In En Atendant and Cesena you are working for the first time with music earlier than Monteverdi, before the classical harmony begins to emerge. Where does the interest in Ars subtilior, this peculiarly complex musical style from the end of the 14th century, come from?
C’est un rendez-vous qui a été retardé… but that feels like home-coming. A desire I had for a long time, and postponed it because I was uncomfortable about staging sacred music –– I wasn’t aware of how intertwined the sacred and secular music were then. And the choice of Ars subtilior is linked with the invitation of the Avignon theater festival to make a piece for la Cour d’Honneur: this music evokes the history of the city of Avignon and the Papal Schism. Listening to various recordings, I rediscovered my fascination for refined contrapuntal textures, the aim of which is to unfold natural breath and emotional flow, as well as for the vocal expression I have been developping since Keeping Still, my first collaboration with Ann Veronica Janssens and which continued in 3Abschied, based on Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, with Jérôme Bel.
Both performances involve musicians on stage; En Atendant includes flutes and fiddle, apart from voice, and Cesena mingles singers from the ensemble graindelavoix with Rosas dancers a cappella. The first performance in Avignon was performed in dusk, while the latter in dawn. In what ways do the two performances complement each other?
Ann Veronica suggested that we should once make a performance using only daylight, rising up and down. For this music to be heard amidst the noises of the Avignon festival, dusk was a rare moment of silence. So, before making Cesena, where we go from darkness to light––you could also say, from the Middle Ages to Renaissance, or the dawn of a new era––I wanted to do the reverse in a simpler exercise, going from light to dark. For the challenge of making music while dancing to it at the same time in Cesena, I first had to focus on the choreographic writing that stays close to this specific music. I wanted to study Ars subtilior and develop precise compositional tools for it. For this reason, I staged music apart from choreography in En Atendant.
The relationship between the music and the dance here you refer to through the principle “my walking is my dancing” which is already present in Fase and in your choreography to Bartók’s Quartet no.4 in Bartók/Aantekeningen.
“My walking is my dancing” here means that the movement mainly consists of walking where, in relation to the music, each note equals one step. My aim was to have dancers learn the music so intricately that they could know every note of it by heart because they would walk to it. In En Atendant we recorded three parts comprising the counterpoint of this music––cantus, countertenor and tenor–– separately, so that dancers could be divided accordingly, one or more “walking” one musical line. For example, solo dancers take up the sophisticated rhythmic articulation of the cantus, while several dancers underline the tenor, because it is slower and heavier. In this way, movement spatializes time.
Apart from “my walking is my dancing” which engages the lower body, how did you generate other movements?
The principle that complements walking I call “my talking is my dancing,” which guides the movements of the upper body. In the last decade, I have been working on the polarity in the choreographic organization of space and time, relating to the unity of opening and closing, construction and deconstruction like in the taoistic concepts yin and yang, or the division in complementary opposition. These principles operate on the architecture of the moving body through the so-called magic square, a volume comprised of nine points in space, corresponding to different stages of energetic change. The nine points form a spiralling path for the body, a sequence for the body as moving architecture including the whole body or only arms, hands or head. Each dancer composed his/her “walking-talking” phrase on the basis of the architectural trajectory I gave them. The phrase could then be manipulated contrapuntally, performed retrograde etc.
A sculpting quality of the clusters of bodies is striking when dancers cross the stage laterally, a texture of highly refined choreographic counterpoint which we haven’t seen before in your work.
Indeed, these volatile moving sculptures result from the contrapuntal and architectural construction, from “smashing” the space between the dancers, so that the various autonomous choreographic trajectories are condensed into a reduced volume, and bodies have to touch, give resistance and support to each other. But all contact is just a consequence of counterpoint, lines that intersect in space and time. These lines are articulated with the musical score.
The counterpoint in Cesena rises to another level: it involves singing and dancing.
Cesena brought an entirely new set-up, a fusion of dancers and singers who could both dance and sing. So, I asked myself how this would be possible at all, that a body contrapuntally divides between the voice and the bodily movement following two different musical parts. For example, a dancer may dance the tenor line which is slower and more simple, and at the same time sing the cantus line which is more elaborated and in higher register. Singing and dancing complement each other in one body.
Cesena is larger-scale and more opulent in differences than En Atendant. How are the two works composed in their macrostructure?
I constructed En Atendant according to a time-line, where the song that bears the title of the performance lies in the center, the point of the Golden Section division of the overall duration. With the exception of the composition for the flute by the Hungarian Istvan Matuz performed by Michael Schmid––a veritable prologue that introduces the idea of infinite waiting, suspending time, stretching it in ever into higher and higher tones while keeping the low tone by the mechanics of pure breath––all other music is derived from or related to the song En Atendant by Filippo da Caserta. In this period, the art of composition included citations and paraphrases, the same melodies or texts migrated between different composers and pieces of sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental music alike. The centrality of En Atendant is matched by a unified movement vocabulary, a phrase composed and performed at the beginning by Chrysa Parkinson and later used in choreographing all dances to music. In Cesena, I collaborated with Björn Schmelzer, musicologist and leader of the ensemble graindelavoix dedicated to early music. Björn conceived the whole musical and dramaturgical trajectory by choosing music mainly from the Chantilly Codex, one of the manuscripts of Ars subtilior, which traces the history of the Papal Schism, and the return of the last French pope Gregory XI to Rome that ended the Avignon Papacy. The first song Pictagore per dogmata speaks about how the Pope wants to come back to Avignon. The same song superposes two more texts, O Terra supplica and Rosa vernans, reflecting on the rose as the image of the papal court, or the stellar constellations in which it is written that the Pope should return to Avignon. The songs in Cesena are more complex, and although they are all mainly secular, they sound more mystical than the music of En Atendant. In contrast to the unity of En Atendant, in Cesena each song or silent dance scene is composed in its own right, according to another principle and using different vocabulary.
Apart from abstract compositional structures, images and gestures with narrative meaning emerge in En Atendant.
We were reading the famous history book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by the American historian Barbara Tuchman which narrates the main political, religious and climate events known as the crisis of the Late Middle Ages suffered by Europe in the 14th century: the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Plague, the Papal Schism etc. Some stories from Tuchman’s book inspired us with gestures and images, for instance, how plague arrived to Europe with a ship from India, the image of soldiers having black stigmata under their arms etc. None of these images is important to read, it is more the emotional load or physical tension that they bring into the composition.
Speaking of images and visibility, what does the difference between fading into darkness and rising from darkness to light make?
One would expect large movements as only contours would be visible in obscurity. However, the most sophisticated counterpoint in choreographic structure in Cesena occurs in almost complete darkness. Sometimes, it is in the working process that decisions impose themselves whose meaning you discover only later.
So in Cesena you chose to conceal the beautiful intricacies of movement at the beginning, which the audience can hear better than it can see it.
When we perform Cesena in theaters, the light is placed in the front, separating the auditorium from stage and allowing for the depth of perspective. The more dancers approach the audience, the more detail is revealed. In the performances in Avignon and everytime we perform these pieces in open air, the audience and the performers share the same natural condition of darkness and light, which means that they know that the sun will rise, or set into dusk. To open Cesena in complete darkness means that we ask from the audience to enter mystery, to go out of this world for a while. One could say that both En Atendant and Cesena double mirror each other through the concepts of what appears in the darkness and what disappears in the light.
Interview by Bojana Cvejić