Interview with Dancer and Choreographer Noé Soulier

Noé Soulier’s credentials are pretty impressive and he seems to have a knack for doing two things time. Soulier won first prize at the Danse Élargie with his work Little Perceptions whilst studying for his BA in Philosophy at Nanterre University and then went on to work on his solo Ideography whilst completing his MA in the same subject at the Sorbonne. Soulier’s work links the philosophical to the artist, exploring the relationship between movement and thought. Combining disparate theoretical standpoints, which seemingly have little to do with each other, the young dancer and choreographer uses strategies from music, dance and film.

Soulier’s UK debut will be a double bill in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells including Le Royaume des Ombres (The Kingdom of Shadows) and D’un pays Lointain (In a Country Far Away). Aesthetica spoke to Noé about his work and subverting the inner logic of ballet.

A: How did it come about that your UK debut would take place at Sadler’s Wells?

NS: In September last year, I performed both of these works at Théâtre des Abbesses in Paris.Emma Gladstone, Artistic programmer and Producer Sadler’s Wells, saw them. She contacted me to program them in London, so it’s really thanks to her!

A: Le Royaume des Ombres comprises five pieces that use traditional ballet steps in different ways. Can you give some examples of how this is done?

NS: I wanted to work on the syntax of movement by using a vocabulary that was already established. Instead of creating movements, I was interested in exploring the possible links between existing movements: how the way the steps are put together can transform our perception of them? The first thing I made was a glossary. I took all the ballet steps I could find and I put them in alphabetical order. It produced a slightly awkward sequence about two minutes long which simultaneously is and is not ballet. The second experiment is a sequence which comprises only preparation steps (mostly preparations for jumps and for turns). Preparations are the start of a movement. They are not autonomous: they need a resolution. But here, the movements only start and never find a conclusion. I go from one start to the next, and there is always something missing. I am interested in this lack. It is a constant ellipsis. For the last sequence, I took excerpts from all the XIX century ballets I could find. There are male roles, female roles, and all kinds of fabulous creatures. It creates a morphing sequence where you can’t identify the original materials. In all these experiments, it was interesting to find physical solutions for the transitions between the steps. Many of them are impossible to achieve. I had to deal with this impossibility and to find ways around it.

A: D’un pays Lointain examines “pantomime ballet”. For those who don’t know a lot about the form, can you elaborate on what this is and why you decided to focus on it?

NS: Ballet mime (“pantomime” in French) is used in classical ballet to narrate the story without speech. It is very codified. I have found 87 movements with a specific meaning. Many of them come from the commedia dell’arte. I used this vocabulary in interaction with speech. Ballet mime is a hybrid language. The relationship between the signs and their meaning is sometimes conventional and sometimes figurative. Some gestures are immediately recognizable while others can’t be understood if one doesn’t know the traditional code. Thus ballet mime offers a great diversity of relationships between movement and meaning. Ballet mime imports in movement the logic of spoken language: words, phrases, syntax and grammar. Thus it introduces within dance a foreign structure. I am interested in this tension between movement, language and meaning. Since the relationship between the gesture and its signification is precisely determined, it allowed me to construct different types of semantic relationships between each dancer’s gestures. Sometimes they look alike but the meaning is different, sometimes they make sense together. At one point, you can read sentences on the dancers from left to right, as if you were reading words on a page. It also allows a single dancer to convey two different messages at the same time, one with his voice and the other with his body. These messages can complete, contradict or transform each other. It produces a third meaning, which is neither in the speech nor in the gestures, but in the friction between both. It’s somewhere between the visible and the audible.

A: Taken together, it seems that the two pieces are concerned with subverting, or at least engaging critically with, accepted notions about ballet. Would you agree with this assessment and is this a concern of your work more generally?

NS: Yes. Le Royaume des Ombres (The Kingdom of Shadows) is an attempt to subvert the inner logic of the ballet syllabus. It is subversion from the inside. I have learned these techniques, and whether I want it or not, they have deeply influenced my way of conceiving movement and dance. Of course this is not specific to me, many structural features from ballet run through modern and contemporary dance, even in the work from people that wanted to break away from ballet. I find it necessary for myself to acknowledge this legacy and to work through it. It is often easier to emancipate from a tradition when you are aware of its inescapable influence than when you try to deny it, because the danger is to reproduce exactly what you are trying to avoid. I use these vocabularies in ways they were not planned for: the whole purpose of ballet mime is to avoid speech, but I am interested is the way it interacts with speech. The gestures from ballet mime are the product of a social process. They resonate with our daily non-verbal communication. No individual could create such gestures. The last sequence you can see in the piece is in silence: a dancer performs two phrases at the same time, so there are always two gestures combined. This phrase is at the edge between meaning and abstraction. The movements are still loaded with meaning, but you can’t decipher it. I could not make such a phrase without using an established vocabulary created by a social process. My work is often linked to reflections on works and practices from previous generations, but maybe not always as explicitly as in these two pieces.

A: Following the Sadler’s Wells performances, what is next on the agenda for you, and do you have any immediate plans to return to the UK?

NS: Right after the Sadler’s Wells performances, I’ll present a lecture-performance in a symposium on dance and philosophy at the University of Ghent. On 14th June , I am performing at the opening of the Modules exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo including a piece I made in 2011 called Idéographie in which I attempt to create a choreography of ideas that takes the form of a lecture-performance. I will also be performing two other pieces in September at the Versailles Garden; Petites perceptions, and Signe blanc, a solo for Vincent Chaillet, a soloist from The Paris Opera. I am back in the UKin October to present Idéographie at the Dance Umbrella.

Noé Soulier/Frauke Requardt & Freddie Opoku-Addaie: Mixed Bill, Tuesday 29 & Wednesday 30 May, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN.

To read more about choreography at Sadler’s Wells see an interview with Daniel Linehan on this link here.