Interview with Jennifer Lacey by Virginie Bobin (with Grégory Castéra and Alice Chauchat) (translated by David Pickering)
Virginie Bobin In your introduction to the project Ma première fois avec un dramaturge, you talk about building "personal freedom through process, and social freedom through form." Can you elaborate?
Jennifer Lacey Personal freedom is quite a difficult thing to define. When we can have or do whatever we want, we lose all desire and end up wanting nothing. For me constraints, structures and boundaries are important parts of feeling what I call the personal freedom to accept or to refuse. But personal freedom also means choosing how we spend our time in general and what we want to get out of it. I find that we can really take advantage of time spent when we are in controlled situations with clearly-defined boundaries—the process of putting on a show is one such situation I'm quite familiar with. When we can break with the logic of the Industrial Revolution, which directs all our energies toward the end result, we discover the object of spectacle is not the only product we find within the process. That is what I work towards and achieve with varying success, it is what the project is about. When working with a dramaturge, I try to have a very accommodating attitude—without agreeing to or approving everything of course. I try to start out by creating a space where the person can feel at home with his or her ideas and uncertainties without that causing a problem.
The other question is much more theoretical: can we propose audience models that lead to new ways of thinking about live performance, new forms? My intention isn't to set people up for failure because they don't already think in this totally modern, totally liberated way, but just to offer them forms that give them the space to identify this feeling of being engaged. I dream and hope that this recurrence will elicit new propositions about "how to be together" in the largest sense of the term.
VB For this project, then, the functions of choreographer and dramaturge are nothing more than pretexts?
JL Absolutely. And while we hope the performative objects will be successful and not boring, they are themselves only excuses for the process. So the project is its own final object or form, not the objects it produces. Of course the question of what forms it may engender will come up, but the goal is not to pressure the objects in that way. They are there to act as an invitation. More and more people ask me how I choose my dramaturges and they are totally shocked when I answer that it is they who approach me and that they don't need to have a great deal of dance experience. I find that totally normal. I don't find my decision surprising.
VB Before continuing with the interview, I would like to return to the questions we prepared for the dramaturges you have worked with. The last question pertains to the freedoms and constraints they found in the project.
JL Freedoms and constraints... I would rather not linger on power dynamics right now and, while we're on the subject, I'd like us to put aside questions of authority too. They may be valid, but they are not where my interests lie. Of course power is at play, or rather place—the power of taking a place, of giving up a place—but not control. The audience discussions in particular have been too focused on those issues, given that the project relegates the question of "who is master" to the sidelines. This kind of discussion doesn't seem pertinent to me because it refers to a conception of the artist I would like us to pretend we think is obsolete. That's sort of the name of the game actually, to evolve while pretending.
Alice Chauchat It seems to me that your work often redefines the function of the performance, turning it into a situation and an experience rather than just an object to be observed. What I mean is the performance's structure and various elements—dance, music, speech, etc.—aren't used for their inherent qualities but to create a space. We see this phenomenon most clearly in your collaborations with dramaturges. Here the performances are like a "side-effect" of your partnership and seem to lend themselves first and foremost to discussion. There is no way you can share a week's worth of work with spectators who have come to see a single performance. So the project is more than just an experience shared by two individuals and more than a performative object, it falls somewhere in between, escaping easy analysis by the audience. What do you think?
JL I've been wanting to answer those exact questions in writing from the beginning, but I'll try to answer them now. I like this term "side-effect." It describes the situation quite neatly. It's a very accurate reading of my work, in which esthetics are ever-present but unsure of their worth. Their purpose, notably in my work with Nadia Lauro, is to create ambiance —but not an "ambient" esthetic of course.
But what I'd like to talk about is the way the project forces me to confront other conceptions of contemporaneity. Almost all the dramaturges I work with are in the arts, in contemporary culture. Even Bruno who is in baroque music has his own contemporary esthetic, which is different from mine. A privileged few get to decide what constitutes "appropriate contemporaneity." Each, of course, judges his or her own conception to be the appropriate one. I come from the field of dance where a new kind of contemporaneity comes along every year and changes the yardstick against which everything else gets measured. But showing respect for other people's contemporaneity is a difficult task. I do it, but it isn't easy. Some aesthetic visions I just sort of reject—some of them but not all of them. There are some places I just don't want to go, and I hope it's not because they don't fit into my definition of contemporaneity, but because we are making an object together and we have to progress within our own aesthetic visions.
For me, the main issue that this project raises is how to experience someone else's contemporaneity. Not just how to tolerate it, but how to actually make something together. It's true that that is not something we can share with the audience, it remains between us. It's a romantic notion, but I think the experience has an impact on our respective projects too. Dramaturges tell me the experience gives them a creative license that is new to them and which they come to enjoy. And at the point we come to enjoy something, we can begin to construct that enjoyment for others, to ask for, or even demand it.
This works best when audience members see at least two pieces, so that the conversation can benefit from their experience of different pieces. Actually, the project is the piece for me, not the "performances." One of my potential strong points in this project is that I take the validity of these objects very seriously and at the same time I embark on projects I might have trouble defending in another context. It's hard to say...
I think this problem of ending up in an in-between has been a failure so far. But it's exactly what Alice describes: all the projects create a space to produce something, something which I can't name for the moment.
VB You used the word "piece" earlier. When you look at the project as a whole, would you define it as more of a "research project" or more of a "work"?
JL It's a work, not a research project (laughter)! It's very important not to call it that, because after all this talk about process, research sounds nice but it takes power away from the creative act. Why would I qualify it as research? I am not going to do a big solo piece based on what I learn here and what will I learn anyway? Plenty, of course, as will the dramaturges and the Laboratoires too, but how much is difficult to say. And research often gets expressed in this academic language where we start with a hypothesis followed by a period of research and when we've finished, we are further along in our knowledge. Anyway, I don't know if I'm able to give it a name right now.
VB For me this touches, broadly speaking, on issues of publication—public performances, but also the way the project is documented, conveyed, published.
JL Those questions can be interesting, sure, but I am very comfortable with the idea that the work is what is actually executed. It isn't the documentation that will validate it. I think that documentation is a tertiary product, a side element. It may produce an attractive object of some importance, but it doesn't stand in for the work or the validation of that work. I have doubts about that old conceptual art trope that says documentation equals the artwork. For me execution is important, as are the things people say about it. I am preparing another project in the United States that feeds off this one. It's about living through the experience of finding ourselves someplace we're not. In each project with dramaturges I can name the place where I wasn't or where I found myself because of this person. It is not a physical place, but really a mental place, a set of faculties that were foreign to me before entering into this partnership.
VB During rehearsals, you abdicate some of your authority at the risk of confusing roles during the public presentations (the tip of the research project "iceberg"). You relinquish control over the choreography to benefit a (formally) risky dramaturgical idea.
JL That's true. I automatically abdicate authorship in everything I do. At the same time I realize that, if I've chosen my cast well, the more authority and authorship I abdicate the more of them I get back. It works like a charm! [Laughter] My control over the work comes from a kind of magnetism rather than a physicality and I like that.
At the beginning "contextual appropriateness" fueled my imagination. Someone shows up and contextualizes your work as appropriate within an idea of contemporaneity—formerly in the original sense of the word and today in the sense of a contemporary object designed to be contemporary. That annoyed me, so I tried to challenge the authority of that contemporaneity by purposely inviting dramaturges with a different contemporaneity than my own. I didn't want to turn my aesthetic into a religion, even if it is important to me! With these dramaturges, I didn't get entrenched in my position as author and I am gradually realizing that is my esthetic.
VB After the first presentation of the project many people were surprised by what emanated from this tiny portion of the work they had access to, maybe because it foiled their expectations going into a work by Jennifer Lacey. The project's context wasn't exactly accessible.
JL [Laughter] They must have been thinking, what on earth is this? At the same time, I am totally comfortable accepting responsibility for it, it's no problem for me being the author. It was harder with Déborah. I really appreciated working with her, she was the only one who came from a dance background and we had an incredible dialogue, but it touched on an area of esthetics that I'd staked out a few years before. I had an attachment to dance's role within a certain theatrical space where I had spent time before shifting gears. I went back there with Déborah and it was more problematic for my self-esteem. We talked about it because I didn't want to have to go through it alone, or for her to see it as a judgment of her work. That's just been my path in terms of theatrical tropes and it was hard for me, even in the context of this show.
VB I think it's courageous to put your aura (reputation?) as a choreographer on the line by flirting with the fantasies of dramaturges who are dance amateurs. Can you say more about the critical potential of this system? And about these fantasies?
JL It is nice to hear it said out loud, because it does take courage to break with an esthetic vision one has spent years carefully fostering and in a single project. The truly positive side is that I am able to really examine my own reasoning when it comes to my esthetic and critical ideas about art. For example, I find myself confronted with a dramaturge who wants me to dance with a chair. I have to and want to be able to give a reason why I can't go there, toward this proposition, and to question my reasons. Is it just a knee-jerk reaction or a stumbling block put there by my appropriate contemporaneity? At what point is it a real artistic choice? Most of the time I subtly alter the proposition: these small adjustments must force me to specify the blind spots in my own thinking. To me that's what it means to think critically: to always reveal the blind or deaf spots in one's perspective or faculties. As for fantasies, I often find them uninteresting. I have to respect the fact that, for me, they are parts of the individual that aren't interesting. My fantasies probably revolve around less experienced dramaturges. I think I imagined myself with a baker, a gym teacher—I guess I had some pretty vile fantasies about the working class that never panned out [laughter]! No one accepted the invitation but it was no big deal, we received other types of responses. Except for Alain. His artistic practice is very evolved but he is totally outside the art world validated by institutions. He does a lot of amateur art, is extremely insightful, unique, thoughtful, but also not at all framed by the same frame as I am. In a way, Alain was my fantasy of a dramaturge.
The others are a little bit more professional than I imagined but that's okay. I find myself in situations, like with Déborah, where there is a lot of affinity but also a lot of danger for me and for her. That is where things get interesting, when you can help the other person into these dangerous places—though the risks are not enormous! It's possible to address these difficulties, to work on and confront them without necessarily fetishizing them.
VB In this introductory text, you claim not to fetishize the notion of amateurs.
JL I have to admit that's a total lie. I didn't fantasize about the surplus value of people, that much is true. I can go on respecting myself since working not with amateur dramaturges, but with another kind of professional, didn't throw me off at all.
Grégory Castéra You write that one of the motivations for this project was a resistance to dramaturgy when it first appeared in the field of dance in the 1990s. This resistance was linked to a vision of the dramaturge as an authority figure who, based on prior knowledge of the dancer's work, would instruct him or her what to do on stage. You have now met four dramaturges with very different profiles. Have you been able to identify other ways of playing this role? What constitutes a good dramaturge for you?
JL Oh boy, I'm not a good dramaturge, that's for sure! My reaction to dramaturges always comes out of a vision of authority, linked to their emergence in the 90s. I talk about my own fantasy of the dramaturge's dual role in an interview with Silke Bake: first, to validate the contemporaneity of a work, to give it value in the network of contemporaries, and even more destructive, to explain dance's most secret thoughts.... As though dance weren't really an idea and that it was only by way of an idea that you could make dance intelligible, receivable for a thinking audience. I find these fantasies about dance very disquieting because, by regulating dance with academic or theatrical codes, they may have prevented choreographic ideas from being resolved by the work. It's a big problem for me to have someone there whose job it is to resolve issues. Resolved works don't interest me. Yet, despite all that, I have always worked with someone who functions like a dramaturge, even if we didn't call it that. To each his or her own process. I am no longer a young artist so I am much less sensitive to the necessity of validating myself in that way. It's too late... "Have I been able to identify other ways of playing this role?" I would have a hard time naming them. I should take the time to write something on the subject. The arrival of a dramaturge is quite a delicate thing. I talk about it in my interview with Silke—the dramaturge is potentially the first audience member, the first person who receives and gives back. When they get here they don't have any more of a clue than I do about what a dramaturge is. That's why it becomes a real collaboration. We co-create the thing, but at some point I always try to bring in my voice as choreographer, if I don't the project loses all meaning for me. The role of choreographer is just as absurd, but it's a role I play sometimes. For me, the creative process is the most important part of the work, so, with each new person, we try out a new form of critical thinking. After five days of creation, a critical language emerges. For example, now, with Bruno, we play badminton and sing. He knows the material very well because he has seen two shows by dramaturges, so he can refer to such and such an issue and talk about it with me in this context we are trying to create. He shows up with a piece of his own work, not because he wants it to rub off on me, but so we can use it as a basis for discussion and as a critical foundation. This person produces a clear but simplified platform for interaction. It's quite an interesting idea: it is both the piece the person proposes and the person him- or herself that make the critical point of view, that contextualizes it.
VB In this project your role is to become a surface for other people's projections. Is that painful? In parallel, you are developing another project about beauty care (I Heart Lygia Clark). Does your malleability in the project make you feel like you're getting a massage or more like a punching ball? Does it leave marks?
JL I've really put a lot into this project. I don't want to complain, but it takes a lot out of me to build a new show from the ground up each week and then dance in it. It just takes practice and it's quite a joyful experience, actually... What is less enjoyable is to constantly have to shed your own esthetic. I hope it passes. I have faith in the fact that it's passing and I did it on purpose I think. You don't make a move like this thinking you'll come out whole—or the same whole you were anyway. I think that I destroy my identity as choreographer every time, even though I still depend on it and it actually ends up being strengthened. I play a part, like in those German therapy sessions where you play someone else's mother... it's hard to explain. I often say I'm disconnecting, but I don't know what from. It has something to do with spectacle, not in that Guy Debord sense but in the sense of performative tension, or rather a performative intention.
Interview published in Le Journal des Laboratoires Sept-Dec. 2010