Xavier Le Roy

The French choreographer offers two sides of his art: a performance and a lecture

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More Mouvements

More Mouvements Photograph: Monika Rittershaus

This season Xavier Le Roy has a little more music up his sleeve. After presenting his performance piece The Rite of Spring in 2007—he conducted the score while facing the audience—Le Roy returns to New York with More Mouvements fr Lachenmann. Included in this year's Crossing the Line festival, the production is a mesmerizing look at a musical concert without instruments; ultimately, it reveals the movement behind the sound, transforming the way we listen and look. For it, Le Roy, a microbiologist turned choreographer, works with the music of Helmut Lachenmann and eight musicians to stage a dance driven by the composer's unconventional playing techniques (his pieces are known as musique concrte instrumentale). And Le Roy's appearance at Crossing the Line features another mind-bending production: In Product of Circumstances, a reimagined lecture and performance, Le Roy talks and dances his way through the story of his artistic path. He left science for dance; now his experiments are on his body.

How did you develop More Mouvements?
Actually, at the beginning it was a commission I got in 2006 from a music festival in Vienna. They asked if I would like to do a music-theater piece with music from Helmut Lachenmann. I didn't know his music, so I read a lot about him and started to listen to his music. The first program that we did, in 2005, involved a whole orchestra, which was 20 people, and this was very difficult to show, so the program we will show in New York for Crossing the Line is the follow-up of this piece. Instead of using the orchestra, we have done a similar work with the string quartet. In a way, it's an extension of this work I did with Lachenmann in 2005, but in a smaller version.

What attracted you to this project?
I got interested in the music of Helmut Lachenmann: Instead of using objects [to create sound], he takes instruments from the classical repertory—so violins, flutes, guitars—and he produces sounds from the instruments. I must say when I listened to the CD, my first reaction was, Well, this is typically contemporary music, like, almost a caricature of it. [Laughs] Ding, dong, ding. So I listen to this and am, Okay—why this idea of doing a music-theater piece with this strange music? At first I had no idea. Then I had this encounter with a video that they gave me, where there was a rehearsal of a piece by Helmut Lachenmann performed by a small orchestra. In this piece, there is a moment—it's very little, but very spectacular—where one of the players stands up and goes to the piano and lifts the cover of the piano.

What happened?
He looks at the piano player and the conductor, and when the pianist hits the key [to make a] special tone, he moves [the lid] down and up. It is very theatrical in a way, but it is, of course, done for the music. He transforms the sound of the piano and you hear something, which I only realized because I saw it. Although I had heard this music before, I had not noticed this sound because my ears are not so well educated. But there I saw it and thought, Ah, this is interesting: By looking at this, I actually hear what I'm supposed to hear. So that was where I thought if one would stage a concert of this music, somehow we would hear more or it would transform our listening in a way.

How do you stage each section of music?
Each piece is staged according to what the composition offers, and in a way, that gives the spectator and the listener a different kind of experience of the piece. So the operation that I do is very simple in terms of associating or dissociating what you see and what you hear and working with this synchronicity. We make the musicians play without instruments or with instruments—all this produces a different kind of association of listening and looking. It is very interesting, and I think specific to the music of Helmut Lachenmann because the sound makes a kind of movement that is not actually part of the repertory of the musician normally. From my point of view, he is choreographing the movement. There is an association that this movement produces sound, but at the same time, he does make this new movement for the musician. He does produce a sort of choreography, so in a way what we do is extend his gesture. When you read a score of his, it is readable for a musician and it uses classical notes, but he also has all this instruction and a way of drawing the different notes in a different way that [indicates how they] should sound. It's like a score for movement.

What did you discover from working with musicians?
What is interesting for me is the idea to emancipate them from their instruments. It's not that they should become dancers. But they become, of course, aware and produce another kind of performance, which is most of the time hidden behind the object or this hybrid of them with the object. And there is all this repercussion: In an article, you call them "the violin," "the flute"—you don't name the one who plays the violin. They become the instruments. So by doing this, we expose them in a different way. You see the person.

Would you talk about the process of working with the musicians?
The first piece we started was with four guitar players. Tom Pauwels and Gnther [Lebbing] were the first we worked with to develop a movement vocabulary out of this guitar composition. It was great. They knew that they would perform the piece without instruments—and that is kind of a violent thing. Of course, the musicians had to sign up for this. It's something that was not so easy with the orchestra we [first] worked with, for example. There was a lot of need of convincing; we needed them to understand that this would produce more or something else about themselves beyond the great sound. The interesting thing is that musicians have a totally different sense of working. They are such specialists of time. They can separate and divide time, and there is an amazing ability to prepare; they read the score and know it before they start the day—it's an interesting way of working, which is very different, but great somehow.

How did you refine the movement? It's so precise and identifiably you.
We went through different layers. The first was to have them play the music without the instruments. Of course, there is this sort of pantomime thing [that happens], but it was not about producing movement that should make you believe that there is an object there that is not. It should be that the movement they have has the quality of what they usually do in order to produce sound. So there were small transformations about how the hands are placed—it starts very much from the actual movement, and there are also some transformations. We have built a vocabulary that corresponds to the vocabulary that Lachenmann has in the sound repertory, but we translated this in the movement. There is imagination—they imagine the sound and know the sound that they look for, and that's a very important support to make the movement. There are some choreographic gestures: like making them stand up or making them play when the music is not there or stopping when the music is there. So there are very simple choreographic operations that one can create in order to put things in the foreground or background.

What is the timing of this project in terms of The Rite of Spring?
Actually, the first version of this was in 2005, before Rite of Spring; and this piece came in 2008. But it's very influenced by this period when I was mostly looking at the movement of musicians.

Why were you so drawn to that?
Actually, it started in 2003 when I got this proposal to stage a piece from Bernhard Lang, a Viennese composer, who had done a music-theater piece called The Theatre of Repetitions. Before this, I was always using music more as a semiotic—or [playing it] before the movement or after the movement. In Self Unfinished, I finished and then I put the music on. Or in Giszelle, we put the music on and then danced.

You isolated it always.
In a way it was a very rhetorical—not wanting to deal with this relationship between movement and sound and what it does, and somehow, for me, it was too complicated or difficult to deal with. With this proposal in 2003, to stage this opera, that's when I started to work with musicians and singers—using their movement and their actions with the aim of not putting any kind of illustration on top of what the music already was telling. So that's how I started to think in this direction: The music was already composed, and I should compose what is not yet composed. That was the idea. After people saw this work, that's how I got this commission from Helmut Lachenmann. I said, Ah, maybe it's interesting to work in this direction, and The Rite of Spring was somehow an extension of this thought—of using the movement that is actually there to produce sound or to produce the music as a specific way to work with this relationship of movement, sound, music and choreography. That is sort of a series when I look at it now.

You don't have a music background. Have you studied music during the course of this?
Very little. I never played an instrument and I never had a serious music education.

Did you develop a way of reading scores?
Yeah. I always say I can read the score for The Rite of Spring. Other scores, I'm not able. Working with Lachenmann, I thought, Ah, this is quite good—even if I am not a musician, I can read certain things of this score because they are descriptive. I learned quite a lot actually: I learned music by doing this project. Now I'm trying to read another Lachenmann score, in order to make a lecture about this, actually, and I realize that it's much easier now. [Laughs] I have learned something.

So you are going to make a lecture about this experience?
I have been asked to make a lecture about the relationship between music and movement. The plan is that I will illustrate a different way of working with music myself.

What did you learn from watching musicians move without sound? What did it reveal to you about your own approach to movement?
This made me do The Rite of Spring, where I have learned the most rich relationship of how to listen and move. I think that's what I learned very much—moving and listening to something that will come, moving and listening to something that is in the moment, and moving and reacting to what you're listening to—all of this nuance that is in The Rite of Spring. That comes very much from watching how musicians work and in talking to them because there were, of course, a lot of questions. Maybe I'm a better listener simply. I for sure listen differently to music after all this work. More than looking differently at dance pieces.

Haven't you performed Product of Circumstances in New York?
I performed this lecture in 1999 at PS1. And this work is an answer to a commission also from an event that took place in '98 in Vienna that was called "Body Currency," which was trying to put together practice and theory in the realm of performance, so theoreticians and practitioners would be in the same place and perform or lecture in the same theater. It was the whole day long. They asked me to do something about my past as a microbiologist and becoming a dancer and choreographer, so that's how the work became this sort of lecture. And when I showed it the first time in that frame, it was very fitting because there were people lecturing and showing works, but the feedback was that people thought it was more a performance than a lecture. I thought, I should try to perform this in the frame of a dance festival and see what that will do, and I did this some months later in Berlin. There it was much more seen as a lecture, but it did produce this ambiguity and challenge of watching movement in relationship to this talk. It is not explaining the movement, but it is nevertheless in relationship to it, and that's how this form started to be interesting for me. And then to my surprise, weirdly enough, the piece was done in the frame of a visual-arts exhibition. I was asked to show it at PS1 and at a dance festival, and it started to become more and more a piece. A product [Laughs]—just like the title.

How has it evolved?
I was not planning to perform it, especially not 12 years later—that was really not the plan. [Laughs] When people asked for the piece again, I just did it the way I had done it—nothing really different happened, but after two or three years, I was showing the piece with its chronology of the moment from 1987 until '99. Of course, when I started to perform it in 2001, 2002, people said, "What did you do after that?" I thought, It's true. I should reconsider. It's interesting to show it like it is. It's also a text that I read and that is important for the piece. I read it like a lecture, and I prefer to read it in order to reperform this idea of a lecture. I'm more interested in insisting on this and seeing where it goes—how long or how far or what it becomes—more than adapting it or extending it or changing it. So at one point, I decided, I will just continue like this and maybe I will make another one. And actually, I did use the similar format for the piece I did in 2009 as an answer to Boris Charmatz's proposal to do a piece on Butoh.

You spoke about that in another lecture piece that I saw at the CUNY Graduate Center.
That was Product of Other Circumstances, which reflected on the work ten years later. It's a reflection on the format, which, in this case, it's more telling a story. I tell a story of the process of the piece, and I don't mean as being a lecture, which is a slight difference.

I'm sure that you had been considering the similarities and differences between science and dance for years.
My stand on this is to say there are two ways: One, which is to see that it's a big phantasm of science and dance together blah, blah, blah. Like this [is the] expectation. And my stand is to say yeah, but in my case, what it is is that I have an experience in one field and I have an experience in another field. And it's not because I have this experience that I should embody a crossover of something. So what I try to do with the piece is to retrace my experiences in the two fields. It's also reconstructed what my subjectivity has become. The piece is a reflection of our preconceived idea about what science is and art is and what one can do and the other cannot; the separation is that one is objective and the other one is subjective. The piece is exactly there to show, Wait a minute—objective...like how far? How objective can I be? In art, we are subjective, but actually we also judge, so we try to be objective on the subjective practice. Being subjective is something everybody struggles with; you have to choose your camp or your side. Either you are like science and I am the one objectively who can tell you the truth, or you perform the other side saying, Well, subjectively it's all in relation, so there's no way of saying the truth. Of course, this separation is never so clear. Even if you have to choose your camp, most of the time it doesn't work 100 percent. And that's very much my experience in the science: Understanding that this practice of objectivity is somewhat impossible. You have to abstract a lot of things, which I could not to achieve what one could say is a pure objective, which of course doesn't exist, but nevertheless, science is built on the possible existence of this. So there is a need of belief in that, and at that time, I think this was something that was difficult.

What are you working on now?
I am preparing a work that will be take place in an exhibition space in Barcelona next year, and it's a piece that is called Retrospective. It uses all my solo works—the material will be used in the exhibition nine hours a day for six hours a day during three months. So the exhibition is all choreography over the three months and it's trying to use retrospective as a mode of production of something else, then reproducing the pieces that have been done for the theater and stage and transporting them to a place of visual art, of exhibition, where the use of time is totally different. It's going to be next year, and I hope I will be able to do it in some other places. But it's an exhibition. So it's a choreography that is an exhibition and an exhibition that is a choreography, and that tries to think about this different relationship to time that is produced by different conventions. The conventions of the theater allows one to stage an hour or two hours; the conventions of the visual arts means that the visitor stages his or her time in relationship to the work.

Do the solos date back to the beginning of your career?
Yeah. It's all the solos since 1994.

What are you using to reconstruct them?
I will be working with all the dancers, and we will use the documentation, which includes interviews and text. I will be there also to make the work with them.

So you'll teach your work to other dancers?
Some part of it, yes. Part of it is this, and part of it is that they use the material and transform it, and they do their retrospective of my work from their understanding—that there is a movement of transformation and thinking about retrospective as looking backwards. So they will perform certain things and have an interaction with a visitor talking about the time in their life, so that is a different way of dealing with this issue of reusing material. And from my point of view, they should produce something else. It's not a kind of looking at it. It's used to produce stories. I would love to be able to do it in New York. The thing is that I use local artists, so if I would do it in New York, it would be different because it would be done by local performers. So maybe. We'll see.

What was your experience performing Self Unfinished at MoMA?
That was great. I think it was very interesting what the piece did to the space and what the space did to the piece. There was this decision to do it at the end of the day, when the people would start to leave and build somehow the silence that is part of the piece and this transition between: It's an exhibition space, and it became a performance or vice versa. I enjoyed it very much.

Xavier Le Roy presents More Mouvements fr Lachenmann at Florence Gould Hall on Mon 19 and Product of Circumstances at Tinker Auditorium on Tues 20.

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