It can be hard choreographing ballets derived from traditional literary texts, but it may be even harder working on choreographies revolving around real stories of physical and psychological extremes. Yet Marguerite Donlon is not scared.
Donlon created as her 34th and final choreography for the Ballet of the Saarland State Theatre company an ambitious piece entitled "Shadow". Presented in a double bill with "Anastasia" - created in 1967 by English choreographer Kenneth MacMillan to the music of Bohuslav Martinů and revolving around the story of a young woman convinced of being the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II - "Shadow" is based on Donlon's "Schatten" (2006).
"Shadow" is inspired by writer Virginia Woolf, playwright Sarah Kane and musician Kurt Cobain - three tormented artists characterised by destructive personalities. While the setting of the first ballet is a mental institution, Donlon's "Shadow" takes place in a minimalist yet claustrophobic space, and has its climax when the three dancers representing Kane, Cobain and Woolf enter into perspex boxes that symbolise their isolation and annihilation, and their own shadows are left to dance on the stage under a snowstorm of red petals.
"Shadow" has the splintered and stylised aesthetic of Kane's works and the sparse sets at times call to mind the white spaces on Kane's pages, resembling or implying the scattered and tortured thoughts of the speaker (think about 4.48 Psychosis and you get an idea).
Donlon translated through abstract slow and fast movements the struggles, psychosis and quests for identity of the main characters, while fashion designer Laura Theiss collaborated again with Donlon on the costumes for this new piece.
Though "Anastasia" and "Shadow" focus on different themes, you could argue that both the pieces have got something in common, for instance topics such as identity and tortured personalities: what prompted you to put the two pieces together on the same bill?
Marguerite Donlon: Just as you pointed out, the two pieces do have quite a lot in common. They take a close look at a young woman in a crucial moment of her life. And while one one them chooses the way from a suicide attempt back to life, discovering who she wants to be, the other one decides to end her life, being fully aware of who she is and what her work as an artist means to her. Anastasia and Sarah Kane were two different persons living in totally different situations and both of them have a fascination that inspired Kenneth MacMillan in 1967 and me now to create a choreography focusing on these complex personalities.
"Shadow" is a very literary piece as well since it is inspired by Virginia Woolf and Sarah Kane's works: how difficult it is for a choreographer to translate into body movements the written messages, thoughts and writings of these authors?
Marguerite Donlon: It’s not difficult at all as I consider the human body the best instrument to express emotions. What Kane, Woolf and Cobain conveyed in their texts were their experiences, hopes, fears and everything they were going through emotionally. What the three of them shared is a broad range of individual observations and a very personal emotional response to it. Everything they wrote had an attitude and told us clearly how they felt about what they were writing about.
What fascinates you about these tortured figures?
Marguerite Donlon: In characters like them you find a multitude of different thoughts and emotions. The abundance of sensitivity makes them such a fascination. It’s not the fact of dealing with a tortured soul, but rather dealing with a complex character that attracts me.
Choreography-wise which movements did you employ to express the drama in the lives of these artists?
Marguerite Donlon: Like always I developed a very individual vocabulary for each of the characters. How they move is an expression of how they feel, so this has to be very personal. In close collaboration with the dancers we find certain attitudes of how the body should "work". Obviously with such torn characters as Kane, Woolf and Cobain there are a lot of movements tearing the body into different directions on the one side, and very subtle, carefully tentative moments on the other.
This is the last choregraphy you created for the Saarbrucken audience, where will you be heading next and is there a company you would like to work with?
Marguerite Donlon: I am in contact with several companies, regarding future plans. Of course I would like to work with any company with dedicated dancers.
Were you familiar with the main themes of Woolf's writings and Kane's plays before working on the costumes for this piece or did you have to do a lot of researches before starting your work?
Laura Theiss: When you work on such projects, it doesn't matter how much you already know about something, since you always have to do a lot of researches to genuinely understand the work you are going to translate into the costumes. In my case I read all I could find about Kurt Cobain, Virginia Woolf and Sarah Kane to be able to understand not only their work but also their lifestyles and the time they lived in. I had to find some similarities in the three characters that allowed me to reunite their emotions and personalities in the costumes, so I opted for very light blue/bleached denims and, for their shadows, identical clothes in dark grey. The dancers interpretating the shadows had less detailed clothing made in heavy jersey, so that the fabrics allowed them to mimick the movements of the protagonists, while prompting them to move in a less dynamic way.
For the previous piece you worked a lot with Marguerite, following the choreographies and so on. What about this new piece, did you feel more confident and did you still follow a lot of rehearsals?
Laura Theiss: I did feel more confident. The experience I gained in the first project helped me a lot. While working on the first project I learnt that the stage lights can hide lots of details and that small decorative elements have to be much bigger and slightly over the top compared to usual catwalk clothes. I still spent a lot of time watching the rehearsals to understand the piece, but I obviously spent more time in the atelier working on the costumes. All the pieces were made in the Atelier located in the theatre. The Head of the Costume Department there is Markus Maas and, every now and then, we invited Marguerite Donlon to the Atelier so that she could follow the costume making process - Marguerite has excellent taste!
In which ways did you reinterpret the works of Sarah Kane in your costumes?
Laura Theiss: The main part of the performance was about Sarah Kane's works. So, after the first researches, I started making a moodboard with costumes that had to be inspired by the '90s - so mainly jeans and T-Shirts. Sarah Kane was an anti-fashion person, she didn't particularly care about the clothes, that's why I tried to have a less costumy approach than usual and reference more street styles, while attempting in some ways to preserve certain meanings and messages.
There are a lot of slashes on the costumes and they directly link the garments to physical injuries, but also to the light/shadow theme as well. Are the slashes the only symbolism you employed in your costumes or were there other symbolisms as well?
Laura Theiss: There is space for the audience's own interpretation. In my opinion the light colour for the three protagonists symbolises heaven, while the cuts hint at physical injuries. I actually opted to cut the shirts in a complicated way. The shirts were shredded into strips that were then placed on the dummy to allow the pattern cutters to work in an easier way since the sketches weren't enough to visualise the most complex details of the costumes. Then we stitched the shirts back together leaving some slashes open. Each T-shirt was different to fit the dancer's body, personality and style. Dancers had another T-Shirt underneath in a nude or red shade. Some T-Shirts were embellished with safety pins. In the part with the wind machines all dancers wore shirts with horizontal cuts on the front and some of the female dancers were wearing men's shirts in red, black or nude chiffon fabric. The trousers were a different story: we bought various denims, but we had to adjust them all to allow the dancers to freely move in them. Some dancers tried at least ten pairs of jeans before finding one they could actually move in and perform comfortably!
Do you feel that from now on you will be working more on costumes than on fashion designs?
Laura Theiss: I would be happy to design more costumes for ballets or maybe even try theatre performance in future. However, I do love fashion and will of course continue with my own label. I am finishing my new collection right now and have another exciting project to focus on - designing knitwear for childrens label Thats Not Fair in London.
Choreography: Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Music: Bohuslav Martinu, Sixth Symphony , Electronic Music by Fritz Winckel and Rüdiger Rufer
Set and Costume Design: Bob Crowley
Light: John B. Read
Preparation: Gary Harris
Conducted by Thomas Peuschel
Choreography: Marguerite Donlon
Music: Claas Willeke and Sam Auinger
Stage : Marguerite Donlon , Christian Held
Costumes: Laura Theiss
Light: Fred Pommerehn
Video: Dorothee de Coster , Aileen Dietrich
Piano : Michael Christensen
With the Saarland State Orchester
The next "Anastasia"/"Shadow" performances will be held on 11th and 15th April 2014. Check out the Saarland State Theatre site further dates.
Image credits for this post
Images courtesy Laura Theiss/Marguerite Donlon; Stage photographs © Martina Pipprich and © Bettina Stöß
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