Interview with Choreographer Didy Veldman, The Three Dancers, Rambert Company

Love, desire and betrayal are the ingredients of the shocking true story which inspired Picasso’s masterpiece, The Three Dancers.  Choreographer Didy Veldman’s The Three Dancers brings to life Picasso’s vivid Cubist imagery and the themes of ecstasy and doom which haunt the work, with orchestral music by leading Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. Veldman is a former Rambert dancer who has an international choreographic career. She co-founded Compagnie Alias with Guilherme Botelho in Switzerland, and has worked extensively with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and with Cedar Lake in New York. We interview the choreographer about her new composition.

A: Picasso’s The Three Dancers is an iconic piece of cubist art. Cubism can be associated with the analysis of objects, and the subsequent restructuring into abstract form, how have you applied this concept to the performance?
DV: It wasn’t an easy task. I am deconstructing the content of this painting and by playing with different perspectives, using very specifically light and shadow and even short black outs to guide the eye of the audience. By layering movements and deconstructing movement sequences, I am discovering how to depict Cubism in movement. The set designer, Kimie Nakano, has created a field of black and white flooring which I am able to use to enhance the element of perspective. Working with 3 dancers dressed in white and 3 dancers dressed in black provides a strong contrast, which helps to visually clarify layers of motion. I am searching for a physical language which can convey emotional content without being a narrative.

A: What attracted you to choose this / a piece of Picasso’s work?
DV: I was commissioned to create a work inspired by Picasso’s painting by Rambert.  I was keen to take on the challenge as I’ve never taken inspiration directly from a painting before and was interested in exploring Picasso and his work in more depth. As a former Company member I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Rambert again, having danced with them for six years, almost fifteen years ago. Having moved to London from Holland a year ago, Rambert’s commission is a wonderful opportunity for me to show my work in London.

A: The work that Picasso collaborated on with Ballets Russes during the early 20th century transformed his life; he met his future wife and formed relationships with Massine and Stravinsky. How do you see the role of collaboration in the 21st century; do you find that people are willing to collaborate or is the choreography environment one of creative protectionism?
DV: I don’t think there is creative protectionism in choreography. Due to funding cuts we find ourselves often in a situation where we can’t collaborate with several artists, especially as dance is a very costly art form. I personally always work with a costume, set and lighting designer, although at times I am asked to create my own costumes or even light design! Funds permitting, I work with video designers and composers and I would enjoy collaborating with other artists. I find the collaborative process very enriching but you do need the right environment for it. For this project I am working with designer Kimie Nakano and composer, Elena Kats-Chernin, who is writing a new score.

The collaborative process between Kimie and me was very dynamic. Having worked together on numerous occasions, we have become accustomed to one another’s working practice. Through research and numerous discussions it became clear to me what elements were essential to the work; reflection, lines, fields, black, white, primary colours and fragmentation to name just a few. I wanted the stage to be part of the total idea of Cubism so that the space could be manipulated to divide up movement instead of having to rely on choreographically cutting up movement sequences. In terms of costume design we decided that we wanted to stick to black and white in order to bring balance between the two groups of dancers. This was also influenced by Picasso’s monochrome period. He considered never using colour again in order to highlight the formal structure and autonomy of form inherent in his art, claiming that colour weakens and this was something we could relate to.

Elena’s score came about through collaboration with the Wimbledon International Music Festival. Based in Australia, Elena came to London on several occasions where we met face to face to discuss our ways of working and how we would approach the Picasso painting. This encounter was invaluable.  Our discussions about dynamics and the rhythm of the work, instrumentation and the different movements required, helped shape it before Elena started to work on the score in twelve sections. From that moment onwards we had a structure that we could work with and she was willing to give me enough freedom still to alter this structure once in the studio with the dancers. At this point we have already made several changes and the work is still developing organically.

A: Exploring eternal themes of love, sex and death, it could be easy to fall into naturalistic portrayal. As in Picasso’s painting The Three Dancers you have chosen to include the three “shadows” of the dancers. What relationship have you found between the lead dancers and their “shadows”?
DV: By using three dancers dressed in white and three in black I am able to cut movement sections up. I can flip the focus from one side of the stage to another through lighting without losing the dynamics and by doing so I am getting rid of a narrative so that the audience does not follow a specific person, duet or trio, while also creating different perspectives at the same time. The eternal themes do have a physical essence and together with the dancers we are trying to explore this essence without getting drawn into a narrative. This enables me to visualise different facets of these eternal themes.  Love for instance can be romantic but can also be violent; the black and white characters can portray both elements simultaneously. It certainly is a challenge but a very interesting one.

A: How have you prepared the 3 dancers to connect with their own personal “shadows”? Has this exploration pushed the dancers to find a new movement vocabulary?
DV: The exploration is ongoing; we worked for three weeks together in the dance studios and found numerous ways of connecting or disconnecting, but there are still another three weeks of rehearsals to go at the end of August. The movement vocabulary is always led by an emotional, spatial or musical impetus, which means that the dancers connect strongly to the source since there is clarity in their intent. The more time we have together in the studio the more we can explore.

A: The Three Dancers depicts the love triangle between Pichot, Casagemas and Gargallo. Can you discuss this?
DV: I see three very different characters, linked together by fate. Depicted eternally in a dance (like the three muses), holding hands, not being able to let go…ever! This is how engrained they are in Picasso’s being, these three people that are linked by death, passion, jealousy, love, marriage, friendship, etc.

A: When being inspired by a piece of cubism, is it the rhythm of the piece or a more literal interpretation that has inspired its vocabulary of movement?
DV: Both elements have been inspiring as well as several of Picasso’s other works. I wanted to learn more about the man behind the painting so as to be able to put the work into context. Even if there are only 3 or 4 obvious people in the painting there is also the painter and the viewer that are part of the equation. Rhythm within the construction of the work is of utmost importance to me as well. I am constantly playing with timings, deconstructing sections, and juxtaposing them. This is why the black and white elements are essential to me. I am layering movements with the same emotional theme but the dancers dressed in black or white express them differently. I am trying to depict several facets of an emotion throughout a period of 25 minutes so that by the end of the work you’ve felt all these different elements and emotional states but are not left with a narrative. The movement vocabulary often starts from an emotion, I really like working in this manner, it clarifies the essence of what it is that I want to convey. Of course I then elaborate, as long as the essence doesn’t get lost along the way.

The Three Dancers premieres at Theatre Royal Plymouth Wed 23 – 25 September 2015, before touring to The Lowry Salford, Norwich Theatre Royal, Sadler’s Wells London, Theatre Royal Bath and Edinburgh Festival Theatre.

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1. Didy Veldman, The Three Dancers, 2015. Courtesy of  Chris Nash and Rambert.