"The Art of Collage"
Mary Kate Connolly
Dance Theatre Journal 2/2009

Mary Kate Connolly in conversation with Raimund Hoghe at Montpellier Danse 2008

The Mediterranean summer is in full swing when I meet Raimund Hoghe at one of the many leafy cafes dotted around the city of Montpellier. Now halfway through Montpellier Danse 2008, Hoghe is a little tired, but happy to chat about where this moment in time finds him in his creative process. Last night saw Boléro Variations receive multiple encores from an enthusiastic throng, packed into Montpellier’s stunning outdoor venue situated in an old Ursuline convent. When we finish our discussion, Hoghe will go to the rather smaller Théâtre du Hangar, to commence rehearsals for L’Après-midi, a solo for the dancer Emmanuel Eggermont which is to premiere at the festival the following evening. Montpellier has always provided a generous platform for Hoghe’s work and 2008 is no exception, he is the only artist to have two separate pieces billed. ‘It is always’, says Hoghe ‘very beautiful to be here’.

Gentle, softly spoken, and with a steely self-possession, Hoghe is a precise and eloquent speaker on his work. Happily, he shies away from offering absolutes on anything, constantly referring back to specific examples from his portfolio to illustrate a wider artistic practice. Time and again I find that whilst our conversation embarks on a broad topic, we find ourselves enmeshed in the finest of details about one work or another. Foolish of course to expect anything different from an artist whose work utilises a scrupulous attention to detail. Hoghe’s collages are forged through the layering of a number of calculated and understated elements: a reduced movement vocabulary, an exploitation of stillness, light and shadow, and ritualistic interaction with objects. This is not to say however that he is averse to an element of chance in his work, illustrated in his delight at performing Boléro Variations outdoors.

RH: I have only performed outside once before – it was my first solo piece and it rained the whole time and was very cold! Nonetheless, I have always liked the idea of doing a piece outside and I could imagine how well ‘Bolero’ would work outside of a black box theatre because we had rehearsed it in a white space too. Of course I was worried about the weather but thankfully it was good. Personally I also think that it’s a special thing to perform outdoors because some things are beyond your control. The wind was blowing last night for example, and a cat even appeared onstage during the performance! You can’t anticipate these things beforehand but it is refreshing to accept all of them as they happen and do your work alongside these environmental elements. For me they are not disturbing - I accept them, and I enjoyed working with these different qualities in the performance.

It is pure chance too, Hoghe asserts, that has led him to his recent musical choices of iconic classical works in Sacre - The Rite of Spring, Swan Lake, 4 Acts, 36, Avenue Georges Mandel (which uses only recordings of Maria Callas), Boléro Variations, and L’Après-midi.

RH: The musical choices just happened for me – I didn’t plan them. I have always used classical music - in Another Dream (2000) and Young People, Old Voices (2002), I have fragments of Sacre, Tanzgeschichten (2003) and Sarah, Vincent et moi (2002) contains excerpts from Swan Lake and I used Bolero in Verdi Prati (a 1992 work for Rodolpho Leoni). They have all been present in my work already in some way. I used L'après-midi d'un faune in Meinwärts, I played it and sat in the opening scene with my back to the audience – this was in 1994 and it was dedicated to all the people who had died of AIDS during that period. People said to me afterwards that I should consider doing another work with the score which I considered. However when I saw Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s D'Un Soir Un Jour (which uses L'après-midi d'un faune) two years ago, I said to her “I don’t have to do this piece now because what you did is so beautiful”. Since then however, I have been working with Emmanuel and I really felt I wanted to do a solo with him - in the end I proposed this piece of music. With Emmanuel, I could visualise L’Après-midi, and everybody agreed that he would be ideal for that piece.

MKC: Does the musical choice provide the starting point for the work?

RH: It depends. Sometimes it is not clear what music I want to work with – it is important for me that the dancers can work or connect with the music – if they can’t connect with it then I can’t use it. In Tanzgeschichten I worked with professional dancers like Ornella [Balestra] so I had to find music that fit with their style. Often too with sung music, it is a question of the sex of the dancer; when Ornella is dancing for example, there is usually a man singing and for the men, women are singing. In my solo works except Meinwärts, it is mostly women singing. I like female singers very much and I find it more interesting to use the music of a singer with a contrasting sex to that of the dancer. Sometimes, if initially I don’t know what music I want to use, I then look at the work and life of a particular artist whom I consider special.

Tied up in these musical scores of course are the stories and memories they evoke in the listener – this evocation being a key tool of Hoghe’s practice. ‘When I used L'après-midi d'un faune in Meinwärts, I had chosen that particular piece of music because it is so much connected with male dancers and part of a very famous episode of dance history. My concept was to play it when there was nobody dancing on stage to evoke an absence. My first solo and the portraits of others I have done are personal portraits of the individuals evoked, but these people are also always representative of a wider group. With certain classical pieces there is sometimes a cast of characters associated with the work which I can draw upon, as I did in my version of Swan Lake. Bolero was developed initially as a dance for one woman, Ida Rubenstein, but when placed within a wider collage, you can read it differently’.

Hoghe’s recent offerings each have their distinctive mood and in ways, differ greatly from one another. His solo, 36, Avenue Georges Mandel is lean and starkly dramatic, a conjuring of the essence of Callas as icon and Callas as woman, with moments of raw vulnerability amid the melodrama of her music. Boléro Variations, awash with Spanish flair in music and gesture, juxtaposes stillness and pause with ecstatic dance sequences which, thus contextualised, appear reckless in their abandonment. Finally L’Après-midi is dreamlike and bathed in light; tinged with shades of Nijinsky in movement, and redolent of the inherent strength and weakness in youth, beauty and genius. In discussing the differences between these works with Hoghe however, the underlying themes which inhabit them, linking them not only together but to a seemingly natural progression of his earlier work, become ever clearer. They spring from ‘the same themes’, says Hoghe, ‘expressed in a different way’.

Starting from his first solo, the presentation of Hoghe’s body, with its severe curvature of the spine, on a dance stage, has been a crucial facet of his practice. In other works, Hoghe has explored the subversion of dance norms afforded in the situating of his body alongside others: youthful bodies such as Lorenzo De Brabandere’s, or classically trained ones such as Ornella Balestra’s. In Boléro Variations this juxtaposition gives rise to an intense moment between De Brabandere, and Hoghe, over whom the young man towers in height. Taking plaster strips and dipping them in water, De Brabandere sculpts a plaster-cast over Hoghe’s naked shoulder. When the cast has hardened somewhat, De Brabandere removes it and kneeling to face the audience, places it over his clothed kneecap. Ceremoniously, Hoghe leaves the space, dragging a square of white fabric behind him along the black floor. It seems that this moment holds threads of Hoghe’s past alongside a ritualistic representation of exchange between two individuals.

RH: I had in mind to use this plaster because as a child I always had a plaster-cast for my back, prescribed by the doctor to sleep in. I was also conscious of the relationship between Lorenzo and myself, so as a starting point, I asked him to try some things working with the plaster and my body on stage. He chose my shoulder to create a mould and then he put it in front of his knee and it fitted very well – my shoulder to his knee. Some people have said this moment reminds them of mythology – that the cast perhaps represents a weapon or amulet to protect Lorenzo. I think this is a very beautiful interpretation of this moment of exchange. When I leave, I have my black shirt draped over one shoulder like a Spanish picador, and whilst the fabric in my hand is white not red, for me it is also evocative of this image and therefore in keeping with the Spanish theme.

When creating work on bodies other than his own Hoghe has sometimes been ‘more afraid to go too far because if the audience reacts badly I feel it is my responsibility. I am wary of making the dancers suffer because I made a bad work’. This was not the case however, Hoghe says, with L’Après-midi. ‘With Emmanuel in a way I don’t have this fear – I don’t have to be afraid. He expresses exactly what I feel and we don’t have to talk about it - I trust him completely. I have had no doubts in my mind and therefore I feel with L’Après-midi that I have been able to go quite far. There is something radical in the simplicity of this work; in comparison for example, to works by other artists who use video or effects. In L’Après-midi you have just two glasses of milk; the costume is not spectacular and also the lighting is simple – I am able to do this because I know how strong Emmanuel is as a performer.’

Alongside corporeal representation, the telling of old stories resonates strongly in Hoghe’s latest creations. Perhaps even more vital however, is the interest he has in creating a new contextual framework through which to view these cultural memories. He wears a pair of glistening patent leather shoes almost throughout Boléro Variations which I am curious about:

RH: I wore these shoes in Meinwärts as a connection with the opera singer Joseph Schmidt. Then I read Ravel, a book by the French author Jean Echenoz.i In it Echenoz writes that Ravel never performed without his shiny shoes. Once, when they did not arrive before a performance, Ravel insisted somebody go out to buy another pair saying “I don’t conduct without these shoes”. I liked these shoes and the fact that there was a link to Ravel. I wear them for most of the piece and near the end I cover them with rice; at a funeral you put earth over the body – this moment for me is like a burial - a memory of the past and of a person.

In contrast to this particular memory, the histories which Hoghe conjures through his performative collages are often far from humorous. In works such as Meinwärts, he has addressed the legacy of Germany’s Nazi past, and what he perceives as a burial of, or refusal to acknowledge, the darker realities of certain histories. In Boléro Variations too, Hoghe highlights an unusual link between Ravel’s score and the horror of Germany’s past, by playing a recording of a woman describing a makeshift orchestra which the prisoners in Auschwitz concentration camp created.

RH: I found a CD of testimony and music from Auschwitz and it mentioned Ravel’s Kaddish and that is why I used it. It fits in this context and at the same time, affords a new view of Bolero…[laughs]… suddenly one is no longer thinking of those women in red dresses! The speech itself is very strong and it is also evocative of absence. The positions of the dancers onstage [lying or sitting casually] during the recording are very simple – they are not performing as if they are in a concentration camp, they could equally be basking in the sun which creates a rupture.

Writers such as Gerald Siegmund and Dominic Johnson have discussed Hoghe’s interaction with objects which frequently inhabit his worksi. Previously Hoghe has created through measured and often repetitive actions, dialogues with inert and everyday objects - flowers, tea-lights, sticks, and bowls of water. L’Après-midi is no different in its utilisation of objects, in this case two glasses of milk, which demarcate the boundaries of the stage - Hoghe moving them around from time to time to expand and decrease the space. As the piece nears its end, Hoghe gently pours the milk into small sprawling white puddles dotted across the floor. Kneeling, he and Eggermont run their fingers through the milk, drawing shapes and words: ‘L’après midi’ is spelt out by Hoghe downstage. Despite the calm manner in which this is gingerly done, the milk oozing out over the space at the end of such a surreal and meditative performance has devastating impact. I ask him, ‘why milk?’

RH: It just came to me – I didn’t envisage it in advance. For a long time I had wanted to do something with milk on stage – I have used it once before in Another Dream when I placed milk in a red bowl to create a stark visual contrast. I was also inspired by the work of German artist Wolfgang Laib who creates beautiful installations with natural substances – he created one which used milk that I liked very much. When we started rehearsing L’Après-midi I said to Emmanuel that I would like to do something with milk and he said yes – I think he had also been thinking of working with milk. I used the filled glasses firstly to create the space, and I always consider it important to then have a change of the space using these very little things. To have a complete change of the space is for me, always a big sensation in performance. I don’t know how others perceive this in my work. At the end of the piece, I had an urge to pour out the milk, and so I did, thereby altering the space.

There is no room in Hoghe’s work, for flashy display; drama is sought through the layering of subtler interplays. His distaste for ‘show’ is most evident in the endings he creates for his works.

RH: I always say I don’t want to end on the floor – yes it would be a spectacular ending but it is not what I want. It is the same for Emmanuel in L’après-midi, he doesn’t end on the floor - and therefore he stands up again. In 36, Avenue Georges Mandel, Emmanuel appeared as a dreamlike figure to help me to stand up [at the end of the work] in a similar fashion so it is a reversal of sorts. I don’t like extravagant endings – rather, I prefer that two individuals merge to become one and to help one another.

The week before our meeting, Hoghe performed his 2002 group work Young People, Old Voices in Paris. I ask him how performing has changed for him since he first ‘threw his body into the fight’ in 1994?

RH: For me it is above all, a question of development. When I feel I am no longer developing, I will stop. I am not interested in becoming more commercial or playing to big audiences. Of course it is great to have a large audience like in the Montpellier venue and for them to enjoy the work, but I don’t feel that I always need a big space or audience to do my work. I do what I have to do. It’s vital that I am engaged with, and interested in what I do – it should be a progression. I find it very sad to see artists who start out very well, but whose work then becomes weaker or more commercial.

I always say to dancers that they should know if they are developing or if they have given 100% to their work because nobody else can tell them. They need to trust themselves and to be independent from judgements from outside. Some people say of me for example, that my work is always the same because it is always about my body. But I can’t change my body. There is a sentence which I quote in Another Dream from a black man who told me he could not find work because he was black: ‘I cannot change my skin’ he said. Likewise, I cannot change my body and anyway I wouldn’t. Some people find this a problem in my work but this inability to change one’s body is the same for everybody. If I feel I am progressing, I will do the work. Moreover I work with beautiful dancers and there is always a desire to present them again in a new work.

MKC: Where next for you? Are there any particular works you want to do?

RH: [laughs]
If I didn’t feel that there was anything I wanted to do I would kill myself! You never know what the future brings and I am open to this.

MKC: Left to chance then?

RH: Yes, you never know – when I left Montpellier this time last year there were no plans to do anything. Then things happened, one thing led to another…so you just never know...

©Mary Kate Connolly
First published in Dance Theatre Journal, vol 23 no.2 2009