On Monday, September 17, the Performa Institute and NYU Steinhardt present Why Dance in the Art World?, an exciting evening where we will explore the history and future of the visual arts’ relationship to and interest in dance. The panel discussion will include historian and author of Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet Jennifer Homans; choreographer, writer, and visual artist Ralph Lemon; MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka; and Artforum.com editor and Artforum contributor David Velasco, moderated by Performa founding director and curator RoseLee Goldberg.
As we count down the days to this groundbreaking event, we will look back through Performa’s archives as we search for the answer to “Why Dance in the Art World?”
Today, we have choreographer and scientist Xavier Le Roy in conversation with RoseLee Goldberg, November 2007:
RoseLee Goldberg: Xavier, you are a scientist—a biologist—but you are also a choreographer. How did you go from one to the next?
Xavier Le Roy: I started as a molecular biologist at the University of Montpelier, working on a study that culminated in a written thesis. This was my first experience working in scientific research, and it wasn’t as good as I had hoped. Being treated like a machine—expected to produce results—did not correspond to my understanding of what research was. This experience happened just as I starting taking dance classes. I worked as a volunteer for the big summer dance festival in Montpelier, so I was able to sneak in to all the performances, and I was really attracted to the heterogeneity of what I saw—work by Merce Cunningham, François Verret, Mark Tompkins, Dominique Bagouet, Trisha Brown, and William Forsythe, among others. After I finished my thesis in 1990, I decided I would do more dance. Since then, I have been dancing and choreographing.
And did you carry any conceptual root from molecular biology to dance?
Ten years of study in a scientific university definitely constructed an analytical way of thinking and working. I use this method in my work, but it isn’t specific to the field of biology. I’ve never tried to translate any knowledge or concepts from biology directly into choreography, but of course, they operate unconsciously.
Could you describe the conceptual starting point of your first solo performance, Narcisse Flip, made from 1994 to 1997?
Narcisse Flip was about the driving force to deconstruct the body in order to produce a different perception of it.
Would you describe what you mean by “deconstructing the body”?
Trying to consider one part of the body independently, which is of course impossible, but trying to imagine it. For instance, imagine that my upper arms are glued to my torso, and that my lower arms are able to move starting at the level of my hips. In this example, I would reconstruct the body where the arms start at the hips, not at the shoulders. This is a very simple example, but that is how I work in order to produce different kinds of movements—I try to produce a different body. It is one point of departure for exploring what my body can do, in the Spinozian understanding.
I have such a strong visual picture of that piece. How do you relate your work to the world of visual arts?
I’ve been through several different ideas of visuality in my work. For Narcisse Flip, I was working with a mirror—creating movement and watching it at the same time. When I performed the piece, I tried to recall how I saw the movement in the mirror and mimic it, so the fourth wall between the audience and the performers was like the mirror. For my next piece, Self-Unfinished (1998), I worked with a video camera and monitor in a cycle of activities: first doing an action, then recording it, then watching what I had done on the monitor. When I performed Self-Unfinished, instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I had seen on the monitor, I focused on accomplishing the physical task that I had observed as being at the root of each action, perhaps in a way that would look different than it had ever appeared before. I could not do and see what I do at the same time—there would always be a delay, which meant that I could not register exactly what my actions looked like in real time and each repetition would be different. This method also emphasizes the unknown element of what people will see when I perform. I wanted to make “the fourth wall” no longer a mirror, but a membrane that makes the spectator aware of this coming and going of appearances and disappearances that is constructed by the relationships between them, their perception, and the actions of performer. I explored another aspect of visuality in a piece called Untitled.
Unfinished, unknown, untitled . . .
What was Untitled?
It was a piece I did in 2005 as an “unknown” artist. There was no title, no name, no description, no photos. The principle was to use dummies that looked like me, wearing hoods that covered their faces and clothing that covered their hands and feet, too. I wore the same clothing—all grey—so that no skin was visible. You couldn’t recognize which was an object and which was a human being. The piece was lit by the spectators, who had flashlights. To see something, they had to collaborate to make enough light, so in this piece, it is the audience that produces what it sees. Or in other words, what they see is the extension of the beam of their flashlights, producing a sort of tactile visuality.
Can you say more about the role of the audience in your work?
The spectators, or the audience, have been the focus of my attention for a while. Untitled draws attention to the spectators as individuals who are alone in the darkness. It looks at how the audience constitutes itself out of groups and individuals that do and undo themselves. In this sense, it’s a work that is about the spectators and how they manipulate a show or not, and vice versa. The show was often in the audience. In Le Sacre du Printemps, the spectators are addressed differently at different times. Sometimes they are addressed personally, and sometimes as one or several groups.
Le Sacre du Printemps takes you into music in an entirely new way. Would you talk more about it?
It began when I saw a documentary of the Berlin Philharmonic rehearsing The Rite of Spring, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. I was attracted to the movements of the conductor, in that at some moments it was very unclear whether what he did was provoking or producing the characteristics of the music, or if it was the other way around. What are the causes, what are the effects, and what are the functions of those movements? Having no musical education, I could not be sure. Slowly I started to conceive of him as a dancer, and because the music was originally written for dance, I thought it would be interesting to use the conductor’s movements as choreography. I learned some of his movements and composed additional material as well. I perform these movements in front of the spectators, who are seated in the audience room of a conventional theater, putting them in a situation where they become “virtual” musicians. They don’t have the instruments, of course, but they sit as they would in an orchestra, and my movements are addressed to different groups of instruments or soloists, according to what the musical composition requires.
If I am playing the first violin, am I placed in a special seat in this arrangement? Or does the audience become each instrument on more of a conceptual level?
You would be in a specific seat, because each seat offers a different audible experience. Peter Boehm, our sound engineer, distributed the sounds in different places within the audience, so if you sit as the first violin, you will hear the music in a way similar to what the first violin would hear while seated and playing in an orchestra. You won’t hear the music as if you were in a concert among other spectators.
In this piece, your direct eye contact with the audience is very important. And the house lights are on, so you see them clearly. This is such a change for any performer—how does it feel?
I have never had an experience like it before. It’s quite a challenge because the experience of the piece comes out of relationships established during the performance. These relationships are sometimes very singular and individual, and depend on how each person reacts to the specific movements and gaze addressed to her or him. We are all in the light and none of us can really hide. While performing everything goes very fast—there’s very little time and space to think about what you’re doing or how it’s going. And of course, the exchange of gazes affects me a lot—it’s what creates the richness of the experience. It is difficult to find the balance between keeping track of the recording of this complex music, which continues no matter what else happens, and producing and enjoying these alive exchanges with the audience that are different on each evening.
Le Sacre du Printemps is enormously theatrical in terms of its visual expressionism, broad arm movements, facial gestures, emotions, and of course the extraordinary sound. These elements are much less related to deconstructivism than your earlier work—it seems like they build another kind of space entirely. Do you agree, and is this a direction you want to continue to move in?
Yes, definitely, though at the moment, I have no idea how it is going to develop. This year, for a piece based on the work of the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, I will look for choreographic potential in the gestures of musicians. This project is actually quite deconstructivist however: it works with all the possibilities in between seeing and hearing, seeing but not hearing, or not seeing but hearing the sound and gestures produced by musicians playing in a live concert situation. The aim is to investigate three of Lachenmann’s compositions: Pression (1969) for solo cello, Salut für Caudwell (1997) for two guitarists, and Gran Torso (1971/1976/1988), his first string quartet. The musicians will sometimes perform without any instruments, which emancipates them from the actions that serve or derive from playing music; they can instead build autonomous movements not reduced to function, which could at once bring them closer to the spectators and, maybe, transform them into “dancers.”