Monday, 7 May 2012

The Case of the Lost Painting

The Case of the Lost Painting.

Was it destroyed, or just dumped in a cellar? It was a seven-metre-long painting composed of eight irregularly shaped panels, to be hung so that the spacing formed an essential part of the design – to suggest a flowing rhythm. The dancing shapes were “stepping stones” across which the dancers leapt; they were hung at a slight distance from the wall so they seem to float free. A tribute to the Netherlands Dance Theater in The Hague, commissioned by the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra, as it was then called, in 1987. The image represents the relationship between the conductor and orchestra in the pit and the dancers on the eighteen-metre stage of their theatre.
The dancers of NDT I in 1987, standing with me (left) in front of my mural (acrylic on wooden panels, seven metres long).  photo: Ben Vollebregt

The floor of my Amsterdam studio was exactly seven metres long, so that determined the maximum size of my mural.  I laid out the panels on the floor and walked across them, trying to feel the dance in my body and in the gestures of my brushes, which were taped to very long sticks.  I thought of Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, who also worked on very large canvasses in this way. This was my biggest painting ever and the experience was so exhilarating! But alas, it was probably too big for the available space in the Netherlands Dance Theater and quite a challenge for the technicians hanging and spacing the irregular shapes, exactly according to my design.

For a while - on gala nights - the dance studio where the mural was installed would be opened to the public, as a temporary foyer and bar, so my mural did get some exposure. But (of course) the function of the bar very quickly expanded and with a variety of decorative lighting it soon took over the space completely. My painting was, sadly, literally dumped in the cellar.  This discovery was quite a shock. After my protests, I was allowed to clean and restore it, then it was briefly hung on a different wall. It has long since disappeared for good. It’s a depressing feeling when one of your creations – a piece of yourself - is destroyed.  Philosophising that dance and music are also temporal by nature offers some consolation.  Probably none of the dancers in the photograph are still dancing.  They have retired or are teaching or directing.  It was great while it lasted: moving across that seven-metre painting on the floor of my studio was perhaps the closest I got to actually dancing.  However, I too was to move on, developing the form of the transient, time-based performances of kinetic painting, projected on a huge screen, the dancing with a brush that has become my trademark.

Because my partner Vivian King played in the Ballet Orchestra, I had acquired virtually unlimited possibilities to observe the inspired modern dance of the NDT artistic director and choreographer Jiří Kylián.  From the early eighties the dance studios became my second home and this brilliant company provided me with a definition of modern dance that has become my ideal.
One of my paintings (1987) of Kylián’s “Overgrown Path”, set to four hauntingly beautiful solo piano pieces by compatriot Leoš Janáček.

I made hundreds of sketches: at times virtually abstract line drawings, just following the essential line of the movement. After hours of such intense work, absorbing the music and every movement in my whole being, I would walk out of the studio on air, feeling like a dancer, with my head up, relishing my space.  Watching this dance company, create, rehearse and perform inspired many watercolours and led to several exhibitions in The Hague.  One characteristic of Kylián’s work that appealed to my own sense of pictorial composition, was his talent for bringing together two or three dancers into a group that resembled a beautiful calligraphic symbol, or maybe a knot tied in the way we so often see in Japanese gift wrapping.  The group would then dissolve and move into another knot, just as a calligrapher gracefully moves with a lilting rhythm across the space between one symbol and the next.  It was as though Jiří was making brush drawings in space.
‘Invention’- a modern ballet for live kinetic painting and dancers, co-designed with choreographer Philip Taylor in 1989 for the opening of the Holland Dance Festival. 

Then in 1989 came the opportunity to show Jiři Kylián what I was also doing in performance painting. He was intrigued and agreed to the idea that I should co-create a modern ballet with the young choreographer Philip Taylor. Rather than just projecting my live kinetic paintings on to a backdrop, I designed three huge white panels shaped in irregular curves that could hang above and behind the dancers. For each of the eight movements of Eight Inventions for Percussion by Miloslav Kabelač, I gave these panels a different position. The resulting shapes became my projection screens. In the photograph you see me standing in the pit, painting on to overhead projectors, that project my colours onto the changing shapes and on to the white-costumed dancers of the NDT I group. They are bathed in my projected colours and have a dialogue with my brushes, disappearing into or emerging from the colours on cue. The eleven performances were some of the most exciting I have ever experienced.

Janet Sinclair and Leo Kersley wrote in Dance and Dancers magazine:

Surprise and Delight – Something New in Dance
“This was one of the most amazingly novel stage spectacles of the writers’ experience, surprising the eye to a degree that can only have been paralleled in this century by the astonishment aroused by the decors of Bakst for Diaghilev when the Ballet Rousse first hit Europe… This adds a complete extra dimension in ballet theatre… an absolutely fascinating collaboration.”

“Norman Perryman treats his brushes and paint just like a choreographer…they move synchronous with the exciting percussion music of Miloslav Kabelač. This provides not only an exceptionally exciting interaction (with the dancers), but also dramatic effects that reinforce each other.” 
Haagsche Courant

Invention introduced a new era in choreography. With this earthshaking ensemble of dance, music and performance-painting, Taylor and the painter Perryman almost persuaded their public that the world was created not in six days but in eight (Kabelač’s Eight Inventions for Percussion). Three enormous panels served as the framework from which heaven and hell were revealed and in which the dancers survived the excesses of paint and light in a total happening.  After almost half an hour of existential dance, where man and gods appeared and disappeared as if by magic, in a no-man’s land of unconventional rhythms, tones and timbres, Taylor and Perryman ‘saw that it was good’”.  
De Telegraaf

This was a huge milestone in my creative work.  Consider this - these paintings were “lost” after each performance! But it didn’t matter. My “real-time” kinetic painting had now joined music and dance theatre as an art form that is intrinsically ephemeral! After conductor Simon Rattle saw this, his agent phoned me with the message: “He wants to work together”.

Breaking News! They just found my painting! Stored in one of their huge scenery depots. This is so emotional. Now to restore and exhibit it.


Next Monday: In the Washington Opera pit with Plácido Domingo.


  1. That must feel like a resurrection, Norman! A piece of your soul restored to life. Thank you for this beautiful memoir - enjoying every moment. Best wishes, Catherine