by Amy Bell
photos by Jasmijn Slegh
The Spanish performer and dance maker took time during Performing Gender’s research week in Maastricht to talk fear, curiosity and how much we can learn about life and performance from babies.
Amy Bell: Something interesting that’s come up this week is how far issues around gender and sexuality are opened up through exchange between people, since it’s perhaps that dialogue which shapes and reshapes our identities in the first place. So I wonder how is it to approach solo performance in that light. Watching you during this week’s sketches you seem to give a lot to the exchange between you and an audience, which is very different to the exchange between two performers. How do you feel about this interaction?
Jordi Cortes: I always had a very strong feeling since the beginning that performing is not so different to everyday life in a way. What interests me most is the variety of people in life and I connect a lot with people whatever their job, sexuality or background culturally, socially, politically, even if they are very different to me. So I have a respect, a curiosity to know more about people and at the same time I will know more about myself. I try to allow myself to open and be very receptive to what another person has to offer to life. So I find it very fascinating to perform alone, as I did here at the museum, and to discover how to engage a very big variety of personalities [in an audience]. In a theatre you have a hundred or five hundred people or in the museum I had twelve or fifteen each time, and each person expects something different from me and I, how to explain this… I want to fulfil their expectations even if in a very, very little way. Everybody comes with their own background, problems, neuroses, fears, complexities, defences and I find it really challenging to channel myself in a way that I can feel and reach each person. I want to reveal something to them so they know me and I can know them too and then I really activate something in them. I believe that audiences need to be active, not passive. I want people to get intrigued in what is going on and I find that very connected to life, to how nature functions, to how people function. Like this you begin to find out what the wishes or desires of a person are, but just little by little, not from the first moment and this is intriguing. I really like to find out about you and at the same time you find out about me with no restrictions but also without forcing, without making anyone say or do something they don’t want. It’s just an invitation. Then a bond will be created, I believe, much more easily and this is true whether in an artistic relationship, in a social one or in a love affair, whatever.
AB: And you’ve done some big productions in your career. How do you make that intimate connection in a huge theatre?
JC: Well for instance when I was doing Lucky, a solo piece I made and performed in some very big theatres, my challenge was how to fold the space so that the audience and I became very, very, very intimate. In reality it was a huge space and I was alone on stage but my challenge was very clear: I needed everybody to go like this [leans forward with widening eyes], like they were looking in a microscope to really see me and I think I managed. Afterwards people said, ‘Oh, it’s a very intimate performance. How do you make it so intimate when they’ve put you in a space for musicals, like Miss Saigon?!’
AB: And how did you?
JC: I think it’s a matter of energy, how to play with energy and timing. I saw that in performance, especially old performers like in Flamenco for instance, you see a person eighty years old, man or woman, and they do very little but it’s the energy that they use that really moves the space and really moves the audience. So I try to find how to move you without me using some sort of virtuoso physicality, without making incredible jumps and turning around and making fifteen pirouettes. That is completely valid as well but how can I make you move so that something happens to you, because I’m telling you something. I think the body is a storyteller, and the story is the memory of the body. We are like recipients and everything that happened to us is in here, in the brain, in the heart, in the sex, in the whole body. We have so much information, so many imprints and then the question is, how can you transcend your skin so that another person can identify with something and be moved? That is the magic of performing as an audience member or as a performer because it’s like a communion. It happens in all relationships but in performance it can be magic.
AB: I totally felt everything you are saying watching your sketch at the museum and I felt that other people did too but it’s interesting to me that you found a way to have this very intimate interaction by transforming through quite known images, quite iconic religious images or images of ageing or gender stereotypes. I wonder how it sits in your mind, this combination of being very much in the present moment focusing on the actual communication between people and then passing through representational images based on quite external reference points.
JC: So in this performance I had a negotiation with myself, how much to allow things just to emerge from what I was living in that moment and how much to draw from my memory, the images that have been imprinted on me during my life. Because yes, these images are external but you live with them all the time. I mean I saw religious images in my house since I was a child, the Madonna, Christ on the cross, they are just there, they become a part of you. Then there was a period when I was really interested in dictatorships, genocide, extreme behaviour and I was thinking, what drives people to behave like that? What are the images that are imprinted on you from the iconography and imagery constantly surrounding you? What do they do to you? Also recently in dance there are some people who try to erase these external images, to unlearn whatever they learned from their dance lessons and come back to ‘primal movement’. I understand very well why they want to do this but it’s very difficult because we are social animals. Since we are babies we are copying the parents’ gestures, facial expressions, everything. It’s like empathy in terms of movement, you copy the movement or positions of the people around you, and that goes on even as adults. It happens to me a lot that, for example, if I live with a person who gesticulates a lot with their hands, after 3 months I gesticulate a lot with my hands! It’s a kind of exchange.
AB: Of course and this social conditioning has everything to do with gender presentation too, doesn’t it?
JC: Oh yes, but each person wears it differently, you know? A person can be more feminine or more masculine or look much younger or look much older and everything in between, but I can see that differently in everyone. I can see it in you, I can see it in Peggy [Olislaegers, workshop leader], I can see it in Alessandro [Sciarroni, PG participant] sometimes you look more feminine or you look more masculine in different moments and in different ways. And seeing the audience at the museum that way was very funny. There was one woman, that I guess was lesbian, she was all in jeans and she was sitting really like a lorry driver, but in the next group there was a guy sitting almost in the same place and position as that woman. I was like, ‘What has changed?’ and that was very interesting to see but it’s very, very obvious as well. So I was thinking of all this trying to get very much into each person, in the gestures but also in the face which I found very difficult, to move those tiny muscles and make a mirror with my face.
AB: But you didn’t mimic the visitors exactly, it seemed more like they inspired something in you.
JC: No, they inspired something. I didn’t want to do the mime thing, like making fun of people. I really wanted to go into the way they were looking at me and the way they were having their head, sometimes they were very serious, sometimes very smiley, sometimes they were wondering and I found that fascinating because I couldn’t control what I was doing because I was allowing myself to be driven by them, I transformed myself with each person. I found this a real revelation.
AB: And what did it reveal to you?
JC: That we are very multiple. We are not one. I’m Jordi Cortes but I have hundreds of Jordi Corteses inside me, I’m sure and you have hundreds and thousands of Amys but I think for security and reassurance we just hold onto the one or two of them that we know and we hold onto them like the others are life threatening. In fact it’s very interesting to know all the other Jordis or Amys that maybe you are not able to reveal or know by yourself but that other people can help you to let them appear.
AB: Yeah, somehow being around other people maybe unlocks those other versions of yourself, you behave differently.
AB: And does the gallery setting, like we had at the Bonnefantenmuseum the other day, does that allow you to make this sort of contact with an audience more easily than in a theatre? With a smaller group of visible viewers, you really can see each person and make eye contact with them but in a theatre you can’t necessarily, it’s more like a mass of energy coming out of the dark.
JC: Yes, I agree and that is the reason that more and more I try to get out of the theatre circuit. Actually it has helped me a lot to work within the field of integrated dance because we are performing in the street, in the square, in galleries as well as with organisations that have very funny spaces. This also allows many different people to come and watch, it’s not only people who are interested in dance performance. I found it very interesting to have a mixed audience. That’s the reason I also asked during this week to have a normal audience, everyday museum visitors to come to our sharing, not an audience that was invited especially for the Performing Gender event.
AB: Well when we do the final performances later in the year I think that will happen anyway.
JC: Yeah, next time we’ll have that but I really wanted to work with the reactions of normal people during research week. So that’s the reason one day I just put myself there performing in one of the rooms [in the museum] just to have the reactions of normal people. Apparently a visitor complained about me because they didn’t know what was going on but Peggy was telling me after some discussion the person was fine. Maybe it was just a matter of information. It wasn’t like the police were going to come, it’s a scandal in the museum! No. At the end sometimes it’s just a matter of knowledge.
AB: Right. It’s important to think about how much information we want or need to give viewers about the performances in the museum, how much they can expect or how surprised they might be. Some people can still find it strange, confronting or even inappropriate to discover moving bodies in an art gallery.
JC: Yes, for them maybe it’s the not knowing what’s going on that disturbs them. In many, many fields sometimes it’s ignorance, the manipulation of information and not talking about things that makes people close down, put up barriers and become scared. I think that happens with all these issues of gender and sexual difference too, that because you don’t know or don’t have information about something, it becomes strange and scary. Family, school, religion can tell me that if I don’t know about a person, they’re foreign, they’re the other and I protect myself instead of being very curious about why do they do this, why this tradition, why, why, why. It’s a shame because from the ‘whys’ I can learn and understand and maybe I can change, I can open instead of closing down, I don’t have to protect myself anymore. I don’t understand why it’s still so difficult for people to understand gender or sexuality difference in society, in the social services, in medicine or in religion because I think it was present throughout the history of humanity. I’m sure in the times of Jesus there were people who were transsexual, I’m sure.
AB: And in terms of your practice, how do you continue to cultivate this sense of your own curiosity?
JC: Well I love to create, to not know, to find out and I love to improvise too. That’s something that stays with me for many years. I try to feed my curiosity all the time and to experience things like babies do. I’ve been working the last few months with babies and children and before they start having all these rules and restrictions from parents or school, they are curious by nature. I love that. I combine working with disabled people and kids and it’s fantastic because the kids go straight to play by asking the disabled people, ‘Where is your leg? Why are your legs so thin? Why are you in this funny chair? Can I go in it with you?’ It’s very refreshing and honest and everybody learns in that situation. They are not afraid, but later they probably will be and I wonder very deeply, why on earth we have cultivated for thousands of years this fear and ignorance in people.
AB: But in some ways it’s a natural response too, isn’t it? Don’t you also feel fear about things you don’t know about?
JC: Oh yes, of course but I try to go through it because I want to know. It’s a little bit like when I was explaining to you about my first experience on stage. I was really very scared but there was a need to know, to feel if I could do it or not. There was strong wish to do it because I always feel that when I have fear or the sense of vertigo, it’s good because it means that I don’t know and the unknown is something that I can learn from. I think it’s like entering a dark room and you hear noises that make you not want to go inside, but at the same time it’s exciting and you have curiosity. And you probably imagine that there are rats and big monsters inside the room so you stay at the threshold one day, three years, thinking about all these rats and monsters, losing time… No! You need to go in and then you’ll find out what’s really there. But I think many times we stay at the threshold, imagining, projecting, creating monsters in our imaginations when there are none. Maybe the noises come from an incredible, sweet mouse that is just chewing a piece of wood and that was your monster. It’s because you imagine, because you don’t know, because it’s dark and you get scared. There was a period when I was in London and doing research about children’s stories, about the bogeyman and it was fascinating because you have a lot of characters that can be a little bit ambiguous in terms of gender. Witches are often quite manly for instance and in children’s stories you have all these funny characters, often the badies, that are always very mixed gender somehow.
AB: Yes it’s true. Perhaps because ambiguity generates fear in people and so from childhood the idea that you should be afraid of ambiguous gender is perpetuated or supported.
JC: Absolutely but even people who have this ambiguity themselves are still afraid of other things they don’t know. It has been very interesting to listen to the people from the local LGBT organisation who were invited to speak with us [this week] because you can see, and I already know this from Barcelona, that collectives that fight for their rights, like gays or lesbians, transsexuals, even they have these defences against the what they don’t know. Like the disabled gay guy we met, Remco, was saying that he went to an LGBT organisation to explain how it was difficult for him to meet guys and he asked them for help with that and they didn’t want to know.
AB: No, they didn’t even return his call. They weren’t interested apparently and he really felt it was because of his disability, because they didn’t know how or didn’t want to help him. He felt marginalised by an organisation that is supposedly there to support marginalised people.
JC: And you feel that even in these collectives that have, in a way, found themselves in a similar position to Remco in the past, but once they establish their own group and their own rules they exclude others. And it’s like, ‘Eh?’ It’s terrible. And it happens. I mean, in Barcelona I don’t go to the gay scene because in many places I found that they are not really inclusive. Even within the gay scene there are ghettos.
AB: Yeah you were telling me about the time you grew a huge beard and had this strange Eraserhead hair (years before it was a hipster look), you went into a gay club and guys were looking at you like, ‘What the hell are you doing in here? You’re not gay.’ Just because of your hair. It’s so stupid.
JC: It’s very stupid, all this fear. It’s very human but it’s very stupid.
Performing Gender, Maastricht, March 2014