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Inner worlds of emotional generosity

Posted on June 14, 2017

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Graham Watts meets choreographer Jasmin Vardimon

 “I like talking,” explains Jasmin Vardimon at the end of our 90-minute conversation that I’d assured her PR would take no longer than a third of that time. There’s certainly enough for her to talk about. The day before we met, Vardimon’s junior company, JV2, had performed twice at the Lilian Baylis Studio, while Jasmin Vardimon Company (JVC) were on, in Brighton, at the same time that Jasmin was judging the live final of BBC Young Dancer 2017. She saw JV2, rushed to Brighton for the get-in and was back at Sadler’s Wells before the cameras started to roll. “It was manic, but exciting,” she says. It seems to be a strapline for her life.

We start by talking about JV2, which Vardimon formed, in 2012. “I wanted to offer an alternative form of education in the performing arts. I’d seen thousands of dancers at auditions that could learn movement; but if I asked them to access their inner world and express something externally, with authenticity, it was far more difficult.”

“For me, performance quality is all about emotional generosity,” she continues. “This is what provides audiences with a better experience. Just performing movements without sharing an emotional journey makes it so much more difficult to engage with audiences. So, being able to develop the tools that enable artists to access their inner world is crucial to my work.”

I ask her if she empathised with the very public complaints made about the quality of graduates from UK vocational contemporary dance schools by three leading choreographers (Akram Khan, Lloyd Newson and Hofesh Shechter), some 18 months ago. “There is no sense in complaining about the state of graduates from the dance schools, because I can’t ask them to train dancers specifically to work for my company. My requirements will be different than those of Richard Alston or Akram Khan. So, JV2 is my attempt to develop a course that helps dancers to perform with their entire capacity: physically, vocally, emotionally and conceptually.”

JV2 does not yet receive any state funding. “The students’ fees run the course, but I know that there are talented young dancers that cannot afford it, so we have really worked hard to find bursaries for those students.” This year, there was an international bursary and next year, Vardimon suggests that there will be more financial assistance.

The JV2 experience consists of three terms. In the first session, they learn how to access the tools for their versatility as a performer and several external teachers are brought to work with them, such as the head of acting from the London School of Speech and Drama; a voice coach trains them in how to use their voice, and others help inform them about theatrical experiences.   In the second term the JV2 students learn to use these tools in the act of creation and Vardimon commissions young choreographers to create work on JV2. “The reason I do that is because I believe it is really important to have a holistic approach: not just to support young dancers but also young choreographers and young designers. So, they have the experience of going through that process of creation and have that dialogue with a choreographer; and see how that dialogue feels.” The third term is about touring and delivering both performance and education. “As well as performing the new works created upon them, they also learn how to teach company work; and in this way we are developing both the performance and educational side of the emotional generosity. It is all about delivering experiences and knowledge.”

Vardimon continues to develop her reasoning for the programme. “Students leaving vocational dance schools often don’t understand the requirements of motivating yourself within a group and so I am trying to help bridge that gap between being a student and being a professional and give them that experience of what is being demanded from dance companies; what are the demands of a tour; what a choreographer might ask of you…”

It is already showing strong signs of success. Eighty three per cent of the dancers that have been in JV2, over the past five years, now have jobs in the dance world. Four of them have graduated into JVC, including Maria Doulgeri who has recently been performing as Pinocchio.

Another route into work for ex-JV2 dancers has been through the accreditation of JVC as a Named Practitioner for A Level Dance, by the Assessment and Qualification Alliance. “I grew up in a kibbutz where the philosophy is sharing everything and sharing knowledge is very important to me. Our profession is all about creating experiences and sharing them with an audience,” Vardimon explains. “We anticipate more demand into education, and so we have appointed ten ex-JV2 dancers to train to become education practitioners, working in schools around the UK.”   The company also offers CPD for dance teachers at its Ashford base, enabling them to learn company repertoire; and it produces a teaching resource pack to tie in with the JVC part of the curriculum.

There is a family feel to the whole Vardimon network. “I don’t believe in a competitive company,” she tells me. “I believe in sharing and supporting; again perhaps because I grew up in a kibbutz, which is all about becoming more effective as a community, working to help each other succeed and enjoying your time together. I really care about my dancers, at every level, and I want them to succeed, even when they leave the company. Our turnover is very low, but when dancers move on, they stay in close contact. Some are even suggesting that I start a JV40 for Over-40s!”

Vardimon is clearly passionate about providing educational opportunities, but, flip the coin, and her work is itself becoming an educational resource; developing a permanence that is at odds with the usual transitory nature of choreography. People are studying it – from A Level to PhD – and so it is developing an academic life.

Two books have recently been published about her work, so it is also gaining literary permanence. One is a finely detailed resource for students to learn about Vardimon’s own inner voice and the catalogue of choreography it has created. Written by Dr Libby Worth, senior lecturer in Theatre Practice at Royal Holloway College; Jasmin Vardimon’s Dance Theatre: Movement, Memory and Metaphor (published by Routledge, 2017) is the product of nine years’ research and provides a detailed contextual assessment of each of Vardimon’s works.

Vardimon has a long association with Royal Holloway, receiving an Honorary Doctorate and helping to develop a postgraduate course for dancers and actors to improve the dialogue between dance and theatre. The second book, edited by Paul Johnson and published last August, is Justitia: Multidisciplinary readings of the work of Jasmin Vardimon Company. It comes from another of Vardimon’s academic liaisons; the University of Wolverhampton, where she has been a visiting professor, since 2011. It is a deep dive into one of her works, Justitia, as interpreted by ten different creative minds, including a philosopher, a psychoanalyst, a judge, a BBC producer and a drama teacher.

Vardimon explained the process and purpose: “I feel strongly that interpretation is an extension of the art itself. It’s like Chinese whispers; how we transfer experiences. And, so the Justitia book was a way to invest in the interpretation of the work by developing this intellectual writing from a variety of different points of view. Each writer had a different reading and some were far from my own initial thoughts and yet they were all so relevant and entirely valid.”

She explains that her thinking is heavily influenced by the post-structural concepts of Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), the French sociologist, philosopher and cultural theorist, espousing interpretation as an extension of art; but also by reference to a Hebrew expression,

Hitmasroot, which has a double meaning; both to throw and catch (as with a ball); and also, standing for “devotion” or “dedication”.

In Vardimon’s creative process this term encompasses all aspects of making performance and it is applicable to all collaborators, not just the dancers. Used in relation to Vardimon’s creativity, it contains both a literal set of behaviours and an attitude to collaboration that is viewed as essential. In Vardimon’s process “throwing and catching” implies that each time, on the return of the “ball”, something new is added. As a result, in the action of throwing (an idea or task, for instance) there is an investment from the thrower in collaboration. The second meaning of Hitmasroot implies a personal commitment to the type of intense collaborative exchange anticipated by Vardimon throughout the creative process.

“Working in collaboration with anyone requires that process of throwing ideas between us and at each stage we devote something of ourselves to the process,” Vardimon explains. “I might give dancers a task and when they return it to me; they put their own interpretation on it. So, it is an iterative process and it also happens with the lighting or costume designer. I’m not a choreographer that sets movement and asks dancers to simply copy it. I am always interested in the dancers’ interpretation and all I do is lead and manage that process.”

This implies that the repertoire changes over time. “Yes, of course,” she replies. “The work is never just mine but it goes into the dancers and they interpret my choreography in their own way, sometimes even as they’re performing it on stage. When we remounted Park, after a ten-year gap, all the roles were performed by different dancers and the interpretation of those roles, even while still dancing the same choreography, was completely different.”

“The permanence of my dance work is iterative; it’s always changing,” explains Vardimon.   “What we do is a live art. Even from performance to performance, I always make changes because dancers bring in new energies. Sometimes, they come in and are very angry about something and I always ask them to use any new resource and to invest emotionally in their role. They still need to perform the role, but it can be affected by things around us or something that happens suddenly and unexpectedly on stage. A rope won’t work, or something similar; and they will need to improvise there-and-then, on the spot. I always tell them that as long as they’re honest with what they do and are telling the same story it will never be a mistake: there is no right or wrong. If the flying system doesn’t work but they still make it look like it worked then no-one in the audience will know. If you panic, it will show that there has been a mistake. I always tell them that as long as they are connected to their honesty in the role they will convince the audience of the story. They can tell it in many different ways, even if they can’t tell it exactly in the way that we have been rehearsing.”

Vardimon’s early life in Israel has been an enormous influence on her work. She lived alongside holocaust survivors; experiences that led to the creation of 7734, set in a concentration camp (when turned upside down on a digital display, the numbers read “hell”). Vardimon’s work has often been compared to that of Pina Bausch and Vardimon explained the chronological paths that underpin the reason for such perceived similarity. The major influence in the development of Israeli modern dance was Gertrud Kraus, who came to the country as an Austrian immigrant, in 1935. She was an Expressionist choreographer, painter and sculptor who had been influenced by Mary Wigman. “Her influence on the embryonic dance movement in the kibbutzes stemmed from the same roots that influenced Bausch and the whole of her generation,” explains Vardimon.

Another frequent comment about Vardimon’s work is in relation to location and it is clear that her creativity is often motivated by a sense of place. “When I worked on Lullaby,” she gives as an example, “I was really interested in the architecture of hospitals and the fact that they are so clinical, and yet they hold within them some of the greatest emotional peaks of our journey, whether it is the birth of a child or a life-saving operation; and I was very interested in that contradiction.

“I don’t want to create work in black boxes. I am fascinated about the potential to use the kinetic object and its surroundings in relation to how it affects the body because this relationship between space and the body is very important to my work. I always feel that objects host in them some qualities that can be used by association, and so, for example, in Pinocchio there are ropes that are related to restrain but are also associated with being pulled and manipulated. I tried to use both associations in the work.”

Her latest work is based on the original book of Carlo Collodi, written in 1883 at a time when, philosophically and morally, society in Italy was engaged with the question as to whether peasants could be educated. In principle, the issue concerned whether peasant children could go to school and become “real boys” or were they destined to be donkeys, as a metaphor for the labouring workforce. It was that historical question about equality; whether people had to be like slaves, as an accident of their birth, or whether they could be educated to move through the strata of Italian society, by making their own decisions, that motivated Vardimon to make the work.

JVC currently has eight dancers from eight different countries and I ask whether Brexit will have an effect on this multinational make-up. “It is already getting harder with employment rules,” Vardimon replies. “So far, we have working visas for dancers from Japan, Australia and Serbia, but it becomes more and more difficult to employ them and I worry about this because one of the amazing things about the UK, and London, in particular, is its multiculturalism. We can use that richness in our work, but the future is less certain. It will be administratively more difficult for us to employ dancers from the EU but those dancers might, in any case, be less interested to work here.” Vardimon tells me of a non-UK, EU designer, with whom she has worked, who has now decided to leave the UK because she no longer feels as welcome here. “There is no doubt that migrants in the British dance community feel less comfortable and I fear that the holistic quality of dance in the UK will suffer because of Brexit.”

As an Israeli who came to the UK in the 1990s, Vardimon has some direct experience of these difficulties. “Within two years of arriving in the UK, I was an associate artist at The Place and I had completed a small work, which was performed in 33 different countries, representing the UK under the auspices of the British Council,” she explains, “and yet, when I asked to get an artist’s visa, which my partner had received as a visual artist, I was told that a choreographer was not recognised as eligible for this visa. So I couldn’t live in the UK under an artist’s visa. You could be a musician or a visual artist, but not a choreographer.”

Although Vardimon has been a well-established choreographer for many years, it took a long time to establish her base in Ashford, where the company first took up residence, in the Stour Leisure Centre, in 2012. “The idea to settle in one place really began when I became a mum,” she explains (Vardimon has an 11-year-old daughter). “I decided that I wanted to invest in basing my company here in the UK, rather than jumping around, doing new commissions with different ballet companies around the world. I had to refuse them because I felt that it would be unfair for me to leave my family and it became clear I needed to invest in developing a base in the UK.”

She continues: “Another legacy of growing up on a kibbutz is that I always have this commitment to the community where I live and work, and since most of my funding came from Arts Council England, it seemed right to invest in sharing and showing our work around the UK. Our research shows that we are the contemporary dance company that tours the most and we try to go to every region around the UK. The other aspiration was to develop a base where we could develop, and work with, big kinetic scenery. I always like to choreograph the scenery as well as the dancers, which was a limitation in terms of touring. It’s always much more expensive to tour big scenery, and it’s also very expensive to hire a space in which to store big sets. When we did Justitia, we couldn’t just move it in the evening to clear the floor for dance classes, the next morning, so we had to rent a space where it could be stored. It all became very expensive.”

JVC began to search for a home base in the 2000s and came to Ashford in Kent, not very far from London and – with Ashford International Station, en route to the Channel Tunnel – very quick transport links. “Having been here, for a few years,” Vardimon says, “we have now decided to invest in this community and develop a creative hub, which will be much more than just making choreography, but will be an education base as well.” The company has identified another site in Ashford for a new building, on land donated by the University of Kent. Kent Council has already committed its funding and a decision from Arts Council England regarding capital funding is expected soon. Vardimon hopes that building can start in 2018.

I ask if it has been difficult for her to achieve success as a female choreographer. “As an artist, I think it is not important if I am a woman or male, black or white, four foot tall or six foot tall. My inner world is important – my thoughts, my ideas, my inspirations and how I communicate them in my work. But, sadly, I think that there is sometimes discrimination, both positive and negative; usually it is just doubts raised because of where we come from, or what our backgrounds are. Often, these doubts are about coping. Sometimes I hear people say it is harder for a woman with children, but having had a child, I can’t agree. Since I had my daughter, I’ve created much more work.”

Vardimon has her own way of avoiding prejudice. “I never read CVs. I never, ever, ask about an applicant’s background or look at how they have arrived at where they are, on the day of their audition.” Vardimon was the very first artistic director of the National Youth Dance Company (one of that 2012 cohort, Emma Farnell-Watson, has just been taken into JVC after a year as a student apprentice). She recalls combating some prejudice at that time: “I was told that I needed to choose an equal amount of male and female members and I resisted that because there were much stronger female dancers overall and I felt it was unfair not to chose some dancers that deserved to be chosen on merit, just because of their gender.”

It is the company’s 21st anniversary in 2018 and Vardimon confirms that several production houses (including Sadler’s Wells) are co-commissioning a new work to celebrate this milestone.   Meanwhile, the highly-popular Pinocchio will return in the autumn.

I ask if she thinks her work will be there for generations to come. “I hope it will remain for as long as people are interested in it,” she replies. Her main ambition for the future is to carry on creating work and nurturing the next generation through educational opportunity. “These are the two strands that I’m equally passionate about and I’m always striving to bring them together. That’s why my next goal is to research, create, produce and educate in the same creative hub, enabling people to benefit from that energy. We can learn so much from the process of seeing other people develop. Everything I believe in requires this mutual process of giving and receiving.”

A shorter version of the interview appears in the June 2017 issue of Dancing Times



Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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