With freedom comes great responsibility
Jasmin Vardimon is one of the dance world’s brightest lights, a “bold and fearless” choreographer whose work robustly dissects tricky topics such as sickness, justice and the Holocaust.
Born on a kibbutz in Israel, she did two years of compulsory military service, started Open University studies in anthropology and psychology then dropped out to pursue her passion for dance. In 1997 she formed her own company.
I’d expected a certain toughness to her but it’s a girlish voice that answers the phone, her English charmingly accented. She apologises for missing my call earlier – it’s half-term and she’s taken a break from her current tour to head home to London and spend time with her seven-year-old daughter Mayam.
Motherhood is proving something of a balancing act for the fiercely driven artist and she no longer dances as much as she did.
“I miss it a lot,” she admits. “But after I became a mum I realised I couldn’t be the artistic director of my company and a dancer and the sort of mum I wanted to be – I’d have to let go of one of the things.
“To be a good dancer – or anything else for that matter – you have to devote yourself to it.”
She’s clearly besotted with Mayam, a name she and her husband Guy Bar-Amotz (associate director of the Jasmin Vardimon Company) made up.
“It’s a palindrome both in English and Hebrew and it means sea water. Sea water comes and goes and a palindrome works both ways too.”
Her daughter has added an extra dimension to her work she says.
“I’m very inspired by her. Children have this amazing capacity to be fresh and innovative and it’s amazing to observe and learn from.”
By way of example, she explains how a segment of the company’s current show Freedom was copied from a video of Mayam dancing in their sitting room at home.
“I haven’t sent her to study dance – yet! – because I really enjoy seeing how she moves with no restriction. If you send kids to learn techniques too early it almost kills their creativity and openness towards movement.”
The uninhibited movements of a child are one of the many interpretations of the show’s title.
“I wanted to explore the concept of freedom and what it means to be free. We face many ties and restrictions in the conventions of religion, civilisation, respect, politeness, responsibility – whenever you try, you cannot really let go.
“Even on a physical level, gravity keeps us in place. We found that freedom came to be defined by what it is not.”
Her last piece 7734 addressed the legacy of the Holocaust and man’s boundless capacity both to inflict and withstand brutality.
“I do have an inclination to look at the dark side in my work. I think theatre and cinema and literature are the best places to explore the disturbing things in life because you’re in a safe place and can allow yourself to go to these places.
“But I find from every darkness there is a beauty and positivity that grew out of it.”
Freedom examines the flipside of oppression, what we must do to be free.
“There was an interesting sentence I remember for many years and happened to speak to my daughter about recently. At school in Israel, my teacher would write on the board ‘freedom = responsibility’ and it’s only with time I came to understand it and have learnt to believe it.
“Growing up in kibbutz we were away from parents and adults and on our own for most of the day. We had to take responsibility for our actions, had to get ourselves ready for school, get there ourselves. Freedom meant responsibility for our days.”
Vardimon believes the kibbutz strongly shaped the person she has become. Her husband also grew up on one and she says, “Your experience of life is very different to others. We talk about it a lot. Community living involves a lot of freedom but you have to become individual and learn to be responsible to yourself and others.
“As a child I was very independent from a young age. I liked to do things my way and explore and experience things myself.”
Did she feel driven to be successful? “I felt – I feel – driven to be honest,” she says. “It’s more important for me to be honest than popular and that’s the motto I have in my head whenever I’m making work.
“It’s not that I actively don’t want to be popular but I want to share what’s on my mind more. I am very organised and I have a fantastic team that works with me – I think they are responsible for the success we’ve had.
“Team work is crucial and that’s something I learnt on the kibbutz as well – you all contribute skills for the group success.”
She admits dance was an obsession however, enough to make her give up her studies.
“I still regret that. I’m thinking of going back to university actually, it’s been on my mind a lot. But it’s just how life became. I came to be much busier than I thought I’d be while studying and I slowly started missing lectures. I was in the Open University so it was quite easy!”
She formed her own company in an attempt to create meaning in her work. “I danced in other companies for seven or eight years and it got to the stage where I just kept asking the choreographer why I was doing something, what it meant, so that I didn’t just feel I was a body performing on stage.
“I realised if I wanted that experience, I’d have to create it for myself. I felt I had a lot of things to say and slowly it evolved into a company.”
Vardimon is not one to do anything thoughtlessly. Every element of her work is chosen to convey meaning. The music alone can take months of agonising.
“I don’t use music until the very end because it’s so strong and influential I know how it can affect us. I use it more as it’s used in film to enhance an atmosphere or heighten a feeling.”
No wonder then that it infuriates her when reviewers focus only on the physical movement of the performers. Didn’t she once claim dance critics were the greatest threat to the arts today?
“Aaaah!” she groans. “Everyone remembers this! I try not to read the reviews now because there are Phds written about my work and more intellectual writing and I’m very interested to read that. I’m sure dance critics can do that too but with the space they have in the paper it tends to be a description of the piece and whether they liked it or not.
“As an artist, you invest so much in reference, meaning and layers of information – every little detail is carefully thought out. How can someone just describe it as a visual thing?”