Prolific choreographer and ballet dancer, Veronica Paeper has created more than 40 ballets, among them sixteen full-length works. During her performing career Veronica rose to become a principal dancer with three South African companies; CAPAB Ballet, PACT Ballet and PACOFS Ballet. Her latest production, Carmen, is a restaging of her award-winning choreography and makes its way to Joburg Ballet for a limited engagement.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
At the age of five, I had flat feet. You don’t really have to worry about flat feet but my mother took me to the doctor and the doctor said, “Why don’t you take her to ballet lessons?” My mother bought those little pink satin shoes and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and somehow, over the years, have morphed from a dancer to choreographer and here I am.
I read that you did your training at UCT. What was your time like there?
I loved it. I thought school was such a waste of time, you know? I wanted to get on with what I really wanted to do. I was one of those people who couldn’t get enough of what I wanted to do and I was a real pain in the ass as far as that was concerned but eventually it paid off.
At what point did you make the shift from dancing into choreographing?
I was married to a very wonderful choreographer, Frank Staff and he went and died on me. I was then up north and David Poole was running this company then and he said, “Well, come back.” Long ago, there was something called Teach. It was a charity for kids who couldn’t afford pencils and books for schooling. This friend of mine, John Simon, suggested we put on a concert and raise money for this very good charity. I kept talking about this music that Frank used to talk about called Schelomo. It’s the most beautiful tone poem by Ernest Bloch. It’s absolutely wonderful music and I kept saying, “One day I’m going to write a ballet to this.” Frank had talked about it and said this is what [he] would do. The premise of the ballet was it would start with John the Baptist’s head on a plate. They say that your mind keeps going after you’ve had your head chopped off. In those few moments that he had his head chopped off, thoughts go through your mind and these were the thoughts that went through John The Baptist’s mind just before he disappeared from life, as it were. On the premise of that, David Poole who was the director of the company, suggested I write another ballet. From there the choreographic career developed. On the other hand, I feel I went to choreography school living with Frank and watching him work [and] watching David Poole work, who was my mentor and my monster boss but it was good for me and I feel that they contributed so much to what I did. I also feel that I became a choreographer by accident and I was petrified of it but I loved it at the same time. That’s how I developed.
I very rarely get to sit down and chat with someone who does what you do. I was wondering if you could chat about your process? Where do you begin when choreographing a piece?
There are many different ways to start. Either a piece of music will make you go, “Wow, I’ve got to choreograph to that.” Or, in my case, I had David Poole and he used to say, “We need another funny three act ballet. This is the music. Go and start.” The first three act ballet that I wrote was loosely based on what Frank did with Romeo and Juliet because the music is there, the story is there. Ninette de Valois, [who] formed the Royal Ballet Company, once said to me, “I don’t count Romeo and Juliet for any choreographer. The music is there, the story is there. You can’t miss.” It’s true. I’ve seen dreadful productions of Romeo and Juliet but it still works because the music is so wonderful, the story is incredible. What more do you ask for? From there I started doing further ballets and I used to do which a lot when we were fortune to have a lot of money, an orchestra, an in-house designer [and] an in-house company… I was so fortune in the good old/bad old days of CAPAB Ballet Company.
You worked with CAPAB and PACT and all those wonderful organisations. What were the advantages of those companies as a resource for people who were beginning their careers?
It was fantastic. The only unfortunate part, of course, was the colour faction, which David Poole didn’t take any notice of whatsoever. We had people of colour in our company before they were allowed to watch ballets in the Nico Malan. To work with [David] was very difficult. He shouted and screamed, which people wont tolerate anymore. People just pick up their bag and walk out. “Yes, David. No, David. Three bags full…” That was good for us. It was good for me. Choreographing under him, I was never allowed to get away with any extraneous section of the ballet. I had this wonderful designer, Peter Cazalet, who is actually helping me with Carmen up north. He would also criticise my ballets and he would go, “Oh Veronica.” I would get all sorts of angles and I didn’t like it sometimes when David would say, “Cut that! Change that!” But it works. You had to have that kind of mentorship in order to make it better. You’ve got to be able to take criticism and boy did I get criticised. The first full-length ballet that I did all on my own was Cinderella. It got slated. You have no idea. Every single critic said how awful it was, however, the company didn’t stop doing it for 20 years. Alright, I changed a little bit here and there and that taught me a lesson… never read reviews. I do now, because I realise it’s one person’s point of view.
Your first encounter working on Carmen was in…
1987. But when I used to write three-act ballets, it was always three years in advance.
I read that you said you lived with the characters for two to three years.
Every character I create, a) I want to dance that part myself like you cannot believe and b) I need to get to know that character inside out. I went back to the novel. Prosper Mérimée wrote a book and they based his opera on the book. The opera and the book are quite different in many respects. I went to the source to try to get to the bottom of the story and see from whence it comes. I love Carmen. I think she’s great.
Is this production utilizing your original choreography from 1987?
Yes, but over the years I’ve change it and hopefully made it better. I’ve improved it. When I think a bit doesn’t work, then I change it to make it fit. I love in rehearsals, for instance the final pas de deux, I love watching the dancer’s reaction to doing it. If the dancer’s reaction isn’t how I want them to react, then I know I’ve done it wrong. So I’ll go back and fiddle with it until I get the reactions from whoever is in the rehearsal room watching and then it’s amplified in the theatre because you’ve got the set and the costume, the lights and everything. That is what I am always trying to make it better. I think you can never stop making things better. Sometimes.
What are you most looking forward to in regards to this production?
I think, dare I say it, I’m putting my head on a block, I think it’s going to be one of the better productions I’ve done. I’ve done it quite a lot. First in ’87 and then I did it here [in Cape Town] about three times before. It’s a good seller and it works, storywise, the audience loved it or they seemed to like it and the music is divine and everyone sort of knows the storyline and I suppose they can relate to it, being a wild lady and doing what she wants. I love that.
How do you find the ballet world to be in regards to female choreographers? Is it mostly male dominated or do you find it to be quite balanced?
No. I’ll tell you why, a lot of the time females don’t go into that field. As far as choreography goes, I’m a male chauvinist pig. I think men choreograph better but as somebody said to me, “That’s not true.” Some women do choreograph better. There’s a choreographer that I’m absolutely in awe of, John Neumeier. He has a company in Germany. I can’t speak to him. I think he is a superb choreographer. He is an absolute god in my opinion. So was Frank, for me. But it’s not true, women can choreograph. There’s Pina Bausch who is a very good contemporary choreographer. As I’ve said, I fell into it by accident and I’m still doing it.
I’m going to ask you to back that statement up. Why do you feel like men choreograph better?
A big section of choreographing a classical ballet is the pas de deux work and usually, the male choreographer can do all the funny things. If I’ve got a very good dancer that is a good partner, then I can create a really good pas de deux but if I don’t have that, then I can’t and I know that. Choreography is a collaborative throwback. If I’ve got dancers that respond to what I’m giving them, that’s fantastic. It’s a wonderful creative process to write a ballet around dancers when they are reciprocating. You throw out the ideas and their movement throws them back at you. I absolutely love it. I come alive in the rehearsal room, everywhere else I’m a little bit dead.
Looking back on your career, what is something you feel most proud of?
That I’ve lasted so long. There is quite a bit that I’m proud of. It’s such an ephemeral art form. It’s not like film where you can press a button and you can see it again. You can’t do that with ballet. It’s quite personal for me.
In today’s economy, where people need to be a bit more selective over the tickets they purchase, what would you say to someone who is thinking of coming to see a ballet who has maybe not seen one before?
Start with Carmen and you might get hooked. There are people who get really hooked on ballet. Once they’ve seen one and they’ve been caught, they go and see another one. It’s almost like a drug.
It’ll be their gateway drug.
Let’s hope it is. I certainly enjoyed creating it and I enjoy reproducing it every time. I was just telling Esther [Nassar] and Iain [MacDonald] that this has been particularly rewarding because they have a brilliant cast. Every single one of them is going to be good and I’ve never been able to say that about a production before.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Irma Stern. I love art. I can relate to some modern artists and she is one of them.
All black and white photos were taken by Chanel Katz on March 7th 2018.