On May 11, 2014, Invisible Dog Art Center’s founder, Lucien Zayan, invited French dancer and choreographer Thierry Thieû Niang to stage his response to “The Rite of Spring” with a cast of local senior citizens. While he is no stranger to the Invisible Dog, and has also worked with the Trisha Brown Dance Company and the Metropolitan Opera, Niang has yet to present one of his own creations in New York. On the day before the work’s premiere as a part of the citywide DANSE: A French-American Festival of Performance & Ideas, Ivan Talijancic caught up with Niang at rehearsal.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): Can you talk about how the idea for the piece came together, and specifically, how you came to work on “The Rite of Spring”?
Thierry Thieû Niang: I had a residency at a theater in Marseille, France, where the Pina Bausch Company was performing “Kontakthof,” a piece with elderly non-dancers. The theater asked me to do a workshop with local seniors—not just as an audience, but as artists. I thought the group was so strong that I decided to return a second year and work with them on dance masterpieces. So, of course, “The Rite of Spring” came up during this research. We worked on the music, watched recordings of many versions of this work made by different choreographers, and did some improvisations. I didn’t expect to make a piece for performance; it was just a workshop. We did a public presentation, and Vincent Baudriller, the director of the Avignon Festival, came and invited the group to perform in the festival’s main stage program. The production was a great success, and after that we received many invitations to perform in Paris, Brussels, Seville, and here in Brooklyn. Tomorrow will be the 45th performance of this work. Soon, I will head to Vermont and Massachusetts to mount the piece with other elderly citizens.
Rail: What is the relationship between the original staging and the one you did here? Did the Brooklyn seniors re-create the work or did you develop new material with them?
Niang: I gave them the shape of the piece and the musical cues. As a cast, they’re quite different because they’re more active than French people. In France, people retire around the age of 65, while here many are still working—some even had to change their work schedules to accommodate rehearsals. Also, the perception of their aging bodies is not the same as it is in France—there is more shyness here, more privacy. But even though they are not artists, they’re quite curious and culturally aware. Most of them have a relationship with the arts; they see shows at BAM or the Met. So for me, there is a different type of concentration present in this cast.
Rail: In your observation, why did your cast zero in on “The Rite” in particular? It sounds like they had many options to choose from in terms of iconic dance works.
Niang: The original group had the opportunity to meet Pina Bausch—who passed away shortly afterwards—and also to see her version on video. The centennial of the original Nijinsky production was a year or so away. Beyond this, for them “The Rite” was a counter-example of sorts: the spring is usually associated with youth, and this group felt there was so much energy in the music, a kind of energy they once knew. They wanted to challenge themselves, as well as the audience, to work with this wild music and express themselves through it. They wanted to play with the notion of being in the autumn of their lives, and yet finding the spring in the autumn. I believe it was indeed the music and not the choreography that motivated the group to work on “The Rite.”
Rail: How do you approach choreographing a piece that is specifically intended for non-dancers?
Niang: The piece invokes transformation: I use a single figure, the spiral, and within the spiral, they are just walking and using simple gestures such as touching their heads, crossing their arms, or touching someone’s back. There is a choreography of common gestures. It’s a fluid, continuous movement, within which certain images appear: loneliness, community, children, the planets. It is very nice to watch them find these images within the movement, by just being themselves. I told them: “I don’t want to see dancers, I want to see men and women dancing.”
I found some notes in Nijinsky’s diaries about walking, how many philosophers and artists, like Thoreau or Nietzsche, would go on walks when they needed to think about their work. Also, when you ask older people about their day, they often talk about how they walked, say, in the park, or to the grocery store. I decided to use walking as the major line of movement, as well as running. Many of these people hadn’t run in a long time. They were used to being told, “Don’t run, you will fall.” It is nice to see them find the energy to run, to escape in it—even just for one circle. It’s very moving. So the idea for the choreography is very simple, but it’s also very full.
Rail: What is your personal trajectory as a dancer and choreographer? What drives you to work with such unique populations?
Niang: After 25 years of working with dancers, I wanted a change. At some point, it started feeling very incestuous. I would go to performances, always see the same people, and watch dancers perform for other dancers. I felt that I needed to find something new.
I challenged myself—challenged my idea of movement—and discovered that everybody carries some kind of dance within them. I wanted to bring that out of these special populations, to give them the tools to gain confidence, to change the way they look at themselves, and to find expression through movement. I don’t consider myself a teacher, an art therapist, or a social worker: for me, this is pure art. Here in Brooklyn, it was nice to see an 82-year-old man come in with a cane and then, after a week of working with us and reclaiming confidence with his body, no longer need it. Others found the confidence to expose their skin, to sweat.
I work with hospital patients, autistic children, and the elderly. I’m currently working on a project with prisoners, 12 men aged 21 to 78. They are trapped by so much, and it’s nice to give them the poetry, movement, and ability to transform that we have as dancers. For me, working with these people is like a new territory: I have to see that dance is not just one color, it’s many. I like to sit on the balcony and look at people—different ages, different generations. In each movement, each step, I see a new dance.
IVAN TALIJANCIC is a founder and artistic co-director of WaxFactory, a New York-based interdisciplinary art group. He is currently completing his first feature film, 416 MINUTES, and regularly writes on the arts for BOMB, London-based Bachtrack, and the Brooklyn Rail.