing will ever take away from that.
And as a creator of that world and now a creator of film and dance, it is completely different. And you’re creating – yes the audience is crossover for sure. But as we all know, you know we’re all, i’m sure, subject to scrolling through the gram or YouTube and you watch it for six seconds (the six second rule) and no – bored, bored, bored ,bored. It’s a lot harder to hold a digital space. It’s very very different to when you’re creating for that live space because basically you’ve trapped them in that theatre they’ve paid for a ticket, you can do what you want on the day – you’re prisoner for a little while and I love that – but the the worlds are different. The audiences are different. And you have to create differently.
It’s taken me, I think, about six films now to really understand that and I’m incredibly turned on by the algorithms and the patterns and studying the other films that I’ve made and seeing the peaks and troughs of viewership. Where does someone switch off? Where do most people switch off? Why is that? Is it the music? Okay, so I need to add a bigger crescendo here because this is a 30 seconds moment. Is this where people are going to shut off more? And I love that.
It’s a blueprint to to create in a way and I’ve started dabbling in that advertisement world. And, knowing learning from that, as well, which, you know, is sickening and sells your soul. But there is elements of that that can help frame the artwork that you want to do. And I’m not scared of that. I know some artists will, you know, be like, you dirty, dirty person and turn their nose up to it. And I totally respect that. But I find it a way to frame the hierarchy that you want to create, so that you’re able to make it accessible for a large audience.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 15:32
You’re engaging in it really rather than resisting it to. That curiosity of ‘how can I use this to filter into my creative process’? rather than be like, it’s something I just know, I have to do? Oh, yes. Do something. Anything?
Corey Baker 15:48
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And also, in addition, I am a choreographer of stage stuff, as well, I didn’t go to choreography school for that I just started making – you learn on the job.
When I started making films, I did two or three little short miniature films, without any knowledge. (I laugh at thinking about how I would have been communicating to the directors of photography, the cameraman, and others). And I actually went to the Met film school in London for six months, and I did a film course in practical filmmaking, so that I could better equip myself in the language, the grammar, and technicalities of working with the camera and film. And I have to say, that really made a huge difference. I want to just be honest and transparent about that. So you know, I do, I did get skill training with that, and it really, really has helped.
But at the end of the day, it was grammar. And I know that not everyone’s gonna be able to go and do that or want to do that. Really, all I learnt confirmed what I knew, it gave me confidence, and it gave me some words that I could find out on YouTube. But that I did do that. And it helps solidify what I know and pushes me to where I am now.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 17:11
It’s really humble that you’re able to admit and say, ‘I don’t know about this, but I’m going to go and find out more’. I guess some people might know The Space as a place where there are commissioning rounds, there are funding opportunities. But they might not necessarily know about the support that’s offered by associates like me, and there’s a whole family of people connected to The Space. Can you just give people an insight into the commissions? What was the support that The Space was able to offer you, right from your first project? And what impact has that had?
Corey Baker 17:57
Well, I think when we got commissioned to make ‘Antarctica: the First Dance‘, that was such a mammoth project, and it all was pinned around this trip to Antarctica, and to make the First Dance and make this film. And in addition to that, we also got a commission to direct a documentary. I also got commissioned to do a month exhibition at the Science Museum. So off this one initial film that The Space commission, all of these other projects happened. And one of the things that I think a film can do, or what I’m interested in, is figuring out how – if you’ve got that as your way of connecting with lots of people – how you use that to build a ladder to your other work, or other things going on.
The Space’s audience and development team were incredibly helpful, because at that point, I really had no idea. You know, I knew, oh, let’s get it in BuzzFeed. Oh, let’s get it. Let’s get the BBC or let’s get some celebrities to tweet it. I mean, it doesn’t take rocket science to know that that’s what you want. But actually doing that is a whole other thing. And it was a real fun adventure, to go on with the team at The Space. And then all of those really practical contacts that we made and those connections then followed on to all the other work that we’ve done. And those Excel sheets, the patterns, the format, knowing that you need to plan it months and months in advance… all the work that we do.
We put a premiere of a film where it’s gonna be because we know of the marketing things we’re going to do till that point, it doesn’t have to be as formatted as maybe I’m describing it. I spammed – I shouldn’t say this – but I spammed journalists on Twitter. I’d just tweet them and I’d private message them until some of them would reply back with their email address, and then I’d email them the link and I’d ask them to write something about it. And, that’s how that happens, you know, sometimes. So there’s all of that and when you get enough, pinpoints from different areas, then other people pick it up.
And for dance, it’s kind of easy, it’s easier to get in our immediate bubble and get them to do it. But what’s really interesting and hard is to break into the the outer bubble of non art. And then when you get that, then it sort of spirals and it can build up. We’ve been really trying to nail that before the other films that we’ve been doing and The Space have been so helpful. I’ve just caught up on email at times and been like, ‘hey, I’ve got this question about this’. And because we’re in that family, I’ve been very lucky with the information I’ve received back from The Space across all the projects I’ve done. And in the two Commission’s – that ‘Antarctica’ and ‘Swan Lake Bath Ballet’ – the support on everything has been great…. from what pictures should be the cover picture to the blurb or the credits. Things that you don’t really think make a difference in the impact of the film and its audience reach, but they really do.
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 21:45
And I think the point Corey is making brilliantly is, it’s not about being formulaic. It’s not about saying, here’s a way of getting your film to go viral online. But it is about acknowledging that the bit that comes after the making actually takes as much pre planning. In the same way that you wouldn’t go and make a film without thinking about what your locations are, or thinking about your choice of equipment, the lenses for the cameras, actually, there’s just as much work involved in publishing it. And the publishing is the bit that I think is most alien to lots of artists. That still it’s a bit new. To get into that publishing world. And that has a whole other requirement, which Corey has been tremendous at – taking it and then just running with.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 22:34
It is interesting about the timing of it because when I work with a podcast series, for theatre companies that have been supported by The Space, I’ve kind of divided it into thirds. So there’s the planning for the first, the funding, the budgeting. The second third is the making, the editing. And then the last third is the marketing, the publishing, the getting it out.
Almost thinking about it as a three part story, I suppose. And understanding that it needs a team. You can have an idea in the shower on your own, but you need a good family, a good team in your own company that have a plethora of skills. Because, just like running a business, you might be crap at dealing with money, but you could be great at schmoozing with the sales. So, having the right kind of collective of people that you collaborate with really makes a difference, right?
Corey Baker 23:28
150%. And, but also just for devil’s advocate, if there’s artists listening to this, that doesn’t have a team, you can also do it yourself. And you just have to be a persistent toddler. Work day and night. It’s not fair, it’s really hard. But that’s, that’s how I started making my first films. And there’s a journey that you go on.
In hindsight, I really remember feeling and thinking, ‘How do I get a team? How do I?’ It’s easy to say that, but how do you actually do that? How do you get the money? How do you get the support? How do you go from having an idea to a team? And I remember having literally done everything myself. And then – as Fiona spoke about earlier – I went out and spoke to Fiona. When I made a few things and realized, Oh, yeah, this is the trajectory I want for myself. But I need some skillset development and I need to know some information I need to know who to talk to. So you have to just be really proactive.
And as an individual, especially in COVID times it is very, very difficult. But creativity and having being a creative person is the best armour you’ve got because you’re able to come out with different ways of doing everything and come up with creative solutions for everything. And then you just have to be a persistent toddler, which I am very good at. That’s probably my best trait without crossing the line. The line to pissing people off which often I do get very, very close to. But you know, you just have to nudge, and push and, well know where you want to go, but then nudge and push in that direction, if that’s people online to share your film, or if that’s people to help make your film, whatever,
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 25:22
Sometimes passion makes the difference.
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 25:25
Yes. And I think ‘pissed off’ is a strong expression, Corey, I’d say just a little bit of eyeball rolling from the person that gets your email or your DM
Corey Baker 25:36
I can feel it globally all the time. I press send, and then I like, I can feel it – there’s the eyeroll – all the time, all the time. And it will never stop.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 25:51
There is something like, you know, the passion that we have with some of these ideas, and quite often in the industry that we work as well. It is something that encompasses seven days a week, it is not a Monday to Friday, nine to five job. I’m also kind of intrigued, particularly in the year that we’ve had, how do you put some boundaries in place, protect yourself and also, like, cope, you know, with anxiety, mental health? Actually some of these ideas could fall down, or they don’t go through? What structure do you have in place to deal with that? We’re hearing about the ‘7 million views’ successful, Corey, but I’m imagining behind closed doors, there’s actually some tough times go in there, too.
Corey Baker 26:42
Yeah, I mean, I was just crying before this podcast! I wasn’t actually, but I make a joke of it. ….. I’m glad you brought it up, because it’s very, very real. And what you’ve just highlighted so articulately is that creativity, and passion for projects isn’t a structured format. And sometimes creatives – especially in the dance world – we get used to formatting it into a format. So you know whether that’s ‘another dance today, from nine to five, during the week’, you go, ‘oh’ and your brain and body kind of align. ‘Oh, now it’s time to be creative and fun’. And then it’s Netflix, food, sleep, you know, and you can create a system like that. But creativity isn’t structured, it can’t operate in times. And sometimes, you know, you have those days, your heart and soul just feel empty, or some days, you’re like, ‘I’ve got nothing to do I’ve got all this energy, what am I going to do? I want to do this’. And what’s really hard is when that’s not matched, or shared with other people.
And I would say for every ‘Yes’ we get, there’s truthfully 500 other projects we have pitched and that I have been so passionate about and that I want to do, where commissioners or people have said ‘No’, or just haven’t replied to. And it really hurts. It’s really, really hard work internally to deal with all that. And you can get in your head about it, it can just make you feel crap. And it can start to affect your mental health, your physical health and the other work that you’re doing. It can feel very, like you don’t understand me, you don’t get it. But one needs to meditate through that, or at least I do. And find other ways of having those creative outlets, like I go for a run, I do yoga, I play the piano, I scribble in my notebooks, I talk to friends about ideas, and that way, it just gets released a little bit more. So you’re not bottling it all up. I don’t know if that helps. I think I just went on a random tangent.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 29:12
No, it’s good to hear that. You know, sometimes it just takes that one ‘Yes’, that just keeps you going for another few months or so
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 29:21
I think it’s really important to set your own goals around what success looks like for you. I hate that expression. But it sums up the point. And you know, as you said, Clare, Corey, with your 7 million views…..But actually, Corey will admit that sometimes, for the right projects in the right place, just knowing that 10 people that he really really wanted to communicate with about a particular part of his art form – and getting their response back to that can mean as much if not more than knowing that 7 million people looked at something.
So it’s about what – as an artist – if this is about not having your audiences right in front of you in a physical space – what is it that you want to have by way of dialogue, and I think, that means you’re not necessarily having to be curated by a commissioner. There is an opportunity with online publication to grab the reins of this. But if that’s going to succeed, you’re going to have to be (as Corey knows, and is brilliant at) so targeted about who you want to talk to and where you want to talk to them. And, I think people set their own kind of audience engagement around that. And they can set an audience engagement of 100 people, if they can tell me why it really matters that those 100 people connect with that piece of art and have a conversation with you. Because that may be a great deal more meaningful than just pulling up on someone’s Instagram feed. So, I think it is about knowing what you want that to be.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 31:01
Couldn’t agree any more. And ironically, that seems like a good place to wrap up because one of the other tools that we’ve put in the episode description for this is a link to that Online Audience Toolkit, in which The Space provide some of the things that Corey has talked about, you know, thinking about where is this gonna go? Why do you want to connect with this audience, the pros, the cons, the do’s, the don’ts, and how you measure success in a meaningful way. Exactly what Fiona said. And Corey it’s been amazing to kind of meet the man behind the magic as I called you. Did you see what I did there? On a T shirt? Are you any good at card tricks, or just dance?
Corey Baker 31:41
I’m a proper kind of magician, I like the sort of like big boxes and, you know, lots of colourful camp, hankerchiefs, card tricks, there’s a little bit too much technique in there. And just like my dance, I was more ‘show’ than ‘technique’.
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 32:00
And those kind of magic tricks don’t work on a podcast,
Corey Baker 32:03
They do not.
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 32:07
If you would like to find out more about Corey’s work….Corey do you just want to reel off the names of the projects? We’ll put a link to the website, but just reel off the names of the projects that you’ve just done, so people can go check those out.
Corey Baker 32:20
Sure. So the very first Space commission was ‘Antarctica; the First Dance‘, which is a dance film, it’s four minutes long to a London Grammar track shot completely in Antarctica. Some films that we’ve released this year – ‘Spaghetti Junction‘, filmed in Birmingham, with Hong Kong Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, under the famous spaghetti junction, two minutes, it was for World Earth Day, ‘Lying Together‘ another film to FKJ, the band, flippin great band, go check them out, filmed completely on skyscrapers in Hong Kong, for the United Nations Environmental Programs, World Environment Day with the BBC. And then of course, when we haven’t stopped talking about it Swan Lake Bath Ballet, which you should definitely go and watch. And let’s get that out to 8 million views, shall we?
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 33:03
And we would also like you to follow and subscribe to this podcast. If you can, do click on those links. So you get notified the moment that our next few episodes and series are released. And if you are interested in finding out more about The Space about them, about us, then check out thespace.org where you’ll find information about latest commissioning rounds, webinars, blogs, links to watch or sample some of the work that The Space has already supported. Fiona are you off to have a bath now or you just take a shower?
Fiona Morris, Creative Director of The Space 33:30
a shower I need inspiration. So no bath – shower!
Clare Freeman, podcast producer 33:40
I feel like I never have to have bath envy ever again. Thank you, Corey. Thank you to everyone. We’ll be back for another episode.