Female and male student with a microphone dressed as clowns performing didy veldman's toot

Behind the choreography: Didy Veldman’s TooT

In 2008, Didy Veldman choreographed a contemporary piece for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, featuring a cast of 20 clownlike dancers. Sixteen years later, after re-staging for Introdans and Ballet Leipzig, students of The Royal Ballet School will perform the theatrical work for our 2024 Summer Performance season.

We sat down with Didy to uncover TooT’s intriguing layers and her insights into working with our White Lodge students.

You mention TooT was first inspired by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No. 2. Can you tell us about the background and inspirations for the piece?

I always liked the music and wanted to use this score for a choreographic work, but I was never sure how. So, I interlaced it with music from Alexander Balanescu, a composer I have admired for several years. I was lucky enough to work with him on a project with my own dance company, Humanoove, where he toured with us and played live during all of our 25 performances.

What I liked and admired about Shostakovich was that he was able to have a clear identity with his music. There was a kind of irony and an element of fun in his sound, not always, but definitely in his jazz suite. Politically, he was struggling because his work was denounced in Russia. He had to find ways to be accepted in the system, and I thought that was interesting and inspiring that he still managed to find individuality.

I started questioning identity, individuality and society. Is society made for us? Who is serving who in society? And what does it mean to be an individual in a group? Can you go against the leader? Well, that’s very clear in TooT. The balloons really stand for hope. Is there any hope in life or love? Or how do you find hope? And is that something to hold on to? And does that carry you further?

Two dancers dressed as clowns with red balloons
Students performing TooT as part of The Royal Ballet School’s 2018 Summer Performances
What can audiences expect from TooT?

I’m not a big fan of a storyline, but I find it important that people understand what is being presented so that they can create their own stories.

It’s fun and light-hearted. At the same time, I hope there is an undertone and that audiences can question how they stand and reflect on society today, our political climate in Europe, and maybe the political climate in different countries.

Alongside your clever choreography, the cast of 20 white-faced dancers are dressed in costumes designed by Miriam Beuther. What inspired the costuming?

We wanted to explore how we could talk about certain aspects of society that were maybe a little bit sensitive. We then got to the point of the clown or the joker. Referring back to history, the clown or the joker was always the one who could tell the truth to the King without getting beheaded, generally. He became the character who could talk about delicate topics, so we decided to make everybody a clown.

The costumes are all clownesque, made specifically for the piece, and it’s nice because they are originals from the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. The details are phenomenal; all the little elements are quite subtle but specific.

Cast of dancers dressed in white clown costumes on stage being commanded by a male clown dancer with a microphone
Students performing TooT as part of The Royal Ballet School’s 2018 Summer Performances
TooT utilises playful humour to explore topics of identity, conformity, anarchy and hope. What do you hope audiences will take away from the piece?

What is important is the political element. What does it mean if a leader tells you what to do and you start to revolt? Why do we do that, and why don’t we understand the power of the group and the community instead of always listening to one person telling us what to do?

I use that as a tool—the lightness and the music- but at the same time, I hope there is also an element that has another layer and goes deeper, and people can think about that. That’s the same with the balloons; yes, it’s a boy and a girl dancing together, and if you want to look at it as just a love duet, you can look at it like that. But you could also look at the girl representing hope. And what does that do, that hope? What kind of feeling does that generate? And is that something in society that we still have nowadays?

What’s it like working with our White Lodge and Upper School students on TooT?

What is lovely is that I know them quite well, so there is already that base of trust that when you come in, and you say, ‘Who wants to sing, or who wants to talk and be the leader?’ There’s a sense of generosity in the way that we work together.

The relationship we have working on this piece is quite grown-up, which is nice. I haven’t adapted anything; it’s very playful in this section and therefore very suitable for this age group.

There’s also a big element of theatricality and showing their personality. We have moments where we’re in the studio, and I can just say to them, ‘You’ve got one minute, and you can do whatever you like on stage. What is that? What are you going to do?’ And then you get a huge variety of people that want to jump, turn or do technical things that they’ve never been allowed yet to do. And you get others wanting to talk to people or pretend they’re swimming! It’s not a free-for-all, but there’s a lot of input from them.

Dancers dressed as clowns performing didy veldman's toot
Students performing TooT as part of The Royal Ballet School’s 2018 Summer Performances
How important is it for students to work on pieces like this?

Versatility for a dancer is much more important now than it was ten years ago. The difficulty is that they’re trained in a very classical manner, so how do you pull them out of their comfort zone? What do you offer them?

My challenge as Contemporary Programme Manager is always to find ways to challenge them and push them outside of their boundaries with different teachers and techniques so that they can pack that in their suitcases and carry it with them when they become professionals.

Purchase your Summer Performance tickets to see TooT on stage at Opera Holland Park and the Royal Opera House.