Interview: Tommy Franzén

Thursday 25 October 2012

Tommy Franzen

Tommy Franzén is a dancer with apparently limitless energy. Just a week or so after a second run of Zoonation’s loveable Some Like It Hip Hop at the Peacock Theatre (to which he contributed choreography), he’s in rehearsals for a very different kind of show in which he’s also been deeply involved in the creative process – Russell Maliphant’s The Rodin Project, – which comes to Sadler’s Wells next week. Graham Watts managed to get him to sit still long enough for a chat…

Is The Rodin Project the first time you’ve worked with Russell Maliphant?
I auditioned for him for something else (an advert, actually) but timing-wise, it didn’t work out and I couldn’t do the job. I guess that Russell may have wanted to work with me since then and he got in touch with me to do a week’s R&D regarding Rodin [French artist Auguste Rodin,1840 -1917]. Someone told him that I was too busy doing Some Like it Hip Hop but thankfully Russell persisted. He tracked my phone number down, gave me a call and it turned out that I could make three of the five days planned for the R&D workshops.

Was that right at the beginning of the process?
Yes, although he had held previously held some experimental workshops before I came on board. We had the set already and we just had to improvise for those three days around the concepts that Russell laid out.

Tell us about the set…
I got very excited when I saw the set. It is really tricky because there are so many different angles, with steel decking leaning in completely different ways. But for me it was a playground. It is almost “parkour-ish” [the extreme sport of freerunning]. You can jump off the set and leap from piece to piece and so I just went ballistic over those three days. I think that Russell liked the fact that I didn’t have too much fear!

It doesn’t sound as if this has much to do with the artist Rodin?
To be honest I didn’t really know who Rodin was at this point but working with Russell and this exciting set was what initiated my interest. The things he was taking us through in terms of the improvisation and the classes he taught were really fascinating and enjoyable.

How many of the dancers working on Rodin now were there in those early days of research?
Most of us. Russell used it as a way of seeing who could fit his ideas for that piece. After I had done one day, he approached me to see if we could make it work so that I could perform in Rodin and Some Like it Hip Hop. We had a few meetings, talked about it and we found a way, although I missed a lot of early rehearsals and on some days I would come in during the daytime of the Some Like it Hip Hop run to rehearse The Rodin Project before performing the other show in the evening. After the run finished I went into full-time rehearsals with Russell.

How much of that early R&D has found its way into the piece?
Loads of it. A lot of material came from playing around and improvising over those three days. Russell filmed everything and picked out the bits that he really liked and made sure that they ended up in the show. Since then we have added and developed more things.

The word ‘Project’ in the title implies that it is continuing to be developed?
Definitely. It has changed for every show. That’s the way Russell works anyway. He always films every show and we will look at that film and make notes for changes in the next performance so it is quite floating in a way. We get the chance to play with it on the stage. It is constantly evolving.
We performed The Rodin Project first at Sadler’s Wells in February and this will be a very different show. Much improved, I think.

You have been juggling lots of work in recent months – FlashMob in Edinburgh, and now Some Like it Hip Hop and Rodin on tour – how difficult has that been?
To be honest, it has been a little bit too much and I need to get my senses back and so from now for the rest of the year I’m trying to stick to Rodin although there may be a few small projects coming up. I’m not intending to take on any other big projects in 2012. I am still working on FlashMob, although not as a performer [he is replaced in the show at the Peacock Theatre by Charlie Bruce, the winner of the first season of So You Think You Can Dance? in which Franzèn was runner-up) but I’ve been asked to choreograph a new number for the show.

What appeals to you about The Rodin Project?
I really like the shapes that Rodin made in his art, both in his sculptures and watercolours. Even though the image is static his work gives a strong sense of movement.

How are Rodin’s sculptures interpreted in the work?
A lot of the sculptures stand on an angle. They are very rarely on flat ground and that is a theme that Russell thought we could create in the set just by making those different angles and levels. So by just standing on the set we already create that Rodin feeling. We don’t have to think about standing in a Rodin way because it is just happening naturally on that set. We had a whole pile of books about Rodin and photos of his sculptures and watercolours. We looked at particular things that inspired a certain section in the work and we would study the shape and form and then improvise movement – like the twist of an arm – based on that research. Beyond that there is no narrative in the work.

As a dancer, what – for you – is the secret ingredient of Russell Maliphant’s choreography and direction?
Russell’s way of working feels very honest and very organic and that’s so different to other shows that I do where the choreography is fixed and structured. In Some Like it Hip Hop I am playing a particular character but in Russell’s work the movement is like dancing from the heart, from within. It feels as if we – the dancers – are an open book. It is not so much about forcing something in order to become a character. We are just movement on stage and our interpretation can evolve over time. That is what I really like about working with Russell. Everything in the show came from some kind of improvisation and this is a very organic development. We might just be improvising across the floor in class and then something great comes out of that moment which we have been able to replicate and keep in the show. The choreography has come in a very different way from just setting the steps: it has all come from these moments within the dance experience. I love this way of working.

The Rodin Project is at Sadler’s Wells from Monday 29 – Wednesday 31 October

Read an interview with choreographer Russell Maliphant

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK. A version of this interview appears in the Sadler’s Wells show programme.

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