A party and a chance to reflect says Didy Veldman about her latest work for Umanoove, The Knot

David Mead talks to choreographer Didy Veldman about The Knot, touring from November 6.

Marriage, a wedding party, one to which the audience are invited. Welcome to The Knot, the latest work by Didy Veldman and follow-up to The Happiness Project for her company, Umanoove. “At times, it’s light-hearted and just a bit of fun, but I also touch on elements that are a bit more profound and that question ritual, unity and how we deal with marriage nowadays,” she says.

The idea grew out of a piece she did for Geneva Ballet in 2013. They wanted to do a Stravinsky evening but she says she found it really difficult to pick a score. “His music is so intense and demanding, and so many choreographers had already done such marvellous works on his music.” But then there was Les Noces, the music and especially Jiri Kylian’s choreography to it, both of which had an imprint on her. “So, I thought, why not?”

Didy VeldmanPhoto Chris Nash
Didy Veldman
Photo Chris Nash

While she enjoyed working with the music and the theme, Veldman says she felt very limited with what she could do within the 25 minutes of the music. “So, it was always something that I wanted to do again. Then I had these ideas about wouldn’t it be lovely if I could have a barn and invite the audience in to a wedding party, and have music playing with Stravinsky’s Les Noces kind of coming in and out. Some of those ideas are now reality with The Knot.”

It is a party really, she says with a smile. “There are brides and grooms. Several.” All at once? “Yes,” she says, now laughing. “Anything goes. We have loads of different ways of dealing with the theme.”

Veldman has a knack of finding super dancers. “I love working with experienced dancers who have knowledge and experience, so we can really share and collaborate. Working with younger people, you need to fill their suitcase a bit more.” She particularly looks for people who “touch me as human beings as well as movers. They have to be musical, energetic, dynamic, versatile. I love it if they can sing or have other trades that might fit into a work or might not, but I mainly look for people who are really able to engage with my work, my way of working, and the theme.”

Turning to music, for The Knot, composer Ben Foskett has created new music to sit between the Stravinsky sections. “It’s been a challenge,” admits Veldman. “It was one of the first elements we discussed. How were we going to do it? Do we break? Do we chop? Do we find fluid ways in? The Stravinsky is dense, so from the beginning, I told Ben that I needed space, contrast. That really helped him find ways into the Stravinsky, and pull notes and sounds out. He’s done a really good job.”

Umanoove in The Knot(dancers: Oihana Vesga and Oliver Chapman)Photo Chris Nash
Umanoove in The Knot
(dancers: Oihana Vesga and Oliver Chapman)
Photo Chris Nash

The Knot premiered in February at DanceEast in Ipswich but is only now touring. The scheduling highlights some of the problems facing small companies. Veldman explains it was made in late 2017 when she was offered studio space by Wayne McGregor. The premiere was followed by a performance at G Live in Guildford, but it proved impossible to programme more than one or two shows each month. “It then becomes really difficult to keep your dancers together to deliver quality. Every time, you need a week of rehearsal to get the work back to standard. It’s too expensive and it’s frustrating for dancers. It doesn’t work.”

Although the autumn has proved altogether more accommodating, the break brought another problem: not all the original cast were available. “That’s something we all face as choreographers. When you have your own company and have big breaks, people leave. So, I now have two or three new dancers. I have to teach them really rapidly. But hey, we’ll find a way,” she laughs.

Didy VeldmanPhoto Chris Akrill
Didy Veldman
Photo Chris Akrill

Veldman is well-known across Europe as a dance-maker but says there was no specific moment when she realised she wanted to choreograph. As a young child, she does recall fondly being encouraged to improvise in the last ten minutes or so of her ballet class, though. “That was always my favourite part. It was fun, a kind of freedom I remember making solos for myself, even costumes. So, it was always part of me. I was always interested somehow.”

Her dancing career began in The Netherlands at Scapino Ballet, where she began making her own ballets too, including a prize-winning workshop piece that was taken into the company repertoire. From there, it was to Geneva Ballet. It was in that city, in 1992, that she and Guilherme Botelho founded Alias. But she freely admits, “I was a little too young and I struggled with still dancing and setting up and running a company, so I stepped out. Step in, Christopher Bruce, who enticed her to Rambert, and who subsequently offered her the chance to choreograph. Her Kol Simcha (1996) proved very successful and was quickly followed by Grey Matter (1997) and 7DS (2000).

Umanoove in Didy Veldman's The KnotPhoto Chris Nash
Umanoove in Didy Veldman’s The Knot
Photo Chris Nash

Veldman was soon in demand elsewhere, including at Northern Ballet, where she created a modern-looking and radical new version of Carmen (1999). Not on pointe and very theatrical in outlook, it prompted the Independent’s John Percival to muse whether it was the future of dance.

Veldman hesitates to describe her style, though. “That’s for other people to do.” But talk to most people and they will say it’s quirky, has humour and is physical. All things we are promised in The Knot.

After leaving Rambert, Veldman went freelance. “It’s hard,” she says. “In the beginning there were a lot of commissions, but some years there is more work, some less. And always you have to try and find a balance with children and family life.” That’s not something all companies appreciate, she feels. “I can’t just go over for six weeks and create a piece. I go for two weeks, then I want to go home for a little bit. Then I can go back for two weeks. It’s a very different way of working.”

Umanoove came slightly out of necessity, she explains. “I wanted to work more here, in the country and city that I live in, and build and establish a company rather than always being a guest, flitting in and out. I’m 50-years old now and I’m interested in building, nourishing and rooting a bit more.” I love it but it’s been hard, she says. “Finding enough support, enough funding and the right dancers. It’s ongoing but that’s life I suppose.”

Umanoove in The Knot(dancers: Sara Harton and Dane HurstPhoto Chris Nash
Umanoove in The Knot
(dancers: Sara Harton and Dane Hurst)
Photo Chris Nash

Looking ahead, Veldman has a busy schedule. Besides touring The Knot, she is working with mapdance at the University of Chichester, and next year will create a work for students of the partner schools of the Prix de Lausanne. “That will be great fun. I’ll have between 20 and 35 students, I think, and have to make a piece in seven days. It’s kind of mad, but that kind of student are always very talented, eager and willing.”

Well under way is a new work for Birmingham Royal Ballet, the third of the Ballet Now series of new works the company is producing, and that will premiere in June 2019. She’s already held some workshops with the dancers. “It was good to see who related, who was enthusiastic, who was prepared to go the whole way and wasn’t shy about a new way of moving. I challenged them but it was really fun. They were very open, very generous. That’s encouraging. I really want people to have a good time. The process is super important. I always want to have dancers for as much time as possible. For me, that’s key. Then I can get to really understand them and the way they move. It helps give me options.” Rehearsals proper do not start until April but Veldman says she’s already started work with her costume designer, and had meetings with composer Gabriel Prokofiev. “I worked a little bit in the workshops with some excerpts that he gave me. It’s rolling!”

Oliver Chapman in Didy Veldman's The KnotPhoto Chris Nash
Oliver Chapman in Didy Veldman’s The Knot
Photo Chris Nash

Also on the horizon is a new work for the Dutch National Ballet School. “It’s Holland and my old school. I couldn’t say no.” Then there’s work with a school at the Jacob’s Pillow festival in America; and she’s already busy with Umanoove’s next work, to be premiered in 2020.

Returning to The Knot, what would Veldman like audiences to feel and to take away from it? “A sense of fun but also to make them reflect about what marriage means to them. To think about the importance of the ritual to them, and how society has morphed weddings into being something a little bit more superficial. I also want them to have a sense of being invited in. I enjoy giving people an accessibility in to the work. I think that’s really important in contemporary dance.”

Umanoove/Didy Veldman tour The Knot from November 6, 2018. Visit www.umanoove-didy-veldman.org for all dates, venues and links to booking websites.