Denis Laurent

Trained in Spain and then at the CNDC - Centre National de Danse Contemporaine (National Centre for Contemporary Dance) in Angers, Olga de Soto settled in Belgium in 1990. Working for various choreographers, she soon began a creative endeavour based on choreographic research and writing, often engaging in the study of musical works by contemporary composers. In the beginning of the 2000s, her work took a new direction, in which dance, while still occupying a central position (more, surely, than in many works labelled “dance”), seems more often than not to be absent from the stage in its “incorporated” form. Her work now focused more on the theme of “memory”: physical memory, but also perceptive memory, that of audience members as well as dancers.

Movement and its evidence
Sprouting from the seed of the show Éclats mats (Matt Sparks), first performed in 2001, the Incorporer ce qui reste ici au dans mon coeur (Incorporating What Remains here at in my Heart) series of “accompanied solos” was created in four stages between 2004 and 2009. Exploring the question of the evidence left by movement, this eminently plastic work marks a certain retreat, or rather a displacement, of choreographic writing. In this show, and even more in histoire(s), first performed in 2004, movement is made invisible while remaining at the heart of the matter. And to expose thus the question of death inherent in all “live art”. “Choreographic video-performance”, histoire(s) brings back to life The Young Man and Death, mythic ballet based on a poem by Jean Cocteau, through the memory of those who saw its first performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on 25 June 1946, at the aftermath of war. Olga de Soto patiently researched these spectators, interviewed them and transmitted their memories and emotions to the screens of a theatre stage. The dramaturgy of the performance is constructed around an absence, a desire, a frustration: the ballet itself is never shown; movement takes place in the mind, filtered by personal and collective histories. What traces remain in the memory of the audience long after the evaporation of a work, which they witnessed one evening.

Choreographic displacement
Shows such as histoire(s) question the boundaries between disciplines. Constructed on the device of screens, it seems to be very much like a video installation. Why then, we must ask ourselves, retain the codes of theatrical representation? And Olga de Soto asked herself this question. Based on the material she collected, she might only have made a film or a museum installation – a film version exists, in fact, and the choreographer has in the past created installation-performances which renounce the temporal and spatial conditions of performance –, but in this case, it seemed essential to retain the circumstance of the stage, as she wanted to work precisely on what constitutes theatre. At first, Olga de Soto wanted to write a choreographic movement of bodies in scenic counterpoint to the filmed material. But in the course of creation, it seemed to her that the project required her to mourn her dance. This doesn’t mean that she has renounced choreography: an understanding to which this experience led her, and which would upend her manner of working, is that the creation of a filmed image can also be of a choreographic order. histoire(s) seems as much like a work of space, in fact, as of time, and does not forsake the performing body. If the “dancers” have a unique status, they nevertheless play an essential dramaturgic role: they carry the image, both literally and figuratively, vectors of the device which allows the communication of memory; but also, they are the screens on which images of the audience can be mentally projected. histoire(s), or what dies in us, and what lives in us.

Do we still have a dance for dancing the themes of The Green Table? After this experiment, which gave birth to a performance as intelligent as it was sensitive, Olga de Soto wanted to deepen her research into the communication of dance by focusing on another key work of the 20th century, The Green Table by the expressionist German choreographer Kurt Jooss. Important, this piece is, for its artistic significance (it founded the Tanztheater), but also for its political significance: first performed in 1932, a few months before Hitler came to power, it is like a pamphlet against excessive capitalism, fascism and war.

The Green Table is one of the most performed works in the history of dance. Performed over a thousand times by Kurt Jooss’s company, and revived by many other companies through the present day, it has been disseminated across spatial and temporal frontiers to acquire endlessly different significances depending on context. During the era of the Chilean dictatorship, for example, it played a major role in the development of a contemporary dance of resistance.

If histoire(s) was built on the memories of the audience alone, Olga de Soto decided this time to expand her field by gathering testimony from audience members as well as from dancers from Kurt Jooss’s company who played the piece across the decades. Her indefatigable detective work – it took years to find some of her witnesses –, which took her from Germany to Chile via the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain, gave birth to extraordinary material: 67 hours of filmed interviews, often of overwhelming power. As the choreographer explained, The Green Table is a work which never ceases to overflow its context (of representation as of reception). For the individuals who performed it, as for those who saw it, many of whom were directly affected by the war and by fascism, it is practically impossible to recall the performance without relying on their own individual and collectives experiences. And it is here that the fundamental questions of Olga de Soto’s work lie: How does a work evolve within its own history? And within History? What is the impact of a politically engaged work in the memory of an audience?

Begun in 2006, Olga de Soto’s work on The Green Table had its first scenic materialisation in 2010 with Une Introduction (An Introduction). In this performance, the choreographer presented her research and introduced the creative process and the dramaturgic questioning which anticipated a much larger production to come. Constructed on the basis of images, of texts and of filmed interviews, this introductive conference was thought of by Olga de Soto as a performance in itself, founded on a dramaturgy regulated by a dual relation with time: from the present towards the past, and towards the future. According to the choreographer, this Introduction would retain its pertinence even after the performance it promised had been brought to light. Which is to say, now. Because it was 14 November 2012 (after the editing of this text) that the premier of Débords / Reflections on “The Green Table took place at Les Halles de Schaerbeek. Supported by a vast network of Belgian and foreign partners, among whom we number, for example, the Centre Pompidou – Spectacles Vivants (a faithful supporter of the choreographer), this performance brought together the material filmed over the years and confronted it with six performers on the stage. Six performers who do not try to enter a relation of force, lost in advance, with the video image and the content it transmits, but to make it seen. How can we “carry” this heavily charged image? How can we discharge it, or recharge it? How can we make the gaze circulate? How do you displace the spaces this discourse generates? For Olga de Soto, it is as if the performers on the stage rework the image with brushes to reveal it better. And if the choreographer also wanted them to make themselves receptacles for certain memories or certain words, she has above all sought to avoid an illustrative relation, which would restrict the flow of images.

A rope strung between the past and the future
A dimension of Olga de Soto’s work underlined by this patient exploration of The Green Table is the very singular relationship with the time of creation, already present in the Russian doll performance of Incorporer ce qui reste ici au dans mon coeur. The work of choreography expresses itself as a permanent work in progress, long-term research which gives birth to different public forms over the course of its development. In fact, Olga de Soto will not have finished her voyage through The Green Table with this new performance: with the material which did not find its way on stage, she intends to make a film and a book.

This relationship with time, if it is difficult to impose on production partners and subsidising mechanisms in the current stage-arts system – which might help to explain why Olga de Soto is not well supported by the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles from which she comes –, seems necessary to the choreographer. Because how can you work with memory without giving it this time to act?

Whatever the reaction is to the new performance, which we have not yet seen, Olga de Soto is an important choreographer, demanding, profoundly concerned with dance, art, politics and life, about with she asks essential questions. A choreographer who looks to the past so she may face the future – in a work to come, she intends to work with the dream, a culture of possibility which, she says, it is high time to put back to work.

Denis Laurent, What dies in us and what lives in us, L'Art Même n°57, pp 42-43 (BE), 2012/4