On a warmly lit stage, two bodies are prostrate, facing the audience. They kneel, foreheads touching the floor. On one, a straight-lined set of vertebrae disappears over the horizon of the curved back. On the other back, a large hump protrudes on one side. That back belongs to German choreographer Raimund Hoghe, as seen in Swan Lake, 4 Acts, which was performed at the Dublin Dance Festival in 2008. Hoghe returns to this year's festival next week with Young People, Old Voices, another opportunity to witness his juxtaposition of stereotypical dancers’ bodies alongside his own.
In his words, his back (and chest) don't “comply with the norm,” but Hoghe's severe spinal curvature hasn't stopped him receiving a string of awards, such as Ballet-Tanz magazine's Dancer of the Year in 2008, the Deutscher Produzentenpreis für Choreografie in 2001, and the French Prix de la Critique in 2006 (for Swan Lake, 4 Acts). Critics and audiences are drawn to his multi-layered dances with their spare, yet considered, use of image, music, light and sometimes text, and his artistic strategy lies in placing – or replacing - the non-normative body on the stage.
“It is important to illustrate diversity, not just on stage but in life,” he says. Cultural diversity might be more acceptable in a globalised world, but the body remains one of the last places of prejudice, often self-imposed. “I mean plastic surgery. Is it really necessary?” he asks. Hoghe is quiet-spoken, enough to prompt worrying pushing of the tape recorder ever-closer throughout this interview. Sipping lemon tea, he doesn't come across as a polemicist. As with his dance pieces, there's no loud-mouthed rhetoric, but rather a simple affirmation and reclamation of the stage for his body. “In Young People, Old Voices, there are no video projections, no technology. The body is the centre of the piece,” he says.
There's a lot to reclaim. Dance – and particularly ballet – has traditionally highlighted the perfect body. Furthermore, a dancer's artistic expression is frequently valued by the slickness of technique, causing an often-unhealthy relationship between a dancer and his or her body. According to Movement Analyst, Carol-Lynne Moore, there are a number of body metaphors that dancers use: the body as machine (a finely tuned mechanical device that perfectly responds to direction): the body as objet d'arte (a perfect visual work of art, its aesthetic gained by training); the body as beast (an untamed object needed to be disciplined); and the body as child, (an inquisitive, but precious object). These metaphors may centre around training, but also permeate to the performance space and artistic values.
However problematic the dancer’s body image, Hoghe insists that his body and work are seen within this context, rather than more forgivingly labelled performance art or live art. “I work with trained dancers. They move to music in space, so why shouldn't it be called dance? What is the definition of dance, anyway? Is it virtuosity? I can see that in sport or figure skating.” He also avoids what is dismissively labelled “disability dance,” which can get smothered by its own rhetoric of placing a disabled or non-normative body onstage. Rather than concentrating on choreographic values, the performance can overly emphasise conquering disability.
Instead of ghettoising the non-normative body within this issue-based “disabled dance,” Hoghe simply places it within his choreographic vision. He also doesn't claim the stage for just himself. Yes, there were early solos, but these days he presents his body alongside trained bodies and, in Young People, Old Voices, among specially chosen young people, who don't necessarily have any dance training.
“Of course, everyone is beautiful in their own way, but I find with young people there is more of an acceptance of who they are. It is quite empowering to see these young people with a strong personality,” he says. Sharing the stage isn’t an attempt to elicit an after-a-while-I-forgot-he-was-disabled response from viewers, but to constantly remind the audience of the difference.
All of this allows multiple readings of his dance, rich pickings for performance theorists. Yet Hoghe's own artistic credo is surprisingly simple and brief. “People... and music are my starting points,” he says, adding that this includes the viewer. “I don't think of “an audience” because each person that watches is an individual. Big Brother is produced for an audience, but my dances are produced for individuals.” This is why his choreography is not overly prescriptive. “Everyone is free to think what they wish. I ask only for respect. And that they are open to their own emotions, even if they are scared or uncomfortable with the images. Just feel and share the beauty and strength of music.”
This also finds resonance in Hoghe's love of ritual and the place it plays in his work. “Rituals connect people from different places and have fixed movement that unites individuals,” he says. “My performances are quite slow. [Young People, Old Voices] is nearly three hours long, but the theatre is one of few places where people can take time out and can come together to share a ritual. And in the theatre you see something different from real life and television because it is much slower.”
For Hoghe, music is the most important glue. “Nowadays many contemporary choreographers don't use music, but it is very important for me. It connects at a level that is much more deeper than words. You can't resist it, it touches us.” It also replaces text. “My dramaturgy comes from the text of the songs. By using very few spoken words, the text of the music becomes more important.”
Hoghe, a former dramaturg with Pina Bausch, isn't always wooed by the performance theorists, but regards each individual's response as equally important. “One of the strongest experiences for me was performing Swan Lake, 4 Acts in Zagreb. Afterwards a journalist wrote to me. She was with her daughter, who was three and-a-half. The child didn't want to leave at the break because she was so interested, but wanted to see the complete three-hour show. She had an interesting interpretation and a way of seeing that nobody else could have. She saw my role as a Prince who nobody wanted to play with. But in the end it was clear that it was only a dream and that everyone wanted to love me.”
It’s a charming anecdote, but also one that demonstrates a genuine commitment to individual opinion and diversity that underpins his conversation, as well as his dance. “My dance is always about the connection between audience and stage, between people and music. And sharing the music, the time and emotions we have in common.”
Young People, Old Voices is at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin, on 18-19 May, as part of Dublin Dance Festival 2010.
Michael Seaver is the dance critic with the Irish Times, and a musician.