"Dancing the sublime"
Raimund Hoghe in conversation
with 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.