Camille Mutel

Dancing Light / Let it move you...

Camille Mutel

L‘ Aquila Pressoché IGNUDA series, August-September 2009 © Paolo Porto, Camille Mutel + Cie Li(Luo)

In the run-up to the exhibition Dancing Light / Let it move you… curator/director Nanda van den Berg spoke with dancer/choreographer Camille Mutel (seen in the work of Paolo Porto at various places in the exhibition) about butoh, the body and the relationship between dance and photography.

Nanda van den Berg: Tell me, when did you start dancing?

Camille Mutel: I was four. Like a lot of children, I dreamed about ballet and then I did it. It was a normal process: first ballet, then contemporary dance. The real revolution in my heart came when I was twenty and met butoh dance. This was a very big change. It was the moment I discovered something completely different, another culture – another relationship to the body. I decided to study it for five years. So I followed a master who was living in France. His name is Masaki Iwana, and I followed him for five years, all over Europe. I think this changed my whole approach to the body and to dance.

NvdB: What was your first encounter with butoh?

CM: I saw a dancer at a festival in my city, Nancy. His name is Takateru Kudo; he dances quite a lot in Amsterdam too. He’s Japanese, and lives in Tokyo. He danced with a company for a while, and then completely changed his approach to dance. He is close to Hijikata, a very wild person. Close to nature, to masculine energy.

NvdB: What was he dancing?

CM: I have a memory… it was like a fire.

NvdB: You were 20 then; how old are you now?

CM: 36.

NvdB: So it’s been 16 years already.

CM: Yeah, and it was completely crazy… there was no shape in the body, none of the defined shape I was used to doing in ballet or contemporary dance. It was something moved by energy, by craziness, by anger. In the middle of the city, and it was completely shamanic. A kind of wilderness.

NvdB: In surroundings that you knew… but he succeeded in doing something completely different.

CM: Yes, because it was another culture, Japanese. I knew nothing about Japan. So it was very new for me. And the idea that dance could be something other than aesthetic – this was very important for me.

NvdB: Because you started out in classical dance, which is very aesthetic, and then you went to modern dancing. How was that different from classical?

CM: In the company I danced with professionally it was still aesthetic, still some shape to be reached. The relationship with the image was very important. And the meaning was important; the concept. It was completely different from butoh. There’s no concept behind that.

NvdB: But when you make a dance, don’t you have to start with an idea?

CM: Yes, you do. But in butoh there’s more: the body tells you where to go. If you’re really honest with yourself it will depend on you, on this moment, on your surroundings, on the society you’re in, on its culture. Your body says something, it reveals something to you. You just have to focus on the work, be concentrated and completely transparent. You have to let something come from inside, in a dialogue with the outside. You shouldn’t have to intervene. And you don’t normally have to use your brain. There’s no law, but it is a kind of Zen philosophy too.

NvdB: When you perform a dance, is it different every time you perform it? Or is it the same dance?

CM: It depends. Actually I don’t say my dance is butoh, because I grew up in Europe, my cultural background is European, and I still live here. But yes, some butoh dancers only do improvisations, they change all the time. But other dancers are mixing butoh with contemporary and European ways of thinking, including concept and meaning, so there’s a mix.

NvdB: The exhibition makes a link between flamenco and butoh, and I tell people that there is also a link between butoh and what Paolo does in L’Aquila, through you and the other dancers, who just go to the ground and feel that emotion and energy there in the city. Now you just said: strictly speaking I’m not doing butoh because I’m not Japanese. But one of the things that came to me while curating this exhibition is that butoh is more of a universal force than something divided by nations. Do you still feel that a real butoh dancer can only come from Japan?

CM: This is a very good question. I’ve been working in Japan since 2008 and have been discussing it with people there; it’s a very difficult question to answer. Butoh was born as a dance in 1959. That’s a long time ago, and a lot of people say that butoh no longer exists; that it was like Dadaism or Surrealism, it happened in another time and place. People don’t agree about what butoh is today, and whether we can still say we’re dancing butoh. But if we think about Hijikata, who was the first to do butoh, he really invented a dance that was intimately linked to Japanese culture, as a revolt against the Americans who were invading Japan at that time. He wanted to save Japanese culture, because he was afraid it would be swamped by all the American culture coming in. So if there is such a thing as butoh, then it is hard to say we’re doing butoh if we come from abroad. Hijikata looked at traditional Japanese dance and traditional ways of moving that the Japanese have – people working in rice fields, the size of the Japanese people, the shape of the leg – and made butoh from this. So it’s a big question. I think butoh can be a little wider than this, and that in Europe we can think about the roots, the essence of the thought behind butoh. Not in the shape; just in the thought. This way we can say we do butoh. But it’s still difficult.

What keeps me going back to Japan today is more than just butoh. Butoh was born in a culture for which the idea of emptiness is very important, and I think that this emptiness has also become very important to me. What is emptiness? What is silence? I am interested to know how a body can be silent, and how it can open other spaces – inner space, yes, but also outside space. How it can be a mirror of the inside or of the outside, simply by being transparent and silent. This is part of butoh thought, but not only there – it is also found in the Zen garden, for example, and other traditions like the tea ceremony. Perhaps all Japanese thought comes from this kind of emptiness. When I was in Japan last month I started diving into the language, because this emptiness is also in the language. In Japanese you don’t say ‘I’, it doesn’t exist – the subject doesn’t exist. There is no gender, no feminine or masculine. The most important thing is the action: where you’re doing something and who you’re doing it with. The relationship is important, the place and the relationship. For an individual to say ‘I’ or ‘I am’ is impossible in Japanese. This is very interesting, because I think we can open it up and find the same thing in butoh dance. The ‘person’ doesn’t exist; you have to erase it. This is very important.

NvdB: Still, as a body, you do experience it through the body. The body is the instrument. It’s a trivial question, I suppose, but Western ballet dancers have to stop at a certain age because their body can’t keep up. They can’t go on after thirty-something. But with butoh there is, perhaps, no frontier. You can go on forever. Like Kazuo Ohno.

CM: Kazuo Ohno, yes!

NvdB: Towards the end – I watched a lot of YouTube clips – he was carried onto the stage in a chair, and he just did a kind of bird with his hand. It was beautiful. Everything else had stopped, but there was still this dancing hand.

CM: Mmm!

NvdB: I know you’re still on top, but do you ever experience bodily limitations? Or have you adapted your dance to your body? With classical ballet there is pain all the time. Is there pain when you dance?

CM: There are different schools of this in butoh. The way that I have chosen to follow is something like this: I go to a point where I think my body is limited, and when I get to that point I cross the limit, just a little bit, just to recognize it. This is a dance for me: to be at the limit of the body and to be on one side and then the other. This limit changes all the time, of course, and I think it will move as I get older. The difference with ballet is that ballet is a lot about performance. It’s technique: your leg needs to be here, and then there. There is no point to it: this is how the piece is scored, and you have to follow it. With butoh there is no score. You do it with your body and you try to express – that’s not the right word, actually… you try to ‘open’ your inner space. So it’s not about emotion, it’s more about opening one’s inner space to the outside. Kazuo Ohno was never, ever doing something performative. Even when he was young. He began to dance when he was already forty, I think. Before that he was a professor of gymnastics, and it was wartime. So he never did anything performative. He was always just walking, and the wind was moving, and he was smiling, and it was something very much from within.

But I’m a European and I still have this idea of performance. Perhaps it’s also because I’m young and I like the adrenalin. But I like these kinds of limits because when I go to the limits, the way my body reacts is personal. Everyone has their own way of reacting to a limit, and I think this makes for a very authentic dance. For instance, I might get into a kind of mess with my body, with my legs under my arms, and when I say to myself ‘okay, now I open’ everything is blocked. I can’t move. At this moment the body itself will find a way to move… and walk… and it will be my way. If someone else adopted the same position, they would find another way to walk. So the limits are interesting.

NvdB: Before you go on stage, completely naked – you mentioned adrenalin, the need to perform, but do you also meditate to get into this state?

CM: Yes, a lot. When I am training I meditate every morning. I do yoga, all those things, and I prepare at length. It might seem strange, but I take a lot of time.

NvdB: When I look at the photographs or the clips, I think: yes, there has to be some mental preparation before you go into that.

CM: Yes, but not only before the show. It’s a way of life, I think.

NvdB: Are there things you don’t do, because they would disturb you? Like watching television?

CM: I don’t have a television.

NvdB: Is there anything that makes you say: no, that disturbs my way of being. “When I am on holiday I am still Zen”?

CM: (laughs)

NvdB: I think what I’m asking is: are you a butoh dancer every day, in everything you do?

CM: I tried to be like that when I was very young. But little by little I decided that this was a danger for my personality. So now I just live. But I have a pretty strong discipline.

NvdB: When did you set up your company?

CM: In 2004.

NvdB: Are there more dancers, or are you the principal dancer in the company? Are there people who are always around?

CM: It’s mainly solo. But in 2013 I began a duo with Alessandra Cristiani – she is in the exhibition too, she worked with Paolo – the first duo I ever choreographed. And for the next work there will be three of us on stage, with a singer and another dancer. So little by little I am starting to work with other dancers. I think I wanted to know where I was going really well before I felt I could work with other people. I’ve had a very strong collaboration with a light designer, because light is very important in my work; we’ve worked for five years together. But for the next piece we won’t be working together; I’m trying something else.

NvdB: Are a lot of people interested in butoh?

CM: More and more.

NvdB: I didn’t know anything about it before I curated this show. It’s very interesting and, of course, also very dark. People are shocked when they see a photograph and don’t know about butoh. Do you encounter these reactions too?

CM: It depends on their personality, of course. Tatsumi Hijikata called his dance ankuko butoh, which means ‘dance of darkness’, but we should read this darkness as meaning ‘unconscious’. It’s the part of us we don’t know, and that’s why it’s dark. It doesn’t mean that it’s completely dark, as we usually think of it in Europe; it’s just the part of us we don’t know. This can be scary, because sometimes it’s violent. It’s a lot of things: it fuses with sex, illness, death, madness. It’s very close to those dark things. But it can also be as Kazuo Ohno did it: simply facing a strong headwind. So it depends on the part we don’t know, and the part we allow ourselves to be danced. I know my dance is very dark in this way. A lot of people tell me they feel an anxiety watching me dance, which maybe comes from my personality.

NvdB: But you seem very sweet!

CM: (laughs) But my dark part, my unconscious – that’s full of spiders! (laughs)

NvdB: It’s also something you don’t see often. You don’t seem to have a limit in your art. You go to the limit of what you can do; that’s what I see. When I speak to an audience I protect myself by creating a persona, but you are naked, open and vulnerable. How do you do that?

CM: I experience a lot of loneliness. When I work I’m alone a lot, in the forest, or I go very far away to a country I don’t know, so I explore this kind of boundary. And out of this comes a lot of my relationship with my animality, with my sadness too sometimes, but also my hope. It’s not all dark. For my next piece I’m working with eroticism. So it’s a lot about desire, too. It can be dark, it can be light, it depends, but it’s always about obscure parts of ourselves that we don’t usually look at. I think this might be one of the ways I see my artist’s way, because I choose not to sit behind a desk in an office every day. I choose to go out and cross those boundaries. To show some people that inside of us there’s a kind of labyrinth we don’t know. This is the space I explore. Other artists are exploring other spaces. I think this is what artists are here to do.

NvdB: You saw the exhibition. Let’s get back to L’Aquila, to the room where you put your head into a table. Can you tell me how you – and the other dancers too, perhaps – were so good at sensing Paolo’s sadness and emotion. Translating them into moves. What happened there?

CM: First of all, when this earthquake happened I was living in Rome. I lived at the top of a building and I woke up because the roof was shaking. I was very frightened and I checked the internet to see what was happening. I saw that it was happening in L’Aquila. I knew that Paolo, who was a very good friend of mine, lived in L’Aquila, so I called him immediately and he told me the story. The earthquakes went on for the next two or three months. In L’Aquila the ground continued to shift for one or two years. We were frightened, because even if an earthquake is not big, Italian buildings are very old and not built to resist them; we knew it was very dangerous. Then Paolo told me he wanted to do this work… and I know he lost some friends.

We knew the city had been completely destroyed. We have some very close friends who had suffered serious damage, so when I entered the city I knew what to expect. Paolo had been telling me all that had happened; it wasn’t just the emotional effects on the people, because little by little the politics had become very disgusting too. There was huge confusion. So by the time we arrived we were emotionally loaded, I think. On the first day we were there he said let’s choose a place and when you think it’s okay we’ll do the photographs. First we had to sign a disclaimer to say that we assumed responsibility and if anything happened it would be our own problem. It was very dangerous everywhere.

I chose this room with the table. I think it was the first photo; after a few seconds I got naked and there was a big hole in the table and I put my head into it. When I saw the table it was very clear to me what to do, it was very important, I don’t know why.

NvdB: It’s one of the strongest images in the whole series. That’s why it’s in the exhibition. It just came over you?

CM: That one in the kitchen was made during our second shoot in L’Aquila. It was very difficult. This was three or four years after the disaster, so it was already the past for a lot of people, and only sadness remained. It was like: nothing is going to change here, the politicians do nothing, and this ruin will just stand here forever. So it was a darker atmosphere than it had been two years before.

In the kitchen Paolo said: let’s not go here, it’s too dangerous. So I said: no, let’s go. It was dangerous because of the wall and everything, and because there was broken glass everywhere. I always work naked and Paolo didn’t want me to go into this mess. So of course, I chose to go into it! (laughs)

NvdB: That’s what I said to myself the whole time: all this glass!

CM: In this kitchen it was everywhere. Paolo was saying: take care, take care!

NvdB: You weren’t wounded?

CM: No, I was careful. It wasn’t comfortable, but that was part of the game. It creates a kind of tension in the body, and a kind of attention. You don’t run around like a crazy person doing whatever you want. The space is much more important than you are. You’re just there, like a little rat, and you don’t do too much. You just find a real position in all the places. Respecting everything there.

This was especially true in some of the rooms, places where people had died. Paolo respected that, and I don’t think he did any photography in those rooms. Especially in the student building.

All those places were full of the memories of the people who lived there, especially the private buildings. I only worked in the public buildings; I couldn’t work in the private ones, it was too hard. Paolo asked us to choose in accordance with what we felt able to do, because every day the authorities said ‘Only this part is open’. So we went into that part.

NvdB: How do you feel now when you see the photos hanging here?

CM: The relationship with the room that you chose is very good, because it has a kind of Italian spirit somehow. L’Aquila has completely lost its Italian spirit. So we are working with memories, we are dancing the memories of the people of the city. This is a kind of dialogue with something lost, but not completely. I like your choice. Things can be very heavy in a dark atmosphere, and I don’t think that’s what Paolo wanted to do. He wanted to make a kind of testimony to what is happening and what is not happening there, and I don’t think he is the kind of photographer who wants dark scenes. I think the contrast is important.

NvdB: And the other work, with the octopus?

CM: This was a moment when I was working in a restaurant as a performer. I was dancing in relationship with food. In Italy octopus is a very common food. So I began to imagine doing something with the octopus, and later on I did the show. The photography came in between; I was already performing in the restaurant, but not yet on stage. So we went to a fishmonger who was close to the studio and said we wanted an octopus. He called a friend and said okay, he’d found one. Someone went to the harbour and came back in ten minutes with this huge octopus. So it was very fresh when it arrived, and we went straight into the studio and made this photo.

NvdB: An octopus is such a mysterious animal. When I saw the work I thought: perhaps we have more in common with them than we think! Because its eight arms operate independently. It’s a very strange creature. It keeps amazing me. Did you want to become one with the octopus, or feel what the octopus was like?

CM: By dancing with it I understood what was strange about the octopus. When you take it in your arms you might be holding your own intestines – something internal, or your organs, because it’s really slimy – but at the same time it’s very tough, very strong, so you might be holding this animal. You don’t know whether it’s from the inside or the outside. And it was huge. So dancing with it I didn’t know whether something was invading me from the outside, and would strangle me – or whether something from inside me was getting out, as if I wanted to eject some part of myself. The struggle was in the relationship I had with this octopus. This struggle was very important. When I performed this piece in Tokyo people immediately said: have you seen Hokusai? And I remembered this picture by Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife: a woman with an octopus, and it’s completely erotic. And I say, of course: this is the same feeling. In the picture the octopus is swallowing her, but in a very erotic way. And I was struggling with the octopus… but it was ultimately the same kind of feeling, of being invaded by something from outside or invading a space with my own inner side.

NvdB: Do you see some kind of universal bond between flamenco and butoh? Something that unites them?

CM: I think so. They are linked by energy.

NvdB: How can dance do that?

CM: Because dance uses the body, the language of the body, which is a universal language. Well, that’s not quite true – as I said earlier, I don’t say I’m a butoh dancer because I’m not Japanese. There are some rules. But when the body is dancing freely – like when you see a baby dancing – the rules get ignored. I think Japanese babies dance just like African babies or European ones… I think the body wants to express something. Just as we all scream in the same way, as children we can all dance in the same way. Then we learn rules, and the bodies become different. But when I see this little girl, I think something within her is deeply butoh. In some butoh dancers – like Takateru Kudo – something is deeply flamenco, a kind of fire, a relationship with the ground. As dancers I think all of us are looking for a kind of language, like music, because music is completely universal. And I think dance is the same as music.
Camille Mutel