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Jasmin Vardimon
Jasmin Vardimon's “Park.” Photograph by Ben Harries

Layered Communication

Jasmin Vardimon on creating “Park”

Jasmin Vardimon is the artistic director of Jasmin Vardimon Company, founded in 1997, and has been an associate artist at Sadler’s Wells since 2006. Her career spans more than two decades, and she’s received numerous accolades for her contributions to the dance world, including an honorary doctorate from Royal Holloway, University of London, awarded in July 2014.

Here Vardimon shares some details on her background and artistic approach, and tells me about re-staging her dance theatre production “Park” ten years after its creation.

“Park” is currently on a national tour around the UK and will show at Sadler’s Wells, London on 10 and 11 November 2014.

Sara Veale: You grew up in a kibbutz in Israel. What kind of an impact did your upbringing have on you as an artist?

Jasmin Vardimon: I’m the third generation of the kibbutz I grew up in: my grandparents were among the group of poets and writers who founded it. Living there I experienced a very creative and expressive education throughout my life. We found expression in many different ways.

Growing up in a kibbutz is very different from how I live now. It was an experience that made me question a lot of things that I grew up believing. As a result, I’m very interested in different types of behaviours and morals, and I enjoy looking at political issues in particular.

SV: When did you know you wanted to become a professional dancer?

JV: I started dancing at what you could consider the quite late age of 14. I did a lot of other things before I started to take dance seriously: I was athletic and took gymnastics, and I played the piano, among other pursuits. I had a lot of exposure to theatre in particular, as my father was the director of a theatre in Tel Aviv.

I went on to work with Kibbutz Dance Company for five years. It’s theatre-based, so we did pieces that were very mixed. That’s where I first started choreographing.

It’s funny to think about going professional. In some ways, I don’t feel like I ever decided for this to be what I do forever; it just happened, and it’s still happening! I actually studied anthropology when I came to the UK, and I also took a few other courses I found very interesting. Around that time I started to choreograph here, and that’s when things took off.

SV: You’re known for your distinct style and voice, and for tackling bold subjects in your work—for example, “Park” touches on themes of homelessness, gender and ownership. How would you say your style has evolved over the years? Are there any specific artists or movements you’d cite as influences?

JV: My work often originates from observations I make of contemporary society. This is where my inspiration with art comes from: I’m interested in subjects like politics and psychology and relationships, and I portray them through a multi-layer product that communicates in many different channels, be them emotional, visual, physical. I take those channels and use them to explore whatever awareness it is I want to raise.

Most of my influences are in the medium of film. I’m very fascinated by Korean cinema in particular: I love that aesthetic and way of exploring ideas. I also love Lars von Trier and the way he approaches his subjects. He operates with a certain honesty, and he requires his actors to commit to honesty in return. It’s very inspiring.

SV: What approach do you take when creating a dance theatre piece? Do you work from a core concept, or are you more inspired by peripheral details like a certain phrase of choreography or piece of music?

JV: Music always comes last for me! That’s something I do later.

I always start working with a concept in mind. I strive to be as loyal as possible to the subjects I explore, so I always research them from different points of view to gain a deeper understanding. For example, in “Justitia” (2006) I started off with an interest in the justice system and our collective understanding of the concept of justice. From there my understanding evolved, and I went on to explore the relationships of my characters and their place in society.

I find different ways to communicate that awareness and understanding. For me, it’s about asking questions instead of giving answers, about trying to show different points of view and different ways of looking at a subject. I always communicate through several layers of understanding: you’ll find my work is packed with a lot of references—so many that not all of them can be communicated to the audience in a single viewing. Allusions to psychology or anthropology, for example, aren’t always upright in the performance; they’re more in between the lines. I work this way to increase the richness of the creative process.

Every piece for me has an element of personal reflection: I always involve the people I’m working with so that their attitudes and experiences are incorporated into the piece alongside my own.

SV: Do you take a different approach when choreographing something that you’re performing in versus something you’re solely directing?

JV: Absolutely. In early years I always performed in my piece, but I haven’t now for a few years. I originally had a small appearance in “Justitia,” but that’s not a role I do any more. It’s complicated and time-consuming to direct yourself and others as well.

SV: I saw your re-staging of “Justitia” last year and was impressed by how many different elements it incorporates—there’s the dance of course, but the piece also has a big emphasis on technology and stage design, and it incorporates text too. How do you decide which elements you’re going to figure into a piece?

JV: From the moment we start exploring a concept, we try to find different ways to communicate the ideas within. A lot of the time I start with several options and try them out to decide which ones work. This is always with the intention of creating a multi-layered product.

I only use technology as a tool for communicating info that I can’t communicate otherwise. I use text for that same reason—if I want to make a historical reference or portray a complex thought I can’t convey physically. Often the technology I use takes the form of animation or projections or other colourful visual elements. In “Freedom” (2012), for example, we have a lizard that’s projected over a dancer’s body. I was interested in the idea of a wild animal that’s free and incorporating this into the movement of a dancer, but obviously that’s something that would have been impossible to do with a real animal! Animation is particularly useful for conveying a certain vision.

Like I said, it can be very hard to perceive everything in my work. How much can audience really perceive when they only see it once? In “Justitia” there are so many small references to things like Greek mythology, and I’ve created it that way because it makes it so rich from the performance side. The performers have researched where these characters come from and why they’re here and where they want to go, and within all these angles are opportunities for them to find ways to be honest and convincing

SV: “Park,” which is now on tour around the UK, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Can you elaborate on the themes the piece explores?

JV: “Park” is about a public space that’s occupied by different characters whose stories overlap. The premise at the heart of the narrative is that the land is about to be sold by private investor to a commercial entity, so it won’t belong to the public any more. In that sense the work is about ownership, though it also becomes a personal drama of the people who occupy the park: the homeless, the kids who play in it, the locals who go there on a daily basis.

I’m interested in things that seem like big subjects, but as I’ve said I always try to frame them in a way that’s a personal reflection of me and the people I’m working with. That’s important. These subjects are universal and wide-ranging and could be of interest to anyone. It’s life—our social life, our public life. It’s about now.

SV: How has the piece evolved since its premiere?

JV: When I created the piece in 2004, I wanted to explore the subjects of belonging, homeless, foreignness, distance and time. I’ve been able to revisit those subjects in preparation for the tour this year, and I’ve actually found them more relevant today than they were ten years ago. They’re absolutely part of the conversation today. I’ve gotten to explore new ways to retell this story with my new cast, and allow them to relay their understanding and talent as performers of today. The story remains the same, but it’s told in a different way.

SV: The company’s visited five different cities during the tour so far. How have you found the response?

JV: It’s gone fantastically well! We’ve sold out in a few of them and have a fantastic following that keeps coming out to see us. The response so far has been great. We’re so excited to come to London.

SV: You recently secured £3 million in Arts Council funding to develop Jasmin Vardimon International Laboratory, a creative centre in Ashford. What can you tell me about the centre and what it will offer?

JV: We’ve been extremely lucky to receive this generous amount of funding to develop our creative hub. The new centre will have studios and production space with high-quality fittings, and will function in part as a laboratory for my company to continue our artistic and creative research.

I also intend to use it to continue my long-term passion for providing education to new choreographers and dancers. My company currently offers a postgraduate diploma for dancers and actors at Royal Holloway, and we’ll use our space in Ashford to continue with JV2, a year-long postgraduate certificate we carry out to develop and explore the dialogue between dance and theatre. We’ll have space to dance and explore theatrical elements

SV: Walk me through a typical day for you: when you’re not performing or on tour, what sort of schedule do you keep?

JV: There’s no such thing as a typical day for me! The only typical thing for me is getting up and taking my daughter to school everyday, and putting her to bed in the evening. That’s what keeps me sane. In between, though, every day is different, which is exciting.

I’m currently remounting “Tannhäuser” [an opera Vardimon choreographed for the Royal Opera House in 2010] with Lyric Opera of Chicago, and I’ve also just announced my company’s collaboration with Turner Contemporary to create a piece called “Maze” for 2015. My schedule right now is exciting and busy, and I love it.

SV: Do you have any advice for aspiring choreographers?

JV: I suppose this depends what you want to do with your career. Dance is such a varied art form; there are so many genres.

If someone wanted to walk the path of the genre of dance theatre like I have, I’d advise them to be as versatile as possible. Be a sponge who can observe and absorb as much as possible. Be open-minded and explore as many ideas as you can in different ways.

And finally, don’t be afraid to let go. The biggest barrier we face is holding on to what we already have.