Every year, students from BA Performance Design and Practice collaborate with student choreographers and dancers from Central School of Ballet, London Studio Centre and the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Following the 2019 series, we talk to third-year student Poppy Sheppard and second-year student Pete Butler about the two-month project.
Why did you want to take part in Design for Dance?
Sheppard: It’s a collaboration but it’s also solo opportunity as a designer.
Butler: It’s quite intense. You do everything: concept development costume design and production, set design and production, lighting plans. It’s massive but also a great chance to build up your portfolio.
How does the project begin?
Sheppard: You visit the ballet schools to watch the choreography and talk about what you can bring to the piece. Then the designers and choreographers select who they want to partner with.
Some pieces are totally finished while other are not. There was only 20 seconds of the dance that I ended up working on so for me, I was attracted to the concept. The movement Ida Kummervold, my London Studio Centre choreographer, showed me was all the girls laid on top of each other in a pile, doing these very isolated and contemporary movements with their upper bodies. The music was stark and creepy. Straightaway, I liked the vibe and thought it had a lot of places to explore.
What were the concepts for your pieces?
Butler: My piece was already defined by the Rambert School of Ballet student choreographers Rosie Reith and Oscar Li; it was about two street performers expressing hope and futility with exaggerated movement. It’s a light-hearted piece, a lot of physical comedy, upbeat music but with a serious undertone. I thought that as a performer or dancer you have a relatively short professional life so that might be part of the story. So I exaggerated that idea of the performers seeming tired, they’d put on their sweats to keep warm and got stuck in this world while they’re waiting to perform.
Sheppard: My concept was called Gehenna; it was about hell. My research led me to Lilith, who – in Jewish folklore – came before Eve as Adam’s first wife. She’s often represented as the snake around the tree in the Garden of Eden. That informed my design choices and it fit as the piece had a female driven narrative. I made a tree and a two-metre square pit with soil which the whole dance eventually became constrained within. The design and choreography fed off each other which was important so that it felt really coherent.
How does the collaboration between designer and choreographer work?
Butler: That’s the joy of it. Although mine was a finished piece I could suggest things. So, I proposed the setup as a ritual that the two characters might do every day, bringing on stage a trolley and a bucket. The actual choreography being a part of that set up and then at the end, they clear away their own set and props. They were game to try those things.
There is life beyond the choreography. My role isn’t saying “I’m going to put you in this costume, good luck”, it’s being empathetic to the dancers and what they’re wearing or doing so that you can create something coherent and collaborative.
Sheppard: My choreographer was changing until the final day. It changed and it changed. They were experimenting until the final moment. That was a challenge, it’s hard for designers because there comes a time when we have to lock down the design. But it worked out well for me because in those final weeks I really got to see it develop and have input into the choreography.
What did you find rewarding about the project?
Sheppard: It felt like a one-off piece and you both had a big part in it, it wouldn’t have been then same without either one of us.
Butler: I’m hugely interested in other people’s ideas and making that work in a performance space. For me, the project is great because it starts from the point of view of an individual with passion who wants to make work. Then you match that – “here’s my passion, these are my tools so let’s make something together”. If it doesn’t have that heart in it, then I’m not interested.”