Traveling man

Rachid Ouramdane revisits his father's past in Vietnam to study the aftermath of violence.

LANDSCAPE DESIGN Ouramdane surveys the Southeastern Asian landscape.

Photograph: EM

Rachid Ouramdane, a French choreographer of Algerian heritage, is a master at accumulating stories and distilling them to their bare essence. When last in New York, in 2006, he presented Discreet Deaths (or Les Morts Pudiques), a solo of profound beauty and potency about youth and suicide. In Superstars, created for the Lyon Opera Ballet that same year, Ouramdane choreographed solos for seven dancers in the company, each from a different, historically violent part of the world, in which he delineated the residue of aggression. His work isn’t about retelling the past; it isn’t even overtly political. Ouramdane’s haunting reach and presence as an artist are far more intimate.

In his newest solo, Far…, performed this weekend at Dance Theater Workshop, he continues his exploration of identity—specifically, the aftereffect of growing up in a mixture of cultures, as Ouramdane, who was raised in a housing project in Annecy, France, experienced firsthand. As part of his research, he spent three months traveling in Vietnam, retracing the path his late father took while serving in the French military from 1951 to 1953.

“The Algerians were sent to fight in Indochina, which was a French colony at that time—all of those people were just colonized people fighting against each other,” Ouramdane, 36, explains in a telephone interview from Paris. “I took that as a starting point to look at the heritage of a violent situation. I followed his journey, and at every stop, I interviewed people. They are the people who escaped, who had to leave the country, who grew up outside of the borders.”

But the project, which sharply examines the violence of conflict, is not about the history of Vietnam, Indochina or the aftermath of colonization. “It’s much more about how each individual had to rebuild his past,” Ouramdane explains. “I met a lot of people with a need of amnesia, or the opposite—a need to rebuild everything, to try to find any details and traces of their past. The interviews are much more based on that. Of course, they speak about the war. But when you dig, you see the specific consequence for each in their singular lives, and that’s the thing that I wanted to touch.”

Photograph: EM

In the creation of Far…, which features music by Alexandre Meyer and video by Aldo Lee, Ouramdane also confronted his own past; the interviews include one with his mother about the trauma his parents faced after his father deserted the army. Some of his subjects appear on video; others are simply voices linked to an image. “There is a lot of text in the project, and it’s a bit of hell at the moment, because I am translating everything and there are a lot of questions about how to incorporate that visually,” he says, laughing. “I feel I have to solve this very quickly to see how we’re going to manage in the U.S.”

Amid the interview fragments is original, nonlinear text that Ouramdane wrote, based on his own memories. “There were things that I had almost forgotten,” he says. “Memories of my father from when I was a child or things that just took on a new sense for me by the fact that I was in Vietnam. All the stories that I had heard about this country that were very abstract suddenly found a ground and became very concrete. It is a mass of memories, and that’s the way that I am answering those people onstage. The text is a response to what they told me.”

According to the choreographer, Far… shares certain aspects with Discreet Deaths. In the 2004 work, Ouramdane relied on the Web to amass tales of suicide. “This is a bit the same, except that I didn’t do it on the Web, I traveled myself to collect those stories,” he says. “I am trying to make portraits and to show the presence of an individual onstage. It’s still based on a kind of portrait formed by an accumulation of fragments—stories that I collected around me.”

For his next project, Ouramdane will again focus on the aftermath of violence by seeking people who have endured physical torture. While trying to find a format in which dance and interviews meet, he continues his rich investigation of how closely identity relates to survival. “Again, it’s not to speak about different dictators, but to observe how those people in their daily life have had to find solutions: Was it through a relationship that they developed with somebody? Was it by developing a practice? It will focus on the representation of the body that has been tortured—not an analysis about what torture is.”

Rachid Ouramdane performs Far… at Dance Theater Workshop May 8–10, 2008.