Dance starts in the gaze
This text is the result of two conversations with Olga Mesa. The first one took place at her place in Madrid, in autumn 2000, in the presence of Ignacio Oliva, who filmed the whole conversation in order to elaborate, at some point, a documentary on the new dance scene in Madrid. Her creative trajectory was the purpose of this conversation. The second one, more reflective, took place in Granada, in June 2001, where we met because La Ribot had recently been awarded the National Dance Award. Some days before, we had coincided in Geneva, at the request of îscar Gómez, as he had been given him carte blanche by the Theater of Saint Gervais, where Olga Mesa was to present a brief piece titled, Corps en Blanc, and I was to give a conference, The Play of Art. The freshness of the experience, in addition to the superb dinner we were offered by the father of the awarded, in a magnificent villa in Granada, partly overlooking the new part of town, enlivened a two hour conversation that took place in the lobby of a comfortable, but rather hideous hotel. The dance of restlesness
José A, Sánchez: Your work as a choreographer started back in 1992, with your work Lugares Intermedios (Intermediate Spaces). Before that you had worked with Blanca Calvo and La Ribot in Bocanada (Gust) and you had composed some solos, most of them during your stay in New York. From the first moment you showed a great interest in working with artists from other disciplines: Charo Calvo, Luis Escartín-Lara, Fernando López -Hermoso . . .
Olga Mesa: I always thought that working with audio-visual aids was important. When I returned from New York in 1992, Carlos Marqueríe suggested I should present a longer performance. So, we traveled to the Arizona desert toghether. Although I had done some solos before that, this was actually the first time I assumed the concept of production. I took the camera and went to the desert, as I was seeking a space with no reference, a space where I could be with my own self, and communicate with everything else, a despoiled space, a space to re-encounter. I was amazed. I had already done some work with a camera. But it was then, that I promised myself to produce an audio-visual work alongside with my creations on the stage. And that promise was fulfilled with Lugares Intermedios (1993) and with Europas (1995). After that, I started to focus my work in the search for a language of the body, and the parallel videocreation stopped, or it was incorporated into other works. The use of original music was also very important (although, I must say I have neglected this in the last years.) In Lugares Intermedios, there was a video installation in the vestibule of the theater, original music, a scenographic installation. But with the years, I have become much smaller, somehow, wanting to limit my investigation to the performance, and the presence of the body or the scenic space.
JAS: But your audio-visual has continued, with detriment to sculpture, perhaps, to the physical space, and also to the sonorous space. I recall that both in Lugares and Desapariıoes the physical was very important; the use of materials and objects.
OM: In fact, the process of Lugares was harsh, it was madness. I locked myself up in my studio with all those objects; the paper, the stones, which connected me with my experience in the desert, and, to my astonishment, I actually found myself creating an installation, something which I hadn’t planned.
JAS: Probably, the most outstanding impression of your works, according to the reviews of the last years, was the strong impression of solitude that they transmitted, the play with appearance and disappearance, the void, the never satisfied search, all of them embodied in a femenine body, which destills an idea of an individual and an idea of a woman which cause more uneasinness than confidence. Dou you agree with these impressions?
OM: The idea of appearance and disappearance is still present in my work. I have always understood the body as something basic: that is, the body is first, then comes movement, then word, then gesture. The body is the departure point. As regards Desapariçoes I must admit I was very influenced by Pessoa; I was obssesed with that perceptive hollow between what exists and what you can’t see; between what you see and what you don’t understand, between what you desire and you do not have. To me, the idea of appearance and disappearance had to do with this. And this relation of loneliness and abandonment in the body existed as a function of a real encounter with the body.
JAS: There is no doubt that in the last years your works have produced a sensation of restlesness, of absence.
OM: Tranquility never goes on for too long. You are always looking for something to disrupt it.
JAS: Since we have mentioned Pessoa, what do you think is the function of poetry, of literature in general, in your work?
OM: To me, Pessoa has always been an inspiration. I’ve never worked with his texts. I’m interested in his way of looking at the world: in his need to go outside in order to construct reality from a distance, express one’s own feelings as though they belonged to someone else.
JAS: You have always worked on your own, and in Desapariıoes, you collaborate for the first time with a performer, Paolo Henrique, a masculine body, which contrasts with the work you used to do, radically rooted in the femenine. What made you collaborate with him?
OM: This project was inspired by the universe of Pessoa, and from the very beginning I saw those two confronted worlds in him, the femenine and the masculine, feeling and appearance, the intuitive and the rational, passion and everyday routine. I was motivated to work with a male performer because I wanted to emphasize my female side even more, although Paolo had an interesting femenine dimension. It ended up in an unresolved conflict. A duo isn’t a solo, but it continues to be a solo between two individuals. The work turned out to be extremely difficult. The audience didn’t understand it.
JAS: In Desapariçoes you continued to explore themes which you had dealt with in your previous performance. However, I feel that other themes were suggested, that would appear in the Trilog’a, later on: the question of identity, in association with your playing with wigs and costumes; physical risk, in association with your playing with the set of glasses; the image of frailty, cruelty. The idea of cruelty will explode definitively in estO NO eS MI CuerpO (This isn’t my body), probably the performance with which you achieve creative maturity.
OM: In Lisbon I wasn’t allowed to use real glasses, but I have always been interested in using real elements: The sound of breaking glass was important, and so was the fact that the danger implied was not artificial. On the other hand, cruelty did appear in a moment of cosolidation of a certain universe of my own. estO NO eS MI CuerpO was the first part of Res Non Verba. I was clear that I wanted to produce a trilogy. And I confronted dance from the consideration of the body as object: loving the body and hating it at the same time, feeling it deep down as belonging to me, and at the same time feeling the body as something mechanic. Days went by, and my body hit the floor, violence increased. This piece had a complicated gestation. I was making myself a lot of questions. I also think that meeting Daniel Miracle in Cuenca was important. We started a close artistic collaboration that was present throughout the whole trilogy. I received a great deal of important things from him, not to mention his contribution in terms of lighting and audiovisual aids, plus his help in terms of dramaturgy, the gaze of outside onlooker . . . Because, before that, I had always worked on my very own. I needed to break up with this creative solitude. At some point in estO NO eS MI CuerpO, I could even imagine another performer doing it: It didn’t feel as though it only belonged to me. Against solitude
JAS: I agree. Such impression of solitude, so present in your previous performances, fades away and gives way to a position characterized by cruelty, and the will to overcome the level of perplexity by means of a powerful thought. Somehow, the real physical risk in Desapariçoes is like a child’s play in contrast to the negativity of the images in estO NO eS MI CuerpO. But the option of cruelty is precisely what allows you to escape the loneliness of meditation. Such powerful thought is a thought of the body. It follows different paths. One of these is the recourse to the oneiric, which atually worked in your video Europas, and is emphasized in estO NO eS MI CuerpO.
OM: In fact, I had a dream. I had an image of myself sleeping in constant movement, and within this same dream, I had the obsession that there was a rythmn in these constant changes, and that such rythmn was an important key to finding what I was looking for in movement. I awoke and I didn’t manage to find the key. I had seen it as a vision. The idea of “The Dream of Danae” originates in this. Our everyday body is not ruled, as we sometimes think, by practical thought. And the oneiric has to do with the things we cannot understand, with their unknown origin.
JAS: “The Dream of Danae” is based in a film: Cinematography is incorporated organically into the performance. The film conditions the choreography. At the same time materials are purified. Plastic materials are reduced to chalk, the audio-visual is reduced to a blurred image, hardly visible, which is projected in the background, and the image of a naked cellist controls the music. ÀWhere does that image come from?
OM: I must confess that I had written this scene years ago, for Llugares Intermedios. I had to write a skript in order to apply for financial support. I wrote a lot of scenes that were never used. And one of them was that of the cellist with the cigarrette in his mouth. But I’m not going to tell you why he was smoking the cigarrette. And this is how this visitor appeared in estO NO eS MI CuerpO, that was thus transformed into an “accompanied solo”. His appearance cannot be justified: I never knew whether he was interrupting “The Dream of Danae”, or whether he was a part of his imagination. But, I also think that an artist doesn’t have to justify every situation he creates: what matters is unity.
JAS: We have come to Desórdenes para un cuarteto (Disorders for a Quartet) (1998), which I feel to be your best work so far. It seemed a natural process that the affirmation of a personal way of speaking in estO NO eS MI CuerpO, should lead to Desórdenes, a piece with four performers in which that personal discourse becomes collective. In doing so, cruelty ceases to be negtive, and a space of play opens up. Of play and of play (in the theatrical sense). Solitude, identity and love are at play, as well as one’s own artistic aspirations, and finally: the audience. Play always entails the need for communication with the others. At play, the loss of inhibitions in childhood coincides with the loss of inhibition in dreams. But play is also projected towards the theatrical.
OM: The relationship with the others, starts as soon as you start playing, as occurs with young children. Play is at the base of any performance. I had to make the performers enter the universe of Res Non Verba. The game worked out from the very beginning. We worked a great deal on perception, on interchanging experiences. We also shared important moments such as filming particular instances of life with a video camera, recording our dreams, our fits of laughter caused by tickling one another. It was a question of creating a space where inhibition was supressed to achieve a certain presence of the body. There was a scene, with a witten text: Juan Domínguez performed it. The text was written in an invented language, but what I wanted was the text to function as movement, I wanted it to exist alongside with the movement of the body.
JAS: As far as the theatrical is concerned, I can’t help asking you about Pina Bausch.
OM: I have not seen many of her works, but she has always been present, no doubt, pehaps in an unconscious way. I once dreamt of her. She appeared before me. To me, Pina Bausch has to do with that feeling of restlessness we were talking about. We are a generation of artists that had no teachers. She fulfilled the role of a teacher, from a distance. However, I now feel much closer to other artists of my own generation.
JAS: Desórdenes opens up a new space, a serene gaze, less cruel, more attentive to communication with others, which is materialized in your two works: Daisy Planet and 1999-L’imitaciones, mon amour. In both these works, the renunciation to cruelty seems to be related with a different presence of the femenine, as an idea, as an attitude. Daisy Planet defers to the theory of Gaea, which is named after the ancient goddess Gaea, mother earth, related, therefore, with a multicentral ecological discourse.. And in 1999- L’imitaciones, mon amour you work with three women. The undisturbed investigation of the thoughts of the body, the tracing of the life of the others… they both seem to originate in a meditation on the femenine condition, the femenine mind.
OM: Of course, art cannot be separated from life. We constantly refer to biographical periods, to personal experiences… The white page
JAS: What is maintained throughout the trilogy is the urge to limit space. This is how the three pieces start: the space where the action is to take place is drawn with a piece of chalk. I should next mention the appropiation of space that one does with one’s body: one’s way of measuring the space, of finding the right proportion between body and space.
OM: I’m more and more aware of space as presence, of its importance as a generator of the work itself. To me, space is like a white sheet of paper: I feel the need of taking possession of it, and of having the possibility of creating someting in it, that didn’t exist prior to it, and that gradually builds up. It’s doesn’t have to do with the physicality of space, really: It has more to do with the need of feeling its limits, of defining a periphery that is never set. There is a need for location. And this is not always resolved.
JAS: Space, as a blank page, is an inversion of the black space on which you make your drawings with chalk, as though it were a blackboard. The idea of movement as a form of writing is maintained. I’m interested in the idea of line: the line that a pen makes on a white space, the white line of a piece of chalk on the floor, or on the black backdrop of stage, the line sketched by the body in space.
OM: I personally believe that this line you’re talking about, has to do with the immediate pulse of the corporal mind: that is, with emotion, and eventually with the ephemeral, too. The line appears as an impulse and then it sets on the space, provisionally, transitorily. I am writing a lot, more and more. I like the word ‘appropriation’ when I think of space. When I work, I have the feeling that I am taking possession of something. To me, space is like a script, like a story. This way of working in the space, of writing in the space is part of what is being told. I produced my first videoceations back in 95… What I remember about them is that situations were not created prior to the videos: first of all I had to locate the spaces, and according to the places I chose, I created actions. This was the departure point.
JAS: Following up with the idea of writing, I would like to know the relationship which is created between the sheet of paper and the tridimensional space. For, I have lately observed that you take your notebook everywhere: it has become a new element on stage.
OM: When we talk about the obscene, of what lies behind the scene, we are talking about what the body is thinking: What lies behind that mechanism of expression that is the body, what is it living through at that particular moment? I have realized that I no longer need the word in itself, as word merely, but the word which enables communication, a word originated in the body itself, in a particular space. I’m interested in the idea of revealing: of making visible what is usually hidden in a scenic space, that sort of machinery, working with that negative.
JAS: But at the same time, you are showing the impossibility of seeing, when you are seen sitting in a corner scribling words that no one can read, or mumbling words that no one can hear . . .
OM: Más público más privado (More public, more Private) is even more complicated. I am also trying to find a vantage point for the onlooker, within the work itself: provide him/her with a time during which the construction is thought: thought as something independent from comunication, as something private. Sharing one same time with the onlooker, but being somewhere else. It is quite obvious here that I am playing with seduction. Seduction and the gaze
JAS: You are proposing a relationship of seduction with the audience, which has to do with the gaze.
OM: It also has to do with seduction as movement, as curiosity.
JAS: When you look at the audience you are inviting it to walk in, and at the same time you are banning it from walking in. Is this an invitation to the impossible?
OM: We are within a space of representation. Deep down, in that invitation to the impossible, there is an urge to make the encounter possible. The impossible doesn’t matter. Basically, the possibility of achieving it is very stimulating.
JAS: And what do you think about the gaze of the onlooker, how does it respond?
OM: The gaze of the audience is everything and it is also nothing. There is a game of false/ true in the whole thing. It is as though you were very close to something that you cannot touch. A mysterious relationship is created, because you don’t know which mechanism is actually working. I always consider the audience as a group of individuals. I try to work with the gaze, in a way that it is always focused: The question is to individualize the spectator. The gaze of the onlooker mirrors my own gaze: the relationship is specular: as though I could see my own gaze through the gaze of the spectator. My gaze doesn’t end in me: it starts with the other. I feel as though my body were here, but my eyes were over there, with you: I don’t know whether I belong to you, or whether you belong to me: I wonder who belongs to who. The gaze seems to supress the empty space between the bodies.
JAS: How does this change when you work with other performers? When the primary relationship, is no longer a relationship between the artist and the onlooker, but a relationship with the performers.
OM: This is something I am presently working on in my workshops. How to understand the gaze from the body. I have lately been working hard on observation, from statism. In the first place, to transform observation into movement/thought of the body. And to transform the gaze, into an element capable of generating spaces. It is a question of observing oneself through the existent: It isn’t a contemplative observation, but rather, an observation of the outside of oneself.
JAS: Your idea of thought and observation has drawn me to underline the treatment of time in your works: a slow tempo.
OM: Apparently slow. But what I’m talking about is immediacy, encounter, as observation doesn’t imply a retardation of motion. I wuld rather talk about pauses, empty spaces, or dead periods of time. Because I want movement to act as a counterpoint of observation. It should resemble a fugue; it should have the immediacy of boldness. I am contradicting myself as a performer, because it seems as though I was doing something inorganic, as you are struggling against a tendency of expansion and continuity of movement: I intend to trap movement as it tends to expand. I wouldn’t say time is slow, though, but rather suspended: time is very real, it is the everyday time. To me ‘slow’ is synonimous for tranquile . . . And I think we should rather concentrate on the space of tension, which is something that I am working on with the performers: how to maintan tension with very few elements. Time in suspension. Because if seduction is to be seen as a consequence of the present, the notion of time is lost: We are here and now, there is no conscience of development. The term ‘seduction’ always entails the physical. However, when we use this term we are also refering to a different idea, to something that traps us, which we do not know, that seems to be hiding something.
JAS: And in that play of seduction with a suspended time, the spectator can walk in and be seduced, or decide not to walk in and feel irritated.
OM: I don’t really think much about this, for I keep forgetting about the audience. We are talking about individuals, rather than an audience. I don’t mean to seduce in order to impose. Seduction is to be understood as an invitation for the spectator to find him/herself. I’m aware that not all of them walk in. And I begin to understand why some of them do not wish to walk in. I don’t intend all spectators to walk in. Every spectator is going to experience the performance in a different way, and although they are toghether, they could perfectly well be in different spaces.
JAS: As though they were in the pictures.
OM: Exactly. The work I’m doing reminds me of the movement of a camera. I’m thinking of the body as a generator of different times: moving backwards or being in the future. You can cease the action with the body, and keep on talking. You can stop talking and keep on performing with the body. Word and time, carried out simultaneously. Repetition. It isn’t only a question of conscious observation: but a work on the development of sensation. Images and Processes
JAS: Two accessories are clearly observable on stage. One is a notebook, which has to do with the idea of dance as writing, of movement as a drawn line. The second one is a video, the filmed image, which has always been present in your performances and has become more and more naturally integrated.
OM: When I first produced my videos my aim was to approach the language of audiovisuals. But now I am more interested in electronic reality in itself. I use the video as a primary aid. When I performed with Daniel and we introduced image, the camera became the accompanist of the body. But I don’t need more of an image: I’m not concerned with the language of audiovisual materials. I’m interested in using the camera as though it was the eye of the spectator, to create with it a relationship of intimacy. The camera allows for the multiplication of dimensions. The oneiric appears, as well as memory . . . What I am more interested in, as far as the camera is concerned, is the creation of that space, intimate and human.
JAS: Thus producing a physical relationship with both the image and the camera. This is very obvious in the first presentations of Más poeblico más privado (More public, more private). It is striking that from a relationship which is purely physical, an image can be created which does not obey the rules of audiovisual materials.
OM: I find myself increasingly using both the camera and the image in a more casual way. I am not interested in confering power to the image. This does not mean that everything should be left in the hands of chance. Yet, the interpreter should encounter things in a casual way: for instance, a camera. While the performer is using the camera, he/she can utter whatever comes to his/her mind at that moment.
JAS: You are using the video and the filmed image by means of a physical language, and on the other hand, you are introducing in the work of the body a cinematographic language. 1999-L’imitaciones, mon amour, contained in its title an explicit homage to Resnais. And in the work you have just presented in Geneva, Cuerpo en blanco (Body in white), you are using texts by Godard.
OM: Well, my concern with the gaze has a lot to do with that flesh and blood realism which the cinema transmits. And at some point I wondered if I would eventually end up behind a camera and forget about the stage. In New York I learned a great deal about the cinema of Jonas Mekas. And then Tarkovsky appeared, whom I consider to be a kind of sculptor in time: a particular mixture of the theatrical, the artificial, and a very organic movement of the camera. Tarkovsky made me think about the gaze of the director, the presence of the camera in space. Fellini is a bit like Kantor in the theater, the creator of a world in which dreams or memory sketch out reality. Passolini became my favourite when I started seeing his films: apart from being a great artist, he is a social creator: he conciliates the poetic with the crude and the disembodied in a most natural manner, without artifice. Godard has given me the passion for work, the passion for thought. What really interests me, as far as Godard is concerned, is the fact that his objective is not history, but rather a compilation of fragments: history is constructed as a staging of different times and sensations. I’m really interested in this fragmentation, and in its relation with the image too. I raise visual questions in the body, and physical questions in the camera: Godard makes me think about the movement that words can generate, and the vitality of thought that is achieved through action. I must say that I interverted his original texts, as well as those by Doris Sagan, which I used for Daisy Planet.
JAS: Corps en blanc (Body in white) was a kind of experiment, a moment in your search for something. I would like to ask you about the relationship between process and product. There are more and more spaces where one works simply on the process: workshops, cartes blanches, improvisations, projects for specific places. How do you think these works, which are basically processes, can be articulated with the actual products? To what extent do you think a work in process becomes less interesting in terms of spectacularity?
OM: So far I haven’t been able to distinguish process from show, spectacle. I feel closer to process than performance. To me, work is a process of accumulation. When I set up a performance, what I try to do is find a coherence in the arranged materials, which should be understood as a travelled space, a journey, maintaining their presence as fragments of an experienced process. I search the coherence of such materials in order to offer them to the gaze of the spectator. But I am very concerned with the idea of a selection of materials during the composition process. For I have always thought there was a huge difference between the way in which a work is articulated in the studio, and its definition in the space of representation. This is why I’ve always tried to keep them toghether. I’m much more relaxed now because I’ve understood that they are actually different spaces. Perhaps, what I am really striving to understand is that the experience of time and space in the process can be much more than a simple approximation to what is offered to the spectator. I think that I always present my works in process, because they aren’t completely formalized. I like to think in the possibility that my work is in a continuous state of change. Perhaps what I am talking about is the performance, the freedom of the performer. In my works, things cannot be measured with a chronometer, which warranties the maintenance of the process.
JAS: How does the disparity of places where you carry out your work, your constant nomadism, afect such process?
OM: When I used to work in Madrid, I travelled a lot with my mind. At the moment I am travelling more physically, and yet, I have a feeling of stillness, because my mind is concentrated on a specific point. Before, I used to feel I was constantly travelling because I was always torn between finding myself and loosing myself. I am surprised when I am in France or in Mozambique . . . because I don’t feel strange, as I work with individuals, and human material is identical wherever you go. What I mean, what touches me deep down… is that it is something that belongs to everyone. Work is in life, and life is in us, in our relationships as individuals. What I can do is observe closer, get to know things better, confront more and more.
JAS: What you mean is that life is at level with production. In the conference I presented in Saint Gervais I drew attention to the definition of art as a way of being in the world. The artist is not above all a doer, but rather someone who is, someone who lives in a particular way.
OM: Finding that way of being is precisely the work of the artist.