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“I look for balance between power and fragility”

Interview with Angelin Preljocaj

“I look for balance between power and fragility”

On the occasion of the revival of Le Parc from 6 to 31 December at the Palais Garnier – Angelin Preljocaj’s first ballet for the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1994 – the choreographer was interviewed by the journalist. Alexandre Lacroix. Looking back over several centuries of dance, in particular the emergence of contemporary dance on the artistic and aesthetic scene, Preljocaj tackles the subject of his relationship with movement and the body in terms of virtuosity, emotion and sensuality.

Florian Magnenet et Almandine Albisson, Palais Garnier, 2018
Florian Magnenet et Almandine Albisson, Palais Garnier, 2018 © Svetlana Loboff / OnP

Your ballet Le Parc plays around a lot with body weight: the dancers let themselves fall and be carried, transported. Showing bodies that have weight, is this a deliberate break from the codes of classical dance?

Angelin Preljocaj: Historically, classical dance aims to escape gravity. The desire for elevation was pushed so far that the girls found themselves on points, in order to rise even higher than on tiptoe. And then, classical choreographies insist on the propensity of the men to carry the women so as to raise them up above the ground, to make them fly. Contemporary dance aims to be less ethereal, less refined. It seeks to exploit gravity in order to create movement, energy, and a vocabulary of gestures stemming from falling. As a choreographer, I belong to the world of contemporary dance, even though I created Le Parc for the classical dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet: I enjoyed taking them out of their comfort zone, asking them to forget for a while the airy ideal so as to inhabit bodies with weight, that lean on each other.

Contemporary dance was born with Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), in a Europe where the thinking of Friedrich Nietzsche but also psychoanalysis were spreading. What Isadora Duncan showed on stage was a body in ebullition, full of impulses, saturated with the desire for power. Does this continue to inspire the dance of today?

A.P.: Indeed, Isadora Duncan, with an aesthetic that heralded expressionism, showed a body that exulted, a passionate body. This was a liberation of energy. But following that, contemporary dance was enriched and diversified by several different currents. The current of Mary Wigman (1886-1973) and Pina Bausch (1940-2009) extended Duncan’s aesthetic, which sought to transmit emotions coming from within, from the deepest recesses of the body. When I first started, I was trained in classical dance, then I worked with Karin Waehner (1926-1999), who was a pupil of Mary Wigman in Leipzig at the end of the forties. This eruptive, emotional dance for me was an electric shock, a revelation.

However, a little later, I had the opportunity to encounter another current of contemporary dance, what we call American Modern Dance, working with the choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) who was its emblematic figure. That opened up a new world for me. One of Merce Cunningham’s phrases that struck me the most, it was an eye-opener for me, was when I heard her say at the end of a sequence, having stopped the piano: “Stop showing the movement. Do the movement.” In Modern Dance, the dancers don’t try to represent emotions. They perform movements on stage which, articulated one after the other in a given spatial context, ultimately create an emotion within the spectator. However, the emotion is for the person watching; as for the dancers, they do not express themselves subjectively, they become a work of art.

Finally, I would say that these two influences, that of Mary Wigman and of Merce Cunningham, nurtured me and created within me a sort of schizophrenia: I like tackling abstract themes, with music by Stockhausen or John Cage, but also narrative ballets, like Romeo and Juliet or Le Parc.

The contemporary world has made the body an object of concern, of solicitude. We are surrounded by a number of incredible tools of measurement: scales with impedance metres tell you the proportions of water, fat and muscle there are in your body; joggers often run with an electrocardiogram; there are bracelets that measure the length and quality of sleep; applications calculate the number of calories absorbed or steps taken each day; the gyms are packed out... Does this have an impact on dance? Are dancers’ bodies more muscular, closer to aesthetic norms than ever before?

A.P.: Listening to your question made me think of Nadia Comaneci, who won the gold medal for gymnastics in the 1974 Olympics. I remember very well that I was doing dance at the time and that I was stunned by the broadcast of that event. I had the impression that I was looking at a mutant, a creature that was no longer human. With her body, she executed extraordinary movements, that nobody had ever seen before. The judges gave her three tens, the highest score possible, which had never been awarded to anyone before and which made the score display go wrong, so much so that the gymnast and her trainer almost fainted when they saw 01, 01, 01 appear on the screen. Today, in all objectivity, Nadia Comaneci wouldn’t even get chosen for the Olympic Games. She’d be in a regional team. This is exactly what you’re talking about. Dieticians and coaches have had a huge technical impact on the world of sport, and the bodies of sportsmen and women, like those of dancers, have been extraordinarily honed.

Angelin Preljocaj
Angelin Preljocaj © Jörg Letz

You yourself, as a choreographer, do you look for bodies that correspond to particularly precise criteria?

A.P.: Certain choreographers are highly preoccupied by bodies, others are more interested in the movements of those bodies. These are two rather different approaches, and I tend, for my part, to focus less on the bodies themselves, rather than on the transcription of movement within the space – in the choreographic tradition begun by Merce Cunningham. In my writing, the body must be at the service of the movement. For some choreographies, I’m going to want virtuosity, not for the beauty of the bodies themselves, but in order to articulate difficult, innovative movements. However, I recently presented a piece at the Montpellier Dance Festival[1] that I had worked on for four months with five inmates of the Penitentiary Centre Les Baumettes in Marseille who had never danced before. I found it very exciting to see how bodies that were constrained, confined, could find liberty through dance. So I’m back to this preoccupation with movement which, for me, is central.

You haven’t fully answered the question: to get into your company, does a dancer need to have a highly muscular, exceptional body?

A.P.: Very honed, yes. But virtuosity interests me as a tool, not as an end in itself. To answer directly: when I hold auditions, I’m not looking for good dancers but for people who dance very well. Do you get the difference? If I looked for a good dancer, I’d be within a format, I’d have quantitative criteria in mind. But first I want to be face to face with people, personalities whose presence one feels – and those people also have to dance very well. In a production, this nuance changes quite a few things. I don’t like the audience to say, at the start of a choreography, “Ah, here we are, a dancer’s just come on stage...” Because that creates distance. I prefer to show a man or a woman who arrives on the stage, who does a few steps, who fully exists, and then... it so happens, in addition, that this man or woman dances extremely well. I’m interested in transition, the passage from habitual gestures to dance. What makes the difference? How does one know that the person has begun to dance, when up to then they were content to walk or move a bit? I really like the passage from non-dance to dance to be unbroken.

Alice Renavand, Palais Garnier, 2013
Alice Renavand, Palais Garnier, 2013 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

Again with this idea that virtuosity should not be demonstrative, but should be effaced by movement?

A.P.: I look for a balance between power and fragility. To use the notions of Aristotle, the dancer’s body manifests a passage from potential to action. In that way, he attains plenitude, he fulfils his potential. He goes to the full extent of his being. Of course, using the word power here, I’m not thinking of either force or political power, violence even less, but of the blossoming of the possibilities of being. However, that’s not enough. This quest for self-fulfilment in the act of dancing would be a bit vain, or too demonstrative, if it were not punctuated by touches of fragility. Fragility, in art, only has meaning in relation to power. If you see someone who comes on stage and is fragile from start to finish, the performance is a failure. But if you see someone come on stage and deploy his power from start to finish, there’s no emotion, and the performance is just as much a failure. It is the effect of the contrast between power and fragility that elicits emotion. In other terms, if you can’t find a way of linking power and fragility, there is no drama.

Our era is characterised also by the omnipresence of eroticism, and the extremely widespread availability of pornography. Does that have an effect on dance?

A.P.: You are right to say that representations of sexuality have become commonplace in the contemporary world, and yet, are we really that liberated? Or have we, in fact, lost, I don’t know, something of our...

Sensuality?

A.P.: Yes, sensuality. We’ve put everything into our telephones, we live by proxy through social networks. But the field of eroticism, in the concrete substance of our lives, is it really expanding? Or has it been shrinking since the seventies? People can send as many messages as they want, but I have the impression that they touch each other less, that they make physical contact less easily. As for adolescents, aren’t they just as ill-equipped at the age of their first love as they were fifty years ago?

Eleonora Abbagnato, Yann Bridard, Palais Garnier, 2005
Eleonora Abbagnato, Yann Bridard, Palais Garnier, 2005 © Sébastien Mathé / OnP

In contemporary choreographies, there are nevertheless many gestures – the swaying of hips, spasms, ways of throwing back the head or shaking the hair - that seem to be borrowed directly from the rituals of sexual sparring.

A.P.: There again, are you sure that this is new? There was already incredible eroticisation in classical ballet. Ultra-short tutus, boys in skin-tight tights, it was all very erotic, even as early as the 19th century.

The difference lies perhaps in the fact that today it is no longer a case of mere suggestion – characteristic of classical ballet – nor even of transgression – which is what characterised Isadora Duncan – but rather of something that is becoming commonplace. Choreographers can inject nudity or sexual allusions into a creation at any point, it’s a register they can draw on at will.

A.P.: As a language, dance is bound to be sexualised. This is an indelible mark. Whatever one does, one will never be able to eliminate that. In 1988, I did a ballet called Liqueurs de chair. I wanted, very explicitly, to treat eroticism, to offer an erotic ballet and I still abide by that stage of my career. However, I think that audiences of dance in general are a bit like pickpockets of the erotic. You go to the opera or the theatre, you’re sitting somewhere in the audience, there are a lot of people. And you see things, bodies, gestures, that fascinate and stir your feelings. But on leaving the performance, you don’t talk about it. You don’t say: “The bit when he grabs her, though, when he lifts her leg, when he presses her to him, it sort of turned me on.” No, you don’t say anything. Those erotic moments, one accepts them, one stores them away and keeps them to oneself.

Le Parc, Palais Garnier, 2005
Le Parc, Palais Garnier, 2005 © Sébastien Mathé / OnP

Another characteristic of contemporary bodies is that they are connected. We have prostheses, or rather extensions – smartphones – that we always carry about with us. We optimise our journeys, co-ordinate our movements in real time. Does this modify the way one conceives the interactions between bodies, in the field of choreography?

A.P.: That’s a smart question... which makes me think that dancers are connected, but in a quasi-telepathic way. When I work with a group on a ballet, I notice after a while that the dancers are capable of moving together, even without music, without even seeing each other. We need to do some neurological research into this, for I am convinced that through working together, through complicity, you reach a sort of mental rapport, a cerebral connection. Several people can be dancing and yet they dance as one. So, I’d almost like to turn your question around, to invert that logic: isn’t it this same telepathic ability that has spurred humans on to develop connected technology? Isn’t it that our prostheses extend a deep-seated and profound aptitude?

Have you modified the choreography of Le Parc, which is now nearly 25 years old, for its revival at the Palais Garnier from 6th to 31st December?

A.P.: No, I don’t really like going back over things. I like inventing better. Marcel Duchamp said that the art of a period is not like the taste of a period. Often, art is constructed as a protest, an act of provocation that goes against the prevalent taste. That’s why I find it dangerous to want to adapt something to the tastes of the time, there’s a risk of eliminating its singularity. The only thing that has changed for this revival of Le Parc is not the choreography, which by the way was written very precisely (I used Benesh notation for it), but the interpretation: new performers are involved who give a new energy to Mozart’s music and to the dance.

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