As Hans Abrahamsen’s The Snow Queen is about to open in Strasbourg, director James Bonas and video and animation designer Grégoire Pont describe how they work together, and the importance of both laughing and accepting the word ‘no’
How did you first meet?
Grégoire Pont: I was looking to stage L’enfant et les sortilèges and our managers at Maestro Arts suggested we meet. I went to see James rehearsing Tales of Hoffmann for English Touring Opera and as soon as we met, I knew we could become friends as well as colleagues. Our first partnership was with Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges for L’opéra National de Lyon in 2016, followed by L’heure espagnole and Orff’s Der Mond in 2020.
What is special about working together?
James Bonas: We have a similar sense of humour, which is childish and naughty, with a fundamental disrespect for authority, so we make each other laugh. We come from different places and yet have a similar way of seeing the world.
Grégoire is good at making the visual connection with music. For example, in one part of L’enfant he created abstract art deco forms that travel up from the orchestra. As a stage person, I’d have assumed we needed a dance, but those shapes worked with the music and the children were glued to them. My temptation was to put more in, but Grégoire’s minimal approach worked.
‘We have both learnt that the simplest gesture is often most effective because it takes on a metaphorical quality’
We have both learnt that the simplest gesture is often most effective because it takes on a metaphorical quality. From the beginning, we were both clear that animation shouldn’t be illustration. Illustration is good for books or cartoons, but not on stage. If you illustrate, an audience will think, ‘Okay, that’s what I’m being shown,’ whereas if you present them with something meaningful but not illustrative it has an emotional force.
GP: James has a good sense of theatre and is clever at finding ways for my animations to come alive rather than merely being a background. When the singers play with the screen the animations react and audiences feel that they are living beings. We agree that the body’s expressions are more important than words, which may be a new idea for opera singers! In the world we create, body language and the interaction with the animations should be enough to tell the story.
James understands psychology and it’s fascinating to see him work out the relationships between the characters and singers. Stage directors often have difficulty communicating with singers, but he knows how to make everyone feel confident. There is never any drama, ego or shouting. He’s demanding, but it’s like working with a friend.
He comes from a different world to mine, and his theatrical ideas are new to me. For example, in the final scene of L’heure espagnole there is a pause in the music and we had to find a way to break the animation. He proposed we shut off the projector and put on the stage lights, and when he suggested it, I almost cried – it was such a magical idea.
‘It’s exciting and challenging to work with someone who is demanding. I miss this if I work with someone who is too open’
I call James Dr No, because I will say, ‘Why don’t we do this,’ and he’ll say, ‘No, no, no!’ He is a perfectionist and has very precise ideas, but it’s exciting and challenging to work with someone who is demanding. I miss this if I work with someone who is too open to what I suggest – there is too much freedom. My animations look better because of his ideas and the coherence of his thoughts. It’s as if he’s setting up a beautiful jewellery box for my animations.
What is your working process together?
JB: Around ten months before the first rehearsal we go through the music, imagining everything we can, brainstorming. I sometimes make bad drawings for Grégoire, because by the time I’ve described what I mean, it’s quicker to have even a bad picture to point to. We make a story board and discuss what could happen in the video and draw up a plan.
At that point we work in the knowledge that everything could be wrong. You can’t be right because you haven’t started rehearsing. We come to rehearsals with a whole structure that is malleable, and there’s time to adapt it and absorb ideas from other people. It’s a process between all of us in the creative team.
‘You have to keep letting go of ideas. If you hold on to something only because it is yours, you’re lost’
You have to keep letting go of ideas. If you hold on to something only because it is yours, you’re lost. That can be especially hard for Grégoire because sometimes he spends hours drawing something only for me to say it doesn’t work. The process isn’t negative, though. It’s about seeing the potential. It’s not saying, ‘You’re rubbish,’ but, ‘If you push it you can get somewhere better.’
How has the partnership worked on The Snow Queen?
GP: We listened to the music together and exchanged thoughts. James’s ideas were more about the characters, while I see shapes, lines and colours when I listen to music. Our work becomes a combination of both. Along with the set and costume designer Thibault Vancraenenbroeck we did a lot of research about the world that is described in the libretto. We wanted to be faithful to the piece, rather than transposing it to another world, so there was a lot of discussion about that.
JB: We had a period in June when we worked with the singers with the video. Hans Abrahamsen has a distinctive style – it’s contemporary and both expansive and enormous at times, but also light and tiny. The orchestra is huge – not in volume but in its range of sounds. Our response is very different to that with the Ravel, which makes it very interesting. We don’t want to do the same thing each time. What works keeps shifting, otherwise you keep doing the same thing, which is no fun at all.
What are the benefits of artistic collaborations?
JB: Really good collaborations don’t just reinforce, they surprise. You learn from other people and working together is revelatory rather than confirmatory. You challenge each other instead of just saying nice things. This might feel bad, but you get over yourself, because if you trust each other, you quickly realise that the other person was right. Communication, trust and respect are vital.
‘A single artistic viewpoint is fine for a painter, but in theatre it’s important and valuable that everyone can contribute’
The idea that as director you’re meant to have all the answers is ridiculous and narrowing. A single artistic viewpoint is fine for a painter, but in theatre, which is fundamentally a collaborative act, it’s important and valuable that everyone can contribute.
There is the sense of pleasure and relief when someone else has a good idea. For a director, the pressure is on you to salvage everything, but when you collaborate, you’re all doing it together. The stage manager might have a brilliant idea, and you say, ‘Let’s do that.’
You have to start from the position that there will be some good ideas and some bad ones, and that that’s fine. When you have a bad idea there’s no shame. You just say, ‘Oh, hilarious, that was terrible and it’s fine.’ If you start defending your position, it’s doesn’t work.
‘You all offer your points of view and skill sets and the result is something that no one could produce alone’
Collaborations work best when the different partners offer something specific. You all offer your points of view and skill sets and the result is something that no one could produce alone – that is the alchemy.
It’s often interesting when someone else matches you, like with Chris Hampson with me and Sophie Laplane for Dive for Scottish Ballet, and Maestro Arts with Grégoire. It’s important to be open to these suggestions because other people may see something in you that you don’t see yourself, and they’re often right.
GP: I love working with different people. It’s fascinating to discover the combination of my universe and theirs. When I do my live drawing concerts, I’m on my own and there is no one to tell me to change things. It feels very comfortable, but you learn more when you collaborate with someone else. Sometimes they have to convince you, or what they say means you have to do more work, but in the end it’s more enriching.
Being a team is still new to me and a few months ago, I was panicking and told James, ‘There are so many things to create, and I can’t make them on time!’ I was really stressed, but James said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re all in the same boat. We’ll find a way to work it out with the team.’ It was such a relief!
The Snow Queen opens at Opéra national du Rhin in Strasbourg on 15 September.
Find out about staging L’Enfant et les Sortilèges/L’Heure Espagnole and browse our other projects.