Peter Greenaway/Anne Therése de Keersmaker

1995, Beta SP C 6 min PAL
Realisation: Lutz Gregor
Co-Autorin: Ulrike Burgwinkel
Produziert vom ZDF für die Sendung ‚Apropos Tanz‘

PETER GREENAWAY on the exposing of the body in film and on stage and his collaboration with belgian choreographer Anne Therèse de Keersmaker on the dance film ‚ROSA‘

The interview was made for german tv station ZDF May 19th 1995 in Strasburg
Das Gespräch führte Lutz Gregor für das Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen (ZDF) für die Sendung ASPEKTE am 19. Mai 1995 in Straßburg

Lutz Gregor: What was your interest to work with Anne Therèse de Keersmaker as a choreographer?

Peter Greenaway: I suppose the origins of the wish to work with a choreographer would go back a long way in my cinema. Maybe I might talk about them for a very long time. I was trained as a painter and I suppose my primary interest certainly when I was in art school was essentially figures in a landscape and the people I admired I suppose would have been people like Claude Lorraine, Poussin, de la Francesca, people who for the most part used the whole length of the figure. It’s been a tendency I suppose of cinema language to continually crop the figure, to cut American crop underneath the leg etc. and a desire for psycho-drama, which is supposed to draw you in, so we’ve developed very largely the cinema of medium shots and close-ups where there had always been a wide shot. Now that wide shot obviously corresponds to a theatrical proscenium arch overall view where there is no desire to crop. And even in a movie like the „Draftman’s Contract“ there is a great use of the relationship of people from head to tow circulating, moving around one another admittedly in a landscape situation. So the „Draftman’s Contract“ is very much a figures in a landscape movie.

I don’t have any training as a dancer, I do not think like a choreographer, but I’m certainly very much aware of the way in which, if you play with shallow stage spaces you have to relate the figures to the surroundings in a satisfactory architectural way. This I take to be the business of dance, choreography as its widest, as its most catholic (?) approach. And I think from film to film and it certainly became very important for me in a film I made called „The cook, the thieve, his wife and her lover“ which is very much playing with very big architectural spaces in which figures move. And I need to find some way to discipline those so that we can abstract something which is not anecdotal, which has a universality to it. And also in „Prospero’s Books‘ – „Prospero’s Books“ is a reworking of Shakespeare’s „The Tempest“ and inside „The Tempest“ is a mask sequence – the whole play is supposed to be the celebration of a betrothal, it’s a marriage ceremony – so it’s very much about processions, the use of ceremonial space, ritualized space.
For a long time I’ve certainly been interested in Roman Catholic processions in the activity of the theatrical use of drama inside the ceremonies of the church – the priest at the altar, the entrance of the choir, the exit and the organization of the church space. That’s why in „The cook, the thieve, his wife and her lover“, although it’s about restaurants, the whole space is devised like a church with the altar being the centre table where most of the drama happens.

So I needed to be able to communicate with somebody whose first intention was to consider the disciplinary action of figures in the space. I’d seen Anne Theresa de Keersmaker’s work on British television, on Channel Four. She’d actually made a series of films with a producer I once worked with and I was most amazed at her incredible sense of modernism, that she obviously had great disciplines in background in the whole history of dance, but she was undoubtedly making concerns about the here and now, the present. And also I did find, and I have to admit this, that her dance is very, very sexy. There is a great sexual robustness about it.

LG: Sexy or erotic?

PG: Both of those things. I would use the word sexy, not just erotic, and I would use it in a movie sense rather than in a film sense. I think the reason for that is pretty self evident. Most of the dance I saw was done entirely by females and the male was never present and it was a great frankness and explicitness about the sense of image she used.
I actually made an approach to her to work with me on projects even before ‚Prospero’s Books‘. In the end either through her commitments or through the circumstances we did’nt collaborate on this film and the choreographer we alternatly used was Karine Saporta. So she was responsible for the choreography in that film. But also, if I could also say, another big important element was the desire to use Michael Clark to play Caliban, a character of great physicality and great eroticism again of a different nature and I suppose the combination of the two sets of choreography are part and parcel of the way in which we utilized the figures in that film. And then strangely after I initially had asked Anne Therèsa to be my collaborator then a little later on, she asked me whether we would like to collaborate on that little vignette, that piece which subsequently became ‚Rosa‘.

LG: Was the choreography ‚Rosa‘ written for stage and adapted by you for the camera or was it made originally for the cinematic space ?

PG: Well, no, I’m sorry to disappoint you on these things. I think the film ‚Rosa‘ is not as pure as you would like it to be. I think the social circumstances was that one of her dancers, a Japanese dancer, was temporarily going to leave the company for two or three years. I think she was gonna go back to Tokyo to join her husband and have a child. I don’t think it was a time of complete severage of the two, the choreographer from the dancer, but there was gonna be a space. And Anne Therese had devised a special piece of choreography just for her almost as a farewell present.
And I think that was in the early days when Anna Theresa was also negotiating for a special position at the Munt in Brussels. So I’m quite certain that Anne Therese had devised in practice in rehearsal rooms the whole peace with her. I don’t remember now whether in effect there had ever been a public performance, I’m not quite sure about that. And for a long time we discussed, Anne Therese and I discussed the possibilities of the ideal location where this should happen. And I think she’d had some knowledge of the opera house in Gent which was being refurbished, redecorated at the time and they did have this splendid assembly room which again for me was a throw-back to my enthusiasm for movies like „Last year in Marienbad“ which has the sensation of a very wide cinemascope screen and of course we used Sasha Vierny who was the cinematographer at „Last year in Marienbad“, who is my constant collaborator as a cineast, to put this together.
So I’ve said many times in public I think that every film I make is a hommage to „Last year in Marienbad“ which I think is one of the most intelligent films ever made, one of the only true films, a film that cannot be deconstructed back into its component parts. I’m constantly in admiration for that. So at the back of my head that was an echo, that film there. And then came the concern which I obviously had notification of before about the anxiety, if you like the almost impossibility of ever satisfactorily being able to film dance. Right at the center of that predicament there is an unresolvable situation.

LG: Which is?

PG: Well, I think it is to do with the fact that when you see dance you see it in its entirety, you see the two-dimensional patterns it makes, you appreciate the three-dimensional patterns it makes. And there is a way in which the eye both takes in the detail and the overall view all one at the same time. And the film, cinema is notoriously bad at simultaneity. It is very, very rare that you can create simultaneity in the cinema. You may remember in the 1930s there were occasional domestic comedies where the screen was split down in the middle and a man and woman were talking to one another on the telephone and you saw both of them, but you had the artificial device of a split screen which is very unsatisfactory. I tried in „Prospero’s Books“ to create simultaneity of action by not dividing the screen up laterally but laying one screen over the top of another so in fact you can see one action through another. That does create other complications of visual indigestion which is sometimes quite difficult to be comprehensible.

So to stop with that dilemma what do you do? I suppose you fall back on old conventional cinematic vocabulary of continuously using the wide shot, the medium shot and the close-up. The music of course was highly conducive to creating a structural situation. We wanted to have continuous dance. We didn’t want to come away from it and go back to it again. But there is no way that I could make the camera sympathetic to that particular activity so we had to envisage the notion of cuts. And again for easy viewing within the consensus of cinema vocabulary one would have to play with the vocabulary of being wide and being close and being very close indeed. The frustrations for me still exist although I’d like to think that there is a certain conformity and continuity about the film that is satisfactory. Every now and then in the film when we do make a cut it’s like an abrasion, it’s an uncomfortable moment, it’s a collapse of concentration which is very frustrating, because you cannot all the time appreciate the entirety of the visual details.

LG: When we did ‚Kontakt Triptychon‘, a dance film I made with choreographers and dancers from Tanzfabrik Berlin, we tried to solve this problem by using a steadycam in some parts. With a moving, a dancing camera you can keep the continuity of the movement and integrity of the body without cutting it into fragments and at the same time you can use different frames, different angels, different perspectives, all the cinematographic techniques to bring out the personality of the characters. Like this we could develop a more individual, a more psychological approach to the characters as on stage and respect the dance at the same time. But, of course, it needs a very well choreographed shot – especially if it is a long plansequence in one shot – and a lot of training of the cameraman.

PG: I have a great problem with that, because the hand-held camera is very subjective.
It involves the camera person in the activity. Now you and I know there have been various experiments on the stage where the video camera man has in life performance also filmed the dance to be part of the performance. In Amsterdam there was a series of activities like that. But I have always been very concerned about the frame, the hard edges and so I feel antipathetic to a hand-held camera. So as part of my vocabulary I have an even greater astringent problem of relating the frame to the activity within it.

LG: In our case it was possible for us to involve this kind of subjective camera, because I wanted these scenes to be watched from a voyeuristic view. Other parts of the film needed a more outside perspective on the characters and their dance and we created emotional intensity, dynamics and continuity of movement by cutting and in the montage. These two different approaches on filming dance created a interesting experience of visual and mental perception – very often the spectators felt more continuity and energy of the dance in the cutted sequences than in the plansequences with the moving camera which were not cutted and kept the entirety of the dance in its own, ‚real‘ rhythm.
This is very interesting when we consider the possibilities of ‚Physical Cinema‘.

You talked already about your interest in physicality, corporeality.
Compared to Anne Therese’s work I feel your approach to the body is very, very different.

PG: It used to be a joke to us. Anne Therese cannot stand the blood in my movies. She pushes it right away. Whereas for me the body is exciting for so many reasons not just for it’s external appearance but for its internality. So I’m interested in viscerality, corporeality, heaviness, weight, the fluids of the body. It’s in the shit, in the semen, in the blood and all the other fluids that go to make the composite necessariness of animal nature. And she never gets into that.

LG: Maybe that’s because in modern dance the movement of the body is very often seperated from its corporeality and the physical univers of the body. On the other hand there are choreographers who feel the fragmentation, the distortion of the body, how it is cut into pieces in modern society.
Wim Vandekeebus uses the same techniques on stage as on video, but with the edit he amplifys his attacks to the body.

PG: Again, there are all sorts of elaborate situations. I’m supposed to manufacture a very cerebral, intellectual cinema which is concerned with eclecticism and elitism. So that I often feel it’s most important for me to continually make my referent, my referring tour back to the body again, so that we don’t end up with a didactic, intellectual program. So there’s always a very strong stretch between my use of corporeality and the intellectuality that’s implied. So sometimes we deal with deeply melodramatic situations which are very, very physical like cannibalism, for example in „The cook and the thieve“, but it’s all done at a distance and at a remove contained in the frame. And that I would like to believe is the strength, is that stretch between the intellectual starts and the actual contents which is deeply emotionally corporeal.

LG: In ‚Prospero’s Books‘ or in ‚M is for Man, Music, Mozart‘ I think especially the electronical treatment of the video images create this distance by digital indigestion. Sometimes I feel sucked into the film because of so many new views on the human body which have never been shown in cinema before. On the other hand you push me away by all this kind of different digital layers, the speed of the images, because I really am not able any more to appreciate it or to open my awareness. So it is both, attraction and rejection..

PG: This is interesting because a lot of French intellectual critics have had great problems with some of my recent films, like ‚The Baby Of Macon‘, because they can’t reconcile the intellectual approach to the notion of the body and the sheer shall we say blood and gore approach, the sort of gutter concern, for the sheer mortality of the human spirit, of the human body. And of course the whole metaphor of „The cook, the thieve, his wife and her lover“ is very much about that. You know we have a mouth and we have an anus and the system goes round and round and round. And there are many connotations within the scriptology of the actual film that continue pushing this, pushing this all the time. So maybe it was strange that Anne Therese de Keersmaker and myself could possibly find some little ground on which to posit some notion of a collaboration.

LG: Maybe it was the same kind of purity you are looking for.

PG: I wouldn’t say purity but I’m looking for something that is stripped down that really tries to get rid necessarily I suppose of the clothes, intellectual clothes, physical clothes, emotional clothes.
The project we’re doing here now in Strasbourg…About 120 people have taken their clothes off for me and appeared in front of the camera entirely nude so that I can redress them in terms of post-television technology. We’re making a book called ‚100 allegories to represent the world‘. We’re taking all the archetypes of our present now and try to forge a relationship between the contemporary use of allegory and the sixteenth and seventeenth century use of allegory. You know we’re not in the days when butchers look like butchers, and bakers look like bakers, and dancers look like dancers. We’re all living in a modern, totally anonymous world now. We all go round in disguise and I’m very interested in that sense of identity.

LG: You have any dance experience ?

PG: No. I would like to.
Another thing I discussed with many choreographers is why we hide bound in this conventional situation where dancers are aged between 14 and 28. Their lives seem to be over by the time they’re 35 and fat people and thin people and dwarfs and giants and cripples are excluded from this. In „Prospero’s Books“ I tried very hard to show the whole teatro mundi, the whole theatre of the world brought into this great physical world that we inhabit.

LG: These are the limits of stage dance. In western culture it shows only a very limited part of this physical world, a very reduced experience. That’s why very often I don’t feel represented in modern dance. When a dancer is experienced enough to tell through the body something about the hole range of physical and spirituell experience from birth to death they are not allowed to go on stage any more. That’s very poor, because it’s artifical.
But that’s another chance for a ‚Physical Cinema‘, to go beyond the tabus of stage dance and to show this univers of the body in different states, ages, personal and social conditions.

PG: It’s a very interesting subject-matter, there are lots of ramifications which are spread out in many different areas.

LG: Yes, also the genetic design of the bodies and digital design of images of the body. All this would be very interesting.

PG: Have you seen a film I made called „Death in the Seine“? which is all about necrophilia. I had the most extraordinary experience yesterday. There is an anatomical museum here and there’s 200 bodies all lying in formaldehyd some of them 20 years old, some of them died two years ago. They’re people who have given their body to science and they’re all in these tanks waiting for dissection in the big dissection department there. And you can swallow hard but it is also an extraordinary privilege. Since I constantly make images of death here is real death laid out and displayed.

LG: I am preparing a new piece with Mark Tompkins, an american choreographer based in Paris, and it will be about aging and death, erotism and pornography, obscenity and vulnerability, what can be seen, what can be shown of the body. We will work with old people and also with medical and anatomical images. I’m looking especially for the images we have in mind about death trying to find a view on it which makes it acceptable.
Is there any possibility to go to this anatomical museum?

PG: Well, you’ll certainly find them there. It is extraordinary.
I have a great fan here who came to my films and said he knew I was interested in anatomy and he invited me. So it was a personal invitation. But it was an extraordinary experience.

A project I was involved in quite recently called „Out of Bed“ (?) was about necrophilia. Great taboo sensitive subject. But I think it was just incredibly difficult to do because I wanted to shoot the whole film in the dark and all the actors were over 65. So it was very difficult to raise the money to make a movie like that.

LG: Thank you very much.

PG: O.K. My pleasure.