Run Mary Run

I first met the choreographer Arthur Pita whilst working on La Boheme at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004. It was a Raymond Gubbay production directed by Francesca Zambello, and I was assisting the set designer Peter J. Davison. Arthur was tasked with creating vibrant choreography for the Momus bar scenes which he did with gusto. The dancers who were the bar staff at the cafe wore roller skates and weaved and ducked in and around the tables full of punters in a choreographic frisson. It was a mini coup de theatre for which he received a lot of acclaim and quite memorable for it.

Since that production I have followed Arthur’s work and have always admired his bold style. Our Portuguese roots and heritage have often been cause for inspiration on projects and since seeing Facada I have been keen to collaborate with him, so naturally I was delighted when earlier this year he called me and invited me to design a new production staring the onstage/offstage couple Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin.

For me it was a wonderful gift to set and costume design on a production with three great names. A fantastic choreographer and two extraordinary dancers. Given Natalia’s and Sergei’s classical background and proficiency it was decided early on that they would move into the contemporary dance realm for the triple bill that was to be Osipova. The evening would comprise of three pieces, each choreographed by a different master. Sidi Larbi Cherkaui, Russel Maliphant and Arthur Pita.

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Arthur and I met for a coffee and began to discuss the piece from his perspective. He had recently seen the film Amy about the life and career of Amy Winehouse. Already a fan of her music, he wanted to draw inspiration from the seemingly dysfunctional relationship she had had with Blake Fielderman. The good girl, bad boy syndrome. We both felt strongly about the theme but agreed that it was important not to merely copy it but rather use it as inspiration for a new story.

Good girls that love bad boys is a subject matter that revisits us in many guises. It’s in film, theatre, dance, pop music, we’ve seen it all before, so how do you re-invent this aged old tale. We decided to tell the story back to front. This was the starting point and it very soon became clear how important it was to us both to give the audience a new perspective on Natalia herself, for Arthur through choreography and for myself through costume.

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Idolised and adored by thousands of fans, this beautiful classically trained dancer is always photogenic and charismatic so our first statement was to present her as the complete opposite. Here began what was to become a journey through a woman’s life.

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It was a great challenge to have two such talented dancers at their prime as my subjects for costuming, because frankly, we all know how dancers and singers always want to look beautiful, it is the archetype, so I thought that to convince Natalia to look ugly was not going to be easy. Much to my surprise she was very up for it and loved the idea of morphing into different eras in the life of the main character. Starting as a very frail old woman of eighty, transitioning into an elderly sixty year old then changing into an elegant forty year old, then a sassy twenty year old before finally becoming the young sixteen year old experiencing a crush for the first time.

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Arthur’s sense of theatrical storytelling is wonderful and unlike so many contemporary choreographers he is not afraid of being bold and toying with the artifice of storytelling. This is one of the many reasons I really loved working with Arthur, well, that and his fantastic eye for detail. With Arthur there are always questions, predominantly why? Which inevitably lead into discourse and philosophising the characters and their story.

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The opening image of the piece is a stark one. Two fresh graves. It is a bold statement for a contemporary dance piece. At their first meeting Arthur turned to Luis and said I have this idea that I want the two dancers buried in a grave and they come out of it. They both laughed, though for different reasons. Arthur joked about the possible ghoulishness of it and the idea of it looking like Thriller by Michael Jackson, I interjected and told him about a production of Romeo and Juliet I had set and costume designed for a couple of years prior that started with a grave scene, two giant mounds of flowers covering the bodies of Romeo and Juliet at their funeral. The bodies were in fact, two dancers that emerged from the mountain of flower bouquets, after the first chorus and danced their way into the Capulet’s party. It was unexpected and became a talking point amongst audience members after the performance. This was why I was hesitant to use the same image. That said, Arthur can be very persuasive and has the indomitable talent of finding a clever solution and reason for everything.

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So I began to set design. The flowers became earth and the stage became an endless coffin. Here started the visual language that was adopted for the whole piece. I love to combine set design and costume design on a project like this because I always finds that when designing both, one informs the other, as was the case with this production.

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Though the set design was simple, it comprised of a giant gloss black curved floor, reminiscent of the surface of a black lacquered coffin, the set design allowed the dancers to move freely whilst at the same time giving them a reflective surface that distorted the body and movements compounding the message of the piece. A mirror image.

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To counteract the starkness of the coffin statement in the set design, I opted to clothe the dancers in bold acid colours. Pink for the sixteen year old protagonist and green for the more sassy twenty year old. The combination of the colourful costumes offset against the gloss black set worked very well and the dancers stood out as though they were floating above the stage.

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The production has since toured to the Edinburgh Festival where it won a Young Dance Critics Award for best Choreography, and will be performed again at Sadlers Wells in September 2016. For the complete tour dates and venues please visit www.sadlerswells.com

Photo Credit: Bill Cooper & Luis F. Carvalho