Michèle Noiret, Le Chant des ruines

Wilson Le Personnic

Maculture.fr, January 2021

For over twenty years, Belgian dancer and choreographer Michèle Noiret – a leading figure in the Belgian dance universe – has produced a hybrid work closely interlinked with digital devices and technologies. Somewhere between dystopia and environmental drama, the choreography that she created last season, Le Chant des ruines, illustrates the concerns of the choreographer concerning our future. Inevitably, the current health crisis has put her tour on hold and has shed new light on this anticipatory project. This imposed break is an opportunity to discuss the mechanisms of her research and the creative process of this show with Michèle Noiret, who is eagerly looking forward to stepping back on to the stage and reconnecting with her audience.

For the past decade or so, you have developed a choreographic research project rooted in “dance-cinema”. This research seems to materialise differently with each project. Are there any common themes from one show to the next?

In 1996, I first included filmed images in my show Les Plis de la nuit. In 2003, in his review of the show Sait-on jamais ? journalist Gérard Mayen mentioned Dance/Cinema, a concept that I decided to adopt since it encapsulates everything I’m trying to create and also refers to Pina Bausch and her dance/theatre. The red thread that I have been weaving ever since is perhaps linked to the fusion – in different ways – of a clear choreographic language that I greatly value with other means of expression and techniques. I try to impart depth and meaning to my work, while always ensuring that the performers' presence remains pivotal. To do this, I use images, sound, light, some interactive technologies, more or less elaborate scenographies, etc. I work with other artists who understand the skills and knowledge that I don't have and that are indispensable to the success of such projects. These different languages blend together in different ways from one creation to another, depending on the nature of the projects and the available funds… Each creation thus requires a collective period of experimentation and improvisation. In the end, my approach is rather craftsmanlike and consists of regular collaborations that enable me not only to develop ideas and refine techniques over time, but also provides an opportunity for new encounters that open up fresh ideas and new paths for reflection and action.

What “little extra” does the filmed image provide on the set?
In the early 90s, I was given an old camera that I installed in my living room – which I also used as a rehearsal studio in those days – and I started experimenting with all kinds of situations. It soon became clear to me that the close-up of a face subtly reveals a whole range of emotions that are never seen on stage. Stirring up perceptual disturbances is one of the sediments of my research, and the cameras disseminated on stage – whether they are visible or not – opened up a field of experimentation that survives to this day. The simultaneous discovery of several aspects of one same situation (that seen from the audience and captured by mobile cameras at the back of the stage), the introduction of various perspectives, unexpected viewpoints, playing on scales of size, live image, and sound processing, and the introduction of the off-camera concept are just some of the many discoveries that paved the way for cinema to enter through my approach of creative work.

How does this type of image interact with your choreographic work?
Because the eye is initially drawn to the images projected, I always made sure that they didn't take priority over what was going on the stage. For me, it is not a question of transforming the stage into a film set, as is often done in theatres today. On the contrary, the image serves as an echo, as an extension of whatever takes place on stage, like layers of additional interpretations that give depth to the subject, reinforce it, add meaning to it. I'm interested in converting all these languages into a single writing. Long sessions of filmed group improvisations are essential as they allow the entire team to meet each other and to become familiar with the scenography. That's where the randomness of delicate and complex combinations produces images as surprising as they are unexpected, and which we will try to reproduce. We take all the time we need to decipher them: who did what, when, etc. It is often a genuine challenge... But no one could ever imagine these moments by themselves, and they often become a highlight of a performance... When everyone is connected together, the magic happens, it is a joint, artisanal, fragile, and fascinating effort.

How does the creation of Le Chant des ruines fall within the framework of this artistic research?
When I look back, I realise that – in one way or another – all my productions are linked together. And while they always reflected the society in which I live, there was a shift in 2009. I could no longer ignore all the interrogations, the malaise, even the anger, that inhabited me. These new societal, behavioural and environmental awareness issues went to the very core of my preoccupations: how to portray these subjects, these emotions through movement, through the presence of the performers, how to avoid falling into the pitfall of mimicking reality, which would only saturate our already overworked brains with more information and images! When reality is reproduced on stage, it is seldom convincing; it is false, weakened, and quickly becomes caricatural. There is no reality on stage, there is only the language that we invent to express it, to provoke reflections, to raise questions, to disturb perceptions, to invent unusual beauty, to shock, to encourage the spectator to question themselves and to experience an emotion that they perhaps don't expect. If it’s very tempting to stop at the first “discoveries”... digging and going beyond the initial concepts takes time. But to me, this time is crucial. I created the show DEMAIN in 2009 in this frame of mind. The topic of the show was the disappearance of bees, a subject not often evoked at the time and that I found particularly disturbing... Le Chant des ruines is in this same vein of works that essentially tackle – through strong metaphors and sound images, sometimes a few words – the environmental and societal facts that affect me, disturb me and are becoming increasingly alarming.

Le Chant des ruines is your first play following your departure from the Théâtre National in Brussels, where you were an associate artist for over 10 years. Did this influence the premises of the creative process?
Having been associated with the Théâtre National in Brussels for eleven years – where I had the opportunity to work with the set and costume workshops by bringing very complex and ambitious scenographies to life – a new page had turned. Le Chant des ruines was conceived on a completely new scale. We had to find the necessary resources and inventiveness to retain the scenic, visual and emotional strength of the previous productions. It took some procrastination, several dropped projects before we decided to go as far as we could, using only recycled and recyclable cardboard.

How did the use of cardboard impose itself?
I had in mind Michelangelo Pistoletto's work Labirinto. At first, we tested the idea at Charleroi danse, using large rolls of cardboard packaging and iPhones. Everything I had initially imagined worked as a stand-alone visual installation but proved too difficult to set in motion for a dance stage. However, this starting point confirmed my intuition to use cardboard. We were very surprised by the strength, the poetry, the strange beauty of the images which popped up from the first group improvisations. We were truly startled by the effect produced by this abstract material as it was manipulated, trodden on, torn apart by the performers, and combined with the lights and the specific treatments of the sound, of the image captured live! I figured that it would be simple to simply play with cardboard this once... Big mistake! (laughs).

How would you describe the plot of the show? What were the different areas of research and working methods that you used with your team?
The project mirrors today's and tomorrow's world, which we would all like to escape. Between dystopia and ecological awareness, the plot can be resumed as follows: five people embark on a voyage during which they face the prevailing chaos that disrupts their environment throughout the play. When the situation seems inextricable, can one extol escape and invent solutions to overcome it? How can we cope with the internal turmoil that these disorders provoke? This performance asks more questions than it offers answers... It is partially based on a book entitled L'éloge de la fuite and on an interview with Henry Laborit, who, as early as 1974, claimed that if man wanted to survive, society, as it stood, had to disappear. Stanley Kubrick's 2001 film A Space Odyssey and the liquid society that Zygmunt Bauman describes, are both parts of the breeding ground for this production. It's a very long process, not everything has an explanation, there are so many combinations of ideas that are involved, of experiences, of the unexpected, of sometimes magnificent accidents that we try to reproduce... I don't always remember the order in which the ideas come to me. There is the solitary work upstream when I'm trying to define the main lines of the ideas in my head. It's always very exciting, because everything is possible because it's virtual! Then, together with the different collaborators, I share my ideas, my questions, and we exchange ideas, discuss the feasibility of the project. It is only afterwards that I outline the initial script, taking into consideration the personality of each dancer and trying to define the first scenographic elements. When we all start rehearsing together in the theatre, there is a certain sort of inertia, a necessary time to “tune-up”. Different lighting, video, and sound directors have to hone their tools. The elements of scenography must be trialled, this is a sort of general familiarisation allowing us all to plunge together into the subjects that will make up the piece. A production is like starting to climb a mountain without having seen the weather forecast!

Can you tell us more about the work process with the performers?
The performers have a very important place. I give them a lot and require the same in return. I call them “choreographic characters”, not dancers or actors. I hate working in an atmosphere of conflict, so I want everyone to feel that they have their place and to be involved in the work wholeheartedly, by taking ownership of it. Everyone's creativity is requested. Getting to know the performers demands some in-depth discussions, the sharing of experiences, and suggestions, which all combine movement, presence, and attentiveness. I weave a close collaboration with one or more assistants/collaborators such as with dancer Dominique Duszynski – with whom I have worked for about ten years – and now with David Drouard, to whom I like to give a greater degree of freedom in terms of ideas. These two are often more capable than me to trace the paths that lead the performers to the result I am looking for. This journey takes months, years – because when we tour performances, I always keep reworking some aspects – linking us together and reflecting a certain outlook on life. The performers of Le Chant des ruines had no real previous experience with cameras or with the handling of the materials that should be treated as equal partners. It is important for performers to consider the place that a cameraman occupies on the stage. In the performance Hors-champ, the cameraman is a real actor, while in Le Chant des ruines, he withdraws like a cat in the dark. In any event, the role of the cameraman is essential, he is another partner for the performers, another element to be integrated, who gets involved in their habits and needs a capacity for adaptation. Performers who embark on this type of project must embrace the constraints of a multidimensional approach that involves the interactivity of live filmed images and sound effects. Technological tools aren't always as versatile as the performers, their set-up and adaptation to the changes that take place in rehearsals is often complex. When changes need to be made, the performers' expectations sometimes last indefinitely. But like in the film industry, you need to stay focused and be ready to get back to work as soon as problems are solved. But waiting doesn't mean wasting your time, and not everyone is cut out for this particular experience... It's all part of the creative process. We search, fumble, discover, and learn, everyone working together.

Le Chant des ruines was created in October 2019, long before the pandemic struck our lives and imaginations. But when seeing the performance, some sequences clearly stand because they foreshadow the future...
This is precisely the type of unpredictability that captivates me in our working process. During rehearsals, the torn cardboard always produced a lot of dust. We had to protect the production rooms as well as the dancers' lungs. That's why we used masks, which didn't then have today’s “corona” association! During rehearsals, the disturbing image of two lovers, mouths covered with masks, attempting to kiss each other made us feel really uneasy! This situation inspired an entire scene that I imagined to be futuristic…. But reality quickly caught up with us: no one could have imagined going through this situation a few months later!

The health crisis brought the Chant des ruines tour to a halt. How did you live this situation over the past 10 months?
The consequences of this unprecedented health crisis are obviously disastrous, and for some people worse than for others. I'm very worried that this is just the beginning! We were lucky enough to create the Chant des ruines in October 2019, and we managed to tour some bits before being the show was stopped dead in its tracks by the lockdown. Whenever possible, we try to carry on working with the venues to postpone the dates... that's if the shows aren't cancelled. At the moment, we are doing everything we can to maintain a five-date tour in Norway, with workshops and a conference. It is a huge job for the venue and the company, but it binds all the teams together. All the schedules have had to be rethought and are constantly changing. When we arrive in Norway, we have to do a test, then two days of quarantine until we get the results. Then we have to wait before we can get tested a second time 5 days later and only after that – and only if the whole company is tested negative – we can perform the show and move around freely... (update: the company left as planned for Norway but all 5 performances and the conference were cancelled because of a positive case in the team. Only the workshops were held with the necessary sanitary precautions). It's a house of cards that can collapse at the slightest hitch. Certainty is a thing of the past, you have to accept to do, undo, and redo again to possibly not be able to concretise anything. We'd hoped that the situation would ease at the beginning of the year, but in view of the latest discussions with our partners, this is not the case. The times ahead will not be easy. Yet, it is still absolutely essential to create projects for the performing arts even if everyone finds it hard to work from a distance. Although we adapt as best we can to these new working methods, human contact remains the lifeblood of the performing arts. Creation, and art in general, are vectors that convey ideas, encourage social cohesion, support psychological health, and boost the economy. Thus, they act as a barometer of the evolution of our societies. Going to the theatre helps to live, it's vital!


Thursday, 14 January 2021