A Conversation with Melanie Suchy, Emanuel Gat and Ensemble Modern

›STORY WATER‹ brings Ensemble Modern together with one of the leading European choreographers, Emanuel Gat. Together, the Ensemble Modern musicians and the dancers of Emanuel Gat Dance, the resident company at the Maison de la Danse in Istres in the South of France, explore the relationship between music and dance in this evening-length programme. Part of the choreography will be developed on the basis of existing works: Pierre Boulez’ ›Dérive 2‹ and Rebecca Saunders’ double bass concerto ›Fury II‹. For the other part, entitled ›FolkDance‹, 12 dancers and 13 musicians create a musical-choreographic overall score together, where the gestures of sound production merge with those of the dance, crossing and blurring traditional boundaries and responsibilities. ›STORY WATER‹ will have its world premiere on July 19, 2018 at the Festival d'Avignon and will subsequently be shown at the Beethovenfest in Bonn, at the Tanzfestival Rhein-Main in Frankfurt and in Antwerp and Paris. The dance journalist Melanie Suchy spoke to Emanuel Gat and Ensemble Modern about their approach to this project, which positions the two art forms music and choreography as equal partners in a dialogue.

Melanie Suchy: Mr. Gat, you yourself studied music originally?
Emanuel Gat: I am a clarinet player, and I wanted to become a conductor. I was already in my first year of music studies at the Tel Aviv Academy, and then I accidentally came across dancing. I was 23, that is late. It was a very quick choice to focus on dance and choreography.

MS: You never regretted that?
EG: No. I don’t think I would be a good conductor. I think my profession now is much more suited to my personality.

MS: ›STORY WATER‹ consists of three pieces of music ...
EG: But it’s one continuous choreographic piece, with three musical scores woven into it. At the beginning of the project, I brought a few of my dancers, we worked in the space of the Ensemble Modern and tried out different things together. We didn’t go deep, just jumped from idea to idea, to get a kind of taste of how to align different ideas of musical production and composition with the chorographical composition.

Ensemble Modern: One might say that you choreograph music. Do you agree?
EG: Yes, choreography and composing music have so much in common, in the logic of how you organize a work. Basically, you organize information through time and space; whether it is musical information, tones and frequencies and sounds, or people and movements. What fascinated me is to see whether I can use the same procedures and modalities of work that I have with the dancers, but with musicians; the result would then manifest itself in music instead of movement and choreography.

MS: So do you listen to the compositions by Boulez and Saunders particularly frequently now?
EG: Of course, I have listened to them. But in general I don’t choreograph for a certain music. I don’t try to illustrate or interpret the music, but I want to create a choreographic structure that is independent, with its own character, open enough to enter into a dialogue with the music.

EM: Our conductor Franck Ollu suggested many years ago to perform Boulez’ ›Dérive 2‹ with dance. And Pierre Boulez himself once said it would be a good piece to choreograph.
EG: It’s true! On one hand, the way the work is structured is so clear and precise, with those endless variations, it’s so relentless. On the other hand, somehow this kaleidoscope gives you so many opportunities to react: a lot of freedom in a very defined environment. That’s a very interesting balance.
EM: This will be the world premiere of the choreographic version of ›Dérive 2‹. Neither does dance illustrate the music, nor does the music illustrate the dance. This approach is especially manifested in ›FolkDance‹, the part of the evening we are creating jointly in its entirety.
EG: As a starting point we will use folk music. This kind of music has some characteristics that are very clearly defined in terms of rhythm and scales etc. How can we reconfigure or stretch them? It is a process I have used with choreography as well, e.g. with ›The Rite of Spring‹ by Igor Stravinsky. The initial vocabulary for the choreography was Cuban Salsa, that we completely deconstructed and restructured. I want to try to do the same here.

MS: Which folk dances and music will those be? How do you find them?
EG: The musicians and dancers themselves will bring them along, reflecting the diversity of their cultural background.

MS: Rebecca Saunders writes in the introduction to her composition ›Fury II‹: »Stille ist die Leinwand, auf der alle Klänge auftauchen und in die hinein sie wieder verschwinden.« (»Silence is the canvas on which all sounds appear and into which they disappear again.«) Her composition is very much sound-based, she contrasts sound explosions with silence. So, the silence amplifies the sounds. You can say the same thing about dance. A movement becomes much clearer if it is positioned within the composition or choreography so as to relate to moments of complete silence.
EM: Ensemble Modern dedicated a ›Happy New Ears‹ concert to Rebecca Saunders last year at the Frankfurt Opera. In this concert, we presented the double bass concerto ›Fury II‹. The fact that we are playing it once more is also due to the composer’s enthusiasm about the interpretation of Paul Cannon, our bass player, and his strong physical presence.

EG: Rebecca Saunders says that in her compositions she very much considers the physical action of the musician, especially with a double bass, this very demanding physical aspect of playing the instrument. That is another parallel between music and dance.

MS: The project takes its title from a text by the Persian mystic Rumi, ›Story Water‹. Did you choose the title?
I came across this poem and liked the idea that there is always some kind of intermediate between the source and the experience that follows. I like the very striking metaphor of water: we cannot sit in the fire. If you want to profit from the warmth of the fire, you have to warm the water of the bath, and then you sit in the water and get the benefits of the fire. It’s a bit similar to what art is: it is an intermediate between certain human experiences and the audience, so they can experience them.
The text, however, is meant more as an inspiration, it has no other function in the programme.

MS: Your way of choreographing has changed over the years. You seem to rely much more on the dancers?
Absolutely. Over the years I became much more interested in defining the environment, rather than controlling the actual actions of the dancers. It opens much more possibilities, both for the work itself and the performers. I basically teach them a certain language or give them the rules of a certain game. Given a very clear environment, you know how it functions, who your team mates are, what the purpose is, where you want to go – and then you are free as a dancer to use your capacities, your talents, your creativity, originality in thinking, all that.

MS: You do not fix these rules or this environment in advance?
We try out different things. What happens if we adopt this or that rule? How do the dancers or musicians react? Then we can see which elements work and what is interesting.

MS: You gave the dancers the task, for example, to be especially aware of the distances between them ...
Choreography is organizing people in space and time. If you just focus on the element of space and expand it, researching how this question of the distance between dancers happens on stage in a dynamic constellation – this is very revealing. If a certain dancer is closer to another, will he follow him, will he move away? It’s like watching a flock of birds in the sky. How do they manage to keep this amazing formation, so close to each other, without bumping into each other? Because there is some kind of logic to this system that makes it so efficient. The visual result is what you might call choreography.

MS: You once said everything is about relations, i.e. a creation comes about in relation to the people you do it with.
Yes. If I don’t take into consideration the people I’m going to work with, I would just impose my ideas on them. I would miss all of their ideas, I would miss all the possibilities that can come out of a group of people going into a room and trying to do something together. There are far more ideas this way than I would have on my own. It gives me another role: I need to steer the ideas in a certain direction to give them coherence. This is difficult, but very interesting.

MS: One thing I noticed during a performance of your work ›SUNNY‹ was that the dancers look at each other frequently.
This is because the choreography is not set and they are not on a kind of automatic mode, knowing exactly what will happen. So they are composing in real time. They have to look at each other, to understand what is happening while it is happening, so they can make the right decisions.
This is what I want to try to do together with the musicians too. There won’t be a conductor in that new piece, ›FolkDance‹. It will be managed by the musicians in real time. Although they will be following the same score, every performance will be different, depending on how they interpret the score. Every decision will influence the group and induce reactions from the other musicians.

MS: The Rumi poem mentioned earlier speaks of an in-between stadium, of hiding and showing what is secret as movements or activities therein. Do secrets, does what is hidden play a role in your work?
We show everything, but everybody in the audience will see something else and is free to arrive at their own interpretation.
However, this issue of the space in between is very important. The choreography is something that happens more in the space between the dancers than in the dancers themselves. If you really want to understand a choreography, you have to look at the spaces between the dancers. There is a quote by Thelonious Monk, who says about music: »Some music is just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important than what you do play.« In other words, it happens between the notes. It’s not the notes themselves.

The interview with Melanie Suchy and Emanuel Gat was conducted on behalf of Ensemble Modern by Christian Fausch (Artistic Management and General Manager) and Rainer Römer (percussion and member of the board).