"Dancing the sublime"
Raimund Hoghe in conversation with Bonnie Marranca
Bonnie Marranca
PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, May/2010

Raimund Hoghe has brought his singular dance aesthetic to audiences on several continents since he began making performances two decades ago. Starting out as a journalist for the German newspaper Die Zeit, where he published many portraits of artistic figures and reports on social groups outside the mainstream, by now compiled in several books, Hoghe also worked with Pina Bausch as dramaturg for Tanztheater Wuppertal in the period 1980–1990. Der Buckel, an hour-long self-portrait of the dancer, who draws from sources as eclectic as classical ballet, visual art, Butoh, literature, and popular music, was shown on German television. Often working with his artistic collaborator, Luca Giacomo Schulte, he has directed and choreographed solo works for himself and others, such as 36, Avenue Georges Mandel, incorporating performances and interviews of Maria Callas, and L’Après-midi, using Debussy’s composition; duo pieces, such as Sacre—The Rite of Spring; and several other dances for his international company, including Swan Lake, 4 Acts and Boléro Variations. Hoghe’s company evokes a sense of refinement and uncompromising beauty in a highly symbolic vocabulary of movement, distilled through poetic images and objects in space. At the center of this dance, with its honoring of dance history, is Raimund Hoghe, a hunchback, whose expressive presence and standards of artistry expand perceptual modes of viewing the performing body. He was voted Dancer of the Year in 2008 by ballettanz. In September 2009 Hoghe and his company brought their work to New York for the first time as part of the French Institute Alliance Française Crossing the Line festival at Dance Theatre Workshop. Our conversation took place during the run of the performances, on September 24; subsequently, we spoke again in Spain

I would like to welcome you to New York City. I have to say it’s a sad commentary that your work has never been seen in the United States before now. Dance is such a prominent art form on the continent, and many new works don’t make it over here, or appear years after their premiere. So, let me begin then, in terms of introducing you to American readers and to our international audience who don’t know of the work, by asking—who are you?

My first profession is a writer. I was writing for newspapers and published several books. And I was working for ten years in the late seventies and eighties as a dramaturg for Pina Bausch. First I was writing about her and then she asked me to work with her for the pieces, and there was a ten-year collaboration with Pina. After the work with Pina, I started to do solo pieces for dancers. As a writer I made many portraits of people, and when I did the solo pieces it was also a kind of portrait of the dancer—but onstage, not a written portrait.

How did you work as a dramaturg in dance? Obviously, this gives your own work a certain structure and narrative sense.

With Pina it was a very personal collaboration. She didn’t work before with a dramaturg, and also after I left she didn’t work with anyone. It was really that we were looking for the same kind of things. I came from another area. When I was working for her, I still was doing my writing for the weekly paper Die Zeit in Germany, for radio and some television projects. But it was a personal collaboration. I brought some music, and texts sometimes, which she used in the performances. But most of all I was there to help with the structure, to put things together.

When I said, “Who are you?” I meant it in the sense of you as a person? Someone who would move from dramaturgy to doing your own performances. What changes occurred within you to make you go on the stage?

First of all, at school I was as an extra onstage in the city theatre in Wuppertal, where I was born. I was writing about theatre and dance and social minorities. After that came the work with Pina, and then for dancers. In one of the solo pieces for a dancer, Verdi prati, in the early nineties, I was sitting in the back. Someone said, “Oh, you should go onstage.” In 1994 I did the first solo for myself, Meinwärts—it’s a word you can’t translate, from the German poet Else Lasker-Schüler.
In this solo piece, I wanted to play the music of Joseph Schmidt, the Jewish tenor who was exiled by the Nazis. He had also performed in New York at Carnegie Hall. He was world famous. He died in an internment camp in Switzerland in 1942. I wanted to tell his story with his music. In the period when I created the piece, many people, including dancers and choreographers, had died of AIDS, and I wanted to remember them. In Germany, I was also writing about AIDS and the reactions of society. Some arguments people used were the same they used during the Third Reich.
All of this is connected with my body. My body is not a usual body; you don’t see this kind of body often onstage. I have a hunchback. I’m not very tall, but many dancers are not much taller than me. This is not the main point. But it’s a different body. Also through AIDS the bodies of the victims changed. Some became very skinny and were still very beautiful. I have seen some people dancing who just came from the hospital, and they had a very special beauty. This gave me courage to go onstage.

You said that when you were a journalist you did many portraits, and going to dance allowed you to do portraits of the dancer. Are your pieces self-portraits?

Not the pieces in general. But it’s always part of me. Like a painter is always reflecting himself. Every piece of art reflects.

Where do you see your dance fitting in European dance today? You’ve done the piece on Maria Callas, 36, Avenue Georges Mandel, which I saw in Glasgow in the winter. It used interviews and performances of Callas. And you’ve made various other pieces, including L’Après-midi, which is also in your Dance Theatre Workshop program, and Swan Lake, 4 Acts.

It’s a very special part I’m taking because this is my body, this is my aesthetic. I want to remember history—this is maybe the main point of the work. I always talk about history, for example, about German history. In recent years I’m also talking a lot about dance history. If I work on a piece like Swan Lake or L’Apres-midi or Boléro or Sacre—The Rite of Spring, you have the history. I’m working with this history, and listen again to these pieces of music which have become a cliché. People think, “Oh yeah, this Swan Lake you hear in the elevator or in the plane, or Boléro, it’s a cliché.” So for many people Bolero is something about sex or women in red dresses. But for me there is something different in this piece of music.
The same for Swan Lake. Sometimes people say, “Oh, it’s so sad.” But Swan Lake is not a musical comedy. People think it’s just entertainment, but the original piece is not a comedy or only an entertaining piece. Same with Sacre. At the beginning and at the end of my performance I use speeches of Stravinsky. He is talking about the premiere, and how it was a big scandal. But now everyone loves Sacre. But it was something different in the beginning. I want to remember this beginning, to listen again to these pieces of music. In contemporary dance, I feel that not many choreographers work with music, or work really with music. They’ll use some music, but it could be also another music. And for me, it’s very very important to share this beauty and strength of music. It is part of the collective memory.

It is interesting that there have been some very different choreographers, for example, Yvonne Rainer and Angelin Preljocaj, who have also created a new Rite of Spring. But your point about the music is true; I’ve begun to notice in recent years, as with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and with Russell Maliphant, a real strong attention to music. As you know, we went through a long period where there wasn’t a lot of music, and dance was very austere. Then Mark Morris returned so strongly to music. In terms of your interest in dance history, I want to ask you about the pieces that I haven’t seen, those you regard as a trilogy of the twentieth century. Were you thinking of it in terms of dance history or European history?

The trilogy about the last century was the solos pieces for myself. The first, on Joseph Schmidt, was about the thirties and forties. Then the next part was Chambre sepárée about the fifties and sixties, and also about how the reactions after the war in Germany were—that you didn’t talk about many things. You didn’t talk about the fascism. The last part is Another Dream, and it is about the sixties and seventies. Of course, also about American history—Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, West Side Story, which I saw in the cinema. It’s this collective memory we have. I remember not for the past, more for today and tomorrow because we can learn from history, and we shouldn’t forget the result in Germany with what happened in the past.

In your Boléro Variations there is a segment about a woman prisoner who was a cello player in Auschwitz. Suddenly German history is injected into the work in a very surprising way. How did you arrive at that dramaturgical choice?

It came through a CD published in the United States, Music in Auschwitz. I was working on Ravel, not only Boléro from Ravel, but there are also other works from Ravel in my piece. And then I heard Kaddish from the CD where a woman who was in the orchestra of Auschwitz is talking; they also performed Ravel in Auschwitz, among other composers. It fit very well to my intention to have another look at Boléro. Finally, for me it becomes like Sacre—The Rite of Spring at the end . . . so it’s not entertaining anymore. It is something really connected. It was important to have this woman talking at the end of the piece. So there’s entertainment before— you can laugh in the performance—but finally there is this tragedy.

The ending also seems to me to move into a spiritual domain where I feel there’s a desire by you and even by the other performers to fly, to move to another space, to transcend the body. I don’t know how you feel about those kinds of issues, but I think that your work takes performance into the realm of the sublime. There are not so many examples of that today. Are these issues important in your philosophy?

It’s very important in my life and also in the work. The performance for me is a ritual. Sometimes people say they feel clear after the performance. It’s not therapy— not for me, not for the dancers. But it should be a kind of purification. In England, someone wrote a short text for a book about spirituality onstage and the Upanishads, and also Rishi, Devata and Chandas. He said I’m also always the observer. I’m the object, but also the observer. This comes together.

A little bit like Kantor, who was an observer moving around the periphery of the performance space. But more like an orchestra leader, in a way?

Yes, I always want to see. I don’t want to be behind the curtain, not able to see what’s happening onstage. I want to see the dancers. But I am also an observer of myself because I tape every rehearsal. So I know exactly how it looks.

What is the rehearsal process and what kind of training do the actor-dancers have? Do you consider them actors or dancers?

Most of them, except Lorenzo [De Brabandere] and I, have a very good education, Ornella [Balestra] was in Royal Ballet School in London. She danced with [Maurice] Béjart. Yutaka [Takei] was with Carolyn Carlson. Emmanuel [Eggermont] trained as a ballet dancer since he was five.

How do you work with the dancers? Do you have a system, or a special concept of the dance that you’re putting on the bodies?

I only ask them to connect with the music. Maria Callas was a beautiful singer, and for me, also a dancer. She was very aware about movements. She said, “If you really listen to the music, the music will tell you how to move.” This is what I try with the dancers. I play music, and they can connect or not. If they can’t connect, I have to find another music. I cannot ask them, “It’s so beautiful. Connect.” I have to find for each person the right music that this person can connect to. We don’t discuss this. We don’t discuss what they feel, or what’s going on inside them during Swan Lake. I see that they have memories, they have a story. But we don’t talk about it.

I noticed that in your Boléro Variations, you actually quote some steps from Béjart’s Boléro—the ones on the toes, and the hieroglyphic aspect of the hand gestures.

Yes. It’s a beautiful DVD with Maya Plisetskaya, a quite old version. In the beginning it’s just the hands you see, and this was the starting point when I did the new Boléro Variations because I had already worked on Boléro before. Maya Plisetskaya is a wonderful dancer, so strong. She was an older woman at this time—not old, but she was over fifty—and the males were twenty, twenty-five. That this older person is telling the story to the younger generation is a fantastic version.
Maya Plisetskaya was in Swan Lake and also in films with Galina Ulanova. This is part of the work with the dancers. We watched Ravel’s Boléro several times . . . not to copy. More to be aware of a special level. The same with Torvil and Dean, Evgeni Plushenko. For Swan Lake, we watched together old Russian films.

Gestures in dance are very interesting, starting with the Russian tradition. Then we can jump to Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham. They all had the quality of the hands, the energy in the hands and fingers. I think it would be fascinating to do a history of gesture now that we are looking back.

For me, very good singers like Callas, Peggy Lee, Dalida or Edith Piaf were some of the greatest performers/dancers. And it’s amazing, they don’t move so much. Peggy Lee for example, she was very aware. You just see the strong connection between music and movement.

Remember when she sang Fever, how she held her arms? It’s very interesting, before the hand-held microphone, how singers would sing when they didn’t have to hold a microphone. And now, of course, they sing a different way because they have the ear piece. I’m also interested in the young Barbra Streisand, they way she held her fingers; Judy Garland, how she held her arms out. Everyone has a particular way of holding the shoulders and taking a breath.

And I watch these singers a lot because they have this connection.

Which singers today do you watch for their performance style?

Michael Jackson was maybe the last.

I want to return to the question of different kinds of beauty and extreme states that we were talking about. It seems that it is much more of a European tradition than an American one. I can’t think of any American artists doing anything like your work, or Romeo Castellucci’s, or Jan Fabre’s, whose work I don’t really admire, but [that] nevertheless exemplifies this extreme state. Do you think that it comes from European history and Catholicism?—this ritualistic idea, something between pagan and sacred, and the marking of the body? All of these things seem to be very European and very contemporary now.

I’m not born into a very religious family. I don’t have this background like Fabre or Castellucci. I like Castellucci’s work very much. But I don’t have this problem with the church.
I’m more connected with the Japanese aesthetic and Eastern views. I feel closer to this question of ritual. I wrote a lot about Kazuo Ohno. I saw him several times. And Sankai Juku. Also, I like Saburo Teshigawara’s work. Even three years ago, I saw Kazuo Ohno in Yokohama in his studio. He was a very big influence. I’m very interested in the whole Japanese culture. Tea ceremonies are like choreographies, and the movement of a tea master is dance.

It is apparent that your work is very ceremonial. In fact, it makes use quite a lot of the floor. I notice there’s a very important sense of texture in the work, dressing and undressing, and a particular use of clothing. And placing fabric and garments on the floor, using it as a canvas and reversing the perspective. Objects are also used in this ceremonial way.

I use less and less objects, only a few now. But I see them also as a kind of installation. The last image of Boléro Variations is like an installation in a museum. I like to work with the space and how you can change a big space with little objects. For L’Apres-midi, there are two glasses of milk as set design. In Swan Lake, 4 Acts each act has a different set design—there is a little paper theatre in the first act, white flowers in the second, then ice cubes, and sand in the last act.

There is also a sense of sculpture in the making of a plaster cast on your body by one of the dancers, and then putting that on his knee. A kind of transference of this image. What are the performance issues that interest you now to work on? Are there special themes or forms of physical activity that you find your work moving toward?

I never was and also now I am not interested in virtuosity. For me very little movement can have a big effect. I want to share the quality of the dancers and the music with the audience. Women like Ornella are not often seen in contemporary dance, so they retire. I’ve seen Kazuo Ohno when he was very old and I was very impressed and inspired. I also wrote about Gret Palucca. I met her when she was eighty-six and she was full of energy. It was fantastic how she moved—like a child.
It is this humanity that we can communicate. My company is not a fixed company. I don’t get public subsidies. I can only engage new people for a project. They come from very different background, country, and age, but we can communicate. This seems to be important today. I never used video onstage, and no big projections. I try to go back to a very reduced form of theatre, to the starting point of dance. One thing also, because we talked about spirituality, is that I always say, “I’m not the creator of the piece.” Peter Brook said you have to create an atmosphere so that things can happen. This is my role during the work. I have to create this atmosphere. Stravinsky said, “I am the vessel through which the Sacre passed.” This is also my thought.
You have to come from one point to the other point. This has to be clear. If you have to think while you go from here to there, then something in the dramaturgy is not right. I did a piece with twelve young people, trained and not trained in dance, and first they were afraid they would not be able to remember, and finally they discovered it’s very easy. It’s a three-hour piece, but the order or dramaturgy is very clear—there is an inner line you can follow and you just do the steps you have to do.

Do you think of yourself as a choreographer? Are the steps coming out of improvisation?

I don’t like the word “improvisation.” Also, Pina never liked the word “improvisation.” No, I play music and then I see what’s happening with the dancers. When I feel the dancer comes very close to what I’m looking for, or comes close to himself, then I make the selection. There are only a few movements that I give.

The pieces seemed framed. The overriding sense of the space is of the rectangle, with you walking around it. There’s a constant framing of the action. How do you come into the piece?

With walking around the others in Boléro Variations, I create a kind of balance in the space and also a continuity. The five dancers do different movements and I’m just walking around them and continue when they stop.

Is it easy for you to perform?

I don’t have any pain. Sometimes people think I have pain. I don’t. In Boléro Variations, for the dancers it’s more difficult than for me even though I do the last Boléro longer than they do. I can sit very good on my knees and they’ve had some problems with it, but I do a bit of yoga.

Do you have a physical regimen that you follow?

No. The music gives me the power. With music I can do things I can’t do by myself.

One of the things that we touched on earlier is the question of beauty, and I raised the issue of the sublime. Many people are no longer so interested in the old ballet traditions. What we call “beautiful” now has radically changed over the course of a century. How do you think of beauty and performance?

People are very much afraid of beauty today, I think. Also they are very afraid of beautiful feelings. And for me beauty or love is the strongest impulse. Sometimes, at very tender moments, people leave the theatre because they can’t stand this tenderness onstage. They can see violence a lot onstage and nudity. But if I just take a t-shirt off then people say, “We don’t want to see this.” Especially in Germany I get these remarks from critics. For me this question of beauty is connected with German history, because the Nazis knew what beauty is, they had special ideas of beauty, which body is beautiful, and which body shouldn’t exist.

Why don’t you elaborate more on your work in relation to German history and the body?

The Nazis selected Jewish people, people with disabilities, gay people, many many groups. And also bodies like my body. I don’t know if I could have existed in the Third Reich, if I would have been selected. Therefore, I have a very strong reaction to this image of beauty. My question is, “Is it beautiful to have breasts with silicone?,” “Is it erotic to kiss lips with silicone?,” “Are faces with Botox really attractive?” It’s ok for me if someone does it but they shouldn’t say this is beauty—these stretched faces. That they are beautiful, and I am ugly. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for some people, is the most beautiful man in the world. We can discuss this. But they should not say, Arnold Schwarzenegger is beautiful, Raimund Hoghe is ugly. This I don’t agree with. Then we have to discuss what is beauty. And it’s very subtle. The Nazis, they could say—everyone blond, tall, strong. This is beauty for fascism.

Most of your work is done outside of Germany. Do German audiences have difficulty watching the work?

I don’t know “the” audience—there are different people in the theatre. And with the critics I can say it’s much more aggressive than in other countries, especially with the body. But it’s also in the streets. When people from a foreign country come to visit me, they say, “Oh, they look so much at you.” In France or Belgium, no one is looking, or in England. I don’t know why it’s so different in Germany—the acceptance of a different body seems to be difficult in my country. And I fight for diversity. For me it’s important that diversity exists also in the future and that disabled children can be born. That you don’t say, “You don’t have to give birth to this child, because it will have a disability.” Who is selecting? I’m against selection of people.

I wonder if that has to do with the fact that the German audience is influenced by watching such virtuosic performance in theatre that there’s a certain expectation for what people do and look like onstage? How do audiences in general respond to your company?

I feel that the audience is more and more open for my kind of work. Not because it’s successful. I feel there is a stronger need from week to week and month to month to see something more real, to return to human emotions. To see that people can communicate, that there is love and passion, and it is not just artificial. They long for some real feelings.

Are there dance companies in Europe that you feel close to? There is so much spectacle and theatricality in a lot of dance abroad. But on the other hand, there are dancers that are more austere, like Xavier Le Roy.

I like some of the pieces of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. She’s very good, very interesting—one of the most important now in Europe.

Do you have a sense of the European body—as a performing body—being very different from the American body?

I don’t believe in nations, I believe in human beings.

Do you live mostly in France?

No, I perform mostly there . . . I am more in France than in Germany. France is really the best place I think for dance. Because they have all these choreographic centers. It is a completely different structure than in Germany. We don’t have this. We have the city theatre, with theatre, opera, ballet. But it’s another structure in France. In these choreographic centers, also in small cities, you see contemporary dance on very interesting levels.

I have the feeling that dramatic literature on the continent isn’t so strong now? It seems that dance is becoming so more exciting a form in Europe.

Yes, much more so. I remember, with Pina in the early eighties and the end of seventies, people like Heiner Müller came to see the work. Robert Wilson would come. It was really a big influence from the dance to the theatre, and not from the opera. But in Germany we had also in the seventies very great theatres. One of these directors, Peter Zadek, also just died. It was two weeks after Pina.

Did Pina Bausch know that she was very ill?

I think so, probably, because she was smoking cigarettes non-stop over fifty years, but she didn’t want to talk about illness.

Do you think she was planning to go in new directions?

No, I didn’t have that feeling. It was different with Merce Cunningham, who was trying out new and different things until the end . . . or William Forsythe or Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who are also opening new doors with their creations.

As choreographers are aging you can see the subject matter changing. For example, I saw a work in London last spring, You Made Me a Monster, by William Forsythe. He said it took him twelve years to deal with the grief of his wife’s death. This was quite a magnificent piece that he did. Meredith Monk made a piece a few years ago, Mercy, about the death of her partner. So, we are seeing this subject matter, beyond the AIDSrelated work.

But Pina did that in the 1980s, a piece called 1980, which was created right after the death of her partner. He was 35 and she was 39 when he died. I started to work with her during this time. 1980 was, in a way, the first big piece I did with her. I feel very much connected to the earlier works of Pina, until the end of the eighties. The last works with the big video film projections I don’t feel so connected to. But Bluebeard’s Castle, Café Müller, Kontakthof, Arien, which I didn’t work on, were very strong, unforgettable performances.

What do you think you will work on next? What interests you now in terms of the direction you may move in?

I don’t know because I can’t plan on the future. When I say “I’m the vessel . . .”—I want to be open. I know that next summer, I will do a big group piece again with eight or nine people. It is in memory of Dominique Bagouet, the French choreographer who died of AIDS in the nineties. He was a founder of Montpellier Dance Festival, whose thirtieth anniversary is next year. I want to remember him, and also Hervé Guibert, the French writer who died of AIDS at the same time. The title of my piece is a sentence from a poem by Federico García Lorca. It is very difficult to translate, something like “When I die let the balcony open.” I had this feeling and this image, after so many people died in the last months, to have some air.

It’s a wonderful poetic image. It seems that you draw a lot of influence from writers. I know that you have written that Pasolini’s idea about “throwing the body into the fight” was a great inspiration. What other writers or literary examples are meaningful for you?

Many, many . . . also Russians, like Gorky and Chekhov. But also I like Peter Handke. I like Christa Wolf, Heiner Müller. Holderlin, of course, and Kleist. For me it’s important to remind people not to forget there is this quality in many things.

There is often a problem with the lack of historical consciousness on the part of many people who make work now, and their audiences.

Yes, and therefore I say, “Watch Swan Lake, watch the old dancers.” You cannot say, “Oh, it’s old fashioned classical ballet.” If you see the Swan Lake with Ulanova, it’s not kitsch. It’s something very touching. It is very high quality. It’s not just the jumps.

You’ve mentioned something important—“it’s not kitsch,” you said. For many people, these kinds of things are easily dismissed as “camp“ or “kitsch.” Has your work been called “camp?”

No, no never. This I take care—that it’s not camp.

But you know how people regard some of the classical works as camp or kitsch. You also spoke about the difficulty of people accepting beauty. I want to ask you about the element of emotion. Isn’t there the sense that real emotion is very difficult now for many audiences?

Yes, this is an important point, and for me the music brings people to this emotional level. You can’t fight against it; you only can leave the theatre. Violence people accept, they do that with Fabre. They are not shocked anymore if people do things with blood. But if there is emotion, then they become aggressive. George Tabori once said, “If you just show a hand, you get the impression you see this for the first time if it’s connected with the person.” It is important to keep this emotion. Young people, I feel, are looking for it. They can accept that it’s unusual what I’m doing onstage. Sometimes people are crying in the performance. At the last performance of Boléro Variations in New York, Arnaud [Antolinos, the manager of Raimund Hoghe’s company] said the woman next to him was crying during the whole ending. So, it is still possible to reach people. I believe in this. And I fight for this. We can’t say, “It’s old fashioned.” It’s not. We are still human beings. If we still want to be human beings, we should have emotions. But some people are afraid—also of beauty.
When I started out what I said was, “With my body, which is not called beautiful, I can go very far in looking for beauty.” If I would have a body like Baryshnikov, then it would be much more difficult. But with me, you have also this break, this distance, these two things: you have what you accept as beauty—the music; and you have the body that doesn’t fit what you think. It’s like a landscape. You cannot say only the sea is beautiful. We shouldn’t have hills anymore. There should be both. And my body is more like a hill, maybe.

©Bonnie Marranca
Bonnie Marranca edited (with Malgorzata Semil) the anthology entitled New Europe: plays from the continent, a new PAJ title. Her new collection of critical writings and interviews, Performance Histories, was also recently published. A 2009 recipient of the Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professorship, at Queen Mary/University of London and University of the Arts London, she is Professor of Theatre at The New School for Liberal Arts/Eugene Lang College.