The set always plays an essential role in the performances of Panama Pictures. It determines the image, but also the playing space of the performers. Scenographer Sammy Van den Heuvel has been designing the sets since 2017.

As a child he did gymnastics, gymnastics was his first passion. “At some point my focus switched from the body to the space in which it moves, and the tension that exists between the two.” After studying architecture, he worked as an architect for several years, but the desire to work more directly with people in his spaces led Sammy to scenography.

“Scenography, like architecture, is bound by a budget and gravity. And like architecture, it is an interplay of composition, material, light and the human being in relation to it. But what makes scenography different is the time factor: a set comes to life the moment it is played by performers.

An atmosphere is created that evolves during the course of a performance. If the set is right, at any moment exactly the tension can be created that helps the performers to express their story. Scenography is magical, but also fleeting. My designs are only given a short life. That is beautiful and sad at the same time.”

Abstract and concrete

The sets for Panama Pictures are created in close consultation with choreographer Pia Meuthen. “In an initial conversation, Pia tells me her ideas for a performance; in Vanishing Point, for example, she wanted to work with transience, what it means to grow older. A theme like that is still very abstract and open.

But there are also very concrete thoughts about the space: perspectives, layers, proportions, levels. The two – abstract and concrete – form the framework within which I mould my ideas into a composition, guided by my own fascinations and sources of inspiration. And in doing so, I actually get carte blanche. Pia trusts me, and that’s what makes our collaboration so great.

Sammy always works out his sketches in models, which he discusses with Pia. “She then imagines what she could do in that space and weighs up whether she can tell her story in it. That’s a very layered conversation, from fundamental dramaturgical views to practical considerations.”

Parallel track

“Once we agree on the design, I start looking for the right set designer to turn the design into reality. At this stage, I engage in intensive dialogue with the set designers; these people have such expert knowledge, and are happy to share it, making the design even more evolving and richer as construction progresses. If I can, I like to help with the construction. I think it’s important to contribute physically in some way to the realisation of the set.”

What is unique about the approach of Sammy and Panama Pictures is that from day one, rehearsals take place in the original set. The scenography is therefore very decisive in the creative process from the start. A parallel track, as it were: “The set forms the spatial framework for Pia’s choreography.”