The Greek myth of Cassandra tells of a woman given the gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, then, when she rejects his advances, she is cursed with having no one believe her, sending her mad. Nowadays, people diagnosed with psychological problems are sometimes said to be suffering the Cassandra Syndrome. It is this powerful meeting of ancient and modern that has inspired former Royal Ballet (RB) dancer and upcoming choreographer Ludovic Ondiviela’s first full-length work, Cassandra, premiering in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio.
“I wanted to consider what is madness; where is the line drawn between what is considered mad and what is considered normal behaviour in today’s society?” explains French-born Ondiviela, whose previous short work Feathers in Your Head for the RB’s Draft Works 2011 programme was inspired by his grandfather suffering Alzheimer’s disease. “I believe that line is really blurred: I think we all have certain behaviours that could be considered mad by other people if they can’t relate to them.”
Cassandra has been an ongoing project for the past two years, for which Ondiviela has collaborated with singer-songwriter Ana Silvera. Ondiviela first saw her perform at Dalston’s Vortez jazz club; subsequent meetings revealed they shared an interest in exploring how art can approach the topic of mental illness (Silvera’s late brother was diagnosed with psychosis).
The piece is constructed as the story of a modern-day girl trying to cope with mental illness. Silvera sings live: “In my mind,” says Ondiviela, “she’s the voice our modern-day Cassandra is hearing in her head, but she’s also ancient Cassandra singing about her experiences.”
Exploring madness and mental health through music and movement is of course not new, but this year has seen notable examples of artists trying to find new ways to respond to a complex topic that for so long has been considered taboo. June’s Anxiety Arts festival, curated by the Mental Health Foundation, brought together a variety of exhibitions and performances including new work by composer Jocelyn Pook. The Happy Soul Festival, coinciding with October’s World Mental Health Day, included The Anatomy of Melancholy, an opera about depression. And in December, the Linbury hosts The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, ZooNation’s madcap response to the Alice In Wonderland story, set in a mental health hospital.
“If you break an arm, you can have an X-ray done and go: ‘This is where it’s broken.’ With mental illness you can’t touch it, can’t see it, and even now, after so much study and research, they still don’t really know what happens,” says Ondiviela, whose research included him and the cast spending time with staff and patients at Homerton hospital’s psychiatric ward. “Because we don’t understand, it’s easier to call it mad. But that’s a very patronising thing to do.
“I wanted to question is this person mad, or is she just experiencing something that I’m not experiencing?”
Filmmaker Kate Church also contributes to the piece, and Ondiviela has had his pick of RB dancers. After Lauren Cuthbertson had to bow out of the title role due to injury, Olivia Cowley has stepped in to make the role her own. But Cassandra is as much about how mental illness and society’s attitudes towards it affect those surrounding a sufferer – which calls for dancers who can display a complex range of conflicting emotions.
For the role of the mother, therefore, Ondiviela turned to Mara Galeazzi, who, although she retired from the Royal in June last year, was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to tackle such a testing role. “I joined the Royal Ballet 14 years ago and Mara had just become a principal, so I’d seen her dance every night for 14 years,” Ondiviela explains. “And for my first full-length I needed to work with people who knew me personally and emotionally.”
“He didn’t need to persuade me,” Galeazzi laughs. “To be asked when I was leaving was like, wow! Somebody feels like I should still work! And all through my career I’ve loved to dance roles in psychological ballets: I always have to build my own story for a character and imagine how I would feel if that happened to me. Sometimes I just imagine my daughter [Maia, now two years old] having this in the future. I think you need to have maturity for this role – for me it’s been great.”
The pair have an easy rapport together, and share a similar emotional approach to dance. “His steps speak naturally, it’s not about shouting: ‘Look how I feel’,” says Galeazzi. “Sometimes you don’t need that physicality to express yourself, you can just have a moment of stillness. I do some solos which are beautiful without being ‘look at me’; it comes from in here,” she says, hand on her heart, “and that’s why I like it. It’s very different choreography from what I’ve done in other productions; it’s an interesting language that has his own signature.”
For Royal Ballet School graduate Ondiviela, now 29, the chances to develop that language are coming thick and fast – so much so that he took the plunge and officially resigned from the RB three weeks ago, to concentrate on choreography. Currently, he has a variety of commissions to work on, from a piece for Ballet Ireland’s spring season to working with Gandini Juggling for their new work for January’s London International Mime Festival.
“I still want to perform, but I don’t know in what structure. I need new experiences. I’ve loved it here but I’d got to a point where I’d done Swan Lake and Beauty a million times, and I really needed something I could get myself into. There are some great dancers in the company who still get really excited about the beauty of closing a fifth position and pointing your foot. And that’s important. But then for other people, like Mara and me perhaps, the priority becomes more of an emotional experience.”
“You do get to a point where you’ve done all that,” agrees 40-year-old Galeazzi, who is now based in Oman with her husband and daughter. “I could have stayed another two seasons but I think I chose the right time to go: I think I danced at the top of my career the last season I did, and to finish like that is amazing. I do miss being on stage a lot, but I just want to do something different. I want to do more like this now, choreography like this with small groups, and doing research. In a year’s time I might be able to work with an Italian choreographer who is very contemporary and dramatic,’ she adds, tantalisingly.
And maybe, of course, this could mark the start of an ongoing creative relationship for Ondiviela and Galeazzi.