August 10, 2022
David Mead talks to Jasmin Vardimon about her latest production, which premieres later this month, and takes a look at her company’s fabulous new creative hub in Ashford, Kent.
“I like to tell stories. Stories carry through generations. They contribute to our psyche, to our ability to cope with the world,” says Jasmin Vardimon. But even more than that, she says she’s interested in observing contemporary society, reflecting on history and culture, and engaging with the many social issues that she and those around her care about. “Through stories, I can throw a line or build an awareness of the subjects that I want to bring to the fore.”
Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to give it its full title, has inspired many artists over the years and still does. In one sense, Vardimon’s dance-theatre version follows on from her earlier Pinocchio, made when her own daughter was very young. “I felt there was not enough dance work for children, and I wanted to create something for her and her age group. Now I’m creating ALiCE when she’s a teenager.”
Having first come to life through a VR experience that toured the UK early in 2022, Vardimon’s ALiCE reaches the live stage in late August. It promises to be different, curious and compelling; and a sensory and visual feast.
She explains that her point of view on the character is that, like her daughter, she is going through adolescence, acknowledging changes in her body, dealing with peer pressure (probably greater than it has ever been thanks to social media), and questioning her identity and understanding of the world around her. She is asking, who she is, or, more accurately as Vardimon notes, “Being asked, ‘Who are you?’”
There is also a reflection on the subject of time. “There comes a point where there is no time left to be a child and that you have to move on. And then there’s the whole concept of death in the piece, and questions of rules and authority.”
Vardimon continues, “It’s all relevant because it’s a story about where I am as an artist, as a mum, for a teenager, about a woman. I think this subject of adolescence, your transformation as a woman, through menopause as well, are kind of taboos in our culture. And I think it’s time to speak about them and to speak openly.”
Watching her daughter grow up with her friends, she adds that it was important to her to empower them and to let them know that they can change things. “And I think her generation will have to make a lot of changes, take things into their own hands. Like Alice, they will encounter rules. But even though Alice is a foreigner in that place, she still has the power to make change and to have her voice heard.”
Film versions in particular of Alice in Wonderland range from super child-friendly to downright disturbing and scary, but while the book certainly has its dark side, Vardimon believes that the way she explores the subject matter will make the work accessible for all. “I think it could be for every age in a way. It will just meet you at a different level, engage you in different ways. But that’s the same for everything. We all engage in a different way.”
But will people recognise it as Alice? “I think they will,” she says smiling. “Although it’s not so much about… The characters are there, yes. There is a Red Queen, there is a Caterpillar, Alice of course. Well, interpretations of those characters,” she says enigmatically.
It certainly promises to be visually striking. Designed with her partner Guy Bar-Amotz, typically, the set is huge. At its heart is a massive book that towers above you as you stand in the studio. ‘Big’ barely does it justice. Not only does it revolve, but pages turn too. It’s also possible for characters to go between pages, Vardimon explains.
Although the musical accompaniment was still being finalised when we met, she promises her usual eclectic mix: a combination of classical and electronic music, and more.
And was her daughter’s take on ALiCE? “She thought it was very engaging for her age group. She can be very opinionated but she loved it, and she doesn’t love everything I create!”
Vardimon’s new production coincides with her company moving into its new home Ashford, the Kent market town where it has been based for over ten years now. The building, designed as a creative hub, is the heart of a multi-million pound development by Kent County Council in partnership with Ashford Borough Council and Arts Council England that aims to revitalise the creative life of the town.
It is very impressive. The two-storey building, on a just over 1,250 square metre site, includes space for the creation of the company’s touring productions and rehearsals, dedicated studios to accommodate JV2, other educational programmes (the company continues to build strong relationships with about 60 schools and colleges in Kent) and the soon to be relaunched programme of public classes. Local materials have been used wherever possible.
The main studio, which can be used as a studio theatre, is a huge 19m x 22m (making it slightly larger than the Sadler’s Wells stage), with 8 metres grid height, and a full lighting, sound and AV rig. That means technical rehearsals too can take place there. The studio will also be available to hire by external creative companies, while a new café and meeting rooms will be available for the local community to get together.
When it comes to the main studio, size was important. “My productions always have big scenery,” she says laughing. “Most of them are also kinetic; they have movement in them. I have this fascination with the dialogue and relationship our bodies have with objects and the environment too. I was never interested in creating in black boxes but in having a visual environment that you create a conversation with. To do that, you really have to have the set during the creation time.”
Prior to moving into their new home, the company was based at the Stour Centre in the town for ten years. When that closed during the pandemic and changed owner, they were offered two empty units by the town’s MacArthurGlen Designer Outlet, who she says were “amazing partners to work with.”
Being there and so visible also enabled people to hear about the company and get to know what they were about. While that was important anyway, it was even more given the new building was in the pipeline and wanted to engage even more with the community, she says.
A lot of what was done there was free, including Alice in VR Wonderland, a multi-sensory virtual reality experience using Oculus 2 headsets, which she describes as being “a bit of an adventure.” The company also visited other MacArthur Glen outlets taking art to the people. “It was an opportunity for children, for anyone who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre to step into our world. We want those who have never been to dance class, never been to a dance performance, to feel welcome, to come and join in.”
Sharing knowledge and experiences is a philosophy Vardimon is passionate about. She was adamant the new building should be an educating as well as a creating and performing space. “I wanted there to be cross-pollination. I think having the company and JV2 students side-by-side has a lot of opportunities for talent engagement and development as everyone feeds off each other.”
She is clearly very proud of what has been achieved by JV2, which was one of the first second or junior ensembles to be set up by a British dance company. “The gap between being a student and a professional dancer is huge. It’s so difficult to cope with. A lot of people finish their training and just drop out.” What JV2 offers is a sort of protective environment that prepares you for the industry, she says.
It also goes some way to filling what she believes is the clear need for training in dance theatre, or what she prefers to call “the dialogue between dance and theatre” that exists in the UK. “But rather than criticise what is out there, we offer an alternative; another way.”
She explains that JV2 and her training generally is very much about empowering people to be expressive and creative as they explore the intersection of dance and theatre. “Not just the body itself but what it produces in terms of voice and your emotional state of mind.”
It has been extremely successful. “We have had 120 graduates from JV2, and 87% of them are currently working in the industry; some of them in my company.”
The excitement about turning the cultural desert that was Ashford into fertile ground that Jasmin Vardimon says she felt when she first moved to the town clearly still exists. “I like to do that, to find ways to give things life. I believe that everyone has so much to offer. It’s about empowering them, allowing them to portray what they have inside them. Every one of us has so much in terms of our history, our culture, our understanding, our memories, experiences and knowledge. But it’s about acknowledging that and empowering the individual; understanding that we can do things, we can make changes.” Which in a way brings us neatly back to ALiCE.
ALiCE by Jasmin Vardimon Company premieres at the bOing Festival at The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury on August 27 & 28, 2022.
Further dates into next spring will be announced in due course.