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10 Questions for Choreographer Wim Vandekeybus | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Choreographer Wim Vandekeybus

10 Questions for Choreographer Wim Vandekeybus

The multi-disciplinary Belgian pace-setter talks about good and evil, abstract jazz and time machines

Wim Vandekeybus, perhaps considering whether "the medium of photography can be a liar"

Wim Vandekeybus (b. 1963) is the man behind Ultima Vez, a theatrical-choreographic powerhouse in Brussels. With his guidance they have sped to the forefront of European multi-media performance with such works as Monkey Sandwich, Oedipus/Bêt Noir, NieuwZwart and Booty Looting, each combining music, dance, visual arts and theatre in different ratios to startling effect.

After leaving school Vandekeybus took psychology at Leuven University but, finding the discipline’s scientific rationality restrictive and wanting to apply it to more artistic areas, he left and worked with the designer-choreographer-playwright Jan Fabre. In 1987 he set up Ultima Vez and his first show, What the Body Does Not Remember, toured to New York and picked up a Bessie Dance & Performance Award.

A multi-disciplinary creative who has worked with artists ranging from David Byrne to the author Peter Verhelst, Vandekeybus’s visceral new work Talk to the Demon receives its UK premiere at the Brighton Festival on Tuesday 13 May.

THOMAS H GREEN: Is it true you looked into the phenomenon of children being accused of witchcraft in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the background research for Talk to the Demon?

WIM VANDEKEYBUS: That information originally inspired me but the piece is now not very connected to witch children anymore. It’s more about demonic themes from many cultures but a lot of times these things are very positive - like magicians. The good cannot exist without the bad, the ying and the yang. It’s a show that takes in a lot of personal obsessions. It’s very silent, no music, very theatrical, not just dance.

Do you think audience will leave invigorated, thoughtful or frightened?

I don’t think frightened. But we sometimes enter into another side of children, into their fantasies, into the dark side of their souls. It is very difficult to explain but it’s a lot to do with the unconscious. I am playing a game where a lot of the imagery is never explained.

Your film Monkey Sandwich seemed also to derive from the unconscious as it had no straightforward narrative. How easy was it to finance and get distributed?

Monkey Sandwich was shot in 12 days. Originally it was a piece with a live performer on stage and film was projected at the same time. It was sometimes hard but also very beautiful. Then the film version went to the Venice Film Biennale. It wasn’t really commercially distributed. I’m now developing another film which will be shot this summer, with 40 days' shooting. It will be much better distributed. There is a complete script of 115 pages, a dialogue all about twins who get separated at birth and meet each other 10 years later. It stars Jerry Killick who is English and who’s also in Talk to the Demon. He’s the main actor in Monkey Sandwich too.

What was the last music album that truly inspired you?

I think it was Albert Ayler. It’s not a new one. I had to use it for a show so I listened to a whole album of all the works, the Holy Ghost [box set], amazing jazz music. Another one is John Zorn with Marc Ribot  - who was inspired by Albert Ayler – The Masada Songbook. John Zorn is amazingly good.

What would happen to them if one of theartsdesk's readers signed up for an Ultima Vez workshop in Brussels?

We have a lot of workshops. I have a building where we have two studios, one very big and one smaller. When I did auditions [for the latest workshops] I saw almost 700 people. I saw 140 in Portugal, 200 in South Korea, 350 in Belgium, a three-week research programme where we work with movement, 40-50 people at a time and everyone can come for free. If you’re selected we do a lot of theatrical work. More and more dance needs the presence of actors to tell something. A lot of dance has nothing to tell, it’s very empty. I like to combine it [with acting]. Young people who’ve never spoken before onstage have to talk.

If you had a time machine and you could go back to anywhere in history for 24 hours, where would you go?

I think the beginning of the 20th century, 1900 to 1906-7, because things were changing then. It was before the First World War and it was euphoric. Also a lot of artists started to change how they worked, an incredible time for literature too. The faces of people had something timeless and noble about them, and a lot of people started to connect to eastern philosophy, the wisdom of the soul and so on. Where? That’s a difficult question. I like Europe but I think New York – the discovery of a new land built in super-fast time, building First Avenue, putting down the first stones, amazing!

You have said, “I want to take innovation so far that in 10 years I will have invented a new medium.” What do you mean by that?

Each piece we make should question its own medium. For instance, it’s very easy to make dance pieces then add music. Now I’ve taken a challenge - I want to work with silence where music cannot manipulate the movement, where we feel the world how it is, how people talk. Things are amplified but not pre-recorded. With another show called Booty Looting there was a photographer taking pictures during it. He created a story within a story. I like media where the power of one thing is used to show another facet of what you are working on. In Talk to the Demon, if they’re going to dance we have to know why they’re going to move, what these movements are telling us.

You mention Booty Looting – did you ever find that show misunderstood before it was even seen, due to the salacious connotations of its title?

There have been misunderstandings but for us it meant “stealing” and “that which has been stolen”. Of course, we knew the double meaning. Even the theatre where we held the premiere had this question. The show was about how nothing is original, it always comes from somewhere; how artists have to build their own myth to exist. It was about demystification and how photography is a medium that can lie. Taking something out of context in a frame can be very different from seeing the same thing outside of the frame. The medium of photography can be a liar.

Carl Jung suggested that, even as adults, playtime is important to our psychic welfare. How much do your activities represent a form of grown-up playtime?

I think I’m continuously in playtime. In rehearsing and inventing things it’s completely playtime. Sometimes you have to create bad characters because you don’t have a movie without them. They’re always more interesting than the good ones. In this way the demonic element is something I like to embrace, to talk to, and of course creativity has something very childish and simple about it. For me the best creations don’t explain themselves, they are an instinctive reaction to something. You have to have the bad to respond to good things. I hate moralistic creativity explaining how life should be, people who open the paper and say, “I’m going to make a show about economic crises.” How is it possible to do a performance about that?

At what point did you think, “I’m finally making a living doing a thing I enjoy doing”?

I don’t work commercially, I work for my company. I don’t sell my pieces to other companies where they do a reproduction of it, where it earns much more money. This is the 28th piece we’ve made. It will travel and I’ll follow it through from its beginning to its end. I own a building. People work for me. We make a living. I am very happy but I am always hungry for other things. I’m not sitting on my sofa. Creation is an adventure. It has to be.

Overleaf: Watch a trailer for Wim Vandekeybus's Monkey Sandwich film

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