interview about une étendue

  • by YVANE CHAPUIS  – Questions d’Artistes – Création contemporaine au Collège des Bernardins – Sept/Dec 2011

Rémy Héritier’s latest, highly visual and temporally drawn-out choreographic piece activates a relationship to concrete space that enables the spectator to constantly renew their perception of the site they find themselves in.

Yvane Chapuis : If a child were to ask you what job you do, what would your answer be?

If the words ‘dancer’ or ‘choreographer’ didn’t mean anything to them, then I think I would like to say that my job is like going on a long walk in a place you don’t know, but that you chose nevertheless, without ever having been there. A slightly wild meander, where some of the landscapes seem familiar to us and activate our imagination beyond what lies before us. This familiarity makes us curious about things we are beholding for the very first time. We don’t want to go back so we try and hide behind a rock, we would like to be able to turn into stone or dig a hole, to make ourselves invisible and truly present in this site and able to stay on there. So we start doing it (turning ourselves into stone, for instance) but very quickly we feel a desire to go back and recount what we have seen and done to those who weren’t there.

You are developing a collective project, bringing together dancers, a composer and a light designer to work alongside you. In parallel, you are pursuing a solo project. What motivates these solitary or collective engagements?

I have only done one solo piece to date, in response to an invitation by Philipp Gehmacher, an Austrian choreographer I have been dancing with for several years. The piece tours regularly, under the name Dispositions, and it centers around my definition of “document”, i.e., an object — whatever its nature — that enables a better understanding of another object. In this piece, I use documents to make present the site that I am located in along with the spectators. I use descriptions of images, readings, dances, names of towns and cities, and distances, in order to act via association and differentiation and, in this way, make a site — the place we find ourselves in — perceptible through its relationship to external data. These documents comprise a photo of the University of Moscow found on Wikipedia while researching the piece Chevreuil (Deer), an excerpt from the text Words Fail Me written and read by Virginia Woolf for the BBC in 1937, the distance between the place we are located in at the time of the show and various cities across the globe, the reenactment of a phrase that became one of Margaret Thatcher’s slogans, a lengthy dance developed according to a process that allows me, with varying degrees of explicitness, to touch on gestural references belonging to a broader history of dance, thus invoking collective and individual memory.

Your work takes shapes both on the stage and beyond, namely in parks and gardens — how do these different ways of practicing dance articulate with one another in your view?

At first, I pursued both lines in parallel. Being outside reconnected me with my childhood, my adolescence, and more specifically with my riding experience. Being outside takes you far beyond the mere pleasure of being in nature and the beauty you might see in it. My most beautiful memories are probably my memories of long rides on horseback under torrential rain, or in the snow… my memories of being with horses terrified by the lightning at night. I like feeling overwhelmed in this way: it’s a way of feeling truly present and of negotiating parameters you can never fully master. Today, whether you are inside or outside the theatre matters little. The question I’m particularly interested in exploring is how to propose artistic processes and shows that interrogate and, in a sense, respond to the fact that they are inscribed in a place — be it a large or small place, a delimited place (such as the theatre stage or the black box), or an out-of-doors, open site… How are we to avoid drawing distinctions between self and environment? This notion is well encapsulated in a sentence in The Coming Insurrection, in the chapter on ecology: “As long as there is Man and Environment, the police will be there between them”.

How do you implement this idea?

For me, solving this issue for une étendue, that we will be presenting in the nave of the Collège des Bernardins, first entailed apprehending my work as a place, as a concrete and poetic territory that I can occupy and take position in, as with any kind of tangible site like a city or a theatre stage for example. In a project, the notion of a ‘topic’ therefore makes no sense to me: I don’t ground my projects in a ‘theme’ or a ‘subject’… It is more a case of evacuating a question which I approach as an external object, about working from the very core of things after carrying out a full review, like archeologists who classify and organise what they have unearthed. Gilles Clément’s Manifesto of the Third Landscape acted as a trigger: it is as if it authorised me to work within the blind spot of my previous projects. The driving force here is the idea that each planning initiative produces a “délaissé” — an “abandoned lot” — which, according to the author, constitutes one of the richest sites possible in terms of biological diversity. I immediately wanted to replace “landscape planning” with “choreography”.

In Chevreuil, the piece that preceded une étendue, my approach was grounded in the idea that what I produce when rehearsing or on stage are documents if they have a name or are identified in some way. For me, a document is an identified object that can be used: it is any kind of object that simply enables us to have a better understanding of another object. I disregard the “recording” dimension that this term generally implies; instead, I apprehend a document as a potential place, both a projection and reflection surface.

With une étendue I wanted to apply this notion of ‘document’ to all the pieces already created and to all the sources that had enabled me to create them. So, when I was doing a residency in Lisbon in 2010 to begin giving shape to this piece, I had all the notes that I’d taken over the years and I tried to identify the directions that kept emerging in a precise form, or simply as ideas: the possible choreographic directions that I was aware of and those that I was not aware of, the directions I wanted to pursue and those that, for various reasons, I no longer felt drawn to.

It seemed that I needed to relinquish certain things, certain political forms, like the anthem for instance — this degree zero of togetherness that I had approached in various ways in earlier projects, in Archives (2005) and Chevreuil (2009) for instance. In Chevreuil, I approached the issue through a choral reading of a text by Judith Butler (an excerpt from her book of interviews with Gayatri Spivak) titled Who Sings the Nation State?. In this text, Judith Butler reflects on the illegal immigrants protest in Los Angeles in 2006 where demonstrators — Mexican for the main part —  sang the United States national anthem in Spanish, claiming it as Nuestro Hymno. She shows how illegal minorities attempt to access forms of legality by performing illegal acts (taking to the streets undocumented, for instance). At the time, Bush had to take position on a crucial issue: can one sing the national anthem in a language other than English? He answered in the negative.
If I had made the choice to maintain the reading of this text in une étendue, I would have had to find a way of testifying to the age of this material, and of updating it. After Chevreuil and Facing the sculpture — which were relatively concrete pieces (in the sense that they were abstract), sometimes made arid by the total absence of transition in the writing — the choice to no longer pursue with this kind of document was motivated by the desire to allow my work to embrace more fiction, as with my first pieces.

Which documents do you use in une étendue?

Unlike Chevreuil — a piece constructed like a succession of units with no, or hardly any, transition — une étendue is slightly more complex in its construction in that the documents are never performed alone, for their own sake. I sought to create a third term in each sequence of the piece by making at least two documents articulate with one another. It is a distant consequence of the idea of “délaissé”   — an abandoned space, or lot — that Gilles Clément discusses: engineer two surfaces of time and space in order to let an “abandoned lot” emerge between the two. This vacant space is precisely the site the spectator’s gaze and thoughts will position themselves in.

I therefore prefer to answer your question by listing the sequences rather than the documents themselves. The first sequence, called “au milieu d’une étendue” (“in the middle of an area”), plays out three times over the duration of the piece. There is no intrinsic dramatic element indicating the beginning or end of the sequence. The start and end are induced by the diffusion and cessation of a musical element that deafens this ordinary action: we speak among ourselves, preparing what will follow; we place objects in space; in a practical and physical manner we organise and introduce what will be happening. The music is similar to cinematographic music in the way it suggests narrative possibilities: a theme and variations that organise an infinitely expanding fiction. The purpose of the second, silent sequence, called “le décompte – les amibes” (“the countdown – the amoebas”), is to immerse ourselves in the time and space of the piece, to connect with the audience through what we all share at this precise point: breathing. The space is organised around a performer, who counts backwards from 2011 to 1, and three other performers who harmonise the primary movement of their inspirations and exhalations, made audible by the slight whistling sound of the air passing from inside to outside, and vice versa. A long, musical and very meditative sequence follows — “avant le rythme” (“before the rhythm”) — which is composed of relaying rhythms created by the different echoes produced by the venue. We observe and experiment with the various possibilities that the site offers in terms of echo duration by manipulating various wooden rhythm sticks. Each action (i.e., striking a part of the building with the stick) is induced by listening to the echo of the previous strike as opposed to being a memorised and mechanically reproduced rhythm. The two documents we use are therefore ‘rhythm’ and ‘the building’. In the next sequence, “la surface de projection” (“the projection surface”), a performer dances solo, while the musician plays a guitar piece and a second performer observes the scene that is unraveling and undertakes a written description of it. Then the person who was dancing reads the text while the third performer, who had not witnessed the scene, starts to dance, without music, in the gap opened up by the reading of the description and the memory the spectators have of what has just taken place. This is followed by “relier les traces” (linking the traces), the longest danced section in the piece. It is a trio, danced to music, that unfolds across the whole space of the venue. An hour has passed since the beginning of the show and we end with the longest sequence titled “vers la forme brève” (“towards the brief form”) which is composed of four solos that relay one another. Each of us, one after the other, must develop a dance or piece of music containing the entire piece, bearing in mind that we are singular entities allowed 7 to 8 minutes each. Each of our “brief forms” is structured very precisely, but must nonetheless take into account what happened during the show.

Although the place itself or the in situ occupies a central position in a piece like une étendue it can nevertheless be relocated from one site to another: it premiered in a theatre in Valenciennes, yet you will be presenting it in the nave of the Collège des Bernardins. Isn’t there something paradoxical about that?

The in situ is not about portraying a place, in my view. It is important that a piece contain enough open material, material that, in other words, is porous to different sites. However, there are some necessary parameters. For une étendue, one of these parameters is the depth of the space, and the nave of the Collège des Bernardins is perfect in this respect. But one of the stakes of the project is also its intrinsic ability to adapt and renew itself. While preparing to revisit the piece at the Bernardins, I realised that what I had to do was consider the site and the piece two separate entities that have no immediate connection with one another. I would like to superimpose the plan of our trajectories in the piece onto the plan of the concrete space of the nave. Once superimposed, I like the idea of effecting a slight shift between the two plans, to highlight the discrepancies. In my view, these gaps are what will enable a true encounter between the piece and the site, between the spectators and the piece.
How are we to make these gaps manifest? How might we open up questions for each person attending, ourselves included?

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