Echoing Gestures

Encounter with Nicolas Paul

By Elsa Vinet 28 August 2018

© Barbara Morgan

Echoing Gestures

A guest at the Palais Garnier from 3rd to 8th September of this year, dancer and choreographer Nicolas Paul is about to make history with the Martha Graham Dance Company. For this tour, the company’s first since 1991, he has composed his own vision of Martha Graham’s iconic solo Lamentation, first performed in 1930. A conversation on work in progress with something of a challenge about it.

In what context did the Martha Graham Company approach you for this work?

It was Aurélie Dupont, the Director of Dance, who suggested to Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the company, to approach me. The Lamentation Variation project started in 2007 for the commemoration of 9/11 in the United States. The company invited three choreographers to create one variation each with the solo Lamentation by Martha Graham as a starting point and with very specific parameters: a two-hour audition, ten hours of rehearsals, a choreography no longer than four minutes, a limited budget for costumes, no scenery and music exempt from performing rights. These requirements were subsequently applied to successive creative projects around Lamentation. My work will be performed by three dancers from the Graham company whom I shall audition in New York this summer. On the other hand, I have carte blanche artistically speaking, there are no constraints.
Martha Graham dans Lamentation
Martha Graham dans Lamentation © Barbara Morgan

Did you already know Martha Graham’s piece?

Yes, I encountered it when I was very young, then again in 1998 when this solo entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera, with Fanny Gaïda. I sought to understand what Martha Graham was aiming to express with this piece, and did some research on the subject. It’s impossible within such a rigorous framework, not to feel that the artistic work is conditioned by material constraints. The solo leaves a very strong impression. Martha Graham’s artistic writing has already been thoroughly analysed by other people, so I didn’t want to make another rereading of it. I wished rather to use my own language, one that I’ve been putting in place for a while now, without seeking to draw a parallel between the formal structures or to establish a system of citations or variations... What struck me in that piece was Martha Graham’s way of using the body: it stays in one place. Throughout the solo, she remains seated, in her costume. Through this quasi-immobility, the only visible movements that one perceives are the expression of interiority. Her body speaks of lamentation through the limitation of remaining where it is, from beginning to end. In counterpoint, I’ve imagined my dancers in a space which they only enter and exit, confined within a cyclical process from which they cannot escape. The echo with lamentation is therefore to be found in this other confinement of the body within these cycles. As for the performing rights, they orientated me towards a certain repertoire, since using 20th century music was difficult. I turned towards Renaissance English music and I found a piece by John Dowland (1563-1626), Lachrimae Antiquae, whose emotional register and structure corresponded to the general theme as well as to my proposition.
Sept mètres et demi au-dessus des montagnes, chorégraphie de Nicolas Paul, juin 2017
Sept mètres et demi au-dessus des montagnes, chorégraphie de Nicolas Paul, juin 2017 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

In your previous piece, Sept metres et demi au-dessus des montagnes, created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2017, the idea of entrances and exits was already there ...

Yes, I’ve noticed that certain systems are beginning to establish themselves in most of my pieces, even if, of course, this takes different forms. I’ve always had the feeling that movement, in itself, has no interest. It’s as if a basic mechanism were necessary to justify the fact that one is prompted to dance, to summon up a gesture, to begin or end with such or such a movement. I often draw a parallel with pictorial art: when the artist begins to paint, s/he takes into account the dimensions of the canvas. If there’s nothing to set things in motion, I can’t see the point. And ultimately, this is particularly true of Martha Graham’s piece: the framework exists, and the gesture springs out of it. I think that the concept is not enough in itself. It’s only once one has the outer structure that one can turn to the content, and that things begin to take on a life of their own. The basic mechanism eradicates doubt and engenders freedom.   

Your previous creations were strongly inspired by pictorial references; is it also the case for this piece?

I almost always work with pictorial references, but for this piece I decided that my only reference would be Graham’s solo. Evoking others would have been to risk losing the spectator who would have no longer been able to establish the link with Lamentation. The procedure specific to a choreography must be clear to the audience. This isn’t the piece that comes after Sept metres et demi au-dessus des montagnes, but the one that offers a response to Lamentation. Four minutes is very short so above all I thought about how I could make my mark with regard to a piece which has remained unequalled. And yet, the way Martha Graham’s solo functions is very simple: the right gestures, the right costume, and that radical decision to be seated from beginning to end.    
Fanny Gaïda lors de l’entrée au répertoire de Lamentation, novembre 1998
Fanny Gaïda lors de l’entrée au répertoire de Lamentation, novembre 1998 © Christian Leiber / OnP

What is your relationship with Graham’s technique?

I was trained in the Graham technique at the Ballet School but, to tell you the truth, I don’t feel close to any technique in particular. I have been lucky enough, at the Paris Opera, to have tackled many different techniques and continue to discover new ones. What Martha Graham brought to dance has permeated everything that has been done since. Inevitably, I’ve approached it as a dancer with the Ballet. When I undertake choreographic research, I’m not trying to follow in this or that vein, I’d run the risk of constantly censoring myself. Apart from the purely classical French school, to which school could I legitimately lay claim?

For this work, did you draw on sensations you have experienced as a dancer and performer?

As a choreographer, and even more so when one is also a performer, one inevitably draws on one’s corporeal memory. My body has stored up in an unconscious manner my different roles and interpretations. But choreography is also a matter of confronting one’s own experience with that of the dancer, and that is what I try to prioritise. They constitute two different aspects of the task and allow the establishment of a balanced relationship between the choreographer and the dancer. The preparation of this piece can’t take place with the performers of the Martha Graham Dance Company, which has obliged me to carry out the initial task of writing by myself. I am impatient to meet the dancers to rework the material with them and finish writing the piece.  

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