This poem has 14 sections, one for each letter of the alphabet until letter n, and follows the mathematical structure of the Fibonacci sequence, so that the number of verses in each of the 14 sections is equal to the sum of the verses in the previous two sections. Within this structure, which is widely found in spirals in nature, Christensen talks about the beauty and the horror that coexist in our world. Véronique Langlott has embarked on translating this poem into dance, following an interest in finding correspondences between media that she has already explored in previous work.
I saw the 30-minute version of ‘Lyrical Ping Pong’ at Nah Dran #60 in ada studio, Berlin, in November 2016 and enjoyed a very original, personal, precise and humorous performance. Verónique is performing the final 60-minute piece this week: 28th and 29th April at Monsun Theater, Hamburg. I had been wanting to find more about her work and this seemed like the perfect chance for an interview.
In ‘Lyrical Ping Pong’ you explicitly name three “translation methods”, how did you work with them?
I had a first tryout with a twenty-line poem. I noticed that sometimes I’d translated the rhythm, sometimes the sound, sometimes the content. So with Alphabet I went through every verse translating its rhythm, sound and content. I used a Danish audio for the sound and a German translation for the content. I could translate the rhythm of each word or of the whole verse; I kept realizing that it was impossible to translate everything. Especially because the number of verses in each section is exploding towards the end. In the end each line represents one count, which is one jump step. The rhythm that came out of this actually has no rhythm at all! The sound gave more wavy movement and the content became quite clear shapes. I did the first five verses like this and soon realized I COULDN’T do this for the whole poem, which is about 140 pages long. So I started to play with this sctucture I’d given myself: expressing the essence of the verse, like a summary, or only one word, or my top ten favourite words. Funny things started to appear, like explaining the Fibonacci structure with the jumps, or saying “I want to develop as a choreographer, so I’ll use choreographic devices”, or taking things from another choreographer.
What can you say about the structure as opposed to the building blocks?
I was actually thankful that in this piece I didn’t need to worry about the dramaturgy. I thought, “this is the poem, it has 14 sections, I can’t help it”. It’s like having a text in theatre. The only thing I did at the end was look at how well all the pieces corresponded to one another technically, as a choreographer building a dance. Sometimes I shifted, or shortened things. Only a few times I cut things out. I also commented on what I’d changed saying, for example, that I thought it was better dramaturgically.
Tell me about the humour in the piece.
Humour was not present at all in my other work, nothing funny would ever come up. Now it’s starting to happen, so I think I’ve opened a door. It was actually the text that brought the humour, because in some places it’s hard to understand what she’s talking about, it makes you think and it’s also funny. So I jumped on this. Sometimes I just comment how certain things make me feel, and that becomes funny. This text is actually very serious and in some places really horrible, and I didn’t know how to bring the horror in. So I commented that it was too hard for me and that I couldn’t do it. Some of the really negative things I just left out. Then towards the end I start to comment on myself as a choreographer and I make fun of typical choreographical terms. I mean, what is choreography actually? And also, in this case, how well can you really translate something?
How did you choose the poem?
After the first tryout with translating literature I wanted to have something with which I could go on for longer – and this one is very long! And also very diverse, it somehow spoke to me. ‘Alphabet’ is a very well known poem, so at some points I asked myself, “am I being honest to this work?” This really confronted me. In the end I gave myself permission and commented on everything that I was doing with it.
There is a very interesting contrast between your obvious dance training and some very unorthodox movements. This quality of awkward, abrupt, or jarring movements also appears in other pieces, even if used in a very different way. How have you worked towards this personal dance vocabulary?
When I was in dance school my director told me, “it doesn’t matter that you’re so uncoordinated in ballet, that makes you very creative as a choreographer”. At dance school everything seemed too square for me, I think it’s part of me to just pop out, I don’t plan to make things uncoordinated, it just happens like that. In the studio I make a movement and then “OK, where do I go from here? – There. – OK, and then? – There.” It’s really step by step, and these sequences of steps become very varied and sometives complex. I don’t plan phrases or movement qualities. I’m very much a builder, I’m interested in putting the movements together, I guess it’s like the craftmanship of choreography.
What is your relationship to improvisation when you choreograph?
For the stage I try to plan. If there are many little details, I need to concentrate. It would be difficult if I went off into improvisation. Sometimes I wish I’d be more improvisational. In the studio, I don’t know… what is the opposite of using improvisation in the studio?
Good question! I guess there could be a difference between improvising one movement and then the next as opposed to improvising a chunk and then keeping some things and getting rid of the rest.
I’m working in very little steps. For this piece I may have improvised 5 minute-sections, but I didn’t record it and then choose movements I liked. This approach was very specific to this piece. Sometimes it was very difficult but, at the same time, the next word was always there, my job was to react to it.
In what directions do you see your work developing?
I will probably carry on exploring translation. I’ve spent so much time with it that I think it will always be there somehow. Another thing that interests me a lot is the question “what is choreography?”. In ‘GlaubenWissen‘ in 2013 I made a choreography and asked five visual artists to translate it into installations. There I was asking myself, “what am I actually dancing here?”. ‘Lyrical Ping Pong’ is also a lot about choreography, about observing myself as a choreographer. I am also just starting a collaboration project which will probably continue working with humour. We want to work with philosophical or political terms that are in today’s discourse. I don’t like the humour to be completely disconnected from what’s going on in the world around us. Sometimes I ask myself about the relevance of making a dance piece. However, I would also never do a piece about, for example, identity and borders, that would be too pedagogical, I don’t want to try to teach anybody.
What are your upcoming performances?
I’m showing the 6-minute version of ‘Lyrical Ping Pong’ at the Soloduo Festival in Cologne in May. In June I will be performing Marc Carrera’s piece ‘O A O’ with him in K3 in Hamburg. I will also be in Berlin in the summer, developing this idea of political terms with a colleague. We’re starting by writing some texts in first person and then we’ll take it from there.