Interview Antonia Baehr / Xavier Le Roy

Rire Laugh Lachen 2008English
Antonia Baehr, Rire/Laugh/Lachen, Paris, 2008, pp. 80-96

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Contextual note
This interview first appeared in Antonia Baehr's book Rire/Laugh/Lachen, but includes a few sections that were cut in the print version. It was edited by Julie Pagnier and translated from French by Charles Penwarden. Additional translations by Maya Dalinsky.

A: What I’d like to do in this conversation with you is contextualise the Laugh project in relation to the rest of my work. Laugh is the third in a series of three pieces on the expression of the emotions, of which the first is Holding hands and the second Un après-midi (An Afternoon).

X: In what way is it a trilogy on the emotions? One could also say that these are three pieces that question different ways of conceiving and performing a score. It strikes me that this is a recurring concern in these three pieces, compared to your other works. In Larry Peacock, for example, there is music but it is not a tool used for construction. So, why a trilogy on emotions, and where does Laugh fit in?

A: In the three pieces there is this same idea of lifting out the narrative framework and keeping only the expression of emotion. In other words, it’s the expression of emotion without the causal baggage, nor the effects, nor its ethical, psychoanalytical or philosophical interpretation. In Holding hands(1) the idea is to consider the question of the monologue. This monologue is made up of several emotions, multiplied by two bodies, two performers. The starting point was a reflection on catharsis. What goes on in the audience? What does its performance consist of? It does not talk, and if I look at these faces, I see that they are constantly moving. I see emotions, they’re pretty minimal, but they’re there, though I don’t know the underlying narrative. And the idea was: how can I get the stage to become a kind of mirror, a reverberation of the audience? That idea is there behind in all three pieces. Un après-midi(2) looks at the question of dialogue. We removed the narrative and the dialogue, keeping only the emotions that are expressed. Moreover, the logical relations between the piece’s ingredients are altered; they are no longer synchronised. In the case of Laugh we are faced with a single emotion, and one person representing it, but a multitude of scores leading to that performance.

X: The question of sharing is present in each of these three pieces, with a different approach each time. They could also be seen as a trilogy about forms of sharing with viewers. Each piece questions the relation between spectator and performer in terms of what each knows or does not know, the influence this has on the unfolding and events of the show and the way in which their relation can change the meaning of a theatrical experience. In Un après-midi spectators are in a position similar to that of the performers, who also don’t know what is going to happen over the 40 minutes after they have come on stage. In Laugh, it seems to me, the question is: what makes the performer laugh, and how does she laugh? What makes the spectator laugh? Given that one characteristic of laughter is that it’s infectious, even contagious, is this not a way of working on the sharing or empathetic relation between performers and spectators? As a spectator of Holding hands I wonder how the performers’ mode of communication works. It is hidden, and this desire to know creates a kind of tension in me when I’m watching the show. That’s not the case in Un après-midi because there I assume that the performers don’t know what they’re doing either. I am in a state of uncertainty. What was the wager or the issue regarding the relation to the audience in Laugh, the attempt at empathy?

A: I think that this question of empathy informs all three pieces. It’s a reflection on catharsis, but based on one of its ingredients, namely, empathy. How does empathy occur in the theatre, in the space and time that are specific to that situation? Gertrude Stein(3) (all my projects start with her ideas in one way or another) talks about that: do the emotions represented on stage occur at the same moment as the emotions felt by the audience? In fact, in theatre there is always a gap, except at certain moments, for example when laughter simply becomes contagious, like yawning, in a physiological kind of way. Can spectators really constitute a group? And if they do constitute a group, then I think it’s possible for laughter to be contagious, in the same way as yawning.

X: About laughter, empathy is possible only if there is something making the performer laugh at the same moment as the spectator. With laughter, it’s quite easy to test if the emotion is occurring at the same moment for the performer and the public. One of the properties of laughter is that it is the audible and visible manifestation of a feeling, one that is shared.

A: Yes, there are more ways for me to measure the audience’s performance than in other pieces, because here it either expresses itself or doesn’t, and vice versa [laughs]. At the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, we did a workshop with the “good laughers” of Aubervilliers, then they came to see the show. Now, they really are good laughers and they really laughed a lot, and very loud [laughs]. The other spectators thought that maybe it was a claque, they thought there was a sub-group and so they didn’t feel that they formed a real group. In Bologna the public really did constitute a group; there were moments when the laughter started boomeranging from stage to auditorium, creating a kind of feedback between these two spaces, then moments when everyone was laughing and there was nothing left for me to do on stage [laughs].At times it was the audience that was putting on the show. I couldn’t see them but I could hear them, like an orchestra of laughs. It’s important that the audience should be in the darkness because the reactions are very much acoustic, and that creates a gap between the visual and acoustic experience. It’s also important that it should be in a theatre, that it shouldn’t read like the performance art of the 1960s, that there should be a separation between the viewers in the darkness and myself in front of them.

X: What happened in the workshops?

A: The first workshop was at the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. I wanted to learn to laugh better, even if I already laugh very well because I am the one who laughs [laughs]. But can I laugh for a long time, and can I laugh if I clap my hands, for example? I wanted to be able to do that. And I thought to myself that it would be easier to practise laughing, to learn about it, in a group rather than on my own. So for three days we took lessons. Then, we did more work as a group with Valérie Castan. We learned how to imitate each other and studied questions like contagion. And when I take the piece on tour – and bear in mind it was a self-portrait – I don’t want to sell myself as “me.” I think it’s very important to do these workshops, which enable me to continue with my actual research work with different people every time. For example the question of contagion represents an unresolved problem for me, one that interests me. Why is something contagious? And what about the fourth wall, the invisible wall between the stage and the audience? What is it? Valérie said that it’s the sound that makes laughter contagious, and therefore a funny laugh makes other people laugh. I said that it’s eye contact that causes the contagion. Like yawning. In Bologna we tested that: everyone had to laugh in front of the camera on their own while staring into the lens for two minutes.(4)And I also noted down as a score the laughter of Nicole Dembélé, who took part in the Aubervilliers workshop. That was printed in the festival programme. The whole group sat facing me, and everyone had the book in their hands: “AHAHAHAH,” I laughed a passage and then the whole group chorused it – it was a bit like church or primary school [laughs]. In this way they learned her laugh, and did it in front of the camera, too. After that we watched the video together to see if the contagion still occurred, even through the fourth wall of the video.

X: And…? [laughs]

A: And… we didn’t come up with a scientific answer on the subject, even if we had in a rather absurd way set ourselves an almost scientific question to deal with. In fact, I’d like to follow up with a biologist, Prof. Silke Kipper, who has worked on birdsong but also human laughter.(5) I would also like to do workshops to explore the notation of laughter with musicians and choreographers, and see how different ways of notating the same thing, the same laughter, can produce different performances. And of course, I am interested in working with all laughter experts, that is people who are good laughers [laughs]. The general idea of the laughing workshops is to do the exploring together, not just to turn up with ready-made answers to our questions.

X: In general, you approach things in quite a scientific way. For example, in Un après-midi there is that attempt to analyse facial emotions, expressions, in terms of the simple contractions of different muscles.

A: There are two aspects: on one side, an analysis of the physiological, mechanical movement, and on the other, the use of scientific procedures. What interests me in relation to this second aspect is trying, but never quite managing. I find it interesting when things get out of my control. Humanisation takes place in this interstice that is created between what I try to do, and the result – in that place I cannot reach. I find this interstice extremely interesting and productive. As I see it, this interstice is where everything happens. 

X: Perhaps there is another way of putting the question. When you talk about things getting “out of my control,” you’re talking about setting up an experiment, carrying it out. What matters isn’t whether or not it works, but trying, experimenting. That’s what I mean when I talk about a scientific approach. To what extent would you say that this approach is also an experiment that you invite the spectators to take part in?

A: It’s the same relation with the scores, which, in this sense, is substantially based on what John Cage says. You take a score, which is therefore external to you, but which helps you have contact with something external. It is therefore not about self-expression. You have this element which introduces a question, which you try to answer the best you can, knowing that you’ll never succeed. The contradiction is that while you know you’ll never manage, you act as if you can.

X: With the hope, nevertheless, that something will happen, even if it’s not the result you were hoping for, which, as you say, is impossible. When you put on a show, do you get the impression you are offering spectators the chance to be part of an experiment? Are you sharing an experiment with them? Or something else, something different? Is it an experiment, not for a scientific aim, or to prove a truth, but more I think in relation to a certain method? For example, separating a given muscle from another so as to see what happens? To what extent is there a parallel between this method and the theatrical experience that you propose?

A: Yes, there is very much a parallel. The activity that I offer spectators is similar to the ones I propose to myself. What I have just said, about the way scores work, can apply to the act of reception in theatre. In principle, I am a spectator of the result of the experiment I set up, just like the other spectators – and this experiment, incidentally, is quite alchemical –, I don’t really know the result in advance. In this sense, the spectator is not the judge but the witness of the experiment. I think that it’s important to say that I don’t try to convey a message. In Laugh I am not trying to say that one should laugh at one moment as opposed to another. In Un après-midi I also think that different spectators feel emotions, but not the same emotions and not at the same moment. At the same time, it is important for me to say that it is not the audience that does all the work of interpretation. I take my responsibility as the one who initiated the experience. When I propose something I say “I.” By which I mean that there is a subject speaking clearly from her own point of view. My motivation when I work is personal, emotional and subjective, and my position is socio-political. I don’t claim the kind of objectivity or neutrality that you might associate with a certain kind of scientific vision.

X: You said that you weren’t trying to do a comedy in this work on laughter. At the same time, you are interested in communicating laughter, and therefore in a kind of empathetic relation, or whatever, which makes people laugh, the spectators and yourself, and that is what typifies comedy.

A: In comedy, the actors on stage don’t laugh. They provoke laughter, the aim being to make people laugh. For me it’s the opposite: I’m on stage and I laugh, and I am not necessarily trying to make people laugh. Or rather, not only that, because I am trying to authorise a multidimensional reception of the show. If you put a person on an empty stage and have them laugh for 40 minutes, with nothing else, and for no reason, which I have no problem with doing [laughs], the spectators feel only fear. It’s horrible, there’s something monstrous about it, a sense of solitude. The other, the spectator, feels excluded.

X: Exclusion is something one can also feel, or in any case that some spectators can express in Un après-midi. No doubt because the set-up which enables the performers to hear the instructions that the spectators can’t hear, tends to present the performers as intent on themselves and therefore not seeking to include the spectators. The piece plays on this exclusion by creating a rather closed world for the performer, who acts in a circuit between concentration and listening, the surprise of discovery and the attention required to execute what he hears to the best of his ability. He therefore finds himself in a situation that doesn’t allow him (or at least reduces his capacity) to conceive his link to the spectator, all the more so since each performer must be relating to another, who may not necessarily be relating to him. That is to say, A is asked to respond to B, but B is not necessarily responding to A. The procedure is paradoxical in relation to the idea of expressing certain emotions. In a word, all these processes place the performer in a state – or a way of performing, or of being simply present – which is very special, very bizarre too, but above all specific because produced using this particular system. I find this limit very paradoxical and therefore very interesting, because excluding the spectator in this way makes it possible to include him in other kinds of relation and to solicit his activity more than his passivity. Can this be compared to your strategy in Laugh, which consists in confronting the spectator with a kind of strangeness, where the form of communication is almost reduced to sharing the laughter you must produce?

A: In Laugh I have a score with me all the time I’m on stage. We realised that if we wanted something else in addition to that strangeness or exclusion of the spectator, then we had to show the score. If I laugh on the stage for 40 minutes with no reason, it’s unbearable, because, I think, of this “no reason.” Still, I don’t want to tell stories or jokes. No narrative structure. If I show the score that I’m in the process of reading, a piece of paper or something else, that in a way supplies a reason for my laughter. During the last part, which is 15 minutes, the constant presence of the video is very important because it enables the spectator to recall the reason for this laughter. I don’t need to reveal the scores but the spectator needs this sign of the score’s presence.

X: You need to create a desire to know?

A: Or the possibility of a projection that allows the possibility of there being a reason for my laughter. It may be the true reason that is shown, but it may just as well be a placeholder for that reason, a replacement, an object that acts on the spectator’s perception like a placebo – and not only in Laugh, either, since that is the problematic in all the pieces. In Holding hands it’s due to the unison, which makes it possible to understand the composition, the complexity. These three pieces are also variations on the theme of the score, in that particular sense. Not only in relation to the written instruction, but also to what it is that allows us to understand that there is a composition. […]

X: One of the specificities of Un après-midi is that we are observing performers who are listening, and who have to concentrate, all the more because they are about to find out what they have to do. Each performer has their own way of doing things, but in general it is their presence that communicates something to us. The spectators receive signals, obviously, but it’s fairly contemplative, and at the same time it requires that we be very active. In short, the projection of the performer is conditioned by the set-up, which proposes a form of active contemplation to the spectator.

A: What you say about contemplation is interesting because I wanted to make the stage seem like a landscape, not with one vanishing point but with two. The piece with a single vanishing point would be Holding handsA landscape is immobile, but at the same time it is informed with movement. Choreographically speaking, the quality of movement of Un après-midi corresponds to that of a landscape.And that is landscape as theme and quality, as it links Debussy’s music to Mallarmé’s story of a faun,2 to what the performers do on stage, to the soundscape and the windows that are open throughout the show. At the start of Un après-midi, when the performers come on stage, I think that spectators simply see non-costumed male dancers, and not drag kings (people considered to be of the female gender who perform masculinity). In the discussion after that, when the audience has never seen the people on stage before, it’s an interesting moment, because it becomes aware of its assumptions. What the experience of Un après-midi shows is that we confuse neutrality and norm, and that neutrality is just another costume, a sophisticated, normalised and, above all, normative one. But the discussion after the show is important for another reason, too, because the performers can speak and talk about their experiences on stage, and about the contract they signed. This states that “[I] wish to dress like my male colleagues and pass as a man. I am a drag king, or I wish to become one,”; “I am a woman or I have lived as a woman for a certain time in my life,” and “I wish to be told what I must do during 32 minutes of my life.” A mix of people, with drag kings from the region, or male or female dancers, sign this contract and are there for a variety of reasons, but with one common denominator: desire. I think that the discussion that follows the show talks about desire in yet another way that is different from the piece.

X: In Laugh you are the one performing, so it’s the same kind of contract, but with yourself?

A: I have the same kind of contract with myself. I wanted to be given something as a gift, be it a cassette, a piece of paper, email instructions, on the condition that it should be a solo. What I didn’t want was for the instructions to be purely verbal. I wanted to have an object to deal with, something independent, out of fetishism no doubt, but also, simply to allow for a time lag. Something that represents something, that takes the place of. The score-object represents. Speech doesn’t. I realised that I loved getting a piece of paper or object, and then, first, being alone to interpret it, without exchanging with the authors. I thought of them. It was very warm because I knew that this person had written for me, and that it was a gift, but I really like this first, solitary relation.

X: Did you have recorded scores? Words?

A: Yes, the one by Isabell Spengler for example. An audiocassette. But I can only perform it once. Isabelle Spengler’s score thus remains part of the project, but it’s not in the show any more. The project comprises different events, including the show, but also the workshops, the salons, and the scores. In fact, I have gone on playing the scores as individual pieces in different contexts. […] In Holding hands the question for me was to find out what happens if I removed the story, choosing a story full of emotions, that is very dramatic; a subject typical of Western theatre. In the aria “Tu che le vanità” the diva comes to her big solo. It’s a high point in the opera, all about death, life and love. With the musical analysis I already had the score of the emotions, and therefore the idea was to remove the narrative and keep only the emotions.

X: What makes the piece choreographic is in effect the production of movements in time, but also, and above all, the unison. Unison is one of the most powerful choreographic tools. You say yourself that it’s a technique that allows you to avoid interpretation of the kind that says, “What’s that person doing there, all on their own?” When you perform these actions in a duet it shows that there’s no chance, that things are scored in space and time, in other words, that there is a choreography. This choreographic aspect is also produced by the type of movements you make and by their relation to their usual function. The strategy of removing narration withdraws part of the overall interpretation. Without the text, without the music, we don’t have all the movements that would support the overall expression. You perform the facial movements, without their function. In Larry Peacock you take away the instruments. The performer hits where the percussion is, but there’s no percussion, so there is the movement without its function. I think that there’s something about this that makes the movement choreographic.

A: It’s interesting to see that there is a whole theory which says that movement and music are abstract because in themselves they don’t tell stories. But when you remove the narrative dimension that surrounds the movements and sounds, you realise that these aren’t abstract at all; they are packed with sociocultural messages, with content and referents.

X: Because of lack or projection.

A: You realise that this extracting is like lifting up the carpet. Under the carpet there is still a narrative dimension, which becomes visible, but it is of another kind, a less superficial one. I’m thinking of that book by Jacques Attali, Bruits, in which he shows that music is not abstract, that it is always has a social and cultural referent. He shows that music, noise and power are closely bound up together. […] It’s much easier for me to laugh not by thinking of a joke, or of some psychological or imaginary stimulus, but by imitating laughter, listening to the recording of my own laughter (as some of the hearty laughers at Aubervilliers do on a daily basis, for reasons of health), or quite simply, by starting to laugh. It was the same when I was working on Holding hands. In the book Acting (Re)Considered(6) some of the authors describe this method for actors that uses the contraction of the muscles, breathing and posture as a way of representing emotions without necessarily feeling them. It’s based on the observations of Charles Darwin(7) and the theories of William James(8), according to which when we see the bear, first we tremble and then we are afraid. Whereas in other theories we see the bear, are afraid and then tremble.

X: It reorders the relations between cause and effect.

A: It also means that we place more emphasis on the physicality of our behaviour. This changes the way we think about ourselves. The question is also, “Where is the conscious moment of our actions? Can we still manipulate it or not?”

X: So there’s something of that in what you try to do with laughter? In this show are there people who laugh before you even do anything?

A: Yes, but that happens more because of the situation comedy, and I try to underplay what I do as much as I can. Situation comedy is reassuring because it fulfils the desire to be with the other. But what interests me is a bit different. If I achieve a certain subtlety in the theatre, if I avoid exaggeration and caricature, then I think that spectators become aware of what is happening in their bodies and their faces. I would even go further and say that Holding hands and Laugh are two pieces that give a representation of the spectator’s own performance. Overall, what happens on the stage is what happens in the audience. Holding hands is the representation of the face of the person who is there, facing us, watching the performers William Wheeler and myself. We make a portrait of that spectator’s face, which we imagine because we are not playing mirrors. With Holding hands, the challenge was to see to what extent – if the emotions are performed in a very minimal way, performed as subtly as what happens on the faces of the persons watching – mimesis can occur in the same way as it does in everyday life. When someone smiles, the person facing them smiles as well, or forces him- or herself not to do so. With laughter, it’s even more acute. We experimented with this phenomenon in the Aubervilliers workshop, during the session with Claude Bokhobza. Two people sat face to face, looking each other straight in the eye. One person was laughing, one was not meant to laugh. But it was impossible to hold back the laughter. First of all, holding it back produced strange movements in the face, a trembling chin, an involuntary contraction of the lower part of the orbicular muscles, and then the laughter inevitably burst out.

X: It’s difficult to break up the question/answer cycle with laughter. You do something that makes people laugh, which sets up a certain kind of relation, and that implicitly makes the next thing that you are going to do comical. Comedy often works like that. If you follow that logic, then people sometimes laugh even before the action occurs because of the likelihood that the next thing that happens will be funny. In such a situation, when you are on stage, it’s difficult to approach the coming action without worrying about producing laughter. If you are trying to have some other kind of exchange with spectators, then the development and the nature of the relation you have with the audience are very difficult to change during the show. Two main kinds of reaction are possible: either people don’t laugh at all, even though the title announces laughter, or people laugh at the first thing you do and laugh at everything that follows because they are caught up in a relation of action and reaction, of the kind I have just described.

A: The relation depends to a large extent on the perception of the context. There are some spectators who like classical music, and when they see me with my scores, like at a concert, they prefer to be quiet, the better to savour the Art. Others, who come to the theatre for other reasons, start laughing as soon as they see me laugh and want to laugh so they can share with me. It was in the nineteenth century that people in the West learned to be quiet at the theatre, and particularly in a certain kind of culture. It’s a matter of habit and cultural good manners. Just as there is art music, which is called musique savante in French and Ernste Musik in German, and popular music, Unterhaltungsmusik, musique de divertissement, [laughs]. But Laugh sets up a situation that isparadoxical and insoluble for the public: on the one hand, you would have to be quiet in order to let people listen, and on the other laughing is part of the public’s role in the theatre, just like applauding.

X: Or crying, too. A show is good if you cry. Even more so at the movies. So will you take the next step, will you do "Cry"? It would be more difficult. It deals with the autobiographical, so you're not necessarily someone who cries.

A: No, the next piece will involve the four emotions again, because I still think there's a lot in there. The four emotions are in Alba emoting and in Darwin too: joy, which brings out laughter, as opposed to sadness which brings out crying, anger which brings out shouting, fear which brings out screaming, another kind of shout. So you have these four emotions and everything else are composites, a remix of these four, like pity, etc... Then I would like to work with scores on paper that the performers would read. This would allow me to work on different notations too, with fortes and pianos. Holding Hands is all piano, it doesn't have a real crescendo. 

X: So you want to move toward expressionism?

A: Yes, but not only because expressionism isn't possible. There needs to be an element of naturalism, that we manage to imitate nature within the work. There has to be a connection between what we do on stage and what we do, what we dance and what music we make in life. And also with the gender we perform in life, since now we know that we're constantly role-playing, constructing ourselves and imitating one another, Marilyn Monroe. Today young girls are more likely to imitate Britney Spears, but those are all just copies of the imitations. In theatre we're looking to do the same thing while seeing where the differences lie. So it's not about naturalism in the essentialist sense, like in painting, but in the imitation of a nature that doesn't exist, which anyway is cultural since we're constantly playing roles, constructing them.

X: Do you consider that art should still strive to represent nature? Even a nature that doesn't exist?

A: I think you have to keep things connected to what you do in life, to our everyday movements, which we could call everyday dance and music, like walking. The different ways of walking are constructions. A masculine walk does not sound the same and does not involve the same movements as a feminine walk. The point is to keep a link with what we perform in our lives, now that we know that we are always playing a role and that we construct ourselves by imitating. The theatre can be used to take these constructions apart. The idea is to do the same thing on stage as in life, but to see where the difference lies. Theatre really interests me when the gap between the stage and life is reduced to a minimum. Then you can use it to find out more about who we are and what kind of society we are living in, and about the culture of the theatre itself.

X: So you’re in favour of the “I don’t invent, I appropriate things” line?

A: Yes, and then there can be something subversive about the fact of appropriating what power, the power immanent in society, dictates to us. When I appropriate it, I become the master of my action. That can be an act of resistance. I always work on that level. It’s always desire that impels me. We were talking about science, well that too is a kind of appropriation for me, for two related reasons. Scientific procedures attract me in a fetishistic kind of way, because of the obsessive meticulousness of the way they treat their objects. And secondly, for me science represents an incontestable authority in our society. So I link it to that kind of power. 

X: There isn't a lot of appropriation in Laugh?

A: Of course. Now I have to get autobiographical. I was the girl who laughs, and there's a certain performativity of the feminine that determines a kind of feminine laughter. As soon as you have a problem, simply "hee hee" and everything's fine again. At the same time, it's a kind of defence mechanism, but you won't be taken seriously. This laugh signals that "I'm nothing but a silly and charming little girl." It signals harmlessness -- and in this way, you can use it as a defensive weapon or a ruse. I wanted to be taken seriously, however, so I started to glue on moustaches. With the moustache adhesive you can't laugh anymore, otherwise the moustache comes off. It was therefore a tool, a prosthetic to prevent me from laughing. This project is a re-appropriation of a laughing femininity. My appearance remains masculine, but I re-appropriate my former laughs. In that sense. I re-appropriate the former laughter of the laughing girl I used to be, of the performativity in this particular feminine laugh. I copy other people's laughs until I've made them entirely my own, until they take over my own identity, till I become someone else. Anselm Franke quotes Walter Benjamin on mimesis: "it's the ability to cross the strangest boundary of all, which is that boundary between self and the world. Mimesis" -- and I would add "appropriation" -- "enables us to surpass the natural state of the relationships that are imposed and legitimized by authority." (9) By the way, a lot of men find it very hard to laugh. They start to cough and the laughter transforms. There's an interdiction.

 X: As is the case for all the emotions. A masculine man doesn't have any emotions. He has them but they're a sign of weakness. The fewer he has, the manlier he is. [...]

A: Holding Hands is about a method for expressing emotions without feeling them. And it's the same method in Un après-midi, except the performers don't realise that they're actually acting out emotions. Which leads to some weird things. As soon as you name something, you perform it differently.

X: Holding hands is about reconstructing a role from the different elements that constitute it.

A: Un après-midi is also based on deconstruction/reconstruction, but there the strata are staggered. With Laugh I am getting away from these questions a little. It’s more a construction based on the material, as an emotional movement, let’s say, a choreographic movement of emotion, as a material itself.

X: In Laugh, compared to the other pieces, there is no pre-existing event (or situation); in Holding hands the Callas aria provides information, and on the basis of that you transcribe your movements. That’s also the case in Un après-midi with the photo-novels that are transposed in order to combine and interpret them. In both these pieces, then, there is something pre-existing that is rewritten. The procedure for Laugh seems different: something is written for you and you perform it. But the scores you ask for are not necessarily based on a pre-existing scene or situation. This strategy does not necessarily imply the deconstruction of a situation that precedes the reconstruction of actions in the performance.

A: This surely occurs in the (re)appropriation of my own laughter and of other people’s laughs, or of the voices and behaviour of anthropomorphic animals. And we could also say that there is one in the structure of the piece which deconstructs “Antonia Baehr” through the eyes of other people. But, in effect, I think that in Holding hands and Un après-midi I needed to start by doing some sifting and dissecting in order to become familiar, somehow, with the materials, and that now I tend to construct directly with the material.

X: Do you think you have been through a period characterised by that need? Do you think now you should believe that it is possible to create, that one can invent things out of nothing? The methods of the first two pieces would seem to support the theory that creating consists in recombining already existing elements.

A: I don’t believe that we can create things now, that we can start from a blank slate. It’s as if there had been a period during which we needed to analyse things, in order to see them from a new angle. Going from there, we can then recombine the results, use them, or compose with them more freely. And at the same time, today, we are constantly surrounded with images and references. We can refer to Youtube, Wikipedia, etc., we no longer need to choose a single source to refer to, a single material to deconstruct, we use a multitude of them and shed light on them and leech off them in all kinds of ways. I think that the slate is so full that there’s no longer even a need to stress that we aren’t inventing anything.



1. Holding hands, duetwith William Wheeler and Antonia Baehr,

Production: Wheeler/Baehr and Podewil Berlin, 2000/2001

Duration: 35 min.

A: Xavier, since you have seen Holding hands, could you describe this piece for someone who hasn’t?

X: In Holding hands there are two performers, William Wheeler and yourself, who come on stage holding hands. They stand centre-stage, facing the audience. They hold each other’s hands all through the show. They make mini-movements, which I observe mainly on their faces: their heads tilt forward slightly, turn to the right, their gaze is trained on a distant point and then comes back to their feet, their mouths open slightly, etc… The two performers make synchronous facial expressions, with slightly uncoordinated movements, but overall they do the same thing. The blinking does not seem synchronous. The whole of the first part of the piece is performed in this way. There was a moment when I recognised the actions as being from a curtain call. Sometimes one can observe that the breathing is more or less deep. Then one of the two performers turns on a CD player that he has at his feet. We hear applause. I had the feeling that I was seeing once again the curtain call with applause, but now with sound. Later, we can recognise the same movements as in the first part and then we hear Maria Callas singing. In the first part I wondered how it was that the two performers managed to do the same thing when they were in silence. What was the technique? They must have developed one. In the part with sound, I started thinking that the performers were dancing to the music. Music is the element that everyone shares, the thing that enables you both to act in unison. The performers are lip-synching. At one point they stop doing the same thing, as if each was performing the way he or she wanted. Then I asked myself what score you were performing before. Before, it wasn’t the way you did it that I noticed but the way the movements were matched to the music. The piece functions in keeping with this offbeat mode of reception. When a new element for interpretation appears it brings up the memory of what was performed before. Then the music ends, there is some applause, and the two performers leave the stage, still holding hands.

2. Un après-midi for four performers,after: Claude Debussy, Prélude à l´après-midi d’un faune, John Cage Solo for Voice 3, Jamie Lidell Taught to box, Stefan Pente, 4 Farben, LISSY No. 8/01, photo-novel Auf den Hund gekommen, BRAVO Nr.8/02 Foto-Love Story Extra.

Writing: Henry Wilt (remix based on the version by Antonia Baehr)

Music: Jamie Lidell, Taught to Box; Antonia Baehr, Mein Zimmer mix.

Dialogue: Werner Hirsch, excerpted from the film Kings & Disasters.

Presentation: Antonia Baehr

Collaborators: Ulrike Melzwig, William Wheeler

Production: make up productions, Podewil Berlin, Ausland-Berlin, 2003

Duration: 32 min.

A: Xavier, since you have seen Un après-midi, could you describe this piece for someone who hasn’t?

X: Un après-midi is presented in a space that spectators enter and where they sit facing a stage, a white space, in which the only features are a screen in the middle, dividing the space in two, and marks on the floor in different colours. An announcement is made, by you, saying that the performers haven’t rehearsed, and that the spectators are asked to bear witness to what they are going to see, just as the performers will bear witness to the score. And that there will be a discussion with the performers. (The discussion and the fact of showing the scores are integral parts of the project.) After you have said that, you disappear and four performers, cross-dressed women, come in and stand on the four floor markings. The performers are wearing ear buds, as we can see, and start moving to what they can hear, or so we assume. Most of these movements are on the spot. Only rarely does a performer move to another spot. It happens four or five times in the whole piece. We see them take up different poses, one after another, never stopping. There is no frozen immobility. Sometimes we sense that they are struggling, sometimes we can’t tell if what they’re executing is difficult to understand or do. They are linked, two by two, but we understand, we follow the discrepancies, the questions and answers do not proceed as we might expect. And so we are constantly configuring and reconfiguring the relations between the different performers, right up to the end.

A: Indeed, after seeing Un après-midi for the first time at the première – I think you have seen four versions in all – you yourself were a performer.

X: Yes, after I saw it I had a huge urge to perform it.

3. Gertrude Stein, Plays, 1934

4. Video stills with Claudia Delso, Giampaolo Fancello, Rita Felicetti, Elisa Fontana, Tommaso Fortunato, Caluda Iormetti, Filippo Pagotto Francesca Zolli, during the F.I.S.Co festival at Raum, Bologna, in April 2008.

5 Silke Kipper and Dietmar Todt, 'The Sound of Laughter: Recent Concepts and Findings in Research into Laughter Vocalizations', in Toby Garfitt, Edith McMorran and Jane Taylor (eds.), The Anatomy of Laughter, Leganda, Studies in Comparative Literature 8, Modern Humanities Research Association and Maney Publishing, 2005

6 Susana Bloch, Pedro Orthous and Guy Santibanez, “Effector Patterns of Basic Emotions: A psychophysiological method for training actors,” in Phillip B. Zarrilli (ed.), Acting (re) Considered, London: Routledge, 1995.

7 Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animal, 1872.

8 William James, What Is an Emotion?, 1884.

9 Walter Benjamin, "Über das mimetische Vermögen" (1933), quoted by Anselm Francke in the exhibition Mimetism at ExtraCity Antwerp, 2008.