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Loin…: An auto-portrait Woven with Testimonies

Noémie Solomon interviews Rachid Ouramdane

French artist Rachid Ouramdane’s solo which will be presented on October 24th connects all three themes of iDANS Festivals so far. Loin…(Far…) is a multi-media performance which explores the conflicts between identity and experience of foreignness, tracing a series of autobiographic, poetic and choreographic journeys through Algeria, Cambodia and Vietnam; and through his father’s diaries during his military service in Indochina. It is a performance which exposes the continuity of emotions across the figures of the colonizer and the colonized as ambiguous positions in an endless game of mirrors.Noémie Solomon interviewed the artist about the choreographic journey of and the stakes involved in Loin…

N.S: This choreographic project took shape during a journey across Vietnam and Cambodia, and its dramaturgy spans territories such as Algeria, France and Vietnam. What is the significance for you to show this piece in Istanbul, at the very margins of Europe? How does the piece reflect the cultures and sites it is drawn from?

R.O: For the past few years I have been developing a particular interest in the way we build ourselves when we are made from a foreign land. I’m interested in persons who have had to live in exile because they were forced to, or because they choose to, or because they inherited it. I have the feeling that by interviewing those people who have experienced identity reconstruction through a cultural mix in order to catch their intimacy, we can question the policies that draw the borders of our world. To work on the issue of exile is obviously to take into consideration some territorial geographies, but I think what matters for me is to grasp the affective geography that constructs the interiority of the people I have met, which is not limited to the demarcation of a particular land. The interviews I do and use on stage question the affective link and the sensitive dimension that tie every person to the place where she is. Finally all this geography deals more with time than space, and with an inheritance and a history that forge the identity and the mental space of those witnesses.

This is what I tried to do with young immigrant sportsmen in Surface de réparation; with foreign dancers from the Opéra de Lyon who came from countries with painful political histories in Superstars; with boat people children from the Vietnam war – grown up now – ; and with older people who had known the French colonies in Far…; and more recently with persons who had to suffer from torture and genocide in Ordinary witnesses. Each time with those people I speak about History, obviously, but I never dwell on facts; I prefer to focus on what I can catch from their sensitivity, because this is what I’m interested in. We often know History, we have official versions of it, but I’ve got the impression that we know less of the people it has created.

Each of these people has a very different look on their country’s History and their individual history. I’m not speaking about what is different between their individual history and the official and collective History, but about the way people face it. Indeed, interview after interview, what was revealed was the way in which each person was dealing with her past more than the reality of facts. For exiled people, the relation to their past can be diametrically opposite. Some people try to preserve or to regain every trace lost in the escape and the exile, and some others, on the contrary, need to forget and to blot out a history too heavy to bear which doesn’t permit them to rebuild themselves. It is in those redrafted histories and those affective geographies that our sensitivities are in part created; in this gap between what we use to call “the reality of facts” and “the real life.” It is this sensitivity of people that I want to grasp.

I’ve got the feeling that stage can be a place to listen to our History in a different way, thanks to those testimonies, and to propose necessary re-readings.

I’ve got the impression that it is a way to fight against a society that refuses to cope with what constitutes it.

Even if we are used to listen to analyses from historians or journalists in front of documents, I think we can propose another way to understand historical facts without being necessarily analytical. Art can contribute to that particularly when there is a “documentary” aspect.

It is true that there is a peculiar dimension in the fact of showing Far… in Istanbul, because I think what this project reveals, the fact that Western countries have to cope with people from Muslim countries, is one of the sensitive points in the relation between Turkey and Europe today.

N.S: Drawing on your father’s experience as an Algerian migrant, and his time served in the Vietnam war, your piece might be read as a poetical and critical intervention on recent French colonial history. Could you say a few words about the ways in which you approached such issues? What are the personal and political stakes of this project?

For a long time I have been afraid of using autobiographical elements in my work. I think I was worried that these could only remain personal and not touch the audience, until the moment I felt that I could use those elements not only to speak about my micro history: that I could lean on very concrete elements from my story to touch the history of other people and share a thought that exceeds my personal history. For this type of project that has an autobiographical dimension, I’ve got the impression that there is a possibility of making an artistic project that is both an intimate and a social act. Indeed, on the one hand, there is an artistic stake that deals with composite narrations drawing on testimonies, and on the other hand there is a social stake, an act of citizenship, that takes a clear stand about authoritarian policies that move deeply the intimacy of people because of the violence of their application, revealing wounds that cannot heal. And at last there is an act that perhaps answers a personal need to put words, sounds and images on a period of my family life which is made of silence, taboos and black holes.

N.S: You mentioned elsewhere that the violence in armed conflicts makes us feel foreign. Could you say more on this? How might violence make us distant to others, and to ourselves? How do you see movement and choreography working in relation to violence and distance?

Because I come from dance, I give priority to a reflection about body and movement. I try to create new ways of understanding, thanks to a confrontation between testimonies about History and sensory experimentations with dance, sound, and light. This is a way to find sense by changing the point of view on raw facts. This is how I see the link dance can have to reality.

Instead of diving into the heart of historical testimonies, I often have the impression that it is better to move away from it; to propose digressions, to gather elements without a direct link to the subject of the testimony, to create states of contemplation where we usually only call for a rational thought.

With this kind of writing for stage, the imagination and mental space of the spectator is particularly needed. He has to find an interior development so that the testimony can make sense for him, by comparing this testimony to his own intimacy and personal history. It is at this precise moment that an historical event can be read again differently, that is, when the historical document stops being foreign to confront the history of the spectator.

This is the kind of poetic I aim at: to search for the way a fact that is foreign to us a priori (the testimony of someone else) becomes part of our experience. Because the spectator has to search for underground echoes which reverberate with his own history.

In my last piece Ordinary witnesses, all the testimonies speak about the difficulty to say, the limit of words in front of some witnesses’ inner feelings. At this moment, the choreography of bodies is like subtitles of what the testimony doesn’t say. It is not the document that speaks anymore but the silence and the movements. In some testimonies, unspeakable and ineffable aspects take shape in the choices of staging. I tried to construct a balance between what had been testified to me through words and the absolutely unexpected connections of ideas that, in the difficulty to be said, continue the testimony through the expression of bodies modified by the retelling of the facts.

What I think is the most important thing to do is to go again through those historical events that are more or less well known but that permit, by the filter of the subjectivity of a testimony and the construction of a specific quality of listening, to read again those events in a different way. I think that I invite the spectator to permanently and differently rewrite histories he already knows.

N.S: Since 1996, you have created a significant body of work, in collaboration with many artists, dancers and choreographers. In your recent pieces, you have been experimenting with the form of the solo. Would you say that the solo holds a specific place in your work? More specifically, how would you locate this current choreographic project – Loin… — in your broader body of work?

As I have already mentioned, I often use testimonies and autobiographical elements of the people I put on stage. In this “aesthetics of testimony” I try to explore the numerous comings and goings between History – with a capital H – and individual and peculiar histories. It is a way to never content ourselves with a single version of what we inherit from and to read History as a dynamic element which deserves to be always thought again.

Thus, through the “video and dance” portraits I make, I try to find a poetic which stays close to peculiar cases – to the fragments of life that come to reveal a general picture when they are lined up one next to the other. For me, the solo form never speaks for the singular, but rather for the plural. It is this multiplicity that emerges that interests me in the solo. Far…is an auto-portrait made from the diversity of the histories of the people I have met.

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