Théâtre National de Bretagne, Rennes FR
1 rue Saint-Hélier, 35000 Rennes, France
“A way through the minefield of our past”
Steven Cohen interview – 2019
Steven Cohen interview – 2019
Put your heart under your feet…and walk! / A Elu was created in 2017. Do you feel differently performing the piece two years on?
I have been careful with programming and performing Put your heart under your feet…and walk! On average it has been once a month for the past two years, like a lunar cycle. Rites of passage have need of order, like the patterns in nature. There is something in the experience of doing the work though that makes it increasingly difficult to continue, something built into it like the mechanisms of resistance of a muscle-building weight machine. While it makes me stronger, I can only bear it in the repetition of defined sets, and not too many.
How do you conceive of the main action of the work – as a ritual, a homage?
To consume a spoonful of Elu’s actual ashes is not an action: it is a contract. It requires deep contemplation in the preparing, in the doing, in the undoing, in the having done. So I feel about the work now like I felt then, like I believe I will always feel. But the work is as active and birthing, as it is dark and mourning. Making art is in itself always a celebration.
Can you tell us a bit more about how the work took shape?
When Elu got mortally ill, he then got much better before he died. I couldn’t comprehend the circuitousness of that violent trajectory. But I came to understand that Elu needed to gather energy to die. So in a state of shock and grief, and in some parallel mode to Elu’s passing, I gathered energy to live. I only know how to do that through art, so I made this work. The subject matter of the work took its physical form from the life me and Elu shared, just as fire takes the form of what it clings to and consumes.
I could not look at the images of Elu dancing that I intended to use. I have still not been able to. I am dealing with my loss as bravely and creatively as I can, but there is something in me that cannot yet come face to face. I think this will be in process for the rest of my life. As Leonard Cohen wrote “Show me slowly what I only know the limits of. Dance me to the end of Love”.
For me, if this is a dance work, it is about walking – walking at a precarious height, picking my way through the minefield of our past, or walking with unbearable weight lost in a bewildering confusion of sounds, and the hardest walk of all, finally truly alone, unreachable and inconsolable. I know that my experience is not unique, which helps me feel justified in my sharing of it.
Because of its theme, the piece evokes Golgotha created ten year ago in 2009. Does Put your heart resonate with that work in particular?
Put your heart under your feet…and walk! is closely linked to Golgotha, the work in which I walked in genuine human skull shoes to mourn the suicide of my brother Mark. Except here, the pair of skulls in this work is our own, Elu’s cremated one and mine, seemingly intact but internally shattered. In both works, finally, bereavement walks barefoot. When I made Golgotha, I had Elu’s heart to rest mine in, Elu’s strength as a balance to my weakness and Elu’s love to soothe some of my pain. In making, and in carrying out Put your heart under your feet…and walk!, I am alone, impossibly remote and because of it, while still being me, I am so far away from myself that I am inside of you.
Political issues and identity politics may appear to be less foregrounded in Put your heart… But is that really the case?
It may seem so but is not the case. In this work, there is no solid ground but only a swirling marsh composed of exactly those issues of politics and identity which surface and sink, appear and disappear, loom and evanesce. The banality and magic realism of the abattoir is an example of that.
You went filming and performing in a slaughterhouse. Can you tell us more about that choice of location and how the performance was realized?
When Elu’s condition manifested, it was as a sudden hemorrhage of 90% of the blood in his body into the bath in our home. So, in making the work, I felt the need to bathe in that blood in a ritual of cleansing. I inveigled my way into an abattoir in a manner, which I will not speak of, to protect the people who assisted me. What is seen as improper is always so socially dangerous. My intervention is my attempt to accept the horror of literally being died on.
People seem to assume that the abattoir video is an instruction to not eat meat, but there is no finger-pointing moralism in it. It is about making visible what is behind the choices we make. The slaughterhouse is about life, and the prerogative people assume to deny it. As far as using a slaughterhouse as a site for art, I cannot fathom nor respect peoples’ reluctance to accept that. As is always the case in my work, the horrors I speak of, and that I show, are real and encountered, not imaginary and constructed by me. I did not invent an abattoir as a metaphor for my artistic expressions. I use my presence in the place to make my art, and as a by-product, you get the chance to see the carnage you create.
How do you consider the place and role of the audience in your work, and in Put your heart… in particular?
This is without question, the right question – which doesn’t mean that I have the right answer. I cannot speak for the audience and where, why or how they fit into the work. Those are deliberations members of the audience individually make and which I respect. But the themes of the work, love and loss and surviving ourselves in the face of that, are universal, so I believe there is a place in the work for each and all. Theaters are our temples, the appropriate place for the carrying out of public rituals. Music, art and dance have always been our means of divine reflection and religious expression. I am invoking and I am convoking without obligation. If you don’t wish to respond to the call, you are not compelled.
The thing about the audience, heaven help them, is that they are doing something potentially dangerous, they have chosen to do something very sacred, to go and to see someone’s art, and they should not feel free to walk into the theatre blithely. You do not have the freedom to enter the theatre like you enter the cinema, walking into the theatre is like walking into the sea.
In the press reviews surrounding this piece, one journalist observed that you stripped away some of your accessories and make up for this piece, taking away what appears essential to your persona as an artist. Do you feel that it is in any way true?
Well, that is the kind of thing journalists like to write, sort of true but actually, not really. The work is an original mix of performance art, visual art, dance, video, fashion, sound, sculpture, installation and forms with no names and unfamiliar faces. Its unifying features are where ballet (the leitmotif of Elu’s life) meets art, and the way in which soul mates choreograph the annihilation of being forced apart. So there is my usual amount of everything in this work – costumes, make-up, sounds, actions… In many ways, the piece is made with little. I took everything we had and put it on the floor –our queer treasure… but nothing ornamental is truly essential to my self as an artist. I don’t present or let you perceive a theatrical character, I am bringing the person into the work, as much of my me as I have left. What I have stripped away is any recourse to dance or spectacularised body actions. What is most important in the work is integrity, my heart, and the real remnants of Elu’s body. What is important in the work is that I bless Elu’s ashes before I consume them. Sanctifying a radical action is not blasphemy; it is my way of worship!
The work was presented in South Africa, and now in France. How different is it to be presenting in both contexts?
It was really strong to present the work in the national art festival in South Africa, because everybody knew Elu and me and the story of us. You know, initially Elu was invited to France by Régine Chopinot but he would not come without me, so I accompanied him …on a kind of ‘buy one get one free’ basis. Elu introduced me to the stage – before that I had made only uninvited performance art interventions in public or in galleries. Elu always had a great respect for France and I always had a great respect for Centre Pompidou so it was fitting that we were first invited to perform in the Fest d’Automne with ‘I Wouldn’t Be Seen Dead In That!‘ which was a work signed by both of us. I’ve seen massive changes in the country in the two decades I’ve been here, how much more fraught conditions are now and how conservative people have become. The disgruntled factor has exponentialised, not only in terms of being miserable, but also in terms of being scared.
– by Barbara Turquier
Choreography, scenography, costumes and interpretation; Steven Cohen
Lights : Yvan Labasse
Videos : Richard Muller & SHU
Video management : Baptiste Evrard
External regard : Catherine Cossa
Stage management : Samuel Mateu
Production : Cie Steven Cohen
Co-production : humain Trop humain – Centre Dramatique National (Montpellier) / Montpellier Danse / Dance Umbrella (Johannesburg) / with the support of DRAC Nouvelle-Aquitaine
Show created on June 24, 2017 at the Centre Dramatique National de Montpellier as part of the Montpellier Danse festival.
STEVEN COHEN COMPANY
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