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Encounters

Dance swept along by the current

Interview with the choreographer Sasha Waltz — By Dorian Astor

“Romeo and Juliet”, the Shakespearean myth of love and death that inspired Hector Berlioz to write his highly romantic “dramatic symphony” for soloists, chorus and orchestra, has been revisited by Sasha Waltz, one of the essential figures in contemporary dance. Created in 2007 for the Paris Opera Ballet, this production combines music, both vocal and orchestral, with dance to produce a total work of art. In 2012, during a revival of this ballet, Sasha Waltz was interviewed by the philosopher Dorian Astor in Berlin in the Radialsystem V building, a “space dedicated to the arts and to ideas”, on the banks of the River Spree. Now that Romeo and Juliet is once again on the bill at Opera Bastille, Octave transcribes the choreographer's insights.    

Do you feel more of a stage director or a choreographer for this production of Romeo and Juliet?

Sasha Waltz: Choreographer, without hesitation. My perspective is fundamentally choreographic and involves another form of interaction and dialogue with the work than that of a director. Generally speaking, I am less attached to the narrative and to the characters, I don’t allow the libretto to call the tune. I seek to tell the story directly with the body and with the space that conditions it. When I say “body”, I’m not only thinking of the individual body of the dancer-character, but perhaps more than anything of the need to gradually create a common, collective body, a large-scale living organism.

   

Has the hierarchical structure of a ballet corps like that of the Paris Opera been an obstacle to this organic approach?

It’s true that hierarchies in general can be a problem. I always aim to eliminate them so as to allow a community to emerge and make this collective body possible. However, the Paris Opera, albeit an august institution, has the extraordinary capacity to carry the artist along and allow her/him freedom of expression. I have felt really good here and I’ve been able to work with some outstanding professionals in all the domains which go together to make a production. By the way, I also really admire the way in which the Opera Ballet has opened up to contemporary dance.

Roméo et Juliette de Sasha Waltz en répétition, Opéra de Paris, 2018
Roméo et Juliette de Sasha Waltz en répétition, Opéra de Paris, 2018 3 images

As a contemporary artist, how do you feel about working with this operatic repertoire?

I love this music. My first experience of opera choreography was Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in 2005. Baroque music is intimately linked to dance, its forms are inspired by dance forms, which, by the way, offers another kind of challenge to a choreographer. With Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, I found material of a very different kind, yet charged with potential for dance. This is a work unlike any other: neither an opera nor a ballet but a “dramatic symphony” with a very abstract, refined narrative. In it, Berlioz developed a way of thinking that was more suggestive than narratorial, an approach that can simply be extended by dance. If only because of this suggestive quality, the music is profoundly romantic.


Are you a “romantic”?

Nobody is ever one single thing, but rather a multitude of different facets! Each work, each project draws on a different facet. I am also a great realist! Whatever the case, Berlioz’s romanticism is a powerful, intoxicating current that is particularly conducive to that collective organism I was talking about. One is literally swept along. But from an emotional point of view, Romeo and Juliet is also harrowing; you have to go with the flow whilst being careful not to get carried away, which is dangerous. I haven’t, strictly speaking, fought against this vulnerability or repressed the emotion. Berlioz’s music really stimulates our emotional side, obliging us to open up, to welcome this emotional flood and find an appropriate corporeal language. But at the same time, I’ve had to maintain a certain distance, so as not to lose my hold over the artistic aspect.

Roméo et Juliette de Sasha Waltz, Opéra de Paris, 2012
Roméo et Juliette de Sasha Waltz, Opéra de Paris, 2012 © Laurent Philippe / OnP

Do you need music?

To be honest, “need” is too strong a word. And I’ve always dreamed of creating a production without music, of experimenting with the silence of dance. To tell you the truth, that’s an experiment I also wanted to try with Romeo and Juliet. At the beginning, I always start rehearsing without music, to capture the spontaneous propositions of the dancers’ bodies. Above all though, I’ve tried to delve into the heart of Berlioz’s work, and open a breach of silence in that floodtide of music. It was a big decision for the conductor too (Valery Gergiev conducted the premier production) to agree to suspend the music and integrate a long moment of silence into the score; it was a real choice in terms of his own musical dramaturgy, and he played the game. It was an intense partnership, at every level, scenography, costumes, lighting. Only the immense institution that is the Paris Opera, by its very proportions, could have permitted this “organic monster” to find its space.    

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