TBB Talks … Peaky Blinders With Artistic Director Of Rambert Dance, Benoit Swan Pouffer

This Autumn, Benoit Swan Pouffer will be directing and choreographing Rambert’s first ever branded production, Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby.

Born and raised in Paris, Benoit Swan Pouffer studied as a dancer at the prestigious Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique et de Danse before moving to New York and working as a principal dancer for the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for seven years. After spending a decade as Artistic Director of the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet company, in 2018 Pouffer became Artistic Director of Rambert.

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby was written and adapted for the stage by Peaky Blinders’ creator Steven Knight, the show picks up the story of the Peaky Blinders at the end of World War One, following Tommy Shelby and Grace Burgess through their passionate love affair. Fans of Peaky Blinders will be treated to exclusive plot and character insights that don’t appear on screen, but were in Steven Knight’s mind as he was creating the TV show.

We spoke to Benoit to find out more about what audiences can expect from the show…

Please tell us who you are and what you do, and where you’re from [heritage / area]

I’m a choreographer and the Artistic Director of Rambert. My job lets me create, and support others to create, by commissioning daring artists and finding brilliant dancers from around the world. I was born in Paris; my mother is French and my father is from Martinique – but most of my life was spent in New York City.

Describe your life right now in a word or one sentence …

Chaos – in the best way!

So, as a dancer, you trained in Paris, then worked as principal dancer for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, and now you’re based in London as Artistic Director of Rambert. What’s it been like working as a dancer across these three cities – are there any major differences in the dance landscapes in each city?

Each of those cities shaped me, and it’s hard to compare my experiences when I was at a totally different age and stage of life in each of them. They’re such exciting places that gave me so much opportunity. Going from Paris to New York meant I was able to learn English, and to be a part of my own American Dream that I don’t think I would have found anywhere else. Coming to London was something new again – change is hard but after a few decades in New York City I wanted to be closer to Paris and my family.

As for the dance landscape, this is one of the best parts. Paris was my foundation, New York was where I blossomed and was introduced to so much new work, and now I’m in London leading the oldest dance company in the UK here at Rambert, where I can share my past and to help lead them into the future.

What’s the journey from dancer to choreographer to Artistic Director been like? Was this a career trajectory that you planned or that came to you unexpectedly?

I’ve always felt these were quite similar roles, and so the journey has been very intrinsic. I was choreographing shows for my grandparents when I was 4 years old before I trained as a professional. Then dancing with a major company, I was able to cement everything I learned from school and grow from that foundation. I still choreographed with my friends both at school and in the company and never lost that drive to create. Being an Artistic Director is a bit different though, it’s not something you can study for. I think it’s about finding a vision and having opinions – and if you know me, you’ll know I’ve always had opinions, now I just get paid to have them!

Grace (Naya Lovell) and Thomas Shelby (Guillaume Quéau) Image by Johan Persson

How would you describe Rambert’s work to people unfamiliar with the company?

Rambert creates brilliant and daring work for everyone. It’s unexpected, but at the same time it’s not alienating. I’ve always believed that good work is good work, it doesn’t matter where it comes from or who it comes from.

This Autumn sees Rambert premiering their first ever branded production, Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, which represents the company’s aim to bring contemporary dance to a broader and younger audience. Is broadening the audience for contemporary dance part of the legacy you want to leave as Artistic Director of Rambert? Are there any other legacies you’d like to leave with Rambert?

Yes. There are people out there that are intimidated by dance. Everyone dances, it’s part of being human. It’s part of my mission to find new audiences and to create work that can reach more people. I’m hoping Rambert, and our company of dancers, will continue to be the flagship dance company of the UK by being inclusive of everyone.

So, let’s talk more about Peaky Blinders. How did the idea of staging this BBC crime drama as a contemporary dance performance come about? Were you a particular fan of the TV series?

I had dipped into the series, but it wasn’t until we started talking about the possibilities of an adaption that I got hooked. We’d been introduced to the shows creator Steven Knight whilst involved with the Legitimate Peaky Blinders Festival, and then our appearance in the series really cemented things for us.

What’s it been like working with Steven Knight to put the show together? And does the collaboration with Knight mean that the show features a combination of dance and dialogue?

From the first conversations he offered so much collaboration and energy, which helped craft the narrative and where the show is today. He gave me insight into the characters that was invaluable, he wrote a script that the iconic Benjamin Zephaniah recorded for us and looms as a narration over the show. I think it’s a perfect combination of movement and spoken word and is really unique.

Was it difficult to marry a story of violent gangster crime with contemporary dance, a dance style that is often seen to be softer and more emotional?

Rambert is about challenging expectations, like the notion that dance must be soft or gendered. Peaky Blinders is very emotional and has many moments of combining ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ moments. I’m not the first to have imagined violence on stage through dance, fight choreography is still choreography, but we view it through a different lens.

Controversial subject matter has always been fuel for art, and that too is down to the artist to create a lens for the audience. Have you got any other projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?

I’m excited about a lot of projects – Rambert has a lot planned that we started curating before we even started Peaky Blinders that we can’t wait to share. It will be unexpected and exciting.

Rambert’s Peaky Blinders The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, Image by Johan Persson

What’s made you Sad, Mad, Glad this week?

I’ve had all these feelings, when we opened Peaky Blinders! But mostly glad at how well the show has been received.

What are you reading right now?

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (again!)

What are you listening to right now?

Juliette Armanet, Bjork’s latest album Fossora and Jamiroquai’s Emergency on Planet Earth

The last thing you saw on stage?

Cabaret – it was sensational.

What’s on your bucket list?

Creating more shows – I’m already thinking about the next one.

Celebrate someone else (who do you rate right now?)

Roman GianArthur. He composed the soundtrack for Peaky Blinders, and I’ve completely fallen for him artistically. Everything he did is right for the show, every choice he made was perfect. He’s an incredible artist and one of the best collaborators I’ve ever had.

Celebrate yourself … (make us proud of you) …

I’m proud of the show – especially of the team. I know you’re asking about me, but theatre doesn’t exist with one persona, and I want to celebrate us all. I is singular, and I’m bored if I’m by myself – other people make it worth it.

Where can we find you watch your project?

Peaky Blinders: The Redemption of Thomas Shelby, is currently running at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre until 6 November, then we head on a UK tour in 2023!

For tickets and more information visit Peaky Blinders.


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