Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

M1 Singapore Fringe 2022: An Interview with Travis Clausen-Knight and James Pett on presenting toxicity and perspective in ‘IMAGO’

Some people call it the honeymoon phase – that point at the start of a relationship where nothing can possibly go wrong, your partner is perfect in every way, and all those little tics that would ordinarily annoy you? Nah, you can put those aside for now. But fast forward a few months, and it’s not long before things change. And perhaps worst of all, what if they’re completely different from how you thought they were at the start?

Choreographed and performed by British artists Travis Clausen-Knight and James Pett, IMAGO is set to stream online as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, as it explores the toxic nature of abusive relationships through dance. As difficult it can be to escape from such relationships, one must find the strength within one’s self to finally step aside from such toxicity, and help one’s self reclaim one’s narrative, when no one else can rescue you.

Co-choreographed works are never easy affairs, but both James and Travis share a long history of working together since their time at Studio Wayne McGregor. “We met in 2013, when I joined Studio Wayne McGregor – Travis had already been there a few months, and when the two of us started talking, we had a similar approach to our work and had a good connection,” says James.

Upon meeting, the two discovered their shared interest in exploring more creative work, developing an almost shared choreographic language working together on various projects.with Wayne McGregor. Starting with their debut collaboration on Splinter The Noise (2014) as part of Royal Ballet Draft Works, the two have only expanded their repertoire as the years went by, presenting work in Australia and Japan, and eventually, making the leap of faith to become associate artists with Fabula Collective in 2019. “Throughout our time with Wayne, we were always asked a lot of questions about what we do, and we sat and talked a lot about what we would explore, and after much discussion, we found a kind of dance philosophy,” explains Travis. “Eventually, we did want to create a full length dance work to put in a theatre, but to that point, had only crafted 5-20 minute duets and some solos.”

That all in leads up to IMAGO, from which inspiration first came from Travis. “I was going through a rough patch in a relationship, and it got me thinking to myself about relationships in general, like my divorced parents who got remarried, and other relationships where the two just don’t fit,” he says. “James has experienced something similar, and we thought about how a relationship breaks down, to go from something wonderful to something not, and this toxic nature. In a toxic relationship, there comes a point where you realise something is not quite right, and we thought about how to decipher this relationship and the ways it manifests.”

The title of IMAGO already came about early on in the process, where both James and Travis examined the dual meanings of the word and wove it into the production. In psychoanalysis, the word refers to an unconscious idealised mental image of someone which influences a person’s behaviour. On the other hand, its entomological meaning refers to the final and fully developed adult stage of an insect, such as a butterfly. IMAGO then examines what we do as individuals when faced with this changing image, from love to something altogether more twisted, as more dysfunctions within a relationship emerge.

IMAGO to me, is interesting because it’s about this idea of an idealised, perfect person, and you’re seeing something that’s not entirely true,” says Travis. “That image will eventually change and evolve. Meanwhile, the insect part of it, to me that was about seeing the state we’re in, and opening up, like a butterfly coming out to flutter away into the unknown. Relationships, in the same way, are a process, as we wonder about whether it’s going to part ways, or break out of the chrysalis to mature.”

As dancers, both Travis and James are hyperfocused on producing powerful imagery with their set and movements; the insect definition of IMAGO may not come out much, but instead, both dancers have opted for a more floral option instead. “When I was in Hong Kong, I visited a studio that a florist friend and his mother worked at, and learnt about the language of flowers. We learnt how to make bouquets, and I started to think about the idea of putting a bouquet in front of a person, and expressing myself, but because it’s a different language, they would not understand it,” says Travis.

“I also enjoy exploring the relationship we have with objects, and how we could do things like stabbing a flower into my face, or how if someone wants to say sorry with a bouquet of flowers, the object itself radiates a kind of tension because of the feelings associated with it,” he continues. “And throughout the performance, we wanted to extend the flower metaphor, and really come up with arrangements like a set to showcase different meanings, and different concepts about what’s happening in each section. I even imagined having a whole floor of flowers at some point! Eventually, we chose not to do it, because we felt it would constrain the choreography, and instead opted to remove most of these objects to leave an empty space with just some boxes and flowers.”

The same goes for the music, which was crafted especially for IMAGO. “My younger brother is a musician, who uses a lot of different sounds and instruments to make soundscapes, and he was the one who was working with us on crafting the music, to capture and heighten the atmosphere in each section,” says James.

Even when it comes to their costuming – formal suits with a single button unbuttoned, a hint of dishevelment amidst the beauty, each element on screen is intentional. “I do hope that the audience gets the images,” says James. “But more than that, to see a relationship being shaped by the boxes and flowers onstage, which change in position as the work progresses. There’s a lot of hidden messages behind them, and I like to think IMAGO captures the beauty of the surface, but opens the possibility up for interpreting all the depth that lies beneath. We did tried to make it as refined as possible during our edits, and when we finally sat down and watched it as one go, we were fascinated by how we could still be surprised, and was happy how clearly the message came out in each section.”

Perhaps the reason both choreographers work so well together is that they’ve developed a mutual understanding of each other’s process after years of collaborating; creative clashes during co-choreography are welcomed, rather than seen as avenues for conflict. “From working together with Wayne, we have some very automatic responses, but we do still have creative clashes when co-choreographing,” says Travis. “But that’s a good thing – we’re very different people, and have very different responses towards a work. If one of us has an idea, we work together to give it shape. There may be differing ideas yes, but I think we know each other so long, that we understand each other and try to express it before running off on our own thing. With a co-choreographer, you work with each other to remind each other about where you’re going with the work, and have someone to throw back ideas with. Sometimes you can say something totally random, and it starts a whole stream of ideas going.”

“What’s really special is that we’ve known each other for a long time, and there’s this element of trust we have where we want to break all these boundaries,” adds James. “There’s a constant ‘vibration’ when we work together that keeps us both challenged. Travis says that it’s like a yin and yang, where we create interesting dynamic movements. And after all, the process of co-choreography isn’t a straightforward half and half process, but a fluid and open one, where our methods and ideas come together, and we wrestle with the best way of presenting it.”

While both dancers won’t be physically present for any events, they have instead recorded an additional video to explain the abstract elements of the work for viewers who may be lost. One then wonders how much of the original work is lost in translation, going from live to film. “The difficulty of dance film is that dance by itself is very pure, and it’s hard to capture that same feeling of being in the theatre as when you’re watching it on a screen,” says Travis. “We have to decide what angles you’ll be seeing, or the distance from the performance, and when it comes to fixed cameras, it becomes very clinical.”

Recorded last year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the work still has yet to see a full live performance, and continues to evolve and change beyond what is depicted on the film, as both dancers continue to tweak it. “I don’t think the work is ever really finished,” admits Travis. “There are so many sections to it, and so many facets, and many versions we can present it as, perhaps a single section, or as an entire journey. And of course there’s the installation element as well, where you imagine the flowers changing, or decaying in future where there’s almost nothing left of it. When we performed it, it was done in a gallery with all these different rooms, and you could feel the tensions changing with each room and environment we moved to. Perhaps that’s the joy of physical art forms or even a play, where you watch audiences interact and watch this story unfold onstage. With a film performance, how do we still achieve what we want?”

Ultimately, both dancers are looking forward to seeing how audiences will receive the work, and hope that it sheds some light on the nature of toxicity and help others realise the power that lies in walking away. “I think with COVID, our relationships have become so different,” says Travis. “We could share more readily before COVID, and now, it’s so formal; people find it harder to say what’s affecting them on a scale, we can’t say we’re feeling ‘bad’ because everyone’s in a bad place, and we can’t really be as authentic as we used to be.”

“I think it’s at this point that people need art,” concludes James. “In a performance, you don’t know what you’re about to see, and it gives you an adrenaline rush in this moment where you’re about to learn something new about yourself. We always need something new like that in life, and I want IMAGO to give people some hope, and that somehow, it helps people hope and dream whatever their relationship is, and find an escape.”

Photo Credit: Erminando Alia

IMAGO streams online from 12th to 23rd January 2022 as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here

The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here

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