Ballet Landscapes: An Interview with Alice Pennefather and Charles Haswell

Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball in The Sun is God

For those who have followed the work of dance photographer Alice Pennefather for a while, her interest in filming dance will come as no surprise. With her skill in composition and experience in underwater filming, incorporating movement and narrative seems like a natural progression in Alice’s relationship with ballet. 

Since launching her own independent film company and doing the festival rounds this year with initial feature Dreams of Giverny, Alice and producer Charles Haswell have collaborated on a new original story, The Sun is God, which was screened at BAFTA in London last week. Just before the premiere of this evocative new ballet film, featuring sequences choreographed by Valentino Zucchetti and interpreted by Royal Ballet dancers Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alice and Charles to talk about their projects:

TBB: How did Pennefather Films start out?

Alice Pennefather, director: The first short film that we made in 2016 was Dreams of Giverny. It stars Royal Ballet principal Sarah Lamb and Annabel Pickering, who was at the time a student at White Lodge (Royal Ballet School). The film is a short story that Charles and I came up with, about a young woman, played by Sarah, who is visiting the gardens of Claude Monet in Giverny, France. She slips into a daydream where she sees a ghostly young girl in the gardens, this is Sisi Salerou, the granddaughter of Monet. The young woman is then taken through the gardens and there are a few moments of dance, so it is really an exploration of the place. Claude Monet also appears, but he doesn’t dance! We had permission to film on location in Giverny, so we went up there and spent three days filming. It was a very beautiful experience and I was very grateful that Sarah was available, that she wanted to be involved, and that she trusted us, because it was our first film.

Sarah Lamb in Dreams of Giverny

Sarah Lamb in Dreams of Giverny. Photo: © Alice Pennefather

TBB: Where did the concept for Giverny come from?

Charles Haswell, producer: The journey started when I went with the Royal Ballet on their tour of Copenhagen in 2014. On our last night, I was seated next to Sarah Lamb and we were talking about art. I asked who her favourite artist was, and she said that it was Monet. That had a special resonance with me because he is also my favourite artist and I had been to visit his house on a number of occasions. About 14 months later, I bumped into her again at a private viewing in London. I approached her about collaborating on a film project. Would she be interested in the idea? And she replied ‘If you get a storyline that is appropriate, please approach me’ I thought ‘Well, Sarah Lamb and Claude Monet, that’d be perfect!’ The chances of being able to film in Giverny were very slight, but I contacted a friend and asked her if she could write to the Fondation Claude Monet, and within 24 hours, she came back: they had said yes, pending storyline approval. So I went back with a little story that I had in my head. And then Alice and I discussed it, we thought we needed to make a proper presentation to Sarah, so Alice produced a great treatment which we presented to her, and she formally said yes. Alice and I then went on our first of three trips to Giverny. Four months later, we were in the garden filming.

AP: One of the nice things was being able to film in the garden without the tourists. We were only allowed access before and after they were open to the public. We had from 7:00 to 9:30 AM and then from 6:00 in the evening until dusk. This gave us 12 hours (over two days) in total of filming time.

Alice Pennefather filming

Alice Pennefather filming. Photo: © Pennefather Films

TBB: Alice, as a photographer you have a very distinctive style, given your interest in dance and underwater photos. How do you translate that to your films?

AP: I have been photographing dance for a very long time now because, as you know, my brother was a dancer. So, a lot of my education in photography involved dance and I think photographing it over the years has given me an eye for good angles and what works on film, but moving into film is definitely a leap forward for me, because stills are very specific moments you are trying to capture. In a film, sometimes it is not just about that particular moment, but the whole motion, the movement of it.

Something might not work as a still, but could work in a film. In that sense, working with Valentino Zucchetti, the choreographer for both Dreams of Giverny and for our new release, The Sun is God, has been great because he has really helped in showing me different angles and positions that work on film. My brother Rupert also helped, teaching me how different positions work on film.

TBB: How did you move from Dreams of Giverny to The Sun is God?

CH: In Giverny, we wanted to take one of the greatest ballerinas and dance actresses in the world, Sarah Lamb, to one of the greatest gardens in the world, a garden created by one of the greatest artists who have ever lived. So where to go from there? The natural progression was to choose one of the greatest English artists, J.M.W. Turner. My goddaughter’s family members are actually the closest descendants of Turner, and therefore I have followed the painter’s trajectory for many years. It was an obvious choice. But then the question became ‘Where do we film?’ The house where he lived in Twickenham is tiny, so you couldn’t make a film there. He also spent some time in Margate, but other than the sea, the scenery has completely changed in the last 150 years. Which led us to Petworth House, which is exactly how it was when Turner was there himself, so it was very special to film there.

Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball in The Sun is God

Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball in The Sun is God. Photo: © Julie Dene / Pennefather Films

AP: We have this overarching theme of somewhere that inspired an artist’s work. But here the story is not actually about Turner, who is just a backdrop to The Sun is God. The story is set at the end of the The Great War and involves a young woman (Francesca Hayward) who imagines her love (Matthew Ball) who left to fight in the war and never returned. It is about the memories of their time together at Petworth House. The house and Turner’s work are just a backdrop to the story, and a lot of it was shot on location, next to the lake where Turner painted. It seems he spent a lot of time painting at Petworth House and that the 3rd Earl of Egremont was one of Turner’s patrons and commissioned many works that now reside at the House.

The lake is the subject of one of the paintings, and there is a moment in the film where Francesca is drawn to this painting, triggering memories that are laid out as vignettes. One of the reasons we decided to make this story is the upcoming 100th anniversary of the end of The First World War next year. It felt like a good time to make a film about remembrance. For me, remembrance is not just about remembering the people that we lost in that war, but also trying to empathise with the women and families who were left behind with the massive heartache and gap in their lives. In the movie Testament of Youth (I watched the film, but I am yet to read the novel), there are moments in which Vera reminisces about the times she spent with her brother and friends, and suddenly there is emptiness, and to me that was very poignant. It was one of the things I wanted to recreate in my film.

Matthew Ball in The Sun is God.

Matthew Ball in The Sun is God. Photo: © Julie Dene / Pennefather Films

TBB: How did you build in the choreography and soundtrack?

AP: Once we had a concept, mood board and storyboard, I could send it to Valentino so he would work on the choreography to fit in that location and story. For example, there was a particular piece of music that we wanted to use in The Sun is God, which is the slow movement of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. I had already visited the location, so I had a clear idea of where I wanted to film and once I started listening to the music, the story came flowing. It was interesting because Valentino immediately understood the style of the choreography that I wanted him to create from the storyboard and notes, just by saying that a part of the music maps to a solo, or this part needs to build on the momentum of the story, or this is the part where they say goodbye. He was very good at interpreting my various scribbles of ideas!

For the music, we had to ask for permission from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra because it was a recording they had made and they agreed that we could use it. The story was dictated by the music, but it is extraordinary now that we look at the film, it is almost like the music has been written for the film, the way that the story and choreography fall into place.

TBB: And how did Francesca and Matthew get involved?

AP: Frankie came along to the screening of Giverny and I obviously had noticed her and Matthew on stage at the Opera House, They are both beautiful, incredible dancers and then their names came up when we were discussing casting with Valentino. It is always difficult when it comes to a dancer’s schedule: you hope they will be available and interested. But we caught them at the end of a summer holiday and both were available! And then of course, it is not just fitting in the shooting days, but also the rehearsals. At the time, The Royal Ballet was away on tour in Australia, so they were working on it while on tour. Valentino would film parts of the choreography and then I would check if they would fit on the right parts of the story and gave him my notes, and he would work on that. I am not sure how many rehearsals they had in total, but I know they finished it when they were back in London.

 

Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball in The Sun is God.

Francesca Hayward and Matthew Ball in The Sun is God. Photo: © Alice Pennefather

TBB: When you created Dreams of Giverny, did you have any expectations as to what would come from it? What is next for Pennefather Films?

AP: I think both Charles and I knew we would enter into festivals and hoped we’d get accepted into a least one. But also knowing that Sarah is such a recognised dancer and that we had filmed in Giverny, we felt we had enough elements to hopefully generate interest to screen it at festivals. So far we have been accepted into four film festivals, which we are delighted with. I would have been happy with one acceptance so four is amazing! We are still waiting to hear about another few, so hopefully we’ll get more screenings for the film.

Looking back at the way I shot The Sun is God, I used a completely different way of filming and I was able to be a bit more fluid in my camera movements. But with the way my style is developing, I am trying to understand the choreography more and how the camera movements can accentuate the choreography. So it almost feels like it is becoming a double choreography, and it adds an interesting dynamic to a dance film and I am continuously learning and feel that I can take this forward with my next film. While we still don’t have definite plans for the third project, it would be nice to make something that ties in with the previous features.

TBB: So a trilogy or quad bill?

AP: I hope we can have a trilogy inspired by painters. That’s the plan!


For more information about Pennefather Films, and for news on screenings of Dreams of Giverny and The Sun is God, visit pennefatherfilms.com or follow @pennefatherfilms on IG.

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.

1 Comment

  • November 20, 2017

    Marcia Howard

    Nice one Alice, and a fascinating insight…

Leave a Reply