Interview: Tom Piper: Poppies creator on designing for dance

Friday 6 October 2017

Tom Piper in front of the poppies instillation. Photo by Ian Ritchie...

Tom Piper, set and costume designer for Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s Bayadère – The Ninth Life talks about his process of bringing the production to life.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I got involved in student theatre at Cambridge in the mid 1980s and designed over 30 plays then, working with friends like Sam Mendes and touring to Edinburgh, Avignon and around northern Europe. I began a post-grad in theatre design at the Slade but ran off to Paris before the course ended to work with Chloe Obolensky on Peter Brook’s production of The Tempest in 1990. Returning from Paris, I went on to work at the Orange Tree, Soho Theatre and with Michael Boyd at the Tron in Glasgow.

I have worked extensively with Dominic Hill at Dundee Rep, The Traverse, and now the Citz. Other regular collaborators have included Abigail Morris, Sam West, Conall Morrison, Tim Supple, Polly Teale, Chris Renshaw, Indhu Rubasingham, Sam Mendes and Erica Whyman. I was Associate Designer at the RSC from 2004 to 2014 and mentored the RSC Assistant designer scheme. My collaboration with Paul Cummins and The Tower of London on Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red in 2014 was seen by over five million people.

This is your first design for dance. How did you come to be involved with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s Bayadère – The Ninth Life?

I was invited by Shobana to work on a workshop week for a different piece in development and enjoyed her process of exploration, always coming back to the dancer at the centre of the work. Shobana asked if i would like to work on the next phase of her Bayadère project so i was happy to take up the challenge.

La Bayadère is a well-known ballet with a really strong visual identity. Had you seen it before joining this project?

No, only in YouTube clips, but as Shobana’s focus is on how the original genuine Bayadères who came to Europe in the 1830s were perceived, I did more research around the actual history than the ballet itself. She has taken very small segments of the ballet and used them as the starting point for a dialogue with a classically trained indian dancer.

How did approach the update, with both that sense of history and also the critique/comment of the new work?

I wouldn’t call it an update of the ballet, rather it is a response to the ballet fed through Shobana’s exploration of original Indian dance practices and how the world of India was fetishised by the 19th century western dance world. I had to judge the fine line between critique and parody in quoting elements of Indian design such as Mogul arches. Costume elements such as the Harem pants worn by the Bayadère, were deliberately tacky rather than being genuinely Indian.

Can you talk us through the process of developing the designs, from the first idea to being up there on the stage?

Initially we were very interested in Cabinets of Curiosity, the rooms of rich Victorian collectors, in which exotic and unusual objects were displayed. It felt like we could display all the important props from the ballet and the dancer herself as one of these curiosities. In the end this felt too constricting an idea where the dancers would not really be able to interact with the setting but it did lead on to looking at the way objects are framed and displayed. So I created a series of wheeled frames that can define a variety of viewpoints for the audience, seeing figures directly framed or half hidden behind the structures. Hopefully it heightens and captures the sense of voyeurism and exploitation that lurks within the piece.

What’s been your favourite part of this project?

Watching the way the dancers interact and learn from each other so quickly. I have been especially impressed with Sooraj and find his performance as the bayadère angry, dignified and genuinely moving.

Have you found creating for dance differs from theatre or instillation projects?

In a way it is no different from all performance work, in that the actor, singer or dancer must always be at the centre of your process and the world I create must help them to express themselves to the fullest. In dance the focus is more intensely on the human form in motion so I have found the work on the costume – finding a look for the chorus who relate to the bayadère in a variety of ways – most difficult and interesting. At times they have to work together as a single group, as in Shobana’s version of the Shades but at others, transform themselves into the women in the harem and the men that prey on them. I have kept their colour palette in greys, blacks and silvers in contrast to the golds and red of the Bayadère .

Will you be designing for dance again?

Yes, if the right project comes along!

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance, Bayadère – The Ninth Life Wells
16 & 17 Oct

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