Passing on the message

Conversation about Orpheus with Dominique Mercy and Stéphane Bullion

By Isabelle Danto 14 March 2018

© Agathe Poupeney / OnP

Passing on the message

In 2012, dancer Étoile Stéphane Bullion slipped into the mythical role of Orpheus for the first time. Dominique Mercy, Pina Bausch’s constant fellow traveller, accompanied him in the learning process. As creator of the role, his work in transmitting it and preserving the spirit of the late choreographer, whilst keeping the repertoire alive, was precious. Now that the ballet Orpheus and Eurydice is once again on the bill at the Palais Garnier, opening on March 24th, Octave proposes a combined interview with the two artists.

Dominique Mercy, Orpheus and Eurydice is a piece you have performed a number of times and that you have already passed on to the Paris Opera Ballet. Has the question of memory, essential to the theme of the piece as well as to the art of dance, changed since Pina Bausch’s death?

Dominique MercyAfter Pina Bausch died, Brigitte Lefèvre, Director of Dance at the Paris Opera, asked me to revive “Orpheus”. I was both delighted and worried because I didn’t know what it would mean to do all that work without Pina and now I’m very happy to be here: it corresponds to Pina Bausch's own idea of her repertoire, which she began to take care of as early as 1980. For a long time, she created two new works per season, then only one so as to be able to programme and perform existing pieces. With cast changes and new dancers from other companies bringing different energies, her pieces regained a form of youthfulness. She also knew how to muster and use this fresh energy for her new works: for her, everything happened step by step, with the same organic rhythm, because one piece gave rise to another, which she chose specifically to form part of a corpus of work she believed in. That was her way of neither forgetting nor repeating herself and making people understand how important each work is in itself if a repertoire is to remain alive.

Stéphane Bullion : Our company is the only one to which Pina Bausch transmitted her pieces so that they would enter our repertoire and we are very lucky! Every instant of rehearsal is permeated with that particular perfume I picked up on from her presence and that I encountered during “Rite of Spring”. In the time it took her to come in and put the finishing touches, she communicated something huge which one never loses because, as with Dominque Mercy and Malou Airoudo, who was the first to dance the role of Eurydice, dance is passed on from dancer to dancer and isn’t merely a question of learning and executing the steps.

Isn’t the fact that the company wasn’t dissolved and that Pina Bausch's art of is passed on by her own dancers the sign that her art and her life continue?

D. M. : The day the company learnt of the death of Pina Bausch, we only had a few hours in which to decide whether or not to go ahead with the performance we had prepared for that evening, and we decided to do it. That was, I think, the first step in our undertaking to carry on presenting this repertoire so that it would continue to exist, in close collaboration with the company, rather than automatically doing new things, even if that is not excluded.

S. B. : The Paris Opera Ballet thrives on an older repertoire, although that does not mean that Petipa's ballets are museum pieces: all repertoire, whether classical, modern or contemporary, remains alive provided the performers and those who transmit it “nourish” it with the stuff of life and take into account the various people and personalities involved as well as formal elements. The transmission of a ballet is not just a matter of “cut and paste”; you don't dance Swan Lake at the age of twenty as you dance it at thirty-five because in the meantime you have danced “Orpheus”, for example.

Orphée et Eurydice, Dominique Mercy au cours d’une répétition, 2012
Orphée et Eurydice, Dominique Mercy au cours d’une répétition, 2012 © Agathe Poupeney / OnP

D. M. : I’ve always been surprised by the sort of aura that surrounds transmission, its museum-like connotation, because, in my view, there is nothing more vital than people on stage! In the face of each performer, one has to consider what the most interesting thing to touch on is. And the basis of Pina Bausch’s work was to work with each of us to reach the intention underlying each step. I remember that, when she created the role of Orpheus with me, I began to alternate with another dancer for whom certain passages were a bit more complicated and it wasn’t a problem at all for Pina to simplify because that wasn’t the most important thing for her. It’s the same thing today with her repertoire: nothing is necessarily immutable, it’s not a case of repeating the original steps but of reviving the spirit of the piece and if the intention behind the step is there, one can almost do without the step itself!

S. B. : What Dominique doesn’t mention is that the vocabulary of classical dance always gives the impression of being more “written” than the others. Now Pina Bausch’s is very much a written language and very precise even though one has the impression of an extremely free form of dance, less codified and not part of an alphabet. That’s why Dominique has so many indications to give us, because the writing of one of Pina Bausch’s choreographic sequences imposes real technical constraints. If I manage to find the key to dancing this ballet as it should be danced, I know I won’t be the same dancer!
Stéphane Bullion dans Orphée et Eurydice, 2014
Stéphane Bullion dans Orphée et Eurydice, 2014 © Charles Duprat / OnP

This new role of Orpheus must be a real challenge given that, whilst the action involving the three characters – Orpheus, Eurydice and Amour - is deployed with simplicity and clarity, it leaves Orpheus alone on stage almost all the time! How do you approach such a mythological figure when you also know the importance of the theme of watching and seeing in this ballet?

S. B. : It’s marvellous to work on the interpretation of a role in a ballet when you have already discovered it as a spectator; since all repertoire is made up of different versions and interpretations, I avoid comparisons, or else I would never go on stage again - I’d stay at home! I don’t draw comparisons with the way I’ve approached other roles either because, each time, in order to get inside a role, I try to arrive in the studio with as neutral and as open a mind as possible, without any preconceived ideas. In “Orpheus”, what Pina Bausch constructed with the music, each step is guided by an intention, a line of thought and there’s always motivation that comes from somewhere other than from the body. When you are privileged enough to “profit” (in the noble sense of the term), from the presence of the dancer who created the role, you can but think: “I know nothing and I am to be taught everything” so as not to start off on the wrong foot.

D. M. : In effect, there is something very physical and instinctive in dance which doesn’t require words and one has to be free to risk feeling what is going on around oneself. It’s important not to try to know too much before trying to understand, as Stephane says, because the important thing is the role, Orpheus sick with love following Eurydice all the way to the Underworld to bring her back to life, not battling with the right leg that doesn’t want to go in front of the left, even if, day after day, that is what happens: learning, adjusting, discovering and understanding where it’s all going and where it’s coming from… In the studio, solving problems, seeking new directions, new things, are part of life and even if dance is an arduous activity, it’s a real joy. It’s through the writing and beyond it that we repeatedly find a form of liberty, because rather than following on from the work, memory comes more through in the formative movement of the work. And then, when one begins to stage a piece, there are other emotions that well up, a bit like hot springs.

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