Remaining Open: Iván Pérez

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Spanish choreographer, Iván Pérez’s love of dance began at age ten. And it is because of this unwavering love that, this autumn, Pérez will cross the Atlantic and travel to Chicago, where he will re-stage “Flesh,” a piece he originally created in 2011 for Netherlands Dance Theater II. A former member of NDT II and NDT I, Pérez will set his work on eight dancers from River North Dance Chicago for their 25th Anniversary season, which takes place on October 10th and 11th at the Harris Theater; you can buy tickets here and should do so soon, as the performances are sure to be well-attended. If you’re unable to be present, Pérez’s website hosts video excerpts of NDT II’s performance of “Flesh” that you can watch here. Regardless of if you see it live or via streaming, I think you will find yourself inspired and awestruck by “Flesh”’s gorgeous complexity: beauty has that effect.

Pérez is currently Associate Choreographer with the Dutch production house Korzo and has created new works for acclaimed companies such as The Netherlands Dance Theater I and II, Compañía Nacional de Danza, Ballet Moscow, Balletboyz, and Nacional Ballet of Cuba, among many others. He was an NDT company member for eight years, where he performed works created by some of the most influential choreographers of our time such as Jiri Kylian, Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, and Mats Ek. Contacted by world renowned Frank Chaves to set his extraordinary multidisciplinary work “Flesh” in Chicago on RNDC, this will be Pérez’s first time presenting his choreography in the United States, an experience for which he is both excited and honored to partake.

“Flesh” uses poetry, sculpture, dance, music, lighting and recorded audio to achieve an undeniably powerful message, one whose multimodality allows for a wealth of interpretations.  I believe this is largely a result of Pérez’s movement technique, which he understands as shifting “from recognizable actions to pure dynamics and imagery. I examine the power of atmosphere to communicate a feeling through sensorial expression instead of an understandable representation. It is necessary that the work remains open.” And “Flesh” most certainly does. As a poet and dance maker, I’m also drawn to “Flesh” because of the way in which Pérez has actualized Keith Douglas’s poem “The Knife” off the page, an application that makes me reevaluate the way I’m making my own work.

I am grateful Pérez had time to be interviewed before he makes his voyage to Chicago. We are all very fortunate to be sharing the world with this insightful and talented artist who’s unafraid to follow his intuition, to remain open.

Can you discuss the multidisciplinary mode of “Flesh,” the combination of set design, poetry, music, etc. ? How did you decide to combine all of these elements?

“Flesh” started as a very small image: the knife stuck on stage, a symbol. When I read Keith Douglas’s poem “The Knife,” it suggested a depth that fascinated me. I felt that the music of Arvo Part and Eric Whiteacre shared something with the essence of Douglas’s poem, and so their music became a powerful necessity. I used audio of a voice reading “The Knife” because I wanted the audience to experience the immediacy of the performance, for them to experience everything in the here, now. There is also photography at the end of the piece, which appears majestically and covers the whole stage. The physicality of the image is in juxtaposition to the fact that some things in life are intangible.

I just could not refuse any of the elements. They all help to achieve the message I’m trying to relay. Because of technology, performing arts have evolved into a complex entity with multiple possibilities. Depending on the project, working in a multidisciplinary manner can help communicate a message in its full potential, which I definitely believe is the case for “Flesh.”

I know you have a description of the work “Flesh” on your website. Could you briefly explain its significance here? How has its meaning changed since you first created the piece?

When I first created the piece, I could only think of my parents Pepa and Jaime, whose life, love, and death have been my biggest inspirations.When the piece was first performed by Nederlands Dans Theater II
 in the Lucent Dans Theater in 2011, I dedicated the work to them in the program book. Now I’m able to describe the piece with perspective and talk about its universality.

The work is still today what it was yesterday. “Flesh” is a product of my personal experiences. But I also believes it communicates the fact that every person goes through life creating and leaving traces of themselves that continue to have an impact on the lives of others, even after that person is gone. We continue to live after flesh in the minds of others, in their memories.

Many artists credit their parents as a source of artistic tension that informs their work. Please tell us more about how your parents’ “life, love, and death” have inflected your work. And, on a somewhat related note, how does nation and heritage play out for you as a Spaniard in a Dutch company (who performs globally and will soon set a “European” piece in the US)? 

When I think about their life, love, and death, I cannot help but indirectly refer to a whole generation of people that, just like Keith Douglas, have experienced political turmoil and the effects of war. In the case of my parents, this was the the post-Spanish Civil War area, during the 1940s. Their passing away made me think about the subjective nature of life and memory.

Today, being a Spanish choreographer who is European based and working internationally, allows me to open a more global dialogue about different issues through dance.  Where I come from, Spain, has unquestionably influenced my experiences and my artistic point of view. However, I have no idea how these characteristics will impact its new audience in the United States.

Can you speak about your choreographic process? How does the idea for a piece first come to you? How do you go from that idea to making a performance-ready piece?

Usually I first follow an intuition, which is often abstract and philosophical. Most of my work connects to human and emotional intricacies. The aesthetics of a piece are built in relation to this essence. The form is the next phase, where I start to research towards physicality.

Before coming to the studio, I gather information and ideas that will provoke actions or explorations; this process slowly reveals the actual physical material with which I will be able to work. Once in the studio, the build up to the piece always has a clear direction of unfolding. Working in collaboration is important to me so I involve the dancers and other artists participating in the process of making it. The final step in my choreographic process is to make sure there is a sense of clarity and honesty in the piece because I believe it’s important for a work to transcend the studio in order to enrich an audience.

How has your choreographic process changed throughout your career?

In artistic development as in life, the only constant is change. It is an evolving process of recreation, challenging one’s own patterns and throwing oneself into unknown territories. There are certain components that become emphasized throughout time, and others that disappear. Having a higher awareness of human interaction and a healthier perception of myself is what has ultimately allSRZ_6245_1owed me to make new decisions in terms of changing my choreographic process.

I know this is your first time setting a piece in the United Sates. Can you speak a bit about this opportunity and your process?

Historically speaking, a large part of modern dance and its influence in both dance and other art forms is based in the United States. As a dancer, I have had the opportunity to perform in many U.S. states with NDT I and II, and the Harris Theater in Chicago was one of them. Having the opportunity to come back presenting my own work is very exciting and I am looking forward to seeing how the work is received.

Setting an existing work can be challenging. However, I like to view it as a new possibility. The process of learning the piece gives new life to it through the new performers. They need to embody the work, understand it, and most importantly, own it. I have set pieces from Jiri Kylian and other choreographers before and it has always been an interesting and exhilarating challenge. This is the first time I will be setting my own piece on another company; I feel very open about the fact that it will most likely transform and become a new piece, alive and fresh. The form can alter in this way because the intent is what lies underneath it.

American cultural imperialism isn’t generally talked about in positive terms, but you credit the US as big source of, I assume, positive influence on modern dance. Could you discuss how you see this transoceanic conversation playing out in Europe and in your work in Europe. If you will, nuance your assessment of US modern dance’s “large part” in European modern dance, and share with us some of the problematics (if you find any) and benefits of this cultural flow and conversation. How do you anticipate setting “Flesh” in Chicago will add to this conversation? 

I believe that the great impulses that innovative artists like Martha Graham, Isadora Duncan, or Merce Cunningham used should be inherently considered as valuable. Following people like Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, and Steve Paxton has been extremely valuable to me because of their formal and political tendencies. Steve Paxton and his development of contact improvisation has been extremely influential worldwide and is still affecting choreographers’ thinking and questioning dance and its possibilities as an artistic mode of expression. This year, Steve Paxton has been awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Dance at the Dance Biennale 2014. For me, being in the US  presenting “Flesh” will be a way to participate in the cultural conversation that has been centered there for some time. And hopefully, I will be able to add to or influence it in one way or another.

What are your next projects coming this season?

My next projects are creating a new full-length work for Balletboyz whose theme centers on war and the soldier’s experience; it will premiere in January 2015 at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London. I will also be creating my fourth full-length production titled ‘Exhausting Space’ in which I will be dancing. It will premiere in February 2015 at Cadance Festival in Korzo Theater in The Hague. I will also be setting ‘Kick The Bucket’, a piece a created in 2011, on the Malta National Dance Company. I’m looking forward to all of them.

*Photograph from “Flesh” courtesy Daisy Komen; Choreographer’s photograph courtesy Luis Rios.

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