Dis-identifying with Oneself

13.7.19 / Text
Jule Flierl on her dissociation method and the legacy of the German dancer Valeska Gert

Valeska Gert, Berlin Underworld (1934), photo: William Davis. Courtesy Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung Universität zu Köln

Ekaterina Degot: I have the impression that the practices of dance and especially vocal performance are more related to classical roots than contemporary art. If you look at contemporary artworks, it has nothing to do with the paintings of Michelangelo. But voice and body movements are still more connected to providing the audience with some kind of aesthetic pleasure. At the same time, your work shows all of the physical work and even pain that is usually hidden, as in classical ballet, which is certainly part of art’s darker side. That darker side of “high art” is one of the big themes in Grand Hotel Abyss and this includes the pain of the performer experiences for the pleasure of the audience. How do you see this connection of pain and pleasure?

Jule Flierl: Well, I think the main problem is probably in the word “high art” and the fact that “high art” implies that the artist must suffer, the artist must be beautiful. The visual arts managed to criticize this “beauty” much earlier than the performing arts. Although, for example, the piece that I am performing for the opening night of steirischer herbst is based on the philosophies of Valeska Gert (1892–1978), who was a grotesque dancer. Grotesque dance is really all about questioning these ideas of beauty. She was also great at making fun of the egoism and vanity behind high art, from which she was regularly excluded during her lifetime. Now, things have changed and there is even a “Valeska Gert Professor” and so on. I do think that the connection with people who finance art, including the elite of the society who can afford art in an opera house or ballet, results in a very elevated, bourgeois idea of what art is and what it has to represent. Audiences made up of educated bourgeoisie and aristocrats come back time and again to confirm their expectations of how a human should look, how a citizen should behave, how a certain gender should behave, or what virtuosity and sacrifice on stage means. The pain of a dancer or the vocal power of certain singers is a sacrifice they willingly receive. This is something that I repeatedly question. I think that the relationship has gone numb between many techniques of opera singing and the spaces they inhabit. If we think about a contemporary understanding of what sound is and what sound does with the body and with the nervous system of the listener, there are many new vocal techniques that actually propose a different relationship to the listener by working differently with the body. This is what I am interested in.

ED: Is it more about feeling the space or interacting with the space?

JF: I think the difference is penetration or diffusion. Can I have a diffused sonic relationship to the space? That is very interesting to me as a dancer because it makes me go beyond the borders of my own visible body. This really has to do with how my body can be present in a space and how I can move the space. Where I am moving space, this creates a relationship with the architecture. The fascinating thing about the voice is that it projects sounds at 360 degrees and calls into question this immediate focus on the visible body, identifiable as this or that. That is why I work with the dissociation method. The aim is to dis-identify what you see of a body with what you hear from the same body. People are much more complex than what they look like. My point is not to affirm what people expect from appearance, which often happens in opera and ballet. It is based on this belief that everything is like it seems. A lot of really interesting contemporary art is busy disturbing this relationship.

ED: Do you see it as a political shift as well?

JF: Yes, of course. I mean, if I ask myself how can my practice be political or what is political about the practice, then it is really how I disturb its predictability. The coexistence of different processes in the same body at the same time means you can’t trust what you see. I was very pissed off when I was nineteen because I was an actress, I was very skinny and I had long brown hair, and I was a stereotype for certain roles and I hated the fact that I had to play what I looked like; it was horrible. That is another reason I became a dancer, because I can be other things even if people will still point fingers and so on.

ED: Are the possibilities of acting more reduced than those of dance?

JF: It is not a general acting thing, it is just my experience with being typecast in a film for my appearance. In my current practice, there is this joy, this intense joy of knowing “ok, that’s what you see” and then to go into a face dance, which as a result changes the affect that we attain from emotions and what it means to dance that affect. You might empathize when you look at a face and you feel or recognize emotions, but maybe I’m just doing a movement! So this is one of the fascinations. Another one comes from film, where you synchronize the lip movement of a character with what they say so that we always know who is speaking. The acousmatic voice is the opposite, you don’t know where it is coming from. This device was is used a lot by Hitchcock, for example, or in the Wizard of Oz.

ED: You don’t see the person who speaks?

JF: You only see the back of a person and you think it’s probably them speaking, but you don’t see their mouth and that always creates these really uncanny figures. Even if it’s my own voice, I can ask myself: Where does this voice come from? Is it my voice? Does it belong to me when you hear it? Is it like a body part or is it something that is already gone? That comes from Mladen Dolar, whose theory of the voice was very important to me. My interest in dissociation also has to do with today’s obsession with identity politics and the identitarian movement, both of which have nothing to do with true identity. The basic idea is that you must claim an identity so that people can classify you into a group in order to politically use that fiction of a group. I wanted a practice that already reflects and incorporates all of these questions around identity.

ED: I wonder about pain in this context. When the ballet dancer turns and you accidentally see her face, you see how she is in pain. You weren’t supposed to see that; it isn’t part of her identity as a stoic ballet dancer.

JF: Yes, that is also very gendered, I think, to not show the pain. It is related to female roles. My biggest joy is really to sing that melody from Liebestod by Wagner, which I find hilariously recognizable as cultural artifact. The text is ridiculous: “floating,” “weaving,” “surging” and “roaring”—it’s so amazing. It is a cliché, and to relate to it with this face dance, there is always a chance element in it. Every time I perform the score, the modulation of the mouth produces a slightly different sound and emotion. I try to initiate it technically and then it produces an affect that rebounds towards me. There is something about the frequencies, especially in a live situation they can produce something vast.