Interview with Carmel Smith
Interview with Carmel Smith for, 2008

Carmel Smith: Both Sitting Duet, The Quiet Dance and Speaking Dance have all been performed individually over the last five years. Did you always intend them to be seem as a trilogy?

JB: When we started working on Both Sitting Duet we had no idea what we would do or where it might go. We didn't plan a trilogy, but after each piece we asked ourselves whether we should go on with the same work or do something different. We tried at various times to start something new in another direction, but each time we felt we hadn't finished with what we were already doing, and so the project grew slowly into a trilogy. The pieces are separate and we often perform them alone, but they are related, and we discovered that audiences enjoy following the whole story through from one piece to the next. Of course there is no actual narrative, but something shifts forwards and it approximates to a journey you can follow. What I like about having three performances is that while the separate pieces might be described as miniatures, they have grown into a body of work bigger than the individual parts.

CS: Will performing all three in one programme be a marathon, or does it come reasonably easily as you’ve performed them so often now?

JB: We've done over 170 performances of the pieces in various combinations, including many shows where we do two on one night, so adding the third doesn’t seem a big step. The idea to do all three together came from the former director of Kaaitheater in Brussels, Johan Reyniers, who wanted us to do it as part of his final season. Once we'd accepted the idea then it seemed obvious that this would be the solution for London, so that people can revisit the whole thing without multiple trips across the city. It's something new, and we like to keep discovering.

CS: In newspaper interviews you’re nearly always described as the ‘ex-Royal Ballet dancer’. Is your life in ballet still relevant, or do you feel that you’ve moved so far away from it that it’s another life?

JB: I danced with the Royal Ballet for thirteen years, and the older I get the more I value that time. Now I want to try new things, but I've never seen that as contradictory to my past as a ballet dancer: there's no critique implied in what I'm doing now, it's just different. I remain fascinated by ballet and wish I had more feel for choreographing it. Recently I've been loving the fact that parts of the great Ulanova Giselle from 1957 have been posted on youtube, which I was shown projected on the wall when I was a child at the Royal Ballet School. I have fantasised about it ever since, and it is as extraordinary as I remember.

londondance: You’ve said that you couldn’t work with trained dancers, as they would interpret your choreography through the language of their own dance training. Over the years of working with Matteo you must have developed your own language. Is that an advantage, or could it even become a disadvantage, given that it might be less spontaneous?

JB: I love to work with dancers who are trained, but in the past seven years I made the decision to work collaboratively with artists from other disciplines. This is partly because what they bring from their own world enriches my vision, and partly because I had reached a point where I felt I'd exhausted my capacity for investigating highly technical dance. Working with untrained people has reawakened my love of movement; but I will work with trained dancers again, and in fact the next thing I do apart from touring with Matteo will be to revive The Stop Quartet from 1996, which needs highly trained dancers.

In answer to your question about having a personal language, of course what I do looks a certain way because of who I am and the way I move and think, but I've tried consciously not to be too involved with questions of style as it can, as you say, be limiting. I think every piece finds its own language and it's not always something that you can influence or control. It arises out of a combination of things: concept, movement, rhythm, relation to the other performers and to the audience, and principles about performing. Ideally while making the piece and performing it you want to have a sense of what you're doing, but at the same time you want to keep your hands empty, ready to respond to what happens. You don't always know what you've done until many months or even years afterwards, and then you might have a moment of recognition.
CS: You’re working on a project at the National Theatre at the moment.
Can you say something about that? Are any of the working practices there new to you, and are you enjoying it?

JB: I'm working at the moment as Associate Director at the National Theatre on the play The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other by the Austrian writer Peter Handke, which is a performance without words for 450 characters who cross a town square. It's a meditation on the way we observe other people in public, and how our imaginations weave narrative fantasies out of what we see. It's funny and thought provoking, and if it works the audience should leave the theatre and walk out into London with freshly opened eyes.

The joy of this project for me has been to watch actors work, how imaginative they can be with the smallest of instructions, and the way emotional landscapes anchor the timing and detail of what they do. I've sat and watched this group of people improvising crossing the space, only walking, and every crossing is a miniature world of detailed storytelling, simply done and with beautiful clarity.

I'm working alongside the Director James Macdonald, and it's useful and interesting for me to see how he approaches what he does. I've enjoyed very much his process of researching the work, not only the play itself but other writings by Peter Handke, looking for clues which might give a clearer sense of what is intended and how to manifest it. I've also enjoyed observing what is said and what is left unsaid to the actors as they work their ways into the characters they're playing. It's a very different process to that of dance making, the priorities and learning process being grounded more in meaning than sensory experience.

CS: Your performances at the Lilian Baylis Theatre Sadler's Wells will be on Fridays only throughout January. Will you be using the other nights in the week to see any other dance performances?

JB: While we're at the Wells we also tour the trilogy to Zurich and perform Speaking Dance at Royal Holloway, so there's not much time to see other things. I'm looking forwards though to the Jerome Bel season, which follows us into the Lilian Baylis Theatre and then into the main house. All the pieces are extraordinary, but if you haven’t seen The Show Must Go On I can't recommend it highly enough, not least because it has influenced so much work across Europe and the world. I will go also to see Pina Bausch perform her masterpiece Café Müller, which is one of the greatest of dance pieces.

CS: You’ve said that these are the last British performances of these three works. Does this feel like the end of an era?

JB: We go on touring the trilogy internationally throughout this year and into 2009, so performances of this work will overlap with the beginnings of other things. It's all just work, and when one piece comes to its natural close there is always unfinished business to carry you forwards into something new.

CS: You’re off to work in Brussels again. Do you feel that your work is more widely appreciated in Europe?

JB: Sometimes it seems that Matteo and I still have an image in England as being people who make difficult work, and this is puzzling because it's not how we're seen anywhere else. Having said that, in the past five years we've performed over 170 times across 24 countries, and it's clear the way the work is perceived and appreciated changes from place to place. The great thing is that we've been able to test what we do against many different audiences.

I have strong connections with a number of other places in Europe including Belgium, but also Vienna where we always perform and who invited me to be mentor for the Danceweb programme during Impulstanz 2007, and Italy where Matteo and I have strong links with a network of theatres and artists across the north who have supported us strongly.

My connection with Belgium has been important to me for many years. I was Artist in Residence at Kunstencentrum Vooruit in Ghent for ten years, have been a visiting member of faculty at PARTS the school of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker since 1999, and am a regular at Kaaitheater in Brussels. It's home from home really, and I feel very much a part of the dance scene there. I lived already in Brussels for three years from 2000 to 2003 and am going back now for a number of reasons, including a two year residency at Kaaitheater which will give me time off from touring so I can research new work.

CS: Do you intend to work together in the future?

JB: Of course!

© Jonathan Burrows and Carmel Smith, 2008