Tag Archives: Tom Pye

Akhnaten Set: From Hieroglyphics to Staged Opera

On November 5th, Akhnaten opened and audiences got a taste of the complicated set that brings ancient Egypt to life in the opera. Envisioned by set designer Tom Pye (in conjunction with director Phelim McDermott), the Akhnaten set takes 2-Dimensional hieroglyphics and brings them into 3-Dimensional staging.

A drawing of the a hieroglyphic that is the first recorded image of juggling

A drawing of the a hieroglyphic that is the first recorded image of juggling

The Funeral Scene from Act I of Akhnaten (2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

The Funeral Scene from Act I of Akhnaten (2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

The reproduced hieroglyphic image above (also the first ever recorded image of juggling) serves as the inspiration for the juggling in this opening funeral scene of Akhnaten and for the three-tiered structure that makes up the set (see second image above).

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A Crooked Juggling Dream

Gandini Juggling Troupe in a scene from Akhnaten (2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Gandini Juggling Troupe in a scene from Akhnaten (2016); Photo: Craig T. Mathew

It seems counterintuitive to marry the minimalism of Philip Glass’ score with jugglers. But juggling is an important aspect of Phelim McDermott’s staging for Akhnaten and sets the tone for the piece. An entire troupe of jugglers – under the leadership of world-renowned Sean Gandini –  perform throughout the opera. We spoke with Gandini about his juggling life (a career that includes leading Gandini Juggling for the past twenty-five years) and work his troop’s role in Akhnaten.

What drew you to juggling?

When I was a kid, I always used to juggle three or four balls for fun, and I also used to do magic.  As a teenager, I performed street shows in London’s Covent Garden and I saw someone juggling five balls. I got so hypnotized that I thought, “Well, I must learn to do five.” From that moment, I got addicted – kind of like playing the piano; I loved the beautiful patterns you can create through juggling.

What inspired you to form Gandini Juggling?

I met my wife Katia Ylä-Hokkala and she had just retired as a rhythmic gymnast at the age of 19. She’d spent all her life throwing and catching clubs, balls, and ribbons and then all of a sudden they said that’s it. So, she came to London to be an au pair and we bumped into each other accidently in Covent Garden. She picked up two of the clubs that I had and started juggling them, and I said, “Oh!” Then, the gym we used to practice in had contemporary dance classes, so right from the beginning our juggling was filtered through this dance aesthetic. Our juggling also had structure – which opera and dance have a lot of – and from the beginning we wanted to be part of that world. We knew juggling could be structured like notes in a musical composition.

How did you get involved with Phelim McDermott and Akhnaten?

A lot of Akhnaten is Phelim and Tom [Pye]’s dream realized and Phelim imagined juggling in the opera. My troupe and I had experience with contemporary classical music and I was so excited when Phelim contacted me and asked if we could choreograph juggling to Philip Glass music. I told Phelim that the first recorded images of juggling are these wonderful hieroglyphics of women juggling.

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