by Amy Bell
photos by Jasmijn Slegh
photo by Daniele Del Pozzo
What do Frankenstein, Diane Arbus and clowns have in common? Italian dance maker Alessandro Sciarroni sheds some light on the thoughts prompted by Performing Gender’s research week in Maastricht.
Amy Bell: So I’ve been really interested to look at what you’ve been doing in relation to the figure of Frankenstein’s monster that you raised this week. You pointed to the moment where he realises how he is perceived by other people and how that changes his sense of self; it’s not until he sees he inspires horror in other people that he realises he’s a monster. You linked that to how we discover who we ‘are’ to other people in terms of sexual or gender identity and how there can be a disconnect with how one feels inside, or how it can lead to a new sense of self. But I was wondering, do you think that’s always a negative thing? Is one always a monster?
Alessandro Sciarroni: No, of course not. But my work is always about this, about the idea of the monster. There always must be something that is nearly weird that I point the focus on. It it can be a person, it can be something strange you have in your body, it can be just a strange practice that you have in your body, like the fact that you don’t only do the practice once a day but you do it thousands and thousands of and thousands of times and you just you just do it because you cannot avoid doing it. I think it’s very beautiful, I find it very… aristocratic and not because there is elegance, it’s not about this. It’s about the fact that somewhere in your brain, in your heart, in your body you already digested that there is something strange and painful and you didn’t die from it. So then if you don’t die you’re an aristocrat, see what I mean? You already suffered. That’s what Diane Arbus was saying about Freaks, she was saying they are aristocrats because they were born with this beautiful capacity, that they have already suffered because of this and they have survived.
AB: You often work with people or practices that are considered other or different. Do you think this respect you describe prevents them becoming exotic in your work?
AS: I hope so. When we were producing Untitled [a work based on juggling] there was a moment for feedback and it was a really crucial moment because the jugglers realised that me and the outside eyes I invited were talking about them as, ‘They’, ‘They, the jugglers’, ‘They do this’, ‘They are like this’, ‘Their practice is this’. So it was very delicate because they were becoming ‘the others’ for us and we were becoming ‘the others’ for them. And I realised that trust is very important because if you feel trust then you don’t think about this [division] anymore. I know they can be exotic, I also know that if we dance for two and a half hours and we destroy our bodies then for the audience it can be exotic somehow, and I know that maybe my work is sort of exotic in the field of contemporary dance, but this is not what I want.
AB: Yes I was just going to ask you about that, whether you yourself are seen as exotic in the realm of contemporary dance because you don’t come from a dance background originally and you often work outside of traditional contemporary dance codes.
AS: You know, what is very important for me is that every time I work I try to go very much into a small details and when I find a way to make that happen what I see from outside is the fact that these small details, that can be the life of a juggler in front of me and who I always thought was completely different to me, these details have the power to reveal a story that is instead completely general, completely universal. So that’s why I don’t care if someone can think it’s exotic. I mean, it can be exotic for others, not everyone can see with my eyes. It would be lovely if they could but it’s impossible [chuckling].
AB: And do you think that’s a way to enter this project too? Since the project seems to have an emphasis on gender and sexual difference or diversity, I see there is also a danger of creating a rather old fashioned sense of an exotic ‘other’. Do you think your natural approach to look for universality in detail might be a way to combat this?
AS: For me it’s very strange because when I decide to work on something it’s always unexpected. When I decided to research folk dance [for Schuhplattler based work Folks] it was because I saw the back cover of an album by Rufus Wainwright where he’s wearing lederhosen. So this means you are in a space, in a moment where you are seeing something and suddenly something happens and you start thinking about it for a day, two days, three days and then there comes a programmer who asks you for a project then you have this idea in your mind and you start talking about it, then you see that it can be interesting so maybe you can find money to produce it and blah, blah, blah. In the case of Performing Gender it’s a commission so in a way I’m forcing [myself] to work on something that is not my first interest.
AB: Yeah, but I suppose it’s how you approach the project. I think this is a really interesting part of Performing Gender, how directly the artists want to confront the issues, how broadly or how specifically.
AS: Yeah. The week before I was coming here I was feeling the pressure of this moment coming closer and closer and so I bought the novel [Frankenstein] because I thought it was related to these issues and then the day of the performance [at the museum] I realised I was forcing myself to translate this image maybe too much. So I don’t know. But I feel like I’m very much into the project now and I also feel I have to step a little bit apart from it, not in a bad way. I am used to working like this normally. I don’t do thirty days of rehearsal [in a row], I work for one week, twelve days and then I go and think and then work again. So let’s see. I mean, yesterday when I saw the video [of the sharing] I felt more or less what I was saying the other the night that I had a very aesthetic phase in my work which is more or less what you saw, what I recognised in the video, which is a beautiful image of a clown, in this beautiful space with these beautiful colours and beautiful music…
AB: But for you that’s not enough?
AS: No, no, no, of course not. I made a beautiful image and I’m aware I can deal with it. But in a certain moment of my life I think I almost tried to remove these beautiful images from my work and then this week they came back which is interesting. I think maybe I just have to add another level to them, I don’t have to erase that kind of beauty completely.
AB: I know that you’re usually more interested in working with people whose physicalities and physical skills are very different to your own, that you love that. This week you’ve been asked to confront yourself and work with your own body. I wondered what interest you found in your own physicality, in yourself this week.
AS: You know, last night I was watching this documentary about the era of photography that I love the most and the artist that I love most. It was from the 60s to the 90s and there was this American photographer called Nan Goldin. Do you know her?
AB: Of course.
AS: Well she was talking about Diane Arbus and it was very interesting because first of all she said that, of course, she was very much inspired by the work of Diane Arbus but that she didn’t like her photographs of transgender people because it was as if Arbus was trying to somehow make these people naked in front of the camera, exposing them, especially the drag queens. She was somehow removing their mystique. Instead what Goldin did with her images of drag queens was to sort of create a third gender which I love. Also Goldin said it was like Arbus was very unhappy about the way she was in herself and so she wanted to go for more and more and more people to photograph, all of these different people because it was as if she was going to, for a moment, take the identity of these people because she was so unhappy with herself. This is interesting because I never thought about Arbus’ work from this point of view but it’s true that she was a very traditional, well educated, Jewish, rich girl from New York.
AB: She wanted to plunge herself into some sort of underworld of ‘freaks’ to escape this bourgeois existence?
AS: Yes. Perhaps she wanted to have a more thrilling identity to explore and really I never thought about her work like this. Then I was thinking about myself and how I used to be a very big fan of her work when I was twenty, twenty-two, twenty-three and at an age where I was very much open to receiving information, more permeable than I am now. I’m still thinking about her work very, very often.
AB: So do you think that you’re similar, that you’re also looking to escape yourself and borrow other, more thrilling identities for a moment?
AS: Of course, yeah. Maybe it’s not a conscious process but when she talks about her photographs and says ‘I don’t want my family being like this, I don’t want my daughter being like this, but there is something there that I feel that I have the responsibility really to put the accent on’, I completely agree. When I see Chatroulette [the webcam-based online chat room used in Joseph] for example, I don’t wish I see my mother there! But at the same time there is something there that, maybe it’s not correct to call beauty, but it is beautiful and I’m completely attracted to it, to the way this can be available to me and also to the way also I can be available to these people. We create a path together, we create a trust. It’s really the most beautiful part of this work here too.
AB: You mean the trust amongst the group of artists here?
AS: Yes. But also for me the individuals I meet. For me the strongest experience I had was to meet Selm [Wenselaers, who led a session on gender transition and fluidity] because as I was saying before, when you see something very specific in front of you, and this is not just about theatre, it’s about life, actually you start to question yourself. You are looking at this aspect of a person, but why are you looking at it so intensely, you know? For me it’s really also when I start talking with this person the way I listen to my voice making questions to them, I don’t know, it’s very strange, it’s amazing. I think this is something that has to do with the concept of falling in love.
AB: There’s a nice quote from Judith Butler about that. She says that through desire and also through grief, through both these processes you’re kind of undone. So what you think you know about yourself, the normal ‘you’ you put together or do every day is undone and you no longer feel coherent, you no longer recognise yourself and maybe the features which you thought defined you are no longer true anymore. For her it’s only by really allowing yourself those moments of instability through contact and feeling towards someone else that you can really be alive. If you’re always put together and never risk falling apart it means you never really live life.
AS: Yes and sometimes you follow someone just because you want to be followed. Like if I follow you I can picture that you’re following me. And for me this was very strong with Selm because of this very specific body. For me it was the strongest moment of the week. Pity it was the first day…
AB: Why a pity?
AS: Well the way her image changed during the week.
AB: How did you feel it changed?
AS: I was not witnessing this reaction inside myself anymore. I became completely used to her. Then she became Selm. It’s not that I was thinking that Selm was not attractive to me anymore during the week but just the fact that she really revealed a little bit of her story, then for me the mystery was not there anymore.
AB: During Selm’s session she asked us to define her and when we couldn’t she asked, ‘Do you need more information?’ Perhaps you didn’t want more information because it might jeopardise the little bit of mystery you enjoy?
AS: I don’t know, maybe. I’m just thinking about this while I’m talking to you.
AB: Because I suppose when there’s mystery then there’s imaginative space where you can play with different versions of things.
AS: But this is very interesting because if you think about gender, sometimes it’s really about this. You see something that you don’t recognise, the moment that you get in touch with it you realise that maybe it’s not so special as you were expecting it to be but also maybe because it’s not so different to you!
AB: So then there’s a tension between the allure of something different, something like the desire for an Arbus-style escaping of what one knows, and the disappointment or satisfaction you feel in finding something in common?
AS: Yeah, I think so. And this is about gender I think, and it is about Frankenstein’s monster, about the fact that you see something that is very different to you, which in this case was in a positive sense because it was completely hypnotic, but at the same time I see this is different or far from me.
AB: It’s funny because I had a very different experience. I didn’t have this initial attraction to Selm in the way you describe but actually I found myself feeling more and more drawn because I felt more and more similar to her during the week, even though we are quite different. That’s been interesting because I might not have expected to find such a feeling of similarity with someone whose experience is quite different to mine but I think we did connect on a level I didn’t anticipate. It was maybe less about Selm’s appearance and more about her energy or she how he feels about things in the world maybe. I don’t know…
AS: This is nice.
Performing Gender, Maastricht, March 2014