Longread / Lisbeth Gruwez & Josse De Pauw: The pitbull and the dancing head

The paths of the dancer and choreographer Lisbeth Gruwez and the theatre-maker Josse De Pauw had never previously crossed. But they had already admired each other from the darkness of the audience. Next year they will both be presenting work at the KVS: the woman of the body and the man of the word. Sufficient reason for an initial conversation:

JDP: It had been a long time since a production had moved me so much as your It’s going to get worse and worse and worse, my friend. I’m very fond of the sort of concentration with which everything is done. I like watching concentrated people. During the athletic events at the Olympics I forget the results, but I like watching all those various forms of concentration on the field. In the theatre you can watch it live, and I find that a privilege.

LG: I’m not radical for the sake of it, but I won’t deviate from the ingredients to be presented. I get my teeth into them like a pitbull and get everything out of it that I can.
Now, for We’re pretty fuckin’ far from okay, I’ve been working for five weeks on the movements in Hitchcock’s The Birds. I’m studying them down to the finest detail, and in the end it becomes a language that I speak. I want to arrive at a sort of rat race between two people who are afraid and see all sorts of threats that they are always trying to avoid, whereas there’s actually nothing wrong.

MB: We’re pretty fucking’ far from okay is part of your triptych of the ecstatic body. It’s a study of fear, just as It’s going… was a study of the body in trance and AH/HA of the laughing body. You observe and study the body constantly.

LG: Observing body language is fun. I find movements that people recognise actually more interesting than virtuoso movement. By mastering, intensifying and repeating them they assume a certain abstraction, but it does not become alienated dance that you watch as you would a circus or a gymnastics competition. The interesting thing about dance is not what you do, but how you do it.

MB: You too have always had an affinity with dance.

JDP: I put that down to the fact that my parents were real ballroom dance fans. They went dancing every week. It was sacred to them. Before they left, they moved the table aside at home and practised. After work, my pa bought singles at Maison Bleu in Nieuwstraat and then they all went on the record-player – ten singles, three minutes each. And we, the children, learned to dance on their feet. I learned the foxtrot on my mother’s feet. And had a lot of fun. I retained an awareness that dance is a language that has much more to do with feeling and rhythm than with meaning. Together with music, dance still offers a fine compensation for someone who later became a man of words.

LG: When I saw you in An Old Monk, it was confirmed that you have a dancing mind. In fact my previous production started out from that idea too: the ritual of putting records on for each other. Maarten (ed.: Van Cauwenberghe, musician, composer and Gruwez’s permanent partner in their company, Voetvolk) puts on Bob Dylan records and I dance to them. People hardly do that anymore. We all listen alone, through the computer.

MB: As well as appearing in your own production, you are also in Michael De Cock’s Odysseus, een zwerver komt thuis (Odysseus. A wanderer returns) at the KVS this season. The only woman amidst 24 war heroes.

LG: I can’t say much about it yet. The intention is that I should represent the women in the Odyssey – including Penelope waiting at home – and dance a response to all that male verbal ferocity. I may do something with the videos Lili Dujourie once made in hotel rooms where she lies on beds in poses that refer to women in paintings. Perhaps I can make those images move and link them together to make an elongated thread of art history.

MB: By coincidence, or not, the 2016-17 programme includes a number of productions related to heroes or heroism. Most explicitly in your monologue De Helden (The Heroes).

JDP: I’m writing that piece for myself and will appear on stage with Brecht Beuselinck, my regular technician at LOD, who also trained as a musician. Dominique Pauwels has written music modules and soundscapes. I may write my script in modules too, so I can perform them in a different order and can improvise together with Brecht. I have also asked the historian Sophie de Schaepdrijver to feed me with material on the First World War, the last war in which soldiers actually fought man to man and what is called heroism still played an important part.

It will all revolve around the question of what a hero really is. What happens in that fraction of a second when someone decides to jump into the water to save somebody? I have wondered all my life whether I would do that, and I still hope that the problem will never present itself. I asked Dominique to write music for that moment. To my mind that is the musical theme for the whole piece. To protect myself a little, I just think that, in that fraction of a second, the hero no longer reflects, and it is his body that takes the decision. According to what I have read, at moments like that you get very close to genetics. It may well be that some people are more genetically inclined to jump into the water than others. So do we still have to call it courage? But it could just as easily be about those blokes who blow themselves up to become a hero. Or about the hero in ancient Japanese culture who, after his act of heroism, was expected to put on his white kimono, wash his sword with sake and throw himself in the water. Only when the last ripple had disappeared from the surface of the water was everything again as it should be. The hero had to vanish because the community was not capable of living with exceptions, even though it needed heroes in exceptional situations. The samurai were trained for this purpose and to some extent so were the knights in our part of the world.

It is also about the word itself and the extent to which we seem to need all sorts of heroes. Perhaps it is so that at a certain moment we can drag them down again. In fact a hero doesn’t always know that he’s a hero. There are people whom we say have displayed heroic behaviour, but who themselves thought they had simply done what they had to, or what they were accustomed to do.

MB: As well as talking about heroes, later on at the KVS you will also be looking at mankind in your play De Mensheid.

JDP: I based Mankind on Arnon Grunberg’s pamphlet Praise be to Mankind; it amounts to a speech in defence of humanity, which in the arts is always attacked and dismissed as a bunch of cowards and whingers. But in this speech in its defence, Grunberg actually does what he accuses other artists of doing. He also says that people are cowards and bastards, but adds that they are not capable of anything else. What I want to do is make accusations against Grunberg in his turn. I’m going to put him on stage in a Perspex cage and present him with his own text as evidence; he himself has a microphone to intervene in defence of what he wrote. The soprano Claron McFadden will also be on stage performing a capella songs which I hope at some moments will fuse with the spoken words.

Lisbeth and Josse were interviewed by Michaël Bellon.