Posted on October 22, 2018
Graham Watts travelled to the International Institute of the Arts in Sitges to talk to choreographer Jasmin Vardimon about Medusa, her new production for Jasmin Vardimon Company
GW: What attracted you to the mythical character of Medusa as the subject for your new work?
JV: What I find amazing is that when I ask people what they can recall about the story of Medusa, most remember she was a gorgon with snake hair, whose gaze turned men into stone. They might also remember that Perseus was sent to kill her and that he cut off her head. Almost no-one knew she became this monster because she was a beautiful woman who was raped by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena, or that the goddess Athena – either out of jealousy or protection, there’s a lot of different interpretations – punished her for being raped, rather than punishing Poseidon.
There are two women in this story because it’s about Athena as well as Medusa. Athena is the one who cursed and punished Medusa and turned her into this monster, but when she sent Perseus to behead her, it became a fight between women. Instead of supporting each other, they fought each other. I find it interesting that this part of the story has been forgotten.
The other thing is the environment, which is something I care about. I wanted to link to the environment, but in a poetic way. In many languages, a medusa is a jellyfish, and the etymological reason for that is linked back to the mythology, since a jellyfish has tentacles with poison in them like the snakes on Medusa’s head. Also, the medusa has a cycle of life that starts from coral and then becomes this free, living thing and, eventually, after death, it returns to coral again. So it’s like being turned from stone into a living organism and then back to stone. I was also interested in the concept of female goddesses being turned into statues, and that connotation from being in history (or in myth) and then being turned into a symbol or an object.
GW: Given all the revelations of the #MeToo movement, it sounds like a story for today. Is that how you see it, too?
JV: Yes, I think it’s very relevant to women who have been victims and who are then forgotten. So, obviously the currency and relevance of #MeToo is right there in this old myth. It has been re-used in culture, in politics and in many other forms, always presenting the woman as the wicked monster but never explaining her backstory as a victim. It’s very powerful.
During the Trump/Clinton election campaign, Trump called Clinton Medusa: he even had awful T-shirts printed depicting him as Perseus holding the head of Hilary, as Medusa. Again, it’s using Medusa as an allegory to depict strong women as the monster. It seems as if women who are strong are like Medusa, they are like a monster. They have to be put down.
GW: It’s very far removed from your previous show, Pinocchio, which I know is still touring?
JV: I was not interested in simply retelling the myth, and so Medusa is very unlike Pinocchio, where I wanted to remain absolutely committed to the Collodi narrative. Like so many of us, I know Medusa from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, which is poetry, and so I wanted my interpretation to be more poetic, to have that lyrical quality. There is no obvious linear narrative in Medusa, as there was in Pinocchio. I know that sometimes it frustrates audiences when they don’t understand things, because there are clearly images you feel you need to understand and it’s frustrating when you don’t, but for me, it’s more poetic this way.
GW: Your involvement in the work always goes beyond direction and choreography. Is that also true of Medusa?
JV: I know many choreographers like to work with partners providing separate contributions in a collaborative process, but I have to do most of it because I feel it’s the easiest way. I work on the set design with my partner because the visual spectacle is so important in my work. We try to bring as much powerful imagery to the stage, as simply as possible. Here, it starts with the waves. It’s such a simple idea, but the dancers have to work hard to make it work well. There is a particular technique, especially with the movement, that they are doing underneath the “waves”.
The spoken text is really important. I wrote the text with the help of Josh [Joshua Smith] because he is the performer mostly delivering it. I have also compiled the music for all of my work over the past ten years. Obviously there are things I can’t do, like the costume and lighting design [by Abigail Hammond and Amadeo Solernou], for example. They come in and they do their amazing work!
GW: Jasmin Vardimon Company is in the final stages of building a new headquarters in Ashford. How will it broaden your horizons?
JV: Well, it will provide greater scope to deliver more education work and to develop that side of the company. I also want to keep developing JV2 [the postgraduate company]. The holistic side of all of that is going to be much more coordinated in a bigger space.
At the moment, it’s impossible to take 15 or 16 people into the company every year [from JV2] but I’m so pleased most of them go on to work in the industry. We did a survey a while back to check what they are doing now, and 84 per cent of them were working as dancers or choreographers, which is really satisfying.
Follow this link for further information about Jasmin Vardimon Company’s Medusa.
Photograph of Jasmin Vardimon’s Medusa courtesy of Jasmin Vardimon Comoany.