Cool but not calm

The Spanish-born dancer and choreographer known simply as La Ribot arrived in South Africa this week, with her full company, to present three works in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Maputo.

La Ribot’s brand of dance is radical, unpredictable and, above all, steeped in unselfconscious cool.

What do you expect from the work in a new context? I see that in the work you give new contexts to many familiar objects.
I think, in a way, I am putting dance in a new context all the time. In the Nineties I did the pieces we have titled the “Distinguigished pieces,” and PARAdistinguidas is the continuation of this long project.

In it I use the idea of multiplying and juxtaposing the old project that I did in the Nineties. Then, I was recontextualising dance, what contemporary dance could be.

So for me, there is a process of using objects in a new way, as you say, and I am also doing that with dance, with the disciplines. It can be rhythm - we decontextualize or recontextualise rhythm. South Africa will be a new context because I am using people from there. So the extras in the piece will give a new context and I will have to reshape it.

When I go to a new place we have to redo the whole thing, for twenty new people we find. So all the time we are recontextualising the idea.

The work called Laughing Hole is less clear or less direct. But here the audience shares the space with us, they share the walls, they share the floor, proximity or faraway things. So it is simpler for all of us. It also recontextualises something. In South Africa, something new will be introduced—a new idea or a new thing. So it is being recontextualised all the time.

The New Dance Festival features work by local and international choreographers, with a focus on young talent. It runs at the Dance Factory in Newtown, Arts on Main, and the old Johannesburg Stock Exchange until September 18.

With the walls in Laughing Hole we use text. We have three families of text: A very political text that is very far away from me. Things that are very close to me, and the third family of text are things that we are going to do in the performance. For instance occupying the space. In some cases these words are also in the other list. But the word “occupy” for example is a literal movement and at the same time we “occupy” space with our presence, and with the audience.

We write the text in each country. We write the text with people from there. Always, there appears a new word or a new thing. We conjugate again these new words. In Bogota there appeared the word “Para”—paramilitary. It is the same word as in Paradistinguidas, “beyond”— I put everything with “Para”—like “paraoccupation.”

Over here then you can use the suffix “heid”, as in “apartheid”. It is a similar in the Germanic construction of words?

Yeah I could. I think I have to. That is the way to contextualize the piece.

But you may then come under some criticism because it is not a word one uses easily.

No, I think I have to do things carefully!

It would be like going to Germany and saying we are just going to write the word Nazi all over the walls.

I understand the meaning, but I am a foreigner at the end of the day, so I cannot really talk about everything.

Yes but people appreciate it when work comes from the outside and they enjoy the exotic. Even we have a notion of the exotic. When you arrive with your white performers you are going to be exotic to us. Usually it is seen the other way around—the idea of African performers onstage in Europe is exotic. Now you have naked white women onstage in Africa. You may have to send people away because too may will want to see the work, for all the wrong reasons. Yet something in the work is alienating at the same time. Do you know that?
Yes, I think I know. It is terribly alienated and it is painful sometimes. I think it is a very hard work to watch and to do. And it is not funny at all even if we are laughing the whole time. I don’t think it is an easy work. It is not comfortable at all.

Is your intention for people to leave the performance and come back if they want to?

Of course. It is totally open. It is timeless.

How long will it be because they said you did it for eight hours in some cities?

In Bogota we did it for eight hours and it was very nice. But because the context was in a big house in the centre of the city, there were many other videos and other works. It is a gallery piece but that does not mean we have to see things around. It depends. In Africa we are going to do five to six hours. Everything is complicated. You start thinking everything is good once you are in it—you start to love what you are doing. It is very brave to see it.

You mean, it is more brave to be an audience member?
Yes. I have been in the audience just once and I suffered a lot— a lot. I suffered a lot but at the same time I loved it. I understood why a lot of people say they stay for the whole thing, in one spot all the time, without moving. It explained a lot, how, as an audience, you can go very deeply into the detail of the performance and the detail of something that captivates your view. And at the same time how you can see something from a far distance and then it is not painful at all. It is just something that is happening all the time, everywhere.

But in PARAdistinguidas there is some virtuosity in what the bodies are doing in space—but is there any value in trying to attach meaning to it or is it really just fun? The naked women move everyday objects over their bodies in order to clothe their bodies. It’s very well done. But when you look at it as nudity and games it doesn’t tend to take on meaning beyond that.
It is fun. I think this piece is fun. It could be virtuous, but I haven’t though of it in this way. It is game of hiding, but there is a fake audience behind. So, that at the end we [the audience] see everything. It is a silly game. In this position it is not the real position for the hiding game. That, for me, is the interest. I am just shifting the point of view of the audience. Suddenly we are no longer the audience—they are hiding themselves for an audience that is fake. I twist the point of view. We are no longer spectators, we are just extras in the performance.

Yes, you are a genius!
No. At the beginning I was doing it so that everything would be hidden from me - as the audience. One day I thought, “This is just a game.” And when I started to see things from the back I said, “That’s the point, to see things.” When I change my position I am not anymore a spectator in a classical sense.

Okay let’s move on to the work Mariachi No. 17.
Mariachi refers to the Mexican genre, the music.

The Mexicans who play at weddings in Las Angeles?
Exactly. It is not more important than this. I was just looking for a title. And then I heard on the radio the song, Call Me Mariachi, and it was such a good sound for this piece that I was doing, with plenty of movement. I thought the word Mariachi suggests colour, movement and noise, not more than that. It’s a video piece and a stage piece. There is a film in the beginning in one single take and then three ladies interact.

In Africa I am only going to show the film, it was the basis of the project. One single take and this is another work I have developed in the last ten years, dance and work always with single takes. The name of the film, Number 17 is the biggest I have done with the camera in my hand.

Is it improvised?
No, no it is very written. It was all built at the same time—choreography, camera and the set—for two months, in the space. It was made on a rehearsal stage here in Geneva, an empty theatre.

It is very architectural.

Yes, it is a very architectural piece. It is very space-aware. And aware of the body. I think it is very sensational. For me, that is dance. It is the most “dancey” thing I have ever done. If you ask what is dance? This is dance for me.

So we shouldn’t look for meaning we should just enjoy the feeling.
It is a piece of formalism, the experience of dance, the experience of the body, what the body experiences when it is moving in space. I always say that when you are dancing the walls are moving, the floor moves. Everything moves when we dance. You are the centre of something in constant movement. The walls and floor comes to you. Everything moves when you dance.

Is there any kind of dance you really hate? Classical ballet, perhaps?
No I don’t hate classical ballet; I have done a lot of classical ballet. I trained a lot and when I lived in Madrid I had fantastic classical teachers. They were good and I preferred to go to them than to go to something more modern. I think when someone is good you can always learn.

There is no one form of dance you despise.
Not really like this. Maybe folkloric dance I don’t like very much but even now I like it more. I hated it

People dancing in circles, wearing clogs.
Yes, but now I think I understand it better, I think, well, “If they like it—” There are things I can say I don’t like to do but—

I’m just trying to understand what your dance is rebelling against. Aren’t you a rebel? I thought you are a rebel?
And now you have discovered I am not.

Well I will have to decide that for myself. Now that you have said that there is nothing you don’t like you cannot be a rebel.
Yes, I don’t have to pretend to be a rebel if I like things.

La Ribot and company will perform PARAdistinguidas in Cape Town at Hiddingh Hall on September 9 at 9pm and on September 10 at 6.30pm. Her company will perform at the New Dance Festival in Johannesburg. On September 13 at the Dance Factory at 11am see Mariachi No.17. On September 14 at 7.30pm, also at the Dance Factory see PARAdistinguidas. On September 17 at 2.30pm at Goethe on main see Laughing Hole.

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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