The Transformation Of The World
A (slightly speculative) talk with the artist, performer and professor Xavier Le Roy about the relationship between music and dance
After the "performative turn” of the arts, some say that gradually, a "sonic turn” is taking shape. Is, in this sense, the dance/performance world actually undergoing a shift in focus? And if so, what are its implications? As an artist, Xavier Le Roy, freshly assigned Professor for Performing Arts Praxis at the Institute for Applied Theatre Sciences at Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen, has approached the relationship between movement and sound in various investigations such as "Mouvements für Lachenmann" (2005), "Haben Sie ‘Modern’ gesagt?" (2016), or "Le sacre du printemps" (2007/2018), most recently staged at the Biennale di Venezia, ImPulsTanz Vienna and in Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau in the context of the exhibition "Welt ohne Aussen”.
Xavier Le Roy, I would like to approach with you the actual state of an archaic relationship: dance and music. When I sent you the enquiry, you were surprised by the term "archaic”. Why?
I was surprised that there would be something new going on but not by the term archaic. The relationship between dance and music or between movement and sound is an ongoing one. In the history of dance and music you can trace different strategies. Starting from the music or starting from the movement, such as in some baroque traditions when even the name of the musical forms derived from dances. With respect to today, I wonder if there is something going on now that is special.
I think so.
It seems that I am not aware of that. Tell me!
Great, but maybe we could start with the recent history that you are part of: Which role would you attribute to music in the conceptual dance movement?
I cannot say anything generally about the movement of "Conceptual Dance”, however I can speak for myself. Actually we would have to specify what we understand by conceptual dance, but maybe we could speculate that some conceptual dances have produced or used different kinds of association and dissociation between dance and music – we should consider that in terms of actual works. For example in "Jérôme Bel par Jérôme Bel" and "The Show Must Go On", Jérôme Bel engages in two different kinds of relationships. When I started with my work [before "Self Unfinished" in 1998] I was collaborating with [the contemporary music composer and pianist] Alexander Birntraum. He was composing and performing the music and I was dancing. The way we worked together was very profound. But since the production was mainly shown at places with an interest in dance, the experience frustrated him. The musical aspects were more or less ignored. So he decided to stop and I found myself in a situation that was very unpleasant because I felt responsible. Unfortunately, I had no influence on the reception…
So you kicked the music out.
Yes, in other words, I decided to stop working and performing in situations where music and movements would be simultaneous. I didn’t want to generate this frustration anymore. A way of accomplishing this was to work totally alone. In "Self Unfinished”, I was responsible for everything – for all the critique as well. Consequently, when I used music, I used it as a sign or a framework, etc., but not as something that dealt with the experience or the production of the relationship of dance and music. This continued for a while. It changed again in 2003 when I was working with [composer] Bernhard Lang’s "The theatre of repetition” for which I took up on the questions I had about the synchronicity of dance and music or more generally addressed relationships between movements and sounds.
The latter includes the fact that you can’t dissociate a movement from the sounds it generates?
Yes, when you observe a musician playing an instrument, there is – in one body – a synchronicity of the movement that shehe makes and the sound that shehe plays. This fact touches a core question: our desire or our rejection of the synchronicity of what we hear and see; the longing for harmony or the suspicion of being manipulated – like in advertisements, where the synchronisation of what you see and what you hear triggers some kind of associations in order to make you buy something.
We could say that what is going on at the moment is something like a cure for your early artistic partner Birntraum’s frustration. The quite indifferent soundscape episode seems a little bit outdated and I would like to point to four different approaches in dance making that represent a deep musical interest: We have the work with the musical score, we have quite a number of choreographers who are beginning to sing, we have the concentration on listening or even what is called deep listening, and we still have the interest in ritualistic celebrations of club music. Do you agree?
These are different strategies to deal with the relationship of dance and music.
Aside from the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, for years the score of classical music was something completely alien for contemporary dance. This has changed slightly.
Anne Teresa is the flagship of it, namely because of her success in working out of the structure of the music. But you could as well include Maguy Marin who is also coming from the tradition of Maurice Béjart’s Mudra school [where score analyses were part of the studies]. From my side the use of the score is a by-product of trying to understand what I call the "ideal synchronisation” of the musician, to be able to read what I see and hear. You could have called me a musical illiterate before. [Despite my interest in conducting when working on "Le sacre du printemps”] I didn’t want to become a conductor. But since the score is one of the main tools used by the musician to move and produce sound I had to develop an understanding. The aim of using the score is to broaden the differentiations in the relationship it can produce as well as ways of emancipation.
You didn’t want to become a conductor but actually there are quite some dancers wanting to become singers: Ivo Dimchev just gave up his dance career for singing, Philipp Gehmacher reopened Tanzquartier Wien last January with a cover song concert. Or Claire Vivianne Sobottke who said about her "Strange Songs” project that singing is a kind of irrational speaking, and also invited a bunch of other dancers to sing at the most recent Tanznacht Berlin in August.
I don’t know if singing is more irrational than dancing. Laughs. This depends on the approach. The examples you gave seem to be connected to different reasons and decisions. Singing, for example, might be considered as the wish to embody. The choice of working with sounds, listening, singing as an artistic means can also be affected by the resistance to the production of visuals that we are overloaded by. Not that we aren’t overloaded by sounds, too… But still we live in a very visual culture. The question is to look for ways to rearticulate the relation between how we see, how we hear and how we speak out, or/and how we look, how we listen and how we understand. Concerning the artists you mentioned, those who use pop songs, for example, obviously create a reference to a common culture referred to as "popular”. But we should ask them what their motivation is in doing it.
From singing to listening: Just to name a few, I think that Laurent Chétouane or Antonia Baehr or those dancers/choreographers who are applying composer Pauline Oliveros’s ideas of deep listening refer to it with a sense of questioning the traditions of seeing which are connected to structures of symmetry, attributes of hierarchy, notions of profiling, identity politics... What do you think changes if we listen?
Seeing is only happening in front of us and hearing surrounds us, and that matter of fact has developed a certain hierarchy in how we perceive and how we conceive our world. We have to learn a lot about and from listening. The way I approach music is guided by the wish to learn different ways of listening and also to hear things that I did not hear before. From John Cage, I have learned that silence is not silence and can become music, and from Helmut Lachenmann I have learned how to perceive the music of things. We can do the exercise now: Listening to things or beings that we normally don’t listen to. The trees, for example. If we hear them, it changes our relationship to the world.
We are sitting outside of a café at Vienna’s Museumsquartier and are listening to the wind moving through the acacias on this summer morning as well as to the sounds of the waiters, doing their job.
How does it change your relationship to the world concretely?
How can I describe the transformation of my relationship to the world through listening? This sounds like the title of a book that we’re not able to write right now.
The first paragraph?
I think listening changes the relationship to what one thinks is part of "our” worlds and what is not. And this is a question of inclusion or exclusion. Of taking care of things, or not. That’s a mode of constructing the "We(s)” and the "I(s)” and their relationships. But these changes are not only made by listening; they are also part of making art as such. The practice of unbinding something in order to find new relationships is a similar act. The relationship of dance and music is interesting because it is a game of dissociation and association – which is actually a very political question. It’s an exercise on how to be, or how to make another part of or not part of the worlds we compose and construct.