In conversation with Peeping Tom

Words by Giordana Patumi.

I had the opportunity to interview the two directors and choreographers of the Belgian dance theatre collective Peeping Tom, who will make their US and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) debut with 32 rue Vandenbranden, winner of Britain’s prestigious Olivier Award for Best Dance Performance 2015.

Founded in 2000 by Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier, the Brussels-based company’s trademark style is a hyper-realistic aesthetic in common settings such as a garden, living room, cellar, two snow-clad trailer homes and a decrepit theatre.

Gabriela Carrizo started out as a dancer and choreographer in the ‘Ballet de l’Université’ in Cordoba. At the age of 19 she moved to Brussels and in 1993 she created her first solo, et tutto sara d’ombra et di caline. She has since collaborated with artists and companies including Alain Platel, les ballets C de la B, Koen Augustinians, and Needcompany.

Franck Chartier started dancing at the age of 11. His mother sent him to study at the Rosella Hightower School in Cannes. At the age of 19 he left for Brussels and joined the Ballet du XXème Siècle of Maurice Béjart and this was followed by collaboration with Angelin Preljocaj on a production for the Paris Opera, Le spectre de la rose.

Question: Gabriela and Franck, thank you for answering our questions. So, November will see the US premiere of 32 rue Vandenbranden. What would you like to say to your audiences that might have never seen one of your works?

Answer: We try to create an experience, appealing to your emotions and sensations. You shouldn’t expect a pure dance piece, or try to make sense of it rationally. Through the visual and the emotional, we try to bring dance theatre closer to the audience. Also, there isn’t ‘one’ correct experience. We’re blurring boundaries, and we want to offer different possibilities to see and understand the show. That makes it very personal and connected to the human experience.

Q. How do you integrate 32 rue Vandenbranden with your current trilogy Vader (father), Moeder (mother) and Kid (child); is there something similar or very different between those works?

A. For us, 32 rue Vandenbranden was the first creation where we explored cinematographic tools in the theatre. Things like zooming in on a character, or something happening on stage, playing with time, the narrative, the scenography and dramaturgy….

In the pieces that followed, like the current trilogy, we continued to explore and develop these tools.

Besides, we focus on personal stories, and that is also present both in 32 rue Vandenbranden and in the current trilogy. In 32 rue Vandenbranden, for example, we zoom in on this microcosm, these human relationships between the inhabitants of this community. In the trilogy, this appears differently. In each show, we create a different context, and we observe what happens with these people in this specific context.

Finally, there is also a sort of trajectory that we seem to follow. We started with a first trilogy, focusing on the garden (Le Jardin, 2002), the salon (Le Salon, 2004) and the basement (Le Sous Sol, 2007). Then we put an address to this house with 32 Rue Vandenbranden, and the current trilogy is focusing on the figures themselves of the father, the mother and the child.

Q. Your old trilogy is no longer played but 32 rue Vandenbranden has been on tour for more than 10 years now. Why do you think it is still relevant?

A. The themes that we address are quite universal and are not connected to a specific time. In that sense, they stay relevant even for an audience today. Apart from that, the piece is a living thing, and it evolves with the dancers, their age, physicality, voice, experiences.

Q. How do you keep the same pleasure in running the piece?

A. Every time, as a performer, you should live in the moment, as if it were the first time that you performed the piece. That makes it fun to do. As directors, we give notes every time; we change little things, which is part of our job to keep it real, to keep developing it. It’s not just the execution of the same movements every time; it’s about the human experience behind it.

Image: Herman Soorgeloos

Q. What is 32 rue Vandenbranden about?

A. There are many different elements in the piece. It’s about loneliness and isolation, about losing yourself in your thoughts and your fears. At the same time, this brings about difficulties to communicate with each other, and can lead to misunderstandings. We also like the contradiction between the open space which offers a sense of liberty, and the loneliness and smallness of the characters.

Furthermore, the characters in 32 rue Vandenbranden are victims, stuck in conflicts, between each other, but also with themselves, and they are trying to figure out how to live with this.

Finally, another important element in the show is the distance with your roots. We both are the youngest children in our families, and we see that we are the ones who moved away the furthest from our home. But the question is how to deal with this distance, with the fact that you are so far from your roots? In this piece, two foreigners are arriving in this community, and in a sense they are experiencing the same: they left their family, their origins.

Q. How do you translate these ideas into movement?

A. When we start to create, we always start from the space or the set. This offers the base for the performers to look for material. The space influences the movement, of course. Imagine that you’re in a cold space. That will influence the movement and the physicality. 

Our way of working integrates many different parts of the human being, we start with what we call the pensée en mouvement (thoughts in movements). We don’t create abstract movements, but the movements are linked to what a person feels, what they are thinking, imagining. We try to form the reality of this character through movement. But we also work with all expressions of the body: movement, voice, theatricality, etc. Sometimes you focus more on one or the other, based on a necessity for what you want to express. For example, sometimes we feel that something should be expressed through text.

We also start with realistic images, but these can then develop different meanings. Just like an image in poetry, there’s no one clear way to read it, different associations are possible. And we try to express other ways of being, other emotions, things that you cannot name or that usually are invisible. 

When doing the physical research, we ask our performers to go into places where they’ve never been before, the spaces ‘we don’t know’. This makes the creation also very personal for the performers. They are creators, they add their background and physicality to the piece. 

Q. For young and emerging choreographers and artists what piece of advice or suggestion would you like to give?

A. Don’t try to fit into predetermined patterns, but start from your intuition. Ask yourself what you want to tell, and keep developing and questioning yourself. And take time to work alone on something, to develop it yourself, to find your voice. 

32 rue Vandenbranden comes to BAM on Wednesday 20th November. Get your tickets here!

Header image: Jesse Willems.