Becoming Bruno and Shmuel

Published on Friday 1 September, 2017

This spring, our dancers Matthew Koon and Filippo Di Vilio were tasked with bringing the contrasting and ultimately tragic lives of 9 year-old boys Bruno and Shmuel to the stage in our new ballet The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. As Matthew and Filippo prepare to perform this new ballet in Leeds for the first time next week, we caught up with them to find out about their experiences with creating such a complex and emotional new production...

How did you feel about the challenge of creating a ballet adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?

FDV: The subject is very difficult and I knew we would need to do it in a very respectful way. Although the story is not an accurate depiction of what took place during that period, I think ballet is a great way to introduce young people to the events of World War II. It is also good to remind ourselves that we cannot forget what happened. I knew it would not be easy but I was confident that if there was a company that could do a ballet about this story, it would be Northern Ballet.

MK: Anytime there is an announcement for a new ballet there is an air of excitement. Northern Ballet is known for using ballet to tell unconventional stories and I could see straight away that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas fitted perfectly with what this company is capable of doing.

How did you feel about creating the roles of Bruno and Shmuel?

FDV: When they told me I would be creating the role of Shmuel I couldn't quite believe it. I was very overwhelmed by the whole situation. To have a role created on me is something I have always dreamt about but honestly never thought would happen. It is such an important and big responsibility, especially with such a delicate subject. I was very honoured and happy, and I still am.

MK: Finding out that I would be creating the role of Bruno came as a massive surprise. I was honoured and excited on one hand but also very nervous on the other. Being chosen to create a role is one of the highest honours a dancer can have but is also comes with a huge amount of responsibility. I knew I had my work cut out for me and I didn't want to let anybody down.

How do you tell such a difficult story through ballet?

FDV: Obviously we needed to research what the story is about and the historical period it is set in. We try to keep everything as true to the story as possible. We try to express the characters by feeling their feelings and immersing ourselves into their lives. The story should all be clear from the movements and shapes we are making whilst dancing and also from our facial expressions. The costumes, sets, lighting and music also help to set the scene for the dancers and audience.

MK: Telling a story through ballet is very different to acting as you cannot use words; therefore character and background research is key. It's important for us as dancers to know our characters inside out. I make sure to know Bruno's thoughts and feelings in every step I take because only then will audiences be able to follow my character through the complex story.

This story has lots of interesting and complex characters. If you weren't performing as Bruno or Shmuel, who would you most like to play?

FDV: I would probably like to perform the character of Lieutenant Kotler. I am quite a calm and peaceful person and Kotler is basically the opposite. I would love to challenge myself to get the character as well as possible and see what the end result would be.

MK: If I weren't dancing Bruno I would love to dance the role of Shmuel. His laboured movements show the pain and suffering he is in being inside the death camp. It is a fine balance to be able to dance this character with dignity and respect, a challenge that I would relish.

What has been the most interesting part of the creation process for you?

FDV: The most interesting part of the whole creation process was definitely at the beginning. It was exciting but I did not know what to expect from it. It was scary and hard but once I got the hang of it, it got easier. I have to say that I have tried to enjoy every moment of it and make the most of every rehearsal from beginning to end.

MK: For me, it was being right in the middle of the creative process. I've been a part of some creations before but never as a main character. Working with Daniel de Andrade and the whole creative team, and seeing how they have poured themselves into the vision of this ballet has really inspired me. I just want to do my best to give this tragic yet beautiful story the full justice that it deserves.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas will be performed at Leeds West Yorkshire Playhouse from 5 - 9 September followed by Hull New Theatre from 18 - 21 October. Click here for booking details.

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The views expressed in blogs are those of the author and not necessarily of Northern Ballet.