This fall, Marlene Monteiro Freitas was everywhere. As part of the Autumn Festival in Paris' portrait of her, eight of her creations were presented in different venues in the capital, from Guintche, a metamorphic solo from 2010, to RI TE Paris Intermission, in duet with flamenco dancer Israel Galvan, created in mid-December at the Espace Cardin. Dancer and choreographer - she studied at P.A.R.T.S., the school founded by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in Brussels - Marlene Monteiro Freitas' work, at the crossroads of dance, performance and theater, can be described as a continual disruption of art and stage settings. We met her in the middle of the desks in CATTIVO, the exhibition she presented in the Great Hall of La Villette.
Marlene, you were born in Cape Verde where the tradition of carnival is still alive. And one cannot help but think of carnival when one attends a show like Bacchantes - Prelude for a Purge (2017). The masks, the postures of the bodies, the role that music plays, an integral part of the stage space as well as the dancers, the piece resembles a long and strange carnival procession.
The carnival is my first experience of mixing. You see something extremely ugly next to something extremely beautiful, something disgusting next to something delicious. This combination of opposites is found in many places around the world and each time it is a new experience, another way of combining extremes. I particularly like processions where the mournful and the celebratory go together. The sad and the joyful, the lively and the calm, the silent, are all together. Something carries the opposites at the same time. There is that in some music. The trumpet has this capacity to be simultaneously festive and funereal. It is a singular force, which I used in Bacchantes.
Certain gestures and certain postures also present this particularity, this tension. It can be a way of walking, of sitting, of speaking. Children's voices interest me a lot for this reason. In this installation where we are, there is a children's choir singing a Nirvana song and it is impossible to know if it is sad or joyful. The theater begins like this, with a gesture, a movement. Afterwards, it must be reproduced, incorporated, dressed up, perhaps twisted, but above all, this initial ambivalence must be preserved.
In your shows, the music almost never plays the role of accompaniment that is usually assigned to it in classical and modern ballets. It is a character or an object, it is part of the drama. What is its function in your choreographies?
The music acts. It has the power to modify a scene, to color an atmosphere, to intensify an action, to put something in front of the eyes, to interrupt. It is as alive as the bodies on the stage. It is for me one of the most important elements of the dramaturgy of a show. But there is music and there is musicality. These are two different things. On the one hand there is the piece, this global fiction that we build on stage and which has its own rhythm, and on the other hand there are bodies, music, movements, costumes, all the elements that must be assembled to make a show. Beyond the music that we hear, and even if the music is always present, which is rare but can happen, there is the musicality of the piece, its rhythmicity, the way it breathes, the way it sits, the way it looks. It is a living being that asks and gives. There is an inhalation and an exhalation, which includes the audience. Musicality contains everything and brings everything together, including the audience. If it does not act on it, if it does not include it, something does not work.
In Bacchantes, there is a music that bursts into the play in a completely unforeseeable way, it is Ravel's Bolero. And all of a sudden, it transforms the scene and reorients the drama. How did it impose itself on you?
The Bolero interrupts an action in progress but at the same time reinforces something that has been slowly boiling for several minutes and helps it to reveal itself, to take shape. Another important piece of music in Les Bacchantes is Luciano Berio's Sequenza X, for solo trumpet. It acts in a completely different way, a bit like a character, whereas the Bolero corresponds more to a change of scenography. All of a sudden we change the setting.
When I'm working on a project, I make big playlists of all the music I associate with it, regardless of genre or apparent distance from the subject. Not all of them will be part of the piece but they all inform the work in progress. I play the playlists in random mode and try to feel the links, the arrangements, I wait to be surprised or moved.
The story that led me to Bolero is interesting. I arrived at a writing and preparation residency for Bacchantes. I am alone in a large studio and I put one of the playlists on random mode. Then I look at the space around me and I say to myself that this is not the right space, the one I need to work in. It's too open, too empty. Something is missing. So I start to close the space, to occupy it with objects and furniture. I find myself carrying a huge speaker, and at that moment, the Bolero starts to play. I look at the speaker. It's standing in front of me and I feel like it's singing the music to me, that it wants to dance and that by carrying it I could dance with it and with all the other things in the room. It's as if the music and the objects have married. A connection was made. Something just clicked. And it immediately made me think of the passage in Euripides' Bacchae where the women leave the city to go to the forest.
We are currently in the great hall of the Villette, surrounded by the desks of CATTIVO, the exhibition that you have installed there. An exhibition of desks that take a multitude of forms and play dozens of characters. There is a maternity ward, a school, a regiment, a funeral, a cinema, etc., an assembly, laboratory experiments and a musical scene that is activated at regular intervals. Why did you choose this strange material?
The music stands were part of the stage design for Bacchantes. I prepared them before each performance and I liked to give them different shapes that made them quasi characters. But it was a show and I didn't want to clutter up the stage. The idea remained and, later, I wanted to take it back and develop it, to make it an installation. But it was thanks to Euripides that I started to dismember them. There is a music in them that I was trying to bring out, by torturing them a little, but gently.
When I was little, I didn't know how to open a music stand. Every time, he bit my fingers. It hurt, I was angry with him. But I knew he wasn't trying to hurt me. And I ended up taming them. I try to build with things, but also with music, a relationship that does not close the imagination, that opens it.
I was marked by Les statues meurent aussi, the film by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. Their way of filming the statues touched me a lot. They managed to make them come alive. They look at us. That's what I wanted to do here: that the object looks at us.
I do the same thing with music. I like its plasticity. It's like modeling clay. I have trouble with things that are too hard or too rigid. For example, it's very difficult for me to be in front of a sculpture that I can't break or touch or even move an inch. I can't connect. When I listen to music, I model it and sometimes it models me too. This is the case with Bach.
At the end of November, you presented a staging of Arnold Schönberg's Pierrot lunairein the Grand Halle de la Villette with the musicians of the Klangforum Wien ensemble and the singer Sofia Jernberg in the role of the narrator (a piece that was premiered in 2021 in Vienna). You have made all the musicians, including the singer, characters in a mysterious drama. They are dressed in costumes, the musicians in cassocks buttoned up in the back, and Pierrot in a cardinal's habit and cap. How did you approach this project?
One of the first questions I asked myself when I saw the musicians of the Ensemble playing Pierrot lunaire was, in each song, who is playing and who is not? and what does the musician do when he is not playing? why doesn't he extract himself from the group to do something else? And when I asked myself this question, something happened in my ears, a rebalancing. I became attentive to minute things that I had never heard before. I told myself that if I made it visual, who plays and who doesn't, it would bring us closer to the musicians and therefore to the music. Because they are the ones who allow us to access the complexity of the work. They are our gateway.
Then I studied the work in detail, from the inside: the relationship of the poems to the music, which musical form and which instrumental group corresponds to each one and why, their order, the pauses, the length of the pauses, etc. I tried not to leave anything out. I tried not to leave anything to chance. But my staging remained faithful to this first question. Who is playing? This allowed me to include the musicians in the show. They were no longer just performers, they also became characters. Pierrot is the singer, Sofia Jernberg, in the play. Her incarnation of Pierrot is extraordinary. But I wanted the ensemble to interpret the music as if they were all Pierrots too. The more I studied the play, the more I had the impression that there is a repressed desire in him, a deep guilt that represses his desire. This is one of the reasons why I chose these costumes. But it wasn't about revealing a hidden meaning. The music already says everything there is to say. Albert Giraud's poems are rather hermetic, they are full of strange metaphors, but Schönberg 's music makes them clear.
Afew days ago, you created a duet with the flamenco dancer Israel Galvan, RI TE Paris Intermission,at the Théâtre de la Ville, Espace Cardin . Your aesthetic and choreographic universes could not be more different. How did you work together
We put together RI TE in four days. It is still a work in progress. I don't dance flamenco and I didn't learn to dance it for this piece. But that wasn't a problem. It was a question of going back to the source of the flamenco gesture, to the principle of its so singular movement. To find the energy that precedes the form. This is what Israel Galvan means when he says that Michael Jackson could be a flamenco dancer. Because there is in his movement and in his body that energy. In this sense, anyone can dance flamenco, even me. And that's what I did, in my own way.
Choreography is like a language. It has accents, a grammar, a lexicon. When I dance with Israel Galvan, I have to understand his language a little and he has to understand mine a little. We translate each other and we make mistakes, we mix words, we invent sentences that don't mean anything. We worked a lot on the contrariness of the gestures. For example, he blows me a kiss with passion and I spit on the ground with disgust. This is one of the recurring motifs of the show.
When I work on a project, I always defend the idea that, despite the writing and what one might call the rigor of the form, there are places and moments where one can go elsewhere, in depth rather than on the surface, and this journey has no limit. Between a point A and a point B, one can go very far in the depth but one can also jump very high. Between these two points, space is infinite. It is also the space of danger. But it is there that one muscles the imagination, because the imagination is a muscle that one must train. When you prepare a play, you go to the gym of the imagination and the line between A and B becomes a world that opens up.
A question runs through several of your shows, I'm thinking of Mal-Embriaguez Divina (2020) but also, to some extent, Guintche (2010), that of the oppression of bodies, whether political, social or racial, and the ways in which they oppose and resist it. Music does not play quite the same role. Can it do evil in the same way that it does good?
When I say that music acts, it does not mean that it always acts in the right way. It is not always gentle and beneficial. It can be violent, it can enslave, it can serve evil causes and unjust regimes. But, even there, it interests me.
There is something of the human gesture that touches me infinitely, on the side of the good as on the side of the evil. It can make me feel pain or joy. But, however diabolical it may be, it is human and it interests me, like the good gesture, which is also intriguing in the end. And when the two meet or merge, it interests me even more. Because it produces a deflagration. I don't try to solve the contradiction, I provoke it, I expose it, I put it in movement and in body.
And what applies to the gesture also applies to the music. I like it when very different kinds of music collide without harmonizing or hearing each other. Like Ravel and Berio or Schönberg and Sinéad O'Connor**. There are contradictory musics and dances in every human body and in every human head. I am content to reveal them.
Do you have a childhood memory that is linked to music?
I remember a song that was written at the time of the independence of Cape Verde*. The first lines say " Labanta braço grita bô liberdade / Grita povo independenti / Grita povo libertadu ", " Raise your arm and shout for your freedom / Shout, independent people / Shout, liberated people ". Every time we heard this song, it produced something very strong, very physical. We were all carried away.
Interview by Bastien Gallet
* Labanta Braço", by Cape Verdean musician and composer Alcides Spencer Brito. The song is written in the Creole language of the island of Sal, where he lived.
** Pierrot lunaire opens with Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinéad O'Connor.
Photos © Bob Lima
Photos © Laurent Paillier
Photos © José Caldeira
Photos © José Frade