In anticipation of the “Café Idiot” premiere we got a rare opportunity to talk with its stage director, one of the oldest figures in contemporary dance in Russia Alexander Pepelyayev. We had thirty minutes to try and sort out why dance is called “visual theatre”, how “code” works, and “how it all began”.
Translated by Yana Lebedikhina.
Anna Kravchenko: Talking about your last work you used the term “visual theatre”, why this particular one?
Alexander Pepelyayev: Well, that’s a large an important issue. Recently I’ve been saying that I’m somewhat at odds with the term “contemporary dance”. First, it does not say much as it is; second, there’s entertainment, seen by many as contemporary dance. Besides, and I don’t know why it’s like this, but performance is also called contemporary dance. And from that perspective I coined that name for myself. Although “visual” is not quite an appropriate word, it sounds too scientific. There’s a normal simple term ‘dance theatre’. Say, Netherlands Dance Theatre (NDT). Sure you might point out that ballet is also dance theatre. Yet nobody will say “Let’s go see dance theatre The Swan Lake?” And dance theatre is important to me because… When I get to think what it is that I’m doing. I’m not much interested in pure dance; rather, I’m interested in a kind of content-based story told without text. Telling such a story requires some cunning. Although we see many different examples, such as in the works by Pina Bausch or at NDT, it’s done in a manner of creating a certain sign system that can be called language. Certain rules for the movements of objects or bodies are introduced. And anything can be an element of that language except text. Although text also can be an element, as long as it doesn’t explain the story away. And further, if we take that language, that system of signs, the code of the performance, that’s a vast and exciting topic. Even classical ballet might emerge here, built as contemporary dance theatre, if ballet removes its narrativity, if instead of relating the death of Giselle it will be building a code. And there are ballets of this kind out there, such as Jiri Kylian’s. They are built not to illustrate a libretto, but to create a code and relate a story based on it to be interpreted by the spectator independently, variably. The content of the story is not imposed, and every person is free to build a content of their own. But what’s most important, this story emerges because the elements of the code engage some emotional, feeling sensors of the spectator. Understanding, listening, seeing, relating to what’s going on comes up, all these things.
АК: Do you borrow this term of “code” from semiotics?
АП: Yes, that’s where it all comes from. The plot of dance theatre, its dramaturgy and story are built from the elements of this code. It needs to be created here on stage. Many things are clear, and inexplicably so. For example, I don’t remember whose work that was, ten people are dancing, and there’s a huge wall at the background covered with hook-and-loop fastener, and they’ve got it on their jackets. They are dancing, jump at the wall and get attached to it. And it does not matter what you dance before, be it a classical variation or rampant hip-hop. But the fact that you were moving and then got stuck as a fly, that is the code I was talking about. As a spectator I’ve got no idea what it means. But I see it’s a very powerful sign that shows me a lot about myself, that I can suddenly get trapped, stuck, that I might be thinking I’m dancing while in reality that dreadful wall awaits me, and I’ll be attached to it forever, something like that. My personal cultural, artistic, emotional resonances emerge. And many people do this kind of things. While many have nothing to do with it at all, they make some dances about something and that’s it.
АК: Each performance surely is done in its own way, but when this code is formulated, is it formulated by you or …?
АП: There aren’t any formulas. I had “fifty-fifty”, with one half emerging during improvisation, and the other out of something else. Usually every creative high point is a kind of borrowing. That is, the more I see, the more sources I’ve got to tap into and come up with something of my own. It’s the same with improvisation, when you make 150 sketches, two of them might turn out good.
АК: And in the piece you’re currently working on, do you draw on the text by Dostoyevsky more or less, what’s its role in the process?
АП: Its role here is somewhat strange. It’s a text that isn’t actually part of the novel. It’s a story about something that had happened some time ago and caused that insane drama. What matters to me is that Dostoyevsky was also spurred on by this short and bizarre text to start the novel. When he began writing the novel, an incident was widely covered in newspapers: a 14 year-old girl had been so abused by her parents that she set their house on fire. And that house is the house I think. A burnt house is a disaster. And all this story of mutilated relationships is set off by a disaster. Well, that’s a very big conversation in its own right, there’s a theory that Dostoyevsky invented a polyphonic novel. There are many specific characteristics, but it is very important that his characters are out of touch with life, out of touch with the surroundings, they are like the characters of an adventure novel. They are on their own in this life, and there are no bonds between them. This state is known as “on the threshold”, they are not in the room, not in the hall; they are at the door. And that’s where they place themselves. And it was the fire that set it off. So in a way it’s unclear what that text is related to, but to me it’s a sign of the first threshold. That odd text told by a 7-year-old girl focuses strongly on various issues that later on take different turns in this story.
АК: How important the body in general and the body of a particular dancer is when building a code?
АП: Very important. The body, the technique, professionalism etc matter. I’m saying that a video or a chair can be elements of this code, and a dance, too. Because energy, beauty, the exquisiteness of the body’s motion, some specific things like agility, managing gravitation – those are all signs to us. Unaware of it, we keep on reading these signs. Beautiful and ugly movements communicate something to us. If a person makes a beautiful movement, whereas the person next to him or her makes an ugly one, we see right away that something is wrong.
АК: And what does “beautiful” mean? Each technique, each school has its own definition of beauty.
АП: In this sense I’m neutral towards beauty. There’re all kinds of schools out there. It’s not the notion of beauty that matters, but rather the context, what it means within this code. Say, a person might be moving very awkwardly, yet inside it will be strikingly beautiful. It’s the context of the code, if the code is built this way, something will mean beauty, and if it is built in another way, the same will mean something appalling.
АК: At which point of your artistic life did you take on the notion of code?
АП: It’s been a long time. I’ve been giving workshops for years. Usually it’s a series of improvisations ending up in a piece of work. There was a time when I was even thinking of writing a thesis on it, as there was plenty of interesting stuff. When you’re working for three weeks, you start recording every sketch and see how one influences another, where each one originated from. Suddenly “look, this hare has got ears”, so where it has “got” them from, and what that “hare” went on to do with them. Actually, some important things are going on, things that could be worth putting into a system. Of course we cannot teach each other to create. Teaching to create does not make any sense. But we can understand our instruments better and learn to give a wider swing to our brain. There are certain instruments that help broaden our mind, look into unpredictable directions. It sure is tormenting, but something emerges that is right, some element of the code is discovered. And it all adds up into a system. It’s when your random access memory is crammed, when extreme density emerges with plenty of sketches, plenty of music, plenty of everything, that’s when some bonds start developing. And when this is shared by a bunch of creative people, the result is quite dashing.
АК: So searching for the code is a path?
АП: It’s a path of endless accumulating and waiting for the time when you hear: “here’s the language, here’s the code.”
АК: Do you travel this path as a producer or as an artist? Is it important for you to define your position?
АП: Surely my position is that of a producer. The thing is that dance theatre we were talking about has no dramaturge. We can take any play by Chekhov or Shakespeare. But if we aren’t taking a text, further on we don’t have a dramaturge. And that path surely is that of producing, yet it’s also dramaturgy, because it’s theatre. It requires equally elaborate and coherent dramaturgy. That’s a huge challenge.
АК: So as a producer it’s you who is doing this job?
АП: Well, yes, or I share it with actors.
АК: And which of your works are a breakthrough, in which of them the approach we’re discussing now was articulated?
АП: In fact, it was there from the very beginning. Well, not exactly, after all I’ve been doing it for years. But after hanging out overseas, in the Netherlands, I got a feeling there. I wouldn’t say it was a theory, a comprehensive system. But a sensation emerged, an understanding that these mechanisms exist, that they can be set in motion, and an obscure vision of how to attempt to do it. And my first work was “The View of the Russian Grave from Germany” (1997), which was remarkable, a breakthrough. We toured quite a lot with that piece. I watched it once again a while ago, and it’s still very intense. Then another interesting piece came up, “The Swan Lake” (2003), staged in Estonia, in which I worked with actors and choreography. In recent six or seven years, even more, I’m making interactive videos, and that’s quite a complexly arranged system. And all these works [with video] are jumps into the unknown. From the very start the concept of kinetic theatre, that’s why it was called “kinetic”, and it had a certain manifesto, was that it [theatre] is movement, interaction of people and objects in space. It was important that it wasn’t just choreography, just dance, but a structure that assimilates everything visible. One of the pioneers of silent Hungarian cinema coined a phrase; unable to call that cinema silent, as there was no sound cinema in those days, he called it “the theatre of the visible man”. It is rather precise. It’s a theatre where different theatrical laws operate, yet it’s not audible but visible.
АК: How after studying at GITIS (The Russia University of Theatre Arts), in Vasilyev’s class, did your step into this so-called “non-dramatic” theatre, non-verbal theatre?
СП: As his student I wasn’t into dramatic theatre either, I was already into the other kind. At that time I didn’t know the name for it all, yet I clearly had a strong affinity for that. There was Matskyavichus [Gendrus], some videos were available. Surely it was quite crude back then. At Vasilyev’s there were lots of things that I appreciated. They were also dealing with what happens behind the word, where all the “art” originates. It originated from a certain space between the actor and his characters. There were numerous deep insights into the process, its workings. I’m quite strongly interested in that stuff, how to do it, how to see it. There are many performances where there is no clue that there is such a system, absolutely coherent, clear, audible to the audience, a system of relating some stories, yet these stories lack logic.
АК: You are talking a lot about theatre, and you feel yourself as part of theatre. What is it that interests you in the nature of theatre? There’s a trend in contemporary dance after all, to be part of contemporary art, to operate in the space of exhibition.
АП: In theatre as opposed to exhibition… The thing with theatre is that because of how it’s arranged, with the auditorium and the stage, a kind of ‘feeling field’ emerges which is not the case with exhibition. And mysterious things happen there that don’t happen elsewhere. And it’s these mysterious things I’m interested in.
АК: Working with the cast of “Ballet Moskva”, was it distinct in any way to you? For example, was it different from working with the team of your project “Kinetic theatre”?
АП: I’ve had different experiences. Our team is still there. It’s just that now we’re doing less work, the setting is getting more complicated… Surely every cast is an independent phenomenon. Here it’s good to see that people care about what they are doing. In theatre, people often just “do their job”. On the whole I haven’t got any preferences.
АК: You were one of the masterminds behind TSEKH, where did that idea spring from?
АП: After “The View of the Russian Grave from Germany” I got to know the system of European festivals. And the idea of “Platform” was there, an enormous French international project with platforms in Brazil, Australia, Japan, and Estonia. We’d made arrangements quickly and went on to establish that platform here. The idea was to join into this friendship, which turned out very exciting, diverse, lively, rich, but not easy.
АК: TSEKH still exists, but rather as a school. Yet it remains virtually the only starting point for contemporary dance if we speak about Moscow…
АП: Well, not the only one, Igor Shagai also has something going… However, I’d had some naive hopes that didn’t live up to reality. I’d felt like if we started working hard on something worthwhile, somebody would turn up and say: “go ahead, guys”. But that never happened. Everything remains at the level of a personal venture. And the surrounding cultural and financial system becomes more rigid, more chemical.
Alexander Pepelyayev – stage director, choreographer, teacher. Graduated from Department of Chemistry at MSU (1989) and Department of Drama Direction at GITIS – Anatoly Vasilyev’s course (1990). Since 1990 as choreographer has been collaborating with theatres and dance companies in Russia and abroad. In 1994 founded his own project “Kinetic theatre”, from 2000 to 2010 had been artistic director of International centre for dance and performance TSEKH. Teaches at theatre and choreography academies and schools in Russia, Europe, the USA, and Africa. Winner of award at international competition for choreographers Rencontres Choreographique Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis (France) for best work as staging choreographer of “The View of the Russian Grave from Germany”. Last year his performance KVAHR, or “The Square For Temporary Storage 48 Х 9”, was nominated for “Golden Mask” award in categories “Best contemporary dance performance” and “Best work of choreographer”.