Cruel Interview with Deborah Colker

The Birth of Cruel
Donald Hutera interviews Deborah Colker in Wolfsburg, Germany May 2009

DH: What motivated you to make this production?

DC: It was Knot, the performance I did previous to Cruel. I began making it at the end of 2002, and the premiere was two years and nine months later. Knot is about desire. During the long process of making it the word cruelty was with me at many different moments. How cruel desire is. How cruel is love, passion, youth and old age. How the best and most fascinating things in life always finish. They always have an end. We know about this subject, this theme. We’re learning about it all the time. And we must learn. We don’t have another way to survive and to deal with love and passion, with death and sickness, or with youth and beauty. Because for me cruelty – what I call the cruel eye – is not things that are terrible and tragic in our lives. Maybe it’s more the opposite. What is cruel is how life is good, how love is good, how passion is good. Everything that is good is dangerous. Everything that is fascinating is a huge risk. But this is life.

DH: So how do you take such large themes and make a dance piece out of them?

DC: It comes from what is moving me now. What captures my attention, my eyes, my breathing? What is my perception and my sensation in the world? What is most urgent for me? I can translate my emotions, my feelings and thoughts through movement. It’s the way that I survive. I need to move, to create movement and gestures with the subjects and themes that are part of my mood now. It’s also about the intention of the movement, and the relation of the movement and the space. In Cruel I needed to find the place of the cruelty, and a place for the body to move inside the cruelty.

DH: And so you began a long process of working with text, stories and memories. Is that right? 

DC: When I began this performance the first thing I thought was, I want to tell a story. But I didn’t want something narrative. We worked with the text of a contemporary Brazilian writer, doing a lot of workshops and improvisations. And we developed characters. And then we worked with another text that a philosophy teacher wrote for me. But the most important thing, after this, was when we began to work with words that for me represent and relate to cruelty. For example: jealousy, rejection, seduction, cowardice, courage, ambition, envy. In one exercise I gave – or let each dancer choose – one word. They went home. The next day they sat with me, one by one, and told me a story or a memory related to that word, and then related that story to a part of the body where they felt it the strongest. It took one week to listen to these stories, but it opened a lot of windows. Some of the dancers cried like crazy. Some asked me not to exchange their stories  with the others in the company, because it was so intimate.

DH: Did their stories have anything in common, or were they radically different?

DC: It was funny, because I never thought to bring the idea of the family to this performance. But when I begin to work with each dancer individually, 90% of the memories that they brought to me were about family! I can’t understand why, because they are between 20 and 30 years old. I couldn’t believe it.

DH: Why?

DC: Because all my ideas were about love, and old age. But then I thought, Oh, I will go inside the family. I didn’t find the proper story to translate so okay, let’s develop this theme. Let’s bring us and our ordinary stories about death, love and this or that. It’s real, and we’re ready to talk about this without pretension. Wow. Okay, it will be hard to relate father, mother, son or daughter inside of the world that’s on the stage, and with dancers who are almost the same age. But it’s important.

DH: It works for me. I may not know all the stories you’re trying to tell in Cruel, but I trust that you and the dancers do and so I don’t feel frustrated by what I see. I may not be entirely clear about who’s who – this one’s the father, that one’s the son and so on. But I don’t need to know that as long as I know that there’s something happening between the people onstage that matters. I can understand that, and I take it inside. Because it’s dance, I’m getting an internal perception of a story about which I may not know all the details. 

DC: Yes. It’s not necessary to tell the details of the story, or to understand the characters, because this is not a focus of dance. It’s not my job. But there are still many things inside [of the dance].

DH: One of your jobs was to help the stories grow, or shape them into a performance.

DC: The next step was Okay, now we each have this small story, and the words, and the body. First I asked them to improvise alone, and then present that to the group, and then do it again with other dancers. This exercise took two weeks. Together with this I was giving them movement sentences. Some were very abstract – different dynamics and speeds, but always we were thinking inside this swimming pool of feelings, desires, contrasts and counterpoints. Always it was, Let’s develop this more! It’s about the head, and the emotions, but it’s physical. But sometimes it was so psychological because it opens up a lot of things in your own life. And I stopped them: Guys, attention! I’m not a therapist. We are not doing a psychological workshop. We are creating a dance performance. We are dealing with art. We are trying to resolve everything in an aesthetic way.

DH: Including visually and aurally. When did the set and sound designers come in?

DC: At some moments we did something very nice. It was like a map. We took a story by Fausto – a poet, not a playwright. It was three pages. And then we did a map: this person begins and meets a group of friends, and then they go to this place… From this we create a map, and we use it to relate to some of the dancers’ stories. And I was talking with Berna [Ceppas, the composer] about the words and exercise we’d been doing. Oh, and before I’d asked Fausto to do something for me I was trying to find a ballet.

DH: Which one did you find?

DC: Cinderella. Because it’s ironic about love. And it’s about cruelty, and change. Who will be chosen? Who deserves to be the princess? And I was still inside all the other stories! I’d also been talking to Gringo [Cardia, the designer] about this. How to bring out the cruelty we need first to create the space of love, and the illusion of love. That’s why it’s so cruel, because we believe that it’s possible and then we see that, really, it’s not. Because we have inside of us bad and good, black and white, strong and weak. Someone who says yes, and someone who says no. We are woman and man, and with this there’s sexuality. We want and we don’t want. We can, and we cannot. All the contradictions, all the time. And I was talking about all of this with Berna, Jorginho [de Carvalho, the lighting designer], Gringo and also with this director that I asked to work with me, and also the guy that used to be my philosophy teacher and who was  giving us philosophy classes. I wanted to talk about all these things because for me art – and dance – is one of the things that a human being can do and relate to, and it can make us better. That’s why I’m doing this. All this – art, dance, philosophy – all this dramaturgy can help us to think better, to understand, to accept. It can move us to find another answer, not only the answers that are in front of us.

DH: Let’s relate that to what’s actually onstage in the performance. In the first section a huge ball is suspended over the stage, which you said is love and I saw as a quite whole, harmonious object. And then in the second scene comes the very long, cruel lines of a table, and then in part three there are mirrors on wheels.

DC: The table and the mirrors are two ideas that came from me, but of course Gringo did amazing designs and also had the idea to have a hole inside of each mirror. But first, the table. We had the improvisations about family, we were working with the words and sentences and I was beginning to create the choreography. Suddenly I felt the necessity of a table as the synthesis of the family, and I can put everything into it about that. And then I had the idea about the mirror. What is most cruel in your life? To be in front of the mirror and to recognise yourself – what you did in the past, your present and also something that sometimes you don’t know – the future. It’s not your skin! It’s emotions, and stories, and what you have in your head and your heart. And then Gringo had this idea to make a round hole in the mirrors. It’s amazing, this little piece of surrealism.

DH: It gives an extra dimension to the mirror. I was looking at it another way, to look into the mirror and into ourselves. 

DC: But this is a body solution! Instead of looking in at the front of the mirror you open it, and clack – you can go through it! It’s like you have more than two arms, or two hands, or two legs, and you are inside it. It’s so perverse. It can be that you are a voyeur of yourself.

DH: And because the mirrors also revolve, for me it’s like the dancers are passing through doors and into different spaces. You’ve got a circular hole inside a revolving mirror. There’s a lot of layering there.

DC: It was hard for me because I chose this theme. I was inside it. The word ‘cruel’ is very strong. Some people were asking, Why do you want to talk about cruelty? The world has a lot of cruelty. Everybody’s dying, there are wars… And I said, It’s not about this. It’s not journalistic. It’s not a documentary. It’s not realistic. It’s about the cruelty in us. It’s not the cruelty of someone with a gun. This kind of cruelty I hate. For me it’s undignified. I don’t want to talk about that! It’s not a political performance. No way.

DH: Is it a philosophical performance?  

DC: And physical, too. And visual. Even with this name I think it’s maybe the most delicate and subtle performance I have done. It’s so delicate.

DH: Can you talk a bit about your background? Volleyball, piano, psychology….

DC: I’ve been talking about my background a long time, and now I can see how important it is for me. I have different experiences with sports, with music, and with the inspiration of my father, who was a musician and architect, and my older brother, who is a photographer and someone who challenges me as an artist. He lives and thinks inside the art world. I studied psychology. That knowledge makes me the choreographer that I am, but it’s not something I’m trying to keep.

DH: What do you mean by ‘keep’?

DC: I think it’s very important to bring the contemporary world to the dance world. It’s not that dance isn’t enough for me. Dance is enough. For me nothing is possible without dance, without movement. But I want to relate it with everything else, all the themes –

DH: And the way we live now? 

DC: Yes! For me the physicality, the body, the movement is important, but we need to relate it with our day-to-day life. We need to relate with our feelings and experiences and, for me, with the borders.

DH: Can you explain what those borders are?

DC: What is art? What are we doing with art and dance and music? Why to compose choreography do I also need music? Why do I need to relate movement and space? Why I need to make a dialogue between movement and one theme? Why I need to dialogue movement and technique? Some contemporary choreographers don’t need ballet. I do. Why? What am I looking for? What is precision for me? What is perfection? What is beauty? What is it that only dance can say about time, or about how it can support space? You understand? These are the things that are moving me all the time.

DH: Those are your questions, but you’re also making the work to be seen by an audience. So where are they in your thinking? Are they always there, always present? 

DC: The audience is very important, but it’s a game. The idea is to forget them. We’re doing this for us. It’s about what’s inside us, to resolve our problems, to discuss between ourselves. It is this. But it’s also not like this! The fact is that will you be on the stage. And the curtain will open. And they will be there watching, breathing, saying yes, saying no, having feelings or not. How important is this for me? I can compare it with, for example, the dancers. I need to inspire and challenge them to keep the energy each day of the rehearsals, each minute, because I know that at the end the stage will be printed with the classes and rehearsals and the way that each one of my dancers did them every day. That’s why in the class I talk with them. I tell them, Do this better. Don’t do it in a mechanical way. We need to take care because the life of dance – and of the dancers – is something systematic, and it must be. The discipline is  very important. We need it. We need classes every day, and training. We need to exceed our limits, and to change, and to work with the chaos that’s inside of us. But also the audience is important. I never do something for them to enjoy me. I’m doing something with them, for them. If they will enjoy it a lot I don’t know, but I want to take this risk. I’m ready if they want to throw tomatoes at us! Because this not a show business performance. I respect show business. Success is a risk, and even the formula of success is a risk.

DH: But with your company you’re not interested in formulas. 

DC: No way! We want to achieve something more.  I’m talking about techniques of the body, and themes. What is dance about? What is it possible to translate through dance? What can movement can give to us? Is it about energy, or sensibility, or philosophy? In one moment I feel the necessity to bring up all of these questions. I don’t have solutions, but I have many questions.

DH: So do I, but only a few more. I was wondering, when you’re working with the dancers you’re not just giving them the movements, are you? They’re also bringing movements to you, yes? 

DC: Not in all of the performances. The choreography of Cruel is the result of me, my hand, and the hands of my assistants Jacqui [Motta] and Karina [Mendes, rehearsal coach] and of each dancer. Because even when they create something, I interfere. This is important. It’s to make them think more and change more things, to create difficulties and other ways to do something. Sometimes the easiest way is good and you reach something right away. But sometimes you need to say, Uh-oh, we need to go around this and then go back and then we come to this new place.

DH: Okay. Last question: What’s the cruelest thing that you do or have done? How do you show cruelty?

DC: The way I choose to show cruelty is through love. I think it’s about the way we fall in love. For me desire is the most cruel thing, and passion – because it’s so intense. It moves you, it takes you. It’s strong like a volcano and explosions that you cannot control. But at the same time you’re in front of so many empty moments too. It’s about control. We need to control all these things.

See also:
Tour(s): Deborah Colker 2010