Moments in relationships and something of ourselves: Pett|Clausen-Knight on IMAGO

Maggie Foyer talks to James Pett and Travis Clausen-Knight, whose IMAGO receives its UK premiere as a Ballet Nights Spotlight presentation on April 26 and 27.

James Pett and Travis Clausen-Knight are two of the most exciting names on the choreographic register but, as yet, not that well known in their home country. They met when they joined Wayne McGregor’s company in 2013. In 2019, they branched out to form their own company Pett|Clausen-Knight and in April, their full evening work, IMAGO, comes to London. It will be shown at Lanterns Studio Theatre, an exciting unconventional dance space, both expansive and intimate with the audience seated just metres from the dancers.

“With IMAGO, it’s a very particular universe that you step into. We want the audience to experience a sort of isolated island that they can really hone in on,” James says. “Our ideas come from an immediate realisation of something in ourselves, our personal experience. In IMAGO, it was about moments in relationships where we saw destructive behaviour, both in ourselves and in others. It’s very natural for humans to build relationships and also to create difficulties, escape problems and then put themselves into situations that enable further destruction. Everything that makes you human sort of sets you up for that.”

Pett|Clausen-Knight in IMAGO
Photo Alessandro Botticelli

Sean Pett, James’ brother, has written the music for IMAGO. He is a frequent collaborator and often serves as a third eye. “It can be very hard when we’re both in the work. Sometimes Sean may have a clear idea for the structure of a piece but sometimes we may start with a strong idea but we don’t necessarily know the music. The triangle is constantly shifting and that keeps it really interesting and fresh for us.”

Our conversation turned to creating movement: the intention, the origin and most of all the honesty. Travis commented, “We never do a movement without a real thought process to find meaning behind it.” James added, “We’re not always trying to create the loudest noise. Rather it’s about taking something very, very small that has variety and then stretching it out and putting it into the space. Sometimes we overlook the small things that create the large impact. We just take things from our life that we really want to express with honesty and authenticity.”

Pett|Clausen-Knight in IMAGO
Photo Alessandro Botticelli

Their attention to fine detail and finding motivation gives resonance to their works. Italian critic Sara Polotti describes IMAGO as ,“A tale in images that speaks, provokes and forces reflection.”

The muscle memory contained within the two dancers must be both extensive and multilingual. They’ve had the benefit of good dance training and experience of working with most of the top names in British contemporary dance. Was there a PCK technique, I asked. “It’s about emphasising a sensation within the body. A sort of internal language that goes on to create the fuller physical language but, strangely, we still haven’t figured out for ourselves if we have a specific language.”

Travis notes how their works have gravitated across Europe and further afield. “Our choreography fits well into a lot of those landscapes and there’s a real appreciation of different kinds of technique, and the variety of what ballet and contemporary can be as a wider umbrella, rather than just one or the other. We like to feel our work belongs to everyone.”

Pett|Clausen-Knight in ‘Mercy Duet’ from IMAGO
at the Ballet Icons Gala 2024
Photo Jack Devant

These are tough times for the arts and contemporary dance is rarely front of the queue when grants are handed out. Travis explains that they are presently applying for their first Arts Council funds, “But we’ve been told the success rate is low. However, we’ve been very much self-financed for the majority of what we’ve done with just a small pocket of outside funding. There are only two of us and we undertake a lot of it by ourselves, so the funding gets spread very evenly.”

More funding would help to grow the company. “That’s the really big ambition of the moment.” Touring abroad has enabled them to create on other companies. “Last year we did a work for the Bangkok City Ballet in Thailand. A cast of 22. That’s a dream. We are working towards having a company that is dedicated to creating something very personal and working with people we really know: the family concept of a company. And we love touring. Can you imagine: ‘Tonight, the Pett|Clausen-Knight company in China with its seven dancers!’ That would be absolutely wonderful!”

IMAGO by Pett|Clausen-Knight, which has its UK premiere at the Lanterns Studio Theatre, London on April 26 & 27, 2024
Photo Erminando Aliaj

Pett|Clausen-Knight tour extensively and are possibly better known outside the UK. But that is changing. The company was included at the recent Ballet Icons Gala where they presented the ‘Mercy Duet’ from IMAGO and shared the bill with ballet luminaries like Olga Smirnova and Vadim Muntagirov. They also have a tour planned to present IMAGO across the country. Travis is enthusiastic. “We are really excited to bring this work to the UK. It represents a monumental moment for us as creators. It represents our history and experience from many parts of our lives, and to bring that to the country where we’re based and formed ourselves as artists, that really means a lot to us.”

A Ballet Nights Spotlight presentation, IMAGO by Pett|Clausen-Knight is at the Lanterns Studio Theatre in London’s Docklands (a short walk from South Quay DLR station) on April 26 and 27, 2024. Click here for tickets and more details.

For more about Pett|Clausen-Knight and their work, visit