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For the last dance production of the season, La Monnaie invites you to rediscover Sasha Waltz in an ambitious programme based on the compositions of three major creators of the 20th century: Edgar Varèse, Iannis Xenakis and Claude Vivier. The German choreographer brings us a spectacular work for 24 dancers, using creations from recent years presented in museums, the Neues Museum in Berlin and the MAA XI in Rome. This is an impressive ‘setting to movement’ of the relations between the group and the individual, between two individuals in a couple, between the couple and the group, and between individuals in a group. The staging is full of contrasts, dominated by black and white and a few traces of red.
The title Continu calls to mind a vision of change as a steady flow. What does the title mean to you?
The title refers above all to the birth of the work within the framework of another production: the Dialoge project created for the inauguration of the Neues Museum in Berlin in 2009. At the time we invented a very large amount of material. These elements triggered a creative process during which I continued to develop certain ideas – these ideas have kept evolving as it were, but I have also given them new impetus. To emphasise this constantly evolving character, I named the piece Continu. I continued to work on this project long after the premiere. For the moment, the latest version of the performance is the one which we presented last summer at the Felsenreitschule in Salzburg.
From a formal point of view, Continu includes two contrasting parts: a ‘black’ one and a ‘white’ one. What is the relationship between these two sections?
These two parts contrast emotion with reason, which is why they have each been the object of different formal treatment. In the dark ‘black’ part, expressiveness dominates. This part gives shape to an explosion, an original violence which cuts a path and thus breaks the limits – a violence which has the same effects on the individual and the group. In the bright ‘white’ part, a controlled expression returns and brings us inwards. The music is also extremely different from one section to the other.
In the Salzburg version of the performance, the black part begins with the entrance of a group of women, accompanied by Xenakis’ piece for percussions Rebonds B…
…which is played live on stage. Yes, this is about the original force of conception, the maternal and creative dimension – a sort of chamber of Venus situated at the beginning. This first part is fuelled by great oppositions such as ‘order and chaos’ or ‘group and individual’, and the mood is threatening and restless. The dancers move in a very intensive manner.
What propels and compels them?
A particular aspect of ‘wanting’ – the concept of ‘desire’ – would be too simplistic with respect to what I would like to convey, as I had imagined things in a much more general way: ‘wanting’ in a group, ‘wanting’ in a couple and ‘wanting’ as an individual. This notion of ‘wanting’ acts as a motor which keeps pushing the actors further along. The foundation of all of this is a sort of heartbeat. During the choreographic figures, individuals continue to escape the group, which sometimes transforms into a true ‘amok’ for an individual. The potential for violence increases – there are screams, a fight and an execution scene.
Does Continu also deal with the violent tendencies of an individual or his or her fragility?
I think that this area of tension between the individual and the group calls to mind many images. What you referred to as an ‘amok’ is, to me, a state of possession which spreads throughout the group like a virus. Everything leads to a type of violence which we can associate with social phenomena such as past or present acts of war. It is like a mirror placed before our eyes, as we are constantly confronted with this type of situation. For the execution, I thought of an official military action, with the scene suggesting genocide. At the end, the only people remaining are the assassin and another person – perhaps a traitor. For each performance, I rework the story of these two survivors a little. I therefore always see the work in a new light.
The beginning of the white part presents an individual as the focus of attention: an almost nude dancer alone in a space several metres high, whose leg makes apparently uncontrolled movements. Does his body escape him? Or instead, is he just learning to use his body?
These tasks intended for the body are very abstract. I worked a lot on the bending movements, and in the scene you mention, it is as though the body has been broken down into its different parts and has become an object. This is found throughout the work. But in the white part, this abstract exploration of the body is much more elaborate.
And then there is the magnificent scene in which the dancers leave red traces on the white ground, evoking many different ideas. How does this happen from a technical point of view? It was certainly not easy to do, was it?
No, it was not easy. Small packets of colour were attached to the soles of the dancers’ shoes. As they step on them, they paint the white paper. It took us a long time to find paper which could be danced on. At first we also used a thicker colour. It was so unreliable from a technical point of view that in the end we decided to work only with pigments.
Is colour used in a metaphorical way?
No. In the choreography, we paid close attention to how a painted image is created. The colour was chosen for purely practical reasons: the painting had to be visible to all viewers.
Edgard Varèse’s Arcana is the musical keystone of Continu. In addition to Xenakis’ Rebonds B, you also use his electroacoustic piece Concret PH as well as Claude Vivier’s Zipangu for 13 Strings. In certain scenes, the dancers move independently of the music; in others, sounds and movements are synchronised. And there are also long moments of silence. What is the dramaturgical importance of the music for the work as a whole?
Arcana is very important, as the form of Continu is based on this composition – Arcana permeates the black part above all. At first, I wanted the music to be played live, which was impossible due to the huge number of musicians required for this work. As I was really determined to work with music by Varèse – excerpts from Ionisation and Hyperprism also appear in the white part – I decided to use a recording. But I dream of being able to present Continu with a big orchestra at least once, as I feel it is the only means of achieving a balance between body and music. Silence is essential in order not to knock out the audience. Generally speaking, I also find it very important to be able to appreciate movement without music, because it acquires a different character.
With the title Arcana, Varèse was referring to 17th century alchemy: arcana are the preparations of occult sciences, through which new worlds are opened to us – places which are not usually within reach of humans. Does this idea or a similar idea also exist in Continu?
In the creative process, yes. Varèse composed Arcana based on Stravinsky’s Rite, and includes citations from this work. He considered this piece to be a departure into a new world, towards new sounds. All of my creations are also departures towards something new.
Interview by Harald Hodeige