Infinite Potential of Possible Selves

Lior Avizoor interviews Xavier Le Roy

The conversation was held after Le Roy's performance at the Israel Festival 2015

Le Roy, one of the most prominent names in contemporary European dance, started out as a scientist; he was in the last year of writing his dissertation in molecular biology when he started taking dance lessons. At 28, he embarked on a rich career in dance, which has so far encompassed three decades of collaborations with the most important and interesting institutions and individuals in international dance. Le Roy’s work is characterized by long research processes and esthetics that vary according to his current project. He uses a wide range of performative expressions – from solo lecture-performances to works of abstract movement involving multiple participants.

His solo work “Self Unfinished”, performed at the Israel Festival, was created in 1998 and instantly became a modern classic. This 50-minute solo work takes place in a white lab-like space, with nothing but a table, chair and a small stereo system. Le Roy’s body undergoes slow transformations, alternating images; a robot, an insect, a monster, a caterpillar, a chicken – to quote some of the descriptions commentators attached to the images on stage. The series of images created by Le Roy stirs the imagination, encourages viewers to interpret what they see and invites them to explore questions of human perception. The work’s title makes one think of the subject as an ever-changing, imperfect organism, escaping structural categories and cultural, as well as biological, stipulations. Le Roy’s “self” challenges one’s eyes and one’s perception – it is an elusive hybrid, presenting an infinite potential of possible selves.

Self Unfinished © Kartin Schoof
Self Unfinished © Kartin Schoof

Thank you for your performance, Xavier. With your permission, I would like to begin by asking you about your decision not to distribute a printed program to accompany this work – why do you prefer to avoid printed information?
Well, this piece is very slow, as you must have noticed, and I think that if you had a piece of paper with something written on it, you’d start reading it. My intention is that you look, not read. If you were holding accessible information, it would have attracted your attention. I’d rather you kiss your boyfriend or girlfriend if your mind drifts, but it’d be better if it’s directed at what’s happening on stage. I know it’s hard to focus on something so slow for so long, it’s challenging…

So you have no ideological objection to textual descriptions?
Right. In other works, like “Le Sacre du Printemps”, which begins with a long musical interlude, the audience can read a text about the performance.

As many spectators know nothing about the work we’ve just seen, I’d be happy if you can provide some background – What initiated it? What motivated you in the first creative stages?
I created this work out of an interest in the transformation of the human body through its deconstruction. By reconstructing my body, I wanted to create some sort of a hybrid jigsaw puzzle and find new movements this reorganization makes possible. As a dancer, I’ve always experienced difficulties in technique classes, and my body was never flexible enough, so I wanted to invent other physical constraints, challenges arising from this unusual montage.

Constraints that create a different body image?
Yes. Each body image brought a narrative into the work, and finally its three parts were created. Simultaneously, I started working with Laurent Goldring, who creates images in photographs and video, and together we examined the possibilities of the human body. He was interested in the human body image throughout the history of photography, and in our work process we tried to create bodies in different forms – at first by combining different “pieces”, then by thinking about the body as one ever-changing integral unit. Laurent’s images inspired my stage work – I entered the studio alone with a video camera and a monitor. I filmed myself in a certain position and then watched what I had done on the monitor – I created, felt and watched in new positions each time. The ones I found most thought-provoking – What kind of image was created? What do I see? – were the ones I kept.

You didn’t invite any other spectator at any point - a dramaturge, a rehearsal director, an artistic advisor?
Yes, this is how I did it – alone. Performing it taught me some things, naturally, but the work has hardly changed since its first presentation.

17 years is a very long time to perform the same work, and you perform it quite often. Do you remember how many performances you have done?
Probably over 200…

And it nearly hasn’t changed? I trust your body has changed, as well as your approach to the stage. Do you still find new things in this work, or is it really “closed”, like an object you place on stage over and over again?
Of course it does change in certain respects – today, for example, it was more difficult for me to perform… It’s very early, and yesterday I had a late performance. The body is older, and some injuries echo previous performances of the same work. It creates a strong physical memory, explicit and implicit, of this work. This is the luxury of returning to the same work so many times.

Much has been written about this now-canonical work. What do you think is its secret charm?
Its name, “Self Unfinished”… It’s a fantastic name. No, seriously, it’s hard for me to say. It was a surprise. This work was a co-production with two German theaters – in Cottbus and in Dresden – and I assumed I’d just get to perform these two locations and that’d be that. It’s not an easy work, and it is composed from many quiet, slow stretches. It’s something we’re no longer accustomed to. But to my surprise the producer was of another opinion. A long article that was published in a main German newspaper may have also helped. Everything can influence… Somehow the work got bigger – it’s hard for me to say why.

I’d like to talk a little about your work method in general – you have many times stated that you begin each work with a question, a problem or a constraint, and use different methodologies to confront them each time. This leads to a varying esthetics, so there is no artistic “signature”, so to say. How do you feel about signatures? Are you trying to avoid them intentionally?
It’s a complex issue. The audience wants to assign you some recognizable signature because it makes things easier for everybody. I did make aconscious decision not to create one for myself. I have an anecdote to tell here: in 2001 I was invited to perform “Self Unfinished” in a big international dance festival in Brussels, and the production asked me that in addition to this work, I’d present in the larger hall my newer work, that will be in dialogue with this work. They’d assumed that after “Self Unfinished”, the next stage would be an evolution, an extension of that solo, based on the same content and esthetics, simply with ten dancers, more lights and more costumes – these are the conventions and expectations of the dance world. I chose not to go there, and my next work was a lecture-performance. I’m interested in examining what the questions I am concerned with require, rather than relying on the same technique over and over again. Still, I find some things have become recognized with me over time – I repeat myself, using the same “tricks”. I guess it’d hard to avoid it altogether. I’ve noticed I don’t like it when artists repeat themselves. But I tell myself it’s alright, the motivation is what counts. William Forsythe, for example, is an excellent example of how one can create a lot (he runs a dance company and is committed to two-three productions a year), and still investigate and search.

Is it something you wish you could change, this expectation to create so much? What would you change in the atmosphere of contemporary dance world? In other words, what are your ideal conditions for artistic creation?
You cannot work outside the conditions that exist. You work with what you got. In a given situation, I try to make things work for me. I think difficulties and constraints are a good thing. Many of the works I’d done were ordered with previous expectations, creating a specific work frame. If I had worked in an unconditioned situation, in an empty room, I suppose nothing would have come out of it. Tension is mandatory. Perhaps you could say the ideal situation is to keep finding ways that will enable me to create. Yes, this is the ideal.

So you’re happy with things as they are.
Hmmm…. It does get more and more difficult. When you’re applying for funding there’s an expectation, and as you grow the expectations grow as well.

A complex situation. I still have many questions, but unfortunately our time’s up. Before we say goodbye, I’d be happy if you could tell us a little about your next project.
I am currently working on something without being sure what will come out of it, but it has two motivations: first, I wanted to keep working with the same group of dancers who worked with me on “Low Pieces” – 13 people who can discuss, argue and explore together. The second is to continue from where we stopped our work together – the last scene, the discussion we have with the audience in the dark. I’m interested in continuing that exploration of darkness. We’re working in a very fragmentary way – ten days here and there. Different members are free to work at different times, so it’s pretty disordered. We also do not have a production work frame or dates – it’s all very open.

March, 2017