The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue
Dance In Conversation

THOMAS LEHMEN with Claudia La Rocco

During her recent artist residency at Arizona State University, Claudia La Rocco interviewed the German choreographer Thomas Lehmen, who is a clinical professor in the School of Dance. They spoke in his garden in Tempe, Arizona.

Portrait of the choreographer. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the choreographer. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Claudia La Rocco (Rail): Good morning.

Thomas Lehmen: Good morning.

I think there might be a couple now. One just flew away.

Rail: Mockingbirds?

Lehmen: Mockingbirds, yeah. That’s the brown pigeon there; I leave that one alone. I never see that pigeon with any other pigeon and he’s never in the group, always coming alone, and I thought, “I’ll spare this one.”

Rail: Out of pity? Or recognition of a kindred spirit?

Lehmen: Kindred spirit? What is that?

Rail: When you recognize somebody as being like you.

Lehmen: Possible. I don’t know.

Rail: So, I thought maybe you could talk a little about the idea of applause we were discussing.

Lehmen: How disgusting the applause sometimes is?

Rail: Yes.

Lehmen: I sometimes don’t mind to see any kind of dance pieces, and pretty much I’m okay to see everything. It’s just the reaction of the audience when they’re out of their mind and react—what’s the word?—with a need for big feelings and deep feelings and all this glorification for the other, for the glorification of the beauty, of the elevated. It just comes out in such a way—I could just throw up. The scary part of it is, it’s exactly the same reaction as people have when they hail to a kind of dictator, when people are completely out of their mind. They are, in a way, transposing this expectation to this person on stage or to these dancers on stage, to be something better, to promise a better life, to get out of the role of the human being, and so on and so on and so on. I think it’s just completely disgusting.

Rail: The idea of the idol.

Lehmen: The idea of the idol. “That’s the idol, and I’m not, therefore I need the people to do these things on stage.” I just can’t share that concept very much. I prefer the concept to make the people aware of their own creative role, that they don’t need this idol, these dictators, these special people, but they’re able to create and understand and have influence on all the constitutive factors of their life by themselves. Even Jesus didn’t want that. Though he was then having himself crucified—I mean, not really historically but this is the promoted idea of it—Jesus understood the need to die at the end in all the consequence to give this possibility that people have their own lives in their hands back to the people, not to expect it from Jesus, and this is in fact quite an enormous step, which is usually ignored in the Christian theology. What is practiced in our societies is even much more the step before that. As a dancer, being someone on stage, I found out that what is asked from you from most of the directors and from the audience is not to be there with your full capability of a human being. They want a very certain, reduced kind of thing, and I never really understood why. So from the perspective of a dancer, I was looking for more possibilities to show myself and others in a much more intelligent and capable way. I found the possibility that you can reflect on stage, your own material, for example, either verbally or by creating another version of it, life on stage, you know, to work with the idea of evolution. In fact, you can make another step. It’s not only a rehearsed and repeated linear kind of thing, which is happening there, but it’s something you can have influence on while you’re executing it, or at least—this is, of course, a problem—to be in a theater it’s very difficult to make these life decisions which lead the work in that moment to an emergent result which is not foreseen. This is very, very difficult to do in this kind of situation, because the usual format is still, audience comes in, show starts, you are going. Because to work with emergent results and with processes which allow for emergence during a piece, the risk of failure is very high. Emergent results are the product of a process which applies creativity in itself, Heinz von Foerster was first describing it; it is a non-trivial machine, as opposed to the trivial machine which produces always the same result, because the process is always the same and within the process, there is not a process inherent which alters the process itself.

Rail: Yes.

Lehmen: So if you imply in processes other processes, for which you cannot foresee the relation, but it has an effect on the major process, in fact, always, the result should be an emergent one. That’s the difference of the trivial and non-trivial machine. It’s very difficult to let this happen within one certain hour, so very often people need to apply theater tricks. Of course, to prepare, still, the dramaturgy of it, and prepare a kind of deconstructed construction of the major aspects, which play a vital role in the piece, and with that I mean basically the game of having the action, the material separated from the reflection on it, time-wise, space-wise, to allow the audience to see the difference. So if you imagine in space two different entities: the action and the thinking about it, which is happening both on stage by one performer, for example, as I used to do it very often to announce the action, then take a few steps beside, then do it. Then go back to my first point of announcing and now I reflect about it. For example, even by asking the audience, “Do you think I maybe could have done it better?” And with that separation I invite the audience to be creative between these factors, and they’re invited to take part in the theater reality itself: there’s a show prepared, there are performers on stage, also the world context—people bring in their thoughts and discourses, what they expect, etcetera—all that entity is the hardware for the theater reality, which only happens then, right then. Well, observation is necessary, you see. Observation is necessary and I can provide that structure—the prepared structure—in which the audience can make intelligent and creative observations, even though they may be not coming on stage and now they have to make a little dance, and so on, but they’re creating while seeing. In fact, this is always happening, even if I don’t separate these aspects I was talking about before, whether people look at one pirouette on stage, or they look at any kind of sculpture or image, they’re always creating that by themselves in that moment. They’re not necessarily aware of that, but they can be made aware of their own creativity by inviting them into taking part of making that theater reality.

Rail: But then that also can become a theater trick itself.

Lehmen: It is a theater trick, of course. It is one of the most basic theater tricks that’s ever happened.

Rail: One of the things that’s interesting to me in the way you discuss and do your work is that very explicit acknowledgement that this is theater and these are tricks, but then also talking about getting to something that isn’t a trick. I wonder if you could talk a bit about that tension, how that operates for you?

Lehmen: How that tension operates, that’s very interesting, but I think that the tension between the “It,” which we can’t describe, which usually appears through all these theater tricks, and the theater tricks is what in fact is the sensation and the creativity of the performance itself. I think this is the sublime, the “cream on top of it all,” which I think just should swim also above it, because we are working more on the bottom of it to make something like this happening, which everybody can taste from, everybody is invited to come to the table. But, of course, all the separation of these aspects, some people call it “deconstruction,” and so on, in between all these factors, the It appears, the It starts to appear. Some people make it only a very dry linguistic game, but everybody seems to be very happy if something starts to appear—they’re not necessarily having an influence on—it has a very strong autonomy, and this appears within this theater reality. This strikes everybody, you know, hardcore linguistics, and religious people, and so on and so on and so on, and that phenomena in art we just don’t get around to acknowledging.

Rail: We also don’t get around to acknowledging that it can’t always be described. There is this attempt to explain away everything, to reduce everything, and never mind that something might exist that can’t be so neatly put in this little box.

Lehmen: So far, all the strategies to get rid of that didn’t really work out. In Europe there’s a history of several hundred years of separating science from religion, and they didn’t even manage that. It still seems to be a very fundamental need of human beings, to be connected to any kind of form of something different, an essential energy of something. There is also a big difference between what one is able to articulate, and what one is perceiving, thinking, dreaming, imagining, doing. I think they stay in relationship with each other and nourish each other, but it’s not the same. Like writing about dance and dancing—sorry, it’s not the same. Some of my friends, writers, got a bit disappointed by me saying that.

Rail: But why should they be the same?

Lehmen: No, they shouldn’t! Some people think when they write about dance they get the It of the dance, but sorry, it’s a completely different discipline. How can you get something with a completely different medium and discipline? What is very special about dance? I mean, that problem we have in the—I don’t know so much about here, but definitely in Europe—there’s the big wave to equal the art of dance and science, to bring these two to a synthesis, but usually the science seems to win that because science is very good in the describing of something and itself, but they are not able to describe the It of it, of course. And they’re not able to describe the sensation of movement and so on and so on, so all these factors, which are these nice secrets of art and the nice secrets—secret is maybe not the right word, but still I use it—of dance which are in no other medium possible to do. In the schools it’s quite dramatic because—in Europe we have these stupid master programs also, which I think is really not good for the arts at all—they train the people to work from theories. Okay, that has its own necessity, but at the same time, they are not able to let the people make an art, which cannot explain itself in a different way, but just by doing it. Whether it makes scientific sense or not. And I criticize this, because the result is really a discourse conformed work, which doesn’t make much a difference to market conformed work or before we had style conformed work, like Pina Bausch was in Germany. Many people who studied with her did pieces in that style and expected it to be great because it is in a very certain form. And the same mechanism is happening with the intellectual discourse, because discourse explains there’s only one certain discourse, because it only can prove itself within its own language and blah blah blah blah blah—it just doesn’t make sense. Sorry.

Rail: It’s a closed loop, it doesn’t let anything else in. And everybody just agrees, yes, this is the loop, this is what’s happening, and then everybody can feel very comfortable and smart. So it gives this false sense of discovering something, and in fact shuts down any possibility of that.

Lehmen: Yeah, but now I think it’s even more dangerous because now it’s the clever people who don’t see any more their own uncleverness. It’s almost like giving up intelligence and cleverness if it’s only then for itself anymore.

Rail: Or it’s mistaking cleverness for intelligence. If we all know the terms of the joke and we’re all in on the joke, and then we tell the joke, and we all laugh and agree that the joke is funny, then in fact there is no joke. But there is this entire apparatus around us all agreeing that this is a joke. And so in fact there’s no transaction. Nothing has happened.

Lehmen: Yeah. In the long run, it might be historically an interesting period, which had happened then, but now I find it really boring, I must say. I’m completely bored with that fashion and on the other side little nice creative works, which are out of that discourse, are completely marginalized, but in fact I think there is much more creativity and art happening. I’m more happy to see when a student does a five-minute thing which works with their own idea and they are able to apply a process, able to be creative in the process. They create a process according to their idea, and they have a little result that I haven’t seen before. You go in a theater and almost anything you see there you have seen before. Why should I go and see that? Because I’m definitely not going to a theater, to dance and to any kind of art exhibition to get reconfirmed what I, in fact, do assume already, or I know already. Because then you have these people standing around there, looking like, oh yeah, they know what that is, they’re the experts of something.

Rail: Is that the same idea in a way as the applause that you find upsetting? We all can say, “We know what this is, and it is the great thing and the answer.”

Lehmen: It’s similar. But in the applause after a dance piece, this physical, sensational, held inside for so long, needs to come out in that moment, because they are so filled up for one hour, or longer, with looking at moving, young, sexy girls and boys. The aesthetics of physicality and so so so so, everything is so sensational, and now they are allowed to applaud. And all, what is held so far of these aspects that supposedly many people seem not to be able to live out, comes out in this moment. And I don’t want to be in the center of that. I don’t want to be busy so much with the feelings and sensations of people, you know. I think this is a very private kind of thing. All this got opened, of course, through the dance, the sensation, but I think it’s also a sign of a very limited life in society, where people just don’t have sensations, or—? Or they’re not allowed to do something with that, or—?

Rail: It’s a substitute.

Lehmen: Probably.

Rail: Or a drug.

Lehmen: Yeah, but then, you see, it’s the same mechanism as if people are in a rock concert and they see a bare-chested front lead singer doing nice things, you know, nothing against that, I really don’t have anything against any kind of dance, absolutely not. I can look at it. Just the reactions and why this is important for people, this I really do question. As an art form, art expression, I have no problem with that. This is all artwork and I always see something that interests me through which I learn. But people should be aware that it’s the same kind of mechanism which happens in a football stadium, which happens in politics, which happens in fascistic regimes, and so on and so on. And therefore it’s worth it to think about alternatives to this and what kind of possibilities you want—what kind of human being you want the audience to associate themselves with. If you find your answers for that, you are really a step further in the question of what you invite the audience into, and what kind of society in fact you are thinking about you wish to have. In fact, this sounds maybe political but I’m sorry, it’s just very normal to think about. Everybody on the street is even discussing about politics, more or less elaborated or complex, this is a political participation. Even much more direct, which is there very normal and the context in which dance is working is not less political if you are not excluding these factors. It’s just that I’m not excluding them. It’s not that I’m focusing on them at all I just think about all the connections that are there. And I include them, but without being explicitly political or without making a political statement about it.

Rail: I think that people in New York are not very familiar with your work. I can think only of one piece that I’ve seen there in the last 10 years. I wonder if you can talk about a work in which you are dealing with these things and how very concretely they come into play in your work.

Lehmen: Yeah, the piece you saw in New York is Better to…, where the dancers on stage have a linear dramaturgy to follow, so each action is introduced with the sentence: “It is better to…” and then they make this definition. So, for example, “It’s better to stand in the middle,” or “It’s better for John to stand in the middle,” someone says, and John, of course, goes and stands in the middle. Someone else says, “It’s better to have money in your account.” Then no action is following but everybody’s thinking, “Oh, yeah, it’s better to have money, how much money do I have in my account?” And then someone says, “It’s better to—” anything, the whole world context and also prepared dances about this material.

Most of it is scripted but everybody has Joker cards, so they give each other “Better to’s” the others don’t know yet, so that there’s some surprise element in it to make it a little more crispy. The dance parts are little dance movements of all the “Better to” elements, put together in sections so everybody has dance sections of all the “Better to’s” which are happening. These are just little entities of movements, they are dance interpretations of that. For example, Mark says, “It’s better that we all dance the dance section B.” Everybody dances the dance section B, some of the tasks are overlapping, and while this is happening someone is asked to give their interpretation how it is to give birth. “It’s better John gives his interpretation how to give birth.” John, big guy, goes in the middle and Uugh! Gives birth!

Rail: I remember that. [Laughs.]

Lehmen: Which is very, very strong. So all these kinds of things are happening. So through the whole structure, “Better to, better to, better to…etcetera.” The whole world context is, at least, touched. And, of course, you cannot say everything, but what someone might think, as well, is at least triggered.

Rail: What I remember about it most clearly now is the space between when somebody would say “It is better to…” and when it would happen on stage, and how rich, for me, that space was as a watcher. It’s what you were saying earlier, enabling in the watcher that creative element: what I am making, along with what you are making, in that relationship. I see so many shows; what I find often disheartening or oppressive, even, is that there is never that space—because there is such an assumption about how I should react; the audience is also not expected to be there in full capacity. It’s as if the choreographer says, “This is this emotion on stage, and this is this thing that is happening and you have to react this way and have these intellectual reactions.” Blah blah blah. You know, this western-liberal yada yada yada yada. And then there’s never any space. To actually give that space seems to me the central project of your work, or one of them. It’s such a liberating thing; it’s as if you’ve been in a corset, and then somebody says, “You can take this off,” and then we see what shape your body makes on its own.

Lehmen: That’s well-said, I think.

Rail: Well, you know I do write about dance.


Lehmen: Yes, I know.

Rail: It’s interesting to hear that people who are writing about dance say it’s the same thing as dance—it’s an impossible thing for it to be the same or it would be so boring. The most that somebody can do coming from another form is to try to meet your form and perhaps something happens in that meeting, or doesn’t. What was the first piece you did that felt successful on that level? That you were touching on possibilities and leaving space?

Lehmen: Well, there was distanzlos, about 10 years ago, in which I have the list of all ideas I wrote down during the rehearsal process. I recite this list and some of these elements I enact and some I just read. Some dance elements I also don’t announce.

Rail: And what had you been doing before that?

Lehmen: I always thought in little elements and fractures, but before that I put them together in sections and just performed them without announcements. Which was pretty cool. In fact, it’s a pity that I never did that again. But there was always this elementary thinking to have little dance entities and they should speak by themselves, they should have their own integrity. Each element has autonomy. You could see each little element whether it’s only one second or it’s maybe six or 10 or 20 seconds long. This varies depending on the content of it. But they all have their own idea, content, possibly form, which is of course difficult if you put them all on one row. And integrity, integrity in itself, through that integrity in itself. I always liked the idea to jump from one point of the universe to another in no time. That’s my major idea of the universe, I think. That everything is connected. If you know the trick to travel from one point in no time to any other point, and from that point there are endless connections to other points that you can, if you know how, enter. So it’s a matrix idea. In the film, Matrix, it’s of course done through the Internet, and it’s symbolized through the doors they always enter. Also, Hermann Hesse was talking about this in a book Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game), which I attempted reading as a 6-year-old, 7-year-old, it was thinking about the ultimate connection of everything. So this was already in these pieces with these little entities, but still un-reflected. With the next major work, I thought, “I work with language.” I studied a few people who could tell stories. First it was the idea to tell a story, combined with all the very different ideas I had during that time. This is what I like to do, make a list of all the ideas I have. Other people would make out of one idea one piece, but I want all the ideas, of course, happening in one piece. These ideas change, during the working process. Some become material, some stay only a word. Some are only a step to something else. They change their form and function during the work. Still I got the story telling, which became the piece distanzlos, the story of the rescue operation for some coal miners out of my hometown region. The story’s partly true, and partly I combined two stories with it. But I found the trick to reflect on the ideas. And I remember very vividly the woman I was working with, at this time, I presented her my ideas on a table and then doing single elements in space. In this working section I included the talking to her and explaining this idea in the piece and we found out that, in fact, this is the piece. It wasn’t only this moment, because I think I was working myself towards that this moment could happen, enlightenment, and see that this is what I have to do. So that principle of announcing, reflecting, etcetera I took on as separation of the description and the action itself in different forms. In fact, this is a very classical conceptual art set-up. The example I like to mention here always is one specific work of Joseph Kosuth. Where he has a real chair and at the wall the amplified copy of the description out of a dictionary about the chair—what is a chair—that you can read, and a photo of chair, I think, made in exactly the spot where the “real” chair is standing. The observers can then see that separation of description, real chair, image of chair.

Rail: Is this similar to your idea of the universe? We can travel in our mind, time travel, between the three things. But then everything is also separate.

Lehmen: But my model of universe travel is also, you jump to somewhere completely else. It’s not chair anymore, and in the ultimate case, it’s not even in the same understanding of a chair. I can, with the same understanding, understand chair and understand table. I can understand tree, the planet Mars, I can understand whatever—at least with the same understanding I can get hold of everything. But the ultimate universe travel is, of course, the one of no return when you jump into dimensions, which have complete different configurations of all the parameters of understanding, and thinking, and being. And that’s maybe the ultimate transcending process.

Rail: This somehow makes me think of you being the little kid watching the nature shows.

Lehmen: Look, the bird with the big beak.

Rail: The Curved Bill Thrasher?

Lehmen: He must have figured out there’s food, he’s interested in this area now.

Rail: What do you think, do we keep talking or are you talked out?

Lehmen: Do you have something?

Rail: I always have something. But you seem to be petering out.

Lehmen: Well, we’re talking about space travel, so no wonder.

Rail: [Laughs.] So, about 10 years ago you had this realization of a new way of working. Does it still seem as useful and pertinent now? Or does it seem obsolete, because it also can become a habit?

Lehmen: [Laughing at the birds]. Yes, it’s still very, very useful. You know, I was thinking about it because I was working with the students on methods and methodology. I was asking myself, “Okay, so what is my own method, again?” [Laughs.] I wanted them to describe their work and processes because I’m so keen on the responsibility to create processes very much. But, you see, 10 years ago I didn’t know much what I was doing. I was working instead of knowing exactly what I am doing there and since quite a few years now, I have a recipe I could repeat. It’s not so much that I try to avoid to repeat it, though sometimes it’s tempting, but all my—I call it systematic thinking, which is not a rigid kind of thinking, but a more methodological thinking—to create method over and over again, to create system over and over again—it is thinking and a lot of work and, in fact it’s very, very slow, but I realize that I keep progressing, the complexity makes it so deep that there are so many factors in it that by itself it becomes a non-trivial machine, in a way. It works with so many factors and I also give myself the time and the risk not to know, not to work from the already known recipe. But to fail and not to know, not to be able to give answers to what I am doing next. This gives the space for me to develop further all of the time. I think this was not really too clear, but one’s own method of working needs to be creative in itself, I think. Otherwise, it’s one fixed method with which you make variations, then maybe you can revaluate, you look back, “oh yeah, that’s this, maybe try something else.” It’s a very linear process, which I can’t do. I know quite some choreographers that seem to do so when you see all their works in a row, but also most of the choreographers, they run dead. They found this one method and no development is happening. Also people stick to one format a lot. I think it’s healthy to try to work in very different forms according to the idea and interest in context as well.

Rail: I seem to remember you telling me a long time ago, “Oh, but this is the Lehmen trap,” when I was talking about a certain way in which you were working. You were I think saying that there were the patterns and repetition of theme and variation that you follow.

Lehmen: Yes, this is the linear, ongoing thing like in Pregunta, or I have it in Lehmen lernt, where I always say, “I learn to do this, I learn to do that, and then I do it,” and I also dance most of these announcements and some I don’t announce, and some I only announce and say. But it’s the same kind of structure and dramaturgy but applied to something very different. Better To…, that’s the group piece, it works with a very open context, and the actual “what happens there in the moment,” as you were describing it, in between the moment of description and the moment of enacting, it goes out of expectations. And the solo work that deals very directly with me personally, because everything is associated on the personal dancers there, it’s a solo, I’m on stage, and also what is possible, what people do learn in the world. It’s a variation of the same kind of structure and thinking. I could make very many variations of that kind of thing, always finding a very basic, very fundamental, basic function like learning. Even people propose to me, “Why don’t you make trilogy after the Lehmen lernt, Lehmen something else, and then Lehmen so-and-so.” Yeah, I could, but how interesting is that, really? No, that’s market-thinking. If someone proposes that to me, I think also, “Okay, then also you organize the money, organize the people, organize the team, organize the time, organize the drama writer who writes it all for me and I only go on stage and go ‘plop.’” But then where’s the creativity? I like it more if creativity’s also applied to the structure, to the method itself. Because then it becomes, indeed, a non-trivial machine, because it has, within, a creative momentum, which has influence on the method itself.

Rail: But it’s also that, you want always to know how everything works, even in your daily life: “Ah, what is this and how does it work and how do these parts fit together?” When somebody shows you a cup you want to see the inside. If you know already how it’s working, you get bored.

Lehmen: Well, you see, the world we think is the actual world we’re surrounded with, of course, is not the actual world. This is what we produce as the actual world, this is our limited human creativity of always seeing the same cup again and again and again, because otherwise we would live in many misunderstandings, “Oh, this is now something else!” We couldn’t drink out of it anymore. Now, which is of course then a problem. But, in fact it’s us who produce the cup to what it is over and over again. Maybe difficult to understand, but impossible to argue. The things are changing all the time, it’s only our limited perspective and capability of understanding the world, through which we think things stay more or less the same, of course they get old, things break, we die, but this whole perspective and understanding it—of course, the human being perspective and understanding on the “it” from which we know by now, there is an “it” existing—some people call it “it” some people call it “that”—but everyone is happy when something like it appears, so there is something happening, but that “it” doesn’t work according to our human perspective. It’s that “it” is not us, is not our limited human-being comprehension of the world.

Rail: It’s not what we would have it be…Are there pigeons up above? Do you think that readers need to know about your work with the pigeons?

Lehmen: With pigeons here in Tempe, Arizona?

Rail: Yes. Here, in your garden.

Lehmen: You can cut it out of the transcription, anyway, later. But, we’re sitting outside, more or less, in the garden. There are pigeons eating the pecan from the pecan tree, but they’re also sitting on the lawn very often and I realize that in the summer they’re sitting underneath a tree in the shadow because in the summer here it’s very hot. Where they hang out on the grass there’s no grass growing at all because they shit everywhere and they want the dust and I don’t want that. Anyway, pigeons are, in fact, no higher on my ranking than rats. Pigeons no, I’m sorry, not in my garden! Anyway, the Arizona attitude is that anything on your lawn—you decide about life or death.

Rail: You can kill it!

Lehmen: So I bought a bow and arrow.

Rail: And, can I say, that is not the simple bow and arrow that one might imagine.

Lehmen: It’s a hunting…It’s not frightening.

Rail: It’s frightening. It’s sitting right behind you and it’s frightening! [Laughing.] But you’ve been living in Arizona for a year, and maybe that’s the difference.

Lehmen: Yes, I’ve been living here for a year and I’m beginning to, how do you say?

Rail: Acclimate.

Lehmen: Acclimate.

Rail: Go native.

Lehmen: Yeah, so I have a bow and arrow. Motorcycle. Two days ago I got great boots and a hat. I’m very adaptable, but I also keep my integrity, always. 


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