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Isabella Soupart: Steve Reich Project

By | Published on Wednesday 31 July 2019

When I heard about the ‘Steve Reich Project’ – a music, media and dance piece on at Dance Base this month – I was intrigued to find out more. The show uses the work of composer Steve Reich as a jumping off point for what sounds like a truly fascinating exposition of a number of interesting themes.

The project is a collaboration between Belgian musical outfit MP4 Quartet and renowned also-Belgian choreographer and artist Isabella Soupart. I spoke to Isabella to find out more about what to expect from the show, what inspired it, and who the performers are.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from the show? How would you describe the performance in terms of genre?
IS: This performance for a solo dancer and a string quartet explores the tensions between group dynamics and individual autonomy. ‘Steve Reich Project’ is a pulsating confrontation of dance, music and video art.

CM: What are the themes that you explore through this performance?
IS: The frailty of the human condition…

CM: What does the video art element add to the performance?
IS: I work freely with the codes and concepts of contemporary dance to make them interact with other disciplines. In ‘Steve Reich Project’, the space is filled with large scale projections by video artist Kurt D’Haeseleer. This installation provide an immersive backdrop to the choreography with hypnotic images and soundscapes. This scenographic landscape guides the
audience to a stronger dramatic tension.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Steve Reich, and the music you use in the show?
IS: Steve Reich is an American composer. Reich’s style of composition influenced many composers and groups. These compositions, marked by their use of repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythm and canons, have significantly influenced contemporary music, especially in the US. Reich’s work took on a darker character in the 1980s with the introduction of historical themes as well as themes from his Jewish heritage, notably ‘Different Trains’. ‘Different Trains’ – 1989 Best Contemporary Composition Grammy Award – and ‘WTC 9/11’ bring forth intimate reflections within worldwide historical drama.

CM: What made you want to create a performance using this music? What inspired you?
IS: In ‘Different Trains’, through immersive soundscape and fragmented testimonies, Reich evokes his Jewish American childhood during World War II, while he would have travelled on other trains, had he lived in Europe in the same period. Referring to his frequent train travels between New York and Los Angeles, Reich says : “If I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains”. With this in mind, he wanted to produce a piece that would accurately reflect the whole situation. The same composition processes, repetitive music, cycles, sound tracks and testimonies, are used 20 years later in WTC 9/11, a piece written to commemorate the first big tragedy of the 21st Century, the September 11 attacks in New York.

I hesitated a lot before embarking on this adventure, the emotional charge was too important. Being part Jewish myself made it seem almost impossible for me to render the historical and tragic depth of this work on stage. Then, I decided to make the leap, overcome my emotions and create a choreographic and multimedia piece with a string quartet, a dancer and a visual artist. It was crucial to find the form which would make it possible to create a total work without betraying the very subtle and complex work of Steve Reich.

‘Different Trains’ and ‘WTC 9/11’ are two commemorative pieces that seem essential to me today. They remind us that everything can always start again, in other forms, if we are not committed, attentive and informed.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about MP4 Quartet and how your collaboration came about?
IS: The MP4 Quartet was created in 2008. At the time, its members, Claire Bourdet, Margaret Hermant, Pierre Heneaux and Merryl Havard, were young graduates of the Conservatoire Royal de Belgique. They gained experience and freedom of expression with the Danel, Pavel Haas, Pražák and Kronos quartets. The MP4 Quartet is dedicated to the outstanding performance of masterworks from the 20th and 21st centuries, presents fresh work by living composers alongside contemporary classics, with special acknowledgement of Belgian composers. MP4 Quartet’s dedication to new music extends across genres and has earned them a reputation among classical, contemporary and dance performances.

For this performance, the MP4 Quartet initiated the musical project. They wanted to develop and propose a specific and unique interpretation of the themes developed by Steve Reich. They asked me to collaborate with them, to create a performance that would connect ‘Different Trains’ and ‘WTC 9/11’. I proposed to work also on a third Steve Reich piece, ‘Pendulum Music’, to add spoken word to the performance.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the performers?
IS: Shantala Pèpe and Johanna Willig-Rosenstein are two dancers with whom I work regularly. They each have a very different background.

Johanna started dancing at the conservatory of Dijon at the age 13, in the section of contemporary dance. She then moved to Tel Aviv to complete her learning at the Maslool Bikurey Ha’itim school. Shantala came from a high level sports background, then studied dance at the National Dance Conservatory of Avignon. Since then, she has worked as a dancer, performer & choreographer. I chose them for the quality and strength of their movements but also for their strong stage presence. There is a dramatic intensity in Reich’s works that must be felt and invested.

They’re both dancers who are also very good actresses. At some point in the performance, they move from dance to spoken word using a suspended microphone. I recreated a vocal score for the dancers from fragments of interviews and testimonials from the soundtracks of the works. I needed to be able to work with performers who could stand alone on stage for 60 minutes against a very seasoned string quartet. Shantala and Johanna will appear alternately during the time we are at Dance Base.

CM: How long has the show been in development and how does your development process work?
IS: There was first a work of musical and documentary analysis on the three pieces of music. Then, it was a matter of developing with the musicians a presence and a physical ease by exploring the sounds, the repetitions, the articulations, the silences, the suspensions, the variations… We were also searching for ideas, for images which can be translated, turned into gestures, movements for the dancer and for the musicians. We worked for eight months to perfect this with the MP4 Quartet and Shantala Pèpe.

In my work, I always develop the intuitive aspect of the movement and of the organization, structure and architecture of movements in space. We worked on the musician’s physicality so that they are also in the movement. With the dancer, we developed gestures independent of the musicians. We worked with words from interviews and testimonials collected by Steve Reich that are part of the tape. The dancer’s movements are carried by a secret partition that allows the audience to understand the essence of these two tragedies. The dance sequence that ends the show is inspired by a Jewish ritual for the dead that consists of reciting prayers continuously near the bodies while waiting for the funeral. For this, Steve Reich asked the cellist Maya Beiser to sing the Psalm 121: 8 of the Bible. The last phase of the creation is the work on light design and video images.

CM: What made you want to bring the show to Edinburgh? Why is it a good fit for the Festival?
IS: My productions have already been presented in various international festivals such as the Festival IN Avignon (FR), the Kunstenfestivaldesarts (BE)… but this is the first time we perform at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. This is a great opportunity to publicise our work on the international scene!

CM: What are your plans for the show after the performances in Edinburgh?
IS: We had the chance to develop this show in Belgium. Now we want to play it internationally.

‘Steve Reich Project’ was performed at Dance Base at Edinburgh Festival 2019.

Photo: Danny Willems