INTERVIEW: Theatre Designer Tom Piper talks BAYADERE – THE NINTH LIFE

Tom Piper at the BLOOD-SWEPT LANDS AND SEAS OF RED poppy installation for Tower of London. Photo: Ian Ritchie

Tom Piper at the BLOOD-SWEPT LANDS AND SEAS OF RED Tower of London installation. Photo: Ian Ritchie

Frankly My Dear UK chats with award-winning theatre designer Tom Piper about his bold new stage design for BAYADERE – THE NINTH LIFE

Theatre designer Tom Piper has certainly had a varied career. Best known for his co-creation of the BLOOD-SWEPT LANDS AND SEAS OF RED poppy installation for the Tower of London, the award-winning theatre designer originally trained to be a biologist before falling into the world of theatre. Since the mid-1980s, he has worked on more than 150 productions and art installations, including the acclaimed British Museum Exhibition SHAKESPEARE; STAGING THE WORLD with Alan Farlie and the RSC’s THE HISTORIES for which he won an Olivier award. 

Piper’s latest project sees the award-winning theatre designer collaborate with ground-breaking dance-maker Shobana Jeyasingh on a radical reworking of the world-famous ballet LA BAYADÈRE by French choreographer Marius Petipa.

BAYADERE – THE NINTH LIFE explores the roots and the allure of the Bayadère temple dancer. The 60 minute contemporary dance piece looks at the excesses of the 19th century classic and the European fantasy of Indian culture over the centuries.

“It’s a piece of contemporary dance, that I think compared to a lot of dance pieces, has quite a strong narrative element to it” explains Piper in an exclusive interview with Donna Kelly of Frankly My Dear UK.

“First of all you get a kind of introduction into the basic storyline of what the original ballet is and then one of the men is kind of taken over by this chorus of dancers and he is transformed into a temple dancer”.

“It’s a real challenge as a designer because it’s a dance piece which is Shobana’s response to the Bayadère ballet. There is an element in it which parodies some of the conventions and the exoticism of the ballet so it’s quite a challenge to design something that it being ironic”.

“It’s intriguing, very beautiful but disturbing too. I find it very interesting for someone who has not really worked in dance before. I’ve enjoyed the process of discovering what it’s all about.”

BAYADERE – THE NINTH LIFE opens with Jas, a young British Asian male, stood at a train station messaging his friend about a ballet that his girlfriend has dragged him to see… LA BAYADÈRE. Disassociated from Petipa’s view of Indian culture, Jas is transported to 19th century Paris in his imagination, fusing steps from Petipa with Jeyasingh’s own contemporary dance sensibility.

“In the first act, two men have a WhatsApp conversation with each other. One has been to the ballet and the other one is actually in India” explains Piper.

“The dancers to do little tiny segments of various moments in the ballet that they repeat. We’ve actually filmed them and turned them into gif-like little loops which are projected. Because we couldn’t afford to have the dancers in full costumes from the actual ballet, what I’ve done is try to find individual costume items. There is a headdress for the princess and a pair of harem pants for the temple dancers. Simple gestures which say what the character is without a direct quote from the ballet.” 

Shobana Jeyasingh's BAYADERE – THE NINTH LIFE ROH 2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

Shobana Jeyasingh’s BAYADERE – THE NINTH LIFE at ROH 2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

In this new work, Piper and Jeyasingh have undercut the stereotypical exoticism of Victorian vision of the Bayadère. The poetic heart of the work lies in the section based on descriptions by celebrated French writer Théophile Gautier, who recorded his ambiguous impressions of Indian temple dancers in 1838 in his diary.

“There are some diary writings that Shobana has found which describe the dancers to our eyes now in incredibly racist language” comments Piper.

“They are both attracted to and repulsed by their [the dancers] exotic nature so a lot of that is actually used in the score and is read out as you’re watching the piece”

Piper has also created a series of shifting structures – museum-like vitrines and cages – to frame the nine exceptional dancers.

“What I try and do in all my design work, even in spoken word theatre, is to try and create environments where the actors or the dancers can play it with themselves” explains Piper.

“There are a collection of frames that begin with a western feel but then end up as almost cartoonish copies of mogul arches within them. You can frame dancers within those frames and these are on wheels so they can move around within the space.”

“Above the frames is a twisted copper tangle of tubes which I created in the model very much as an abstraction of the chaotic energy of India. You’ve got these formal frames below and then above them, you’ve got these twisted, almost three dimensional scribbles with holes and LED lights so it almost feels like a star scape as you can see the light through the smoke.” 

“In the third act, we bring two of them down onto the ground so they become these sculptural pieces which the dancers dance around and you see them through them. It becomes a new landscape for the final act which is her [Shobana Jeyasingh] response to the dance of the Shades really.”

The original LA BAYADÈRE features one of ballet’s most celebrated scenes known as the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’. The dream-like sequence involves the entire corps-de-ballet dancing across the stage in perfect unison, reflecting Solor’s opium-fuelled hallucination. In BAYADERE – THE NINTH LIFE, the protagonist Jas is transported through history into Jeyasingh’s very own version of the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’.

 “The final section is an abstract, beautiful piece of dance where the chorus explore the movements and themes that have been running through the previous section” explains Piper.

“There is this section in the Baydere ballet which is kind of an opium fuelled dream sequence where about 40 ballerinas in tutus all turn up and dance in straight lines and this is Shobana’s response to that, a kind of modern day version of the Shades.”

The world premiere of BAYADERE – THE NINTH LIFE runs at The Lowry from 28-29 September 2017.