INTERVIEW WITH JUHA MARSALO
How did you come to work with Jean Lambert-wild on War Sweet War? What do you think made him come to you and seek a choreographic approach?
This collaboration was a logical step. In The Retreat into the Forests (Le Recours aux Forêts) which Carolyn Carlson choreographed, I found myself in the peculiar position of being a performer. I do sometimes perform, though I don’t seek it. At the time, Jean saw how I worked with Carolyn: in a collaborative way. Besides, I am familiar with Jean’s language and was already immersed in a world where music, movement and special effects intertwined. As for integrating choreography to the show, it relates to Jean Lambert-wild’s desire to uncover new dramatic languages. In order to achieve this, he relies on the human body and needed someone who works with bodies: this is where I came in!
Jean Lambert-wild talks of an unspeakable tension at the heart of the show, a tension that cannot be spoken yet must be represented on stage. Does it resonate with you, the fact that the performers are dancers, and that they only express themselves through body language and movement?
To me, the body, time, space and movement are as many language possibilities - communicative, moving, tangible languages that exceed words. Words are intellectual, they’re symbols, which is great! But life is a bodily experience. In this show, we’re broaching life, fear, anguish, catastrophe and things that are very powerful emotionally, and trying to express them in a primal way, without resorting to words... We’re searching within feelings, within the body, to find a nameless, word-free language behind which structures start to emerge. In short, we’re creating a kind of a poetics, because poetry is a way to express what is not rational, what goes beyond us. Putting four performers who are trained dancers on stage without any text, despite the fact that this is, at heart, a theatre project, is a risky endeavour. I am familiar with the works of Alain Platel and Pina Bausch, but their shows retain the energy of dance, whereas our starting point is theatrical. The body, rather than the dance, is at the core of it. I fully accept this starting point.
Do you think it is important or necessary to put movement at the core of the show in order to address this topic? To appeal to the audience on a perceptive level through physical rather than intellectual empathy with the dancers?
I think the show has a very intellectual and structured component, a narrative manipulating a surface - movement. The surface itself is a lot more primitive. We are however far from pure instinct. The structure behind it is very clear, it is expressed wordlessly through the sensitive interface that is the skin. It's about experiencing the body, our breathing, our fears, our anxieties and our love, all that is visceral, but to experience it all within that particular structure. That is the beauty of the exercise. Jean has a range of very clear visions, of various theatre worlds, and isn’t driven by pure instinct. He throws himself into projects with a strong intellectual will - both felt and confirmed by emotions and instinct - but his process is thought-through. Andrei Tarkovsky expressed the idea that "death does not exist", instead, it is the fear of death that exists. Death cannot be named. Death and war are not visible; they are present all around us like a ghost that terrifies us and that we cannot name. That’s what we’re attempting to talk about here, with this language.
At this stage in the creative process, how do you conceptualise movement? Where do you draw inspiration and nourishment for the choreographic language you will be using with the dancers?
I have a personal approach to movement, which I call Open Dance. What I am after, in a way, is pure dance that is simply based on the body, on being alive and being made of matter. I can’t comprehend how body and mind can be regarded as separate entities. Our bodies and movements induce physical changes in the brain, at a structural level! In addition, we are all subject to gravity, which leads us to be as we are. Our bodies and our minds are the result of the evolution of our species. The body, which is grounded in reality, carries our intelligence. The reality of the body is what interests me and, though it might sound utopian, it is where I seek beauty and freedom. Up to what point can the body feel and react to the oppressing forces around it, how are its movements aligned with weights, energies and breath? How much freedom and space can the body find around and within itself? In short, how does movement dredge up all the depth we carry within ourselves and how does form emerge from all these elements? The aim is to show our condition and circumstances as human beings. However, for this project, the body is set in theatre. I’m not sure to what extent I will be using my open dance technique. I might have to resort to other poetic techniques relating to the presentation of the body’s emotions and sensations, such as Carolyn Carlson ‘s approach, who brings out a form of corporeal poetry that is often symbolic.
This is a collaborative endeavour to create a work of theatre : I have a range to draw upon for my work on form. When the time comes to explain elements of the story through movement, I will draw from this range. The explanation may even be superfluous at times... In this case, we will find new depths. I’m hoping to infuse some elements of open dance into our creation, but only if it serves the purpose.
You’re working with these four dancers for the first time. What choreographic means are you using to communicate with them? Did you have a shared language or did you have to start from scratch?
I’ll go back to your first question: as a performer, I’d already experienced conflicting visions and information. I see the dance team (the four dancers and myself) as a sub-team within the greater theatre team. To start with, we need to understand each other within this sub-team... Because I hadn’t previously worked with these performers, we had to come up with a shared language before facing the other team.
The performers will receive a lot of conflicting information which they will have to integrate. They will be the ones carrying the whole piece. In addition, Carolyn Carlson and I had a text to base our work on for The Retreat into the Forests (Le Recours aux Forêts), but in this case, the text is still missing. The starting point for this project is the set - it is so imposing, it makes it impossible to devise a choreography beforehand in a studio: you would need to use height in order to see the two floors simultaneously! However, though there is no text, the show still requires the presence of dramaturgical elements, like stones on a road. The idea is to pave the way from the first to the second stone, but this path can still be mapped out freely.
The structure of the set creates an effect of duplication of the two floors. Would you say this duplication - of characters, of the space but also of the performers, who happen to be two sets of twins - informs the work, both from a visual and choreographic point of view?
It certainly creates an unprecedented disruption in our perception of things. I’ve never found myself in such a situation: this twinning of characters and settings requires sensitivity and a lot of instinct; how will it manage to tell a story?
Are there gestures or physical behaviours between brothers and sisters that echo each other?
The relationship between twins is a special one: to some extent, since the beginning of their lives, they were never on their own... When they look at the other, they see themselves, their own mistakes, and the other’s flaws. The other also knows he is being seen. The question of who’s watching whom on stage is multiplied exponentially! However, when, for instance, one of the twins was alone in one space without her sister, her behaviour became very different! We multiplied by two the world that exists between twins, and it suddenly created a different view of the world.
In the early stages of the project, Jean Lambert-wild mentioned that he was inspired by the figure of the zombie. Is this something you relate to, that inspires your choreographic work?
This dimension is still present, but I think it is not so much the figure of the "zombie" as it is that of the living dead: what is dead but not yet at peace, what haunts us, what is irrational and goes beyond this living and physical reality that we know. The idea now is to figure out how to dramatise it, how to flesh it out. We already have the tools and the range to do so, if only through the real disruption caused by the duplication! The duplication allows us to see and project many things, and to say : the second character is the ghost of the first one, he is the dead version of the first character. Also, the introduction of ghosts in the theatre, beyond rationality, is a gateway to understanding the work of Jean Lambert-wild. He may picture a zombie while I want the zombie to be alive. But I think we both see the same thing.
Interview by Eugenie Pastor