by Amy Bell
photos by Bárbara Velasco
Known for her uniquely comic stage presence, Italian choreographer Silvia Gribaudi explains the importance of revealing and enjoying moments of confusion and how a naked woman can pass almost unnoticed at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofía.
Amy Bell: You were talking to me yesterday about the perceived invisibility or voicelessness of women in general, and specifically about the invisibility of older women in society. I think you’ve got a particularly interesting perspective on this topic since you’ve been doing the intergenerational dance project Act Your Age and I wanted to ask you what you feel this brings to your work and to your approach to Performing Gender.
Silvia Gribaudi: I think that my background in Act Your Age, in what I’m making there is actually very connected to this work because it’s true that the gender is always there, so it’s not that because we are working on Performing Gender now, suddenly the task is this. So for me the important thing is only to be conscious where the subject of gender is inside of any work that I am making. But for Act Your Age I am interested in older people and children at the moment. I feel that my necessity is to discover [them] better, to stay with these two polarities […] In my research I want to make the same exercises with kids and with older people and I am very interested to know what the difference is, you know? And I would like to be able to make a piece with this material.
AB: And what is interesting you about that so far?
SG: Well I like the kid’s state of mind. I don’t know if kids would be inside the piece, maybe I will be able to find a kid’s state of mind so to be really able to, as a performer, find this kind of curiosity and freedom from judgement, to really be able to describe something that is neutral but in life. I say this because I don’t believe that there is a possibility to be really neutral as a performer because of course there is always an identity, you are always someone. So that’s interesting, so maybe to be neutral is to be more you.
AB: And does this tension between neutrality and identity spill out into Performing Gender?
SG: Yeah. So yesterday I worked with a video maker here and I tried to make a simple action naked and outside like a… I wouldn’t say like an animal, but like an extra terrestrial. It’s like I’m here for the first time, everything is new.
AB: So a very naive frame of mind, a child’s frame of mind perhaps?
SG: Yes and this is revealing somehow.
AB: What does it reveal?
SG: Well honestly I think it’s too early to say.
AB: Ok but at the same time as this innocence there is also an absurd situation which is a naked woman appearing around the outside spaces of a busy museum in winter! That has certainly revealed some interesting reactions.
SG: Yeah for me the interesting part is not really the nudity, everyone has seen a naked woman before! But for me it’s the context, to see this figure in the landscape. I like that in the little film sketches we made I seem very small in the environment of this huge museum, these outside spaces. People passing me in the lift for example, which are on the outside of the building, some see me, some don’t see me. They’re not sure what they see, if it’s art, a crazy woman. What is she doing there? And for me the most important thing is the state I’m in with my nakedness, like for me it’s a completely natural state.
AB: It’s amazing to me that some people didn’t even notice you, or maybe pretended not to notice you. It seems you’re pointing, in a very gentle way, to the marginalised or invisible position of women in relation to art institutions such as this and maybe in society in general then. Does this relate to age as well for you?
SG: Exactly. It’s about attention I think. When I worked with older people each person is really different and you have to be very clear to give attention to each one. It takes a lot of energy sometimes, more than children, because they want attention.
AB: Because they are often sidelined, people don’t listen to them?
SG: Yes, exactly. They can feel, ‘I’m not important in society’.
AB: And that links quite well to what David [Berná, anthropologist] was saying yesterday: once you’re older you no longer fit into what he was describing as a capitalist, patriarchal construction of usefulness. Traditionally if as a man you can’t work anymore and if as a woman you’re not able to produce children anymore you’re no longer deemed useful.
SG: Yeah and so when you finish your capitalist mission, you’re garbage. So then you need attention because you need to be inside of a group and a community. We become sad, we become violent if we are not accepted or noticed by others. We need to say, ‘I’m this and I need to create my presence in life!’. So for older people, and for us as we are getting older, this is the process, to always be in contact with the essence of life and so to be in touch with other people and not to create a separation.
AB: Coming back to this idea of being like an extra terrestrial discovering, is this innocent state connected somehow to clowning technique?
SG: Yeah, always it’s there.
AB: You’re known as a naturally comic performer. Did you ever train as a clown?
SG: No I am a clown I think, that’s it. I think my spirit like this anyway, and also I believe that this is part of dance, to be a clown. Clowning is not only with the red nose but it’s really to transform something. The clown wants to transform a bad situation into something that is possible. The clown tries always to stay in a bad situation well. And people start to laugh but actually it’s a big drama because inside there are difficulties but to play with the difficulties is very interesting as a training and a training for making a dance. I love to put my presence, or the presence of the performer in a situation [which creates] empathy, where you don’t know anything, where really you are lost.
AB: So to reveal moments of confusion and discovery.
SG: Yes, and you have to stay in confusion and find a way to survive. So I think that’s the essence of life a little bit because there are always some difficulties but you can play inside a bad situation and this becomes funny or becomes poetic or becomes true or dark, but for me it’s something that becomes very interesting because I recognise something very honest, something very simple, that connects us to life. Sometimes in dance we use a lot of technique, but sometimes this technique doesn’t help us to be really in touch with the right timing that life gives us, the timing of reality.
AB: Which is important for a connection with the audience too.
AB: And maybe the humour that comes out of that for you also helps audiences to relate more easily?
SG: Yeah because also humour physically creates endorphins and the endorphins help to make the state of mind higher so you are more open. Science is not something very mystical but it’s really basic, the body needs endorphins and we don’t have a lot of endorphins in life, it’s easier to have toxins, so this is a way to be in contact with the audience, to use humour. But sometimes I always worry about humour and I think maybe in the next piece I won’t be able to make humour.
AB: You mean you don’t always want to have to do this, or you worry you won’t be able?
SG: Well actually in the creation process I’m always super tragic and also pathetic but I need to go there and naturally I can find the transformation. But I don’t know if I will… But right now I’m just really interested in these kinds of exercises, to put the body there, for five minutes and that’s it and see what happens. You don’t have any task except to stay for 5 minutes, 3 minutes and that’s it. And this is a training and I think inside of this training there is a lot of the Performing Gender project actually.
AB: So do you find yourself trying this task of staying in moments of being lost or confused inside the Reina Sofia or these enormous questions of gender and sexuality?
SG: Yes! I’m confused. I think this is personal, but really I don’t know who I am. So actually in a way I use this process to know myself better. This project makes me ask, ‘Really, am I heterosexual?’ I don’t know. ‘I have sex with a man so I am heterosexual?’ No, I don’t think so. So I’m confused and I love to be in this confusion because it really helps this is part of the work. I don’t know if it will come out directly but I was really open from the beginning to say, ‘I need to understand better what it is to be what each person is’. So then I discover a lot of things and David yesterday confirmed that there are many layers [to sexual identity], it’s not only about sex. Sometimes I love men but I love women for other things. So what am I? Who am I? Maybe I am bisexual but I don’t know [it]. Let’s see. And what is it to be bisexual?
AB: Yes, exactly. Also I think how one identifies is a very personal thing and it’s not just to do with sexual practices, because anyway those are so diverse. But what I think David opened up was that any word or label such as gay, straight, transgender etc, signifies different things to different people at different times and that, in a way, a word also generates the category it describes. Maybe in reality that category didn’t exist so rigidly or tangibly until there was a word for it.
SG: Yes, we talked about this with Pablo, we need categories for communication and that’s it. So I say, ‘Ok, I’m heterosexual’ because I can’t say ‘I’m not sure about it because I love this or that…’ Like if someone asks, ‘What is your job?’ Well I say, ‘I’m a choreographer’, but actually I’m not a choreographer, I’m an artist. I also feel the word performer helps me more as a name but I’m not only a performer. So if a person asks me, I need a category and a name and not my life story in order to be in society and to communicate with people. But in this project we have this opportunity to be more open and to really discover what are the differences inside or behind one name, or maybe little by little the name becomes transparent and the parts behind it become more visible. So I feel that this is the point, and I’m very excited to enter into the quality of what there is behind of a name. Also because we all need to have names, Silvia, Amy, Pablo, this is also part of our identity. But why isn’t my name Paulo? It’s Silvia, not Paulo. This is convention because our culture needs order otherwise it’s really a confusion.
AB: I have a friend who has a woman’s name but she sometimes likes to be called a man’s name and sometimes she introduces herself with this man’s name and it freaks people out. They get very confused because she’s clearly a woman, there’s no confusion when you look at her, but she is pretty obviously queer and it makes people wonder, it makes them uncomfortable. But it’s something to play with and I think she enjoys the play.
SG: Yeah to play, yeah. This is what I feel I need in this project. We are dancers so yes we can talk but really we need to cook, to cook physically.
AB: To play more or do more physically as research?
SG: Yeah, like to be in the kitchen. If I think about an idea, ‘Yes I can do it’ but after I need to really do it. To transform something, to make a piece about this is so delicate so I need to really try something and have a feedback and that’s it. So sometimes I think it’s very important to talk about power but how I can really translate this into a physicality? So then do I really need to know a lot of things about it? I’m not sure.
AB: Yeah, this is interesting because it’s kind of a premise of the project that in this research stage of the project we take a lot of information and some of it is quite academic, but you’re not sure it’s necessary?
SG: So it’s very interesting but I’m not sure [it’s necessary] because sometimes you need an empty space with nothing and maybe someone that says, ‘Ok you have to start to move and play with your feet’ and that’s it. You do it and maybe you are talking about gender and you don’t know. And you get feedback and then you see and so on. But this is about process. Each artist has a different process.
AB: Yes, of course.
SG: So this is very interesting for me to understand what kind of process I need to be really in contact with my necessity to be able to create something. So if I need to stop because I have [taken in] too much information and to say, ‘Ok, I know that this is the project but, wow, I think this is not my way to find things’, then maybe I should. So I think this is a good opportunity for the artists to be in contact with the personal process, to ask, ‘What do I really need?’
AB: Yes, I think it’s really important that this research week is about taking in information about the content of the project but also researching methodologies too, that methodologies are also a type of content.
SG: Exactly and I like that.
Performing Gender, Madrid, November 2013