raimund hoghe: difference is his theme

erin brannigan: choreographer raimund hoghe, sydney festival

Raimund Hoghe, Lorenzo de Brabandere, The Rite of Spring

Raimund Hoghe, Lorenzo de Brabandere, The Rite of Spring

Raimund Hoghe, Lorenzo de Brabandere, The Rite of Spring


“My body is not the usual body; you don’t see this kind of body often onstage. I have a hunchback. I’m not very tall” (in Bonnie Marranca, “Dancing the sublime,” PAJ, May, 2010). Born in post-war Germany, Hoghe has remarked that he is lucky to have just missed the persecution of the physically imperfect by the Nazis. Perhaps it is this brush with fate that has made him a quietly political artist, highlighting injustices of all kinds. He asserts, “I don’t believe in nations, I believe in human beings.”

It misrepresents Hoghe to suggest that his work is weighted down with commentary on sinister social ills; his choreographies are as often light and humorous as they are dark and tragic. But his underlying political commitment to inclusion and diversity began in written portraits published in the German newspaper Die Zeit. This interest in individual lives continues, either through choreographed portraits of his heroes such as Maria Callas (36, Avenue Georges Mandel [2007]) and Jewish soprano Joseph Schmidt (Meinwärts [1994]) or in dialogue with other dancers who often provide both inspiration and act as a physical counterpoint.

I spoke to Raimund Hoghe 10 days after the premiere of a new piece, Cantata, about an earlier work, Sacre—The Rite of Spring (2004), which has a season in Sydney Festival 2013. I first saw Hoghe perform Dialogue with Charlotte (1998) in 1999, a duet with performer Charlotte Engelkes that played on the contrast between Hoghe and the tall, glamorous woman. One image that still circulates from this work shows Hoghe lying across Engelkes’ lap pretending to swim. This ‘danced dialogue’ format also applies to Sacre—The Rite of Spring. The piece is a duet with dancer Lorenzo De Brabandere whom Hoghe first met when working on Young People, Old Voices (2002) with a group of 12 young performers. Hoghe says, “Lorenzo was 18 and not trained as a dancer but had this incredible youth and energy—and I am the opposite.” As Arnd Wesemenn has put it, “Difference is his theme” (The biography of the hump: Raimund Hoghe, 1999).

Another strong thread in Hoghe’s work is music—there are the already mentioned portraits of music stars but also Hoghe’s repeated mantra: “Just listen to the music. It will tell you what to do.” Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring (1913) featured in Young People, Old Voices and a dedicated work for De Brabandere and Hoghe emerged out of the younger dancer’s affinity with the score:

“From the very first meeting when I played the music Lorenzo didn’t really know, he was performing like he knew the music already, like it was in his body already which was very strange to see. From the first moment he felt very close to the music.”

Hoghe says that the duet is normally performed to a recording of Leonard Bernstein performing Stravinsky’s piano score (for the Sydney Festival the music will be performed live by Alain Franco and Guy Vandromme), and that Bernstein had said that “the music is really about the sexual awakening and energy of young people.” It is Hoghe’s ability to filter such deeply personal points of reference with an intense formalism that has seen him pioneer both the ‘conceptual’ dance genre (followed by Boris Charmatz, Xavier Le Roy and Jérôme Bel) and the ‘historical turn’ so pronounced in contemporary dance currently. It is his history as dramaturg for Pina Bausch from 1979 to 1989 that appears to have developed his sharp eye for a compressed choreographic structure. He says:

“For me the subject comes during the process. I watched the performance of Cantata on video and was very surprised at how clear it was, very clear and simple. I like to see very clear images, a stage without decoration, to see the personality of the dancers, the music is there, the light is there—very simple but good lighting. There are not 20 lighting cues. So then you understand something through simplicity—maybe you don’t need much more…I try to create my universe with simple things. With Sacre it’s a bucket of water and a plant in the back.”

This follows Bausch’s intention to spotlight not the movement itself, but the forces that produce movement. The question here is not ‘what dance’ but ‘why dance.’ Hoghe’s aesthetic of reduction also spotlights how little you need to evoke a world of ideas around a moving body. Simple walking patterns and repeated gestural motifs are the main substance of his dances and more often than not last the length of a song.

Regarding his interest in the history of 20th century dance, he says, “something in contemporary dance is lost or missed and I wanted to remember something of this dance history.” This is inextricably tied to his interest in music. He speaks of music as a trigger for cultural and collective memory.

“It was important for me to put [Sacre—The Rite of Spring] into the context of Stravinsky and his statements about the work and how the people reacted. They couldn’t hear the music anymore because people were shouting. So I put the work in the context of the history of the music as I have done with [Debussy’s] Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, [Ravel’s] Bolero and [Stravinsky’s] The Firebird. Music connects directly with the memory of [choreographers such as] Nijinsky, Bausch and Béjart. So I work with this context of history—not to repeat but to follow something before.”

Elsewhere I have described Raimund Hoghe’s work as “highly formalist…where humanity seeps from the body” (RT105). And his body is at the centre as a rich starting point that commands attention in a very different way from the virtuosic moves of highly trained dancers. He has often cited singers as a point of reference for his movement, finding that the most iconic singers often have one movement for each song that forms a gestural motif. In a series of afternoon talks at Montpellier Danse 2011, Hoghe showed footage of Edith Piaf, European pop star Dalida and Callas, asking us to watch them as dancers. Part of his process is to share these performances with his dancers.

“It’s also about the dancers having a strong personality. They can do very little things and it’s interesting. You don’t have to jump or do spectacular things to impress people. It’s about their ability to connect to the music. This is something very strong for me; that they all peform with the music. They don’t do it for me, they don’t do it for the audience, they do it for the music only, for the art. They are fantastic people and I love to work with them. I am very surprised that little things can express so much, connected with personality and simplicity. This is the same with my writing—it is very simple. I like Anton Chekov very much. His writing is very clear and simple. Reduction is very important, so you arrive at the important things. In Chekov there is no decoration.”

My final question to Hoghe is about the easy mobility of his work, not only practically, due to his minimal approach to design, but conceptually and aesthetically—the invitation to enter into and engage with a work through familiarity with music and gesture, but also the easy step in his work from the simple to the profound.

“It’s not money that makes a performance strong…It’s important to not be dependent on the materials of set design but on honesty, form and the music. Music is so strong—I want to share this with people, that finally we don’t need so many different things.”

Raimund Hoghe, Sacre—The Rite of Spring, Carriageworks, Sydney, Jan 5-9; Sydney Festival 2013, Jan 5-27;

* * *

other sydney festival highlights

Legs on the Wall presents Symphony, commissioned and recently premiered by NORPA in Lismore, performed to a live electric guitar rendition of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (see review). Branch Nebula corrall skateboarders and BMX bikers in a suburban skateboard park in Concrete and Bones Sessions (see the RealTime TV video interview). The great maker of theatre as magical installation, Heiner Goebbels, will stage Eraritjaritjaka with French actor André Wilms, live video by Belgian filmmaker Bruno Deville, Amsterdam’s Mondrian String Quartet and Goebbel’s own design. See Janice Muller’s 2004 interview with the artist in RealTime 63, p8 about Eraritjaritjaka, its theme (isolation and language) and surprising devices. From the Perth creators of The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer there’s It’s Dark Outside (RT110). Ludger Engel’s Semele Walk, a substantially pared-back 80-minute version of Handel’s opera, will be staged as a catwalk parade costumed by Vivienne Westwood. This curious crossover will doubtless attract much attention. Handel fans though are well-used to radically dressed but musically faithful accounts of his operas over the last two decades. There’s a huge music program of all kinds and a promising performance program over a long weekend at Carriageworks with 45 showings by nine groups, some ticketed, some free—a great opportunity to enjoy a live-in festival event. Not to be missed will be Sydney-based visual theatre group Erth’s Murder. Using puppets and performers it’s inspired by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads, directed by Scott Wright, written by Raimondo Cortese and choreographed by Kate Champion. RT

RealTime issue #112 Dec-Jan 2012 pg. 4

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 December 2012