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?
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.
Did you already know Martha Graham’s piece?
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.
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 ...
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
Your previous creations were strongly inspired by pictorial references; is it also the case for this piece?
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.
What is your relationship with Graham’s technique?
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?
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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