Your performance ends in a scene of nature taking revenge for all the harm that people have caused. Would you call that kind of ending a pessimistic or an optimistic one? If we step away from an anthropocentric standpoint, isn’t the victory of nature over man an optimistic outlook?
- It`s hard to say. I’m not a preacher, I’m not a scientist, but I think that we are a part of nature and that we don’t need to see it as a form of separation. We are just a little grain of sand in the desert of nature. I have recently seen this video that says, if the Earth has existed for so long and if we reduce that period to 24 hours, we could say that human beings have been on the planet for two seconds. Not even the third second would be reached, it will be two and a half seconds of the existence of humans. And in a fourth of a second, we messed it all up. That is pessimistic. It’s like the eastern philosophy or eastern religion that hold that life is just a rehearsal for the next time. We are very impatient, and that impatience reinforces many taboos. You have to accept life as a cycle of renovation. I don’t believe in stars, it all comes down to hard work, and you better enjoy it simple way. Enjoy your colleagues and try to be their peer and not a superior, because you have to understand them. Nature is a bit the same. We are alienated from nature more than ever. When I was young, we had a farm, and sometimes I would go horse riding, and I didn`t have time to go home, so I would just dig in the earth, take a carrot, clean it, and eat it. And that`s it. No money, no shops, so, I felt the connection and now, I feel alienated. In the farm, the dog is free, it belongs to the environment. Now, the dog is worse than a child, it cannot do this, it cannot do that. You have to keep animals on a leash and so, ... everything gets complicated. Whether it’s pessimistic or optimistic, I don`t know.
Is it necessary for man to keep fighting the nature or do people try to reconnect with it from time to time?
- Some people do. But, you see, the indigenous people, they`ve been destroyed, in America and in Canada, and they knew nature. It`s like, right before an earthquake, animals fly or go up, towards the hills, they feel it. But domestic cat or dog cannot feel it anymore. Before, people would see animals go up, and followed them. There are many things that we don`t feel anymore. I read that maybe in the future, humans will develop so that the nose will be gone, only two holes will remain, and they will get smaller and smaller because we don`t use nose anymore, we don`t need it anymore. People used to have a lot of body hair to keep us warm, while today they have so many clothes and the hairs have disappeared (laugh). And they say, even the ears, I have big ears, we don`t listen anymore. And all these things are so magic. The elephant can hear or smell the water at 50 miles. But, of course, if you put an elephant in a zoo…
At one point in the performance, one of the dancers thrusts a bin bag which, since it is attached to him, keeps coming back and hurting him by punching him in the face. The message is clear, but what do you think has caused this environmental crisis? Is it human stupidity, as this scene implies, or maybe negligence, or bad intentions?
- It’s difficult to speak for the whole world. There are seven billion people at the moment, and damn, we need some proper organization, because the Earth can’t carry that. We will go to eleven billion soon, this already… makes people have to live in the city, they have to be fast, and then you don’t have time to wash your cup, you buy a new one. I was at the workshop this morning, and afterwards there were so many bottles …OMG just two hours of workshop! They could have told people to bring their own bottles, we don’t want plastic… but no, we`ll buy bottles because it`s easy. And I drank from them, too. The problem is also in the belief that if there’s just a few of you who pollute, it might not be such a big deal. But the thing is that there are billions. And it’s also the consumption, economies always have to grow, and we have so much material that we absolutely don’t need, and we just buy, buy, buy, spend, spend, spend. And that's the fact of capitalism and useless things. In Belgium, there is an American factory which produces rubber and they have been polluting the soil with PFOS for years. It`s super polluted. We have a zone now which spans for kilometers and kilometers where people who have chickens in their own garden cannot eat their eggs, because they could be polluted by this American factory, and got subventions from Belgium to create things and to create some jobs, and they pollute for I don`t know how many people and it`s all possible.
Do you follow green practices in your work, when it comes to costumes, for example, or some other aspects of the production?
- Yes, we do. Some of our members have only one costume. There are two little suitcases for costumes, and that’s it. I don’t build heavy stage design, but still, we are here with a truck because we have lighting equipment. We use LED lights instead of normal lights, it’s less nice but it is getting better. We take care. Of course, we consume, but I think we give a lot back for what we do.
You are one of the participants at this year’s Bitef conference We Are Sitting on a Branch: Solidarity or Downfall. This year, the concept is defined by ecology, with an idea to link cultural events and environmentalism. Why is it urgent for cultural institutions and their program policies to move in that direction?
- I like the idea of solidarity, but unless everybody is involved, it`s not working. And politicians think only on daily basis. Every political party now has a climate thing, and the migration thing they put on top of their list. We have kids who have been screaming about that topic for ten years and nobody has done anything, and now? They are populists! Because they know if they don’t put those things in their program, nobody will vote for them. But the real courage would be to make a system where people would consume less, while we could still provide enough for people to have salaries to live because we would invest in education, culture, because it’s the third sector that gives the most jobs and provides most money. Sometimes I can’t believe that. But the point is to realize how we could replace funding the culture with investing in it.
Last night, at the roundtable discussion, you mentioned India and Africa, and your plan to do a project with children. Were you somehow motivated by the environmental crisis to go to those countries, those continents, to teach children and try and steer those countries away from their wretched directions?
- It could be, but it would also be less than a grain of sand since India has 1.35 billion people, and I will work with 35 kids. So, I’m not delusional. But I want to tell the story about where we are coming from. Western people are so anthropocentric and say, “We are western… - we are the ones who created this world”. No, we all came from Africa. And stories from India travelled to Mesopotamia, Syria, Iraq, North Africa, and much later to Europe with ancient Greece. And when you think that all these civilizations existed so long ago, and we take the beginnings of Christianity, that was 2000 years ago, as the beginning of the world. And Krishna, who is actually 5000 years old, is the same figure as a Christ, they have the same life story, and they are both innocent kids that had to be sacrificed. We stole this story! This does fascinate me, but I am under no illusion that I will bring about some significant changes.
Traces link folklore, mysticism, and original motives with modern expression, which is particularly noticeable in the original music. Could you tell us something about the process from the idea to the music and choreography? What did the beginning of the work on Traces look like?
- It all started when I received a proposal from Romania. I thought ok, I don’t want politics of this. And then I went to Budapest, there is similarity, I know Balkan a little bit. I was fascinated by its wilderness. If you look at the map, there is no forest, but oh, here, there is a little forest left in Europe, in Romania and Bulgaria. Oh, and suddenly you have foxes again, they walked from Romania and came to the city of Brussels, and even wolves. So, there is still something alive, although much less than before, because 50% of animals are gone, there were a lot of animals we never knew existed. It is reduced to archetype animals we know now. It`s a very strange thing that how it’s started…
Of course, I always work with original music, there is always research conducted to find the music that fits. And I am more into hard rock sound, always some complex music which has a drive, but primitiveness is also important. Even here, I tried to work with real Romani musicians but it`s very difficult, they don’t even want to be paid because they would need to sign a contract - they would be obligated to show up while they’d rather feel free to do anything they want. So, I worked with other musicians who understand the history of music very well and we played in a more abstract and a more adaptive way. And somehow, it gets more interesting because I am not a gipsy, I am not a Romani, so why would I have to pretend? In the end, it’s a fictional story which relies on my vision of that country, it’s not about that country. It`s like the idea of gypsy people who want to travel, who don`t want to have a house, and European community put a lot of millions trying to get Romani people to work, to bring their kids to school and they don`t want it. They said, give us the money. And when money was given, they were gone. (laugh) It was one of the biggest failures in Europe. And why we have to make them walk in the line like everybody else? I find it strange, why cannot someone exist without having to be officially working and studying? Because you need to pay the taxes. But this globalization is a pity. Before, when I used to go to Japan, the first night we slept on the wood on tatami, but later we would go to a Western hotel, and there is the same bed like in Paris or like somewhere else. Everything is globalized, dance gets globalized, theater gets globalized, there is the same form, the same fashion. The world became a village because of the Internet. It`s interesting to have this walk into the dark. To discover something. Before, when I was younger, I would say I am gonna discover the world. Now, on the other hand, you can simply investigate a bit beforehand, and when you reach the place, you just get a confirmation of what you’ve previously already seen in the pictures. In other cities, before, I would walk, I didn`t have Google maps, I would just walk, follow my nose, got lost and discover a lot of unseen things.
And now we know too much. The biggest thing when making the show is choosing, eliminating. But I make sometimes a play about these traces or about love or about blind people… it could be anything. In the first research you have an idea, then you eliminate, not this, not this, not this, and then you can make the show. Within a show, I can decide whatever. Yesterday, somebody asked me why wasn’t there a film in this show. Because I chose not to use it, and I chose not to put a telephone on the stage. There are shows where people phone on the stage and they speak with somebody, but I choose not to do that. So, I say no and that`s it. And these times make it very hard to neglect all the possibilities. Because the fact that we know everything makes us, in a way, paralyzed.
A lot of young dancers asked me to ask you how you choose your dancers. What quality do they need to become a member of Ultima Vez company?
- I used to hold big auditions for five hundred people and so, and then very intuitively I would choose. Other people tell me that I`m very good at making groups, at intuitively choosing people. Of course, they have to understand each other, but that comes later. I never choose friends, I never choose because I’ve read someone’s CV. I never choose a person I could potentially fall in love with.
But, you cannot predict that!
- Yes, but that comes later. There was a woman who worked with me and with whom I had children, it happens, but it is never a starting point. I must admit that the most difficult people are sometimes the best on stage. But in this company, they are quite normal people. They are quiet, they like each other. Sometimes, you have companies who are, well, let’s say, very difficult and very disrespectful but they are very strong on stage. How do I choose people? Because I know what I want to achieve.
Are you after a very specific type of performer?
- Yes, but for example, the next piece will be more theatrical. So, the people should be able to talk. It`s very different than when they don`t have to talk. If they have to just move, you have other people, but they have to be able to talk and move very well. But if you find someone who can talk, they are slightly less good at dancing. Because they have to pass two-level selection. Also, you can be chosen because there is another person who has another quality, and you are the opposite. You can be chosen because you are similar to this one and then you fit better for the character. You understand? It is again based on elimination and not on selection, and then you see what`s left. But I don`t know, it`s pure intuition, what I need, what I think, or if I think, “Oh, this person can grow”. I would be a good casting agency for other companies. I would be very good at saying ok, you have this dancer, she or he can do all you want. I could be very good but it doesn`t mean that I have to work with all of them.
I must say that what I saw last night inspired hope in me as a performer because it is very rare nowadays for someone to choose very particular people who are not commonly seen on stage. And I mean bodies that are in every way different and thus beautiful and exciting to watch. I was mesmerized by that diversity.
- But in the next piece it doesn`t need to be like that. It can be very different indeed.
Exactly, and that’s what’s beautiful - you letting everyone feel they belong to the group of people, group of performers. The audience was given an opportunity to identify with someone on stage, which does not happen very often nowadays.
- For instance, in the next show I will be dancing, and there will be another performer who will dance and who is fifty-three, and yet another one who is sixty-two. In the previous show, I had a blind guy, another Moroccan guy who was like this (gestures that the guy is overweight) he has lost a lot of weight, but he was 130kg.
But you have given us hope that inclusion is possible, and we are so grateful for that.
- Of course! Do what you can, but they must be on the same level. They are different body types, but they must be on a more or less same level.
One of your performers also said that you don’t see their bodies as machines that should create movements, but as your coauthors.
- I work a lot with their movements. I guide them. I am very good at making them do what they didn`t expect. We work through improvisation, and I am very pushy: they say no, I say you can do it, try hard, try as hard as you can. A lot of people say, “I don’t work with text” and at the end they do. You need to break the ice. And a lot of schools say you have to do this this way, but I just say do this, and I push with the material that I want, but I don`t say what they have to do. A lot of schools try to ideologically manipulate people. I just say I want you to do that. But you can do totally opposite because I am not a school. I don’t like schools because schools tell you how to do things.
One of the scenes in your show is a scene with the two nude male bodies with the bin attached to their legs. And they cannot break free. It metaphorically shows us how the nature is right.
- Yes, it`s this thing, we throw some plastic here and there, a dog puts its head in a bin, and suddenly, since it has no hands, it cannot go out, the dog was able to get in but not to get out. And then, it dies of hunger. It doesn`t see anymore. I saw a picture of a skeleton of the dog, you know, and then I said we were going to make a scene with this. So, we tried out the scene and we looked at the performer who played the dog and we said oh, he has to be naked, to demonstrate the fragility. It was important to feel for him.
Was it important for the naked body to be a male one?
- I don`t put a naked female on stage quite so easily. It can happen but since I am man, I do that far more easily with men than with women. I had a situation when a woman proposed that, and I said yes. But also, I need a reason to put naked people on stage. I heard we have some shows, some French choreographer who said that everybody would be naked from the beginning until the end. It`s very difficult, I think, to make it nice. And it`s only about body. I was in Jan Fabre`s show which lasts five and a half hours, and I spent three hours and a half of it naked, because I was the king, so ok I did it. For me it was ok, but you need a reason.
What makes you happy?
- Many things. I like to create, I prefer creating to working. I feel time goes fast because I have made forty shows in thirty-five years. I still have a lot of plans. But I feel the time flies. Another thing that makes me happy is seeing a lot of young people still fighting and working with similar zest that I had and a lot of them didn’t. Because there are so many of us, I guess. I planted a tree in the desert, and they planted a tree in the forest. So, the tree has to be very special, or full of zest, or full of positivism and obsession, (laugh) in a good way. But there are clever young people who could make it.
What is your biggest fear?
- Fear is a big inspiration. It`s not negative. People are afraid of everything that might not be pleasant. You don`t have to be afraid of anything. Because if you are, you don`t do anything.
Thank you so much for your time, I was pleased and honoured to listen to you.
- Thank you.