Johan Greben and Uri Ivgi, duo of choreographers
The end of the theatre season at the National Theatre Ballet was in the name of premiere Causa Carmen, an evening consisting of two contemporary works. A brand-new choreography by Johan Greben (Netherlands) and Uri Ivgi (Israel) appeared alongside Mats Ek’s Carmen. About one week before the premiere, we had the opporunity to have a talk with the two artists about their new creation. And here it is.
There was little announced about your choreography, even in the National Theatre bulletin. It was stated it should be something abstract.
Johan : It´s just not like a ballet story but also not abstract. We really didn´t want to say anything about it beforehand, because we wanted to let the people just feel the choreography and create the story themselves.
Uri : We are not telling people this is the main character and he is doing this... so in this aspect it´s not a story, but it is absolutely not abstract. Because we use a lot of things, images which create a clear line that you can follow. In fact it is about group, about individuality, about escape, about freedom and also love.
So this is the connection with Carmen.
Uri : I wouldn´t say it´s a connection but there are several things related to it. We also created Carmen in the past, then we got to know that we are going to share Mats Ek´s Carmen in one evening, so that´s why we took some elements from the story: freedom, individuality, passion, red colour ... we took a lot of things and created our own story which is of course different.
How did our dancers cope with your style?
Uri (smiling): They are stil fighting.
Johan : It became very hard and demanding piece. In fact, at the beginning we were not to make such a heavy piece, but it turned out to be quite demanding on the dancers´ bodies. Our style was also quite new for them, there´s a lot of work on the floor, up and down. It has also something to do with the music which is very energetic, dynamic.
Uri : But they are doing very well, we appreciate how hard they work.
Many people think about the strange title you have chosen...
Johan : But if I explained the title to you, you would concentrate on search for it in the choreography. The title is the least important thing. It´s often when you create: you have lots of stories and ideas, not always stories which you really want to tell, so you try to get the essence... You create and in the end you always need a title for you piece, because it´s necessary. We came to this title but it´s a title which I think is better not to be explained, othervise you´re bussy with something you maybe don´t want to be bussy with. Because what is important for any piece is that you go and see it and take out the important issue or feeling, regardless of the title.
I remeber the starting title was Layers.
Johan : That was really a working title. The first step. It was after one of the first talks about our collaboration, which of course made us think what we were going to do. We knew little about the company at that time. Later it was clear it would be a combination with Mats Ek and that also made the theme of the evening, then also things changed. From the moment we were invited until today there´s a long time during which a lot of things happened and changed in our mind. Minds.
Yes, in the minds of two choreographers working together. How does it work, is one of you in a leading possition?
Uri : It really changes. When we create, we try to change our position, one works with the dancers on the floor, the other is sitting on the chair observing, lookin and watching what is happening, and we change it every time.
So it can´t be distinguished who did what in a piece.
Uri : That would be too exhausting to think about who has done what, it´s not important. Our thoughts, our actions, our preparations, this all mixes together.
Can you tell us how and when it happened that you two became a team?
Uri : Well, it was about five years ago...
Johan : October 2001, on Monday ... no, I´m joking. But it´s about five years. At that time I needed a break from creating, I was assisting other people and in that case I was creating something like a research for another choreographer. And it was in the same building where Uri also worked on a new production. We knew each other by sight, not really on personal level ... maybe just the place brought us together. We met every day, I saw what Uri was doing, he invited me for the premiere. Then there was a moment when he actually wanted to work with me as a dancer, we started to meet and to know each other. I was already finished with dancing, but did a few things in the end. The project itself was never realised because there was no money but I started to help Uri with a new project and then somehow, step by step, we started to work together, very creatively. And then after two or three projects, we decided to work as two choreographers together.
And you are a classical trained dancer?
Johan : I´m classical and modern trained. I danced for nine years with the Dutsch National Ballet, which at that time was not so classical as it is today, but my background is classic. I have never been a classical choreographer in that sense but still it´s a source, one of the sources, there is also a big contemporary source. Of course, fifteen years ago it was a different era, I was creating, teaching, I was working mainly at the contemporary field, modern, so it´s a mix.
How about you?
Uri : I was a belly dancer...
Johan : Belly or ballet, it doesn´t matter :-).
Uri : I was dancing with Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Companyand yet as a member I started to create and then I moved to Holland and continued to create and here I am, creating in Prague.
Why did you move to Holland, actually?
Uri : My ex-wife is Dutch, we were both memebrs of the Kibbutz and then when we got twins, we moved to Holland because we wanted to be close to her family.
Almost twenty years ago, I was in Prague with the Kibbutz, it´s nice to see this kind of a circle to close now. I am here to create and my old company is there at the same time...
Let´s go back to the process of creation. What´s your main source of inspiration?
Johan : A lot of things ... but in fact we´re always very bussy with group and individuals, sometimes it´s very strong, sometimes not, but it´s always there somehow. People as groups and systems, as communities, but also groups where there is kind individuality and desire for more individuality, a wish to break out of these systems. Yes, it is always underlaying. It has always something to do with individuals, fighting, creating space for the individual.
And music as a source of inspiration? Or what is usually the first step?
Johan : I think the idea is the first.
Uri : It basically starts with an idea, the idea develops and other ideas come for music, we search for all the elements whitch correspond with the source, it´s the same with music, with movements, with certain dynamics of movement. Thought is number one.
Johan : The concept.
How about the individuality of the dancers, do they get freedom in movement?
Johan : We have a kind of strictness about movements but we always try to involve dancers a lot, if possible. But here, they´re in fact very little involved, it has to do with language problem.
Uri : And also time, we hardly have time to work on the piece, so we need to prepare it very precisely. Normally we give more freedom to dancers, a kind of freedom with the movement; after we create it, we like to see what the dancer is doing with this movement.
What about improvisation?
Johan : It´s a useful instrument, but in this particular case we don´t use it at all. Firstly it´s very important to have experience with improvisation, it takes a lot of time to work with it and it also takes a lot of verbal explanation. An explanation of what the improvisation is exactly about, not only talking about what you expect from it. Although it looks like something very free, it needs huge preparation so that it would work properly.
Anyway, contemporary dance doesn´t automatically mean it´s more free, there are many contemporary choreographers who are very strict in what they want.
So you two seem to be very strict in this way.
Uri : Of course we open ourselves because we also accept other people´s contribution, but in the end even if improvising, we are very strict in what people bring and we turn it into our own. We request special musicalness and special physical ability and we insist on a lot of patterns, compositions... We know what we have to do, what we´re looking for, and this is what the dancers need to look for too, how to express themselves as performers...
Do you get inspired by the dancers, too?
Uri : Yes, you can see in the choreography how some people inspired us more than others. In fact what I like the most is when a dancer is able to be an actor too, a combination of acting and dancing. This is the inspiraton, when you give them some movement, how they act with it, how they take the freedom to do something with it. And of course the personality is important. It´s like when you fall in love. In the beginning you like the appearance, you like the eyes, body, hair, then as a choreographer you start to work with the dancer and than you start to like the way of movement and you start to like the personality. It´s really like a elationship. Or not „like“, it IS a relationship.
For how many dancers have you created this piece?
Johan : When we started, we thought it would be for 25 dancers. Once we were here in January to do a casting and had the company together, we found that 25 is too much, so we went to twenty. And when we started working with 20 dancers, it was still too much, so now we narrowed it down to 16 and that´s a good amount.
Uri : But sixteen is also a lot... There was a time preassure. There is a lot of group work in this piece but I would really like to come again to have some more time to work much more individually with the dancers.
Are you looking forvard to the premiere?
Uri : Well, we´ll see how this piece is going to work, but we believe that it will be good, we really stand behind it. And of course we´re very excited, curious about the whole project in this premiere...
Johan : It´s always a process and we like to lead the process to the stage. The performance is still a part of the process and it will go on. And there´s still a lot to do, we could work on it for another five weeks if we had time.
Uri : I´m curious about the audience, but still I think it doesn´t matter whether some piece is classical or modern – if it´s good, if it´s communicative, then it´s for everyone.
Johan : It´s true, but every culture is exposed or not exposed to certain things, it always takes time to get used to new things and to appreciate them.
Uri : I´m sure it will be very nice evening, but it´s very heavy evening for the dancers, physically. We chose almost the same people as Mats Ek, except for the soloists. And it´s tought on them. The double performance on Sunday will be really demanding.
It´s usuall to give a double performance on the day of the second premiere here.
Uri : But I don´t think it can work with a programme like this. It´s really physically hard.
Have you thought of staging your own Carmen so that we could see the difference in telling one story by two (three) different authors?
Johan : I think Peter Zuska actually invited us because he saw our Carmen, but then he asked Mats to have his Carmen too ... he might have been considering it but I don´t know how serious he was about that really. Sometimes it´s nice to have such experiments, but it wouldn´t be much suitable right here. For us it was more interesting to start a new piece, with new specific music from the beginning.
Uri : I also think that for the dancers it is more interesting to be in the process of creating then to have a creation, which already exists within other twenty companies.
But even if you are staging an existing piece, you are in fact recreating it...
Johan : Of course, people always respond differently, it also depends on the style of the work, when it´s a storytelling thing, it´s about observing people, how they will make the characters of the certain piece alive again. But when it´s an abstract work, it´s something different.
Have you seen any of the productions here?
Uri : We didn´t have the opportunity to see many things but we saw La Sylphide/Napoli, some classics and also Solo for Three by Petr Zuska. I appreciate Petr Zuska, this change that he´s doing, bringin himself to the company, bringin modern styles. This is something people need to appreciate. He and all the people around him, it´s really nice to see how well it works.
Have you met any other Czech choreographers (and I don´t mean Jiří Kylián:-) )?
Johan : We worked with Michal Záhora, who is now member of the Scottish Dance Theatre, while we were creating a new piece for that company. That was last year.
How do you feel about our company in general, is there anything particulary „Czech“ that can be observed here?
Uri : They are very shy in manner, they don´t really dare to scream for example, it takes them some time to really open. I feel it as something very exceptional. It´s not just about talking, it´s the whole behaviour. I like to work with the dancers on the level of friendship, not like I´m a choreographer and you are the dancer and you should do this and this step... But these people were used to it.
Johan : I don´t know wether it´s „Czech“, but there is something about the communication – and I don´t mean language skills now – they are very overpolite sometimes, which is not productive for us. You know, when I ask you about something I need to hear something from you, so I can respond. In fact I feel something like this when I come to the shop here, people are a bit drawn back, it doesn´t automaticaly invite you to communicate. And when you have a language boarder a little bit, that makes the work even more difficult.
Uri : But I was surprised because now I start to see that the dancers are really going for it, they now know how to deal with extreme movement, with extreme feelings. I was surprised to see these people screaming and so on. It took them a very long time to go there and I don´t know why but now I see it´s coming. And I´m really proud of them.
Well, they´re mainly classically trained, so it obviously takes time...
Uri : The people we chose are very good dancers, able to jump from a very classical style to a very contemporary style. Even when it was new for them and it took them some time, you see that these people really make a big jump and develop, they can understand new dynamic of the movements. Of course with some of them you can see more, with some of them you can see less. In the first days when we came it was a bit shock for them when we wanted them to go to the floor and immediately up again. Classical style is forcing you to be up and up, we wanted them to be down and down and to be very compact. First days they almost couldn ´t walk – and now it is natural for them. With all that shyness they are very open and hugry for new things.
Johan : That´s also Petr Zuska´s credit, as he opened the company for what is new.
Uri : We are absolutely proud of it that we can work with this company and perform in such beatiful theatre. The only one problem is that this theatre is just too busy. You don´t really have time to work on the stage. But othervise it´s an amazing theatre.
Lucie Kocourková June 2008
Photos from the peroformance: Pavel Hejný