Interview by Jessica Teague
Dutch National Ballet, Amsterdam
The idea of faith is central to your work on this piece. What does the word mean for you?
Faith is a very important subject for me. I don’t believe faith to be religion. I think we all have ways of practicing our beliefs that appeal to people in different ways. My REQUIEM is about the idea of faith, and in any form of religion faith exists. Faith is a very complete and all-encompassing word. Like love – it’s massive. When you believe, it means that you trust in life and everything around you. For me it’s a way of finding strength to wake up every day and move forward. It is acknowledging that the human miracle exists, and that there is a power that is bigger than all of us.
How much does this work reflect your own personal experiences with religion?
It was always a very big mystery to me, the idea of God and the ceremony of ritual. I was fascinated by all elements that are involved in weekly mass – the role of the priest, the unity of the congregation, the liturgy, and the communion. I don’t know if this was because it was a theatrical experience in some way, or whether it was a spiritual one, but as I’ve grown older I’ve been able to find my own form of spirituality through learning about many types of religions, and discovering what belief, or what faith actually means to me. In our world, we will always have those who believe in different ways – and that’s OK. I’m not trying to tell anyone how it is, I am simply trying to find out what faith means to me. In some ways it is a journey of self discovery.
Who is your REQUIEM for?
The Requiem mass was created to help people to grieve and say goodbye to someone they love. A Requiem is essentially for the living. It is for those of us who remain amongst the living to acknowledge and remember those who have passed. I find the mass to be a way for the people who are experiencing their loss, to understand and deal with the reality of death. But my REQUIEM is for a time still passing. It is about eternity. It is about reflection. It is about light, and it is about love. It is an impression of everything that the word means. I personally do not believe in death as being final. My belief is that we experience a transformation, and that life is forever eternal. If the universe is based on scientific fact, and our life force has quantity, then this can never disappear – it goes on and becomes part of something we cannot understand. I do not fear death, yet I do not welcome it. I believe life is beautiful. I cannot fear something that I believe there is no end to.
However, I do not think it is simple. In some ways I find I can relate to the idea of stoicism, as someone who is unafraid of the idea of death, but believes in the practice of separating the soul from the body, even in life, and imagining the body as a tool for the soul to inhabit the higher self. It is a very big question and we just don’t have all the answers. That’s where faith comes in again. Perhaps that’s my reason for making this REQUIEM.
Who or what do the dancers on stage represent?
I have always been fascinated by the idea that dance as an art form is a physical spiritual connection to life and the universal energies. I believe dance to be the language of angels. If you can believe in the existence of angels, then they are us and we are them. There is a mythology that the relationship between humans and angels is a close one. I believe that the angels watch over us, and take care of us. It may not be true – but it is something I like to believe in. In some way I am trying to translate what the behaviour of angels could be. I have thought a lot about who these celestial beings are – these angels, or gods. I envision them as souls made of gold, stone and wax. They are special. My vision is to create a nation of angels, who show us in their own way, and their particular behaviour and language, who they are. In some way they could be a reflection of humanity, and as they watch and try to communicate, they mirror us, and show us who we could be.
Why did you choose to make a Requiem at this point in your life?
I feel that it is the responsibility of our present generation to make sure that we’re heading in the right direction, by helping to shape our world in a nurturing way. Focusing in on creating a more positive society, that encourages and teaches everyone to be their own best self. I could make a ballet that is simply entertainment, or I can make a ballet that has value to me as a human being. In this way I can imagine that I am contributing something positive to the world. Making this REQUIEM isn’t necessarily about making a ballet. This REQUIEM is a prayer. Perhaps every time it is performed, an energy is sent out into the world and hopefully helps to heal it in some way.
Gavin Bryars is composing a Requiem for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. Could you discuss your artistic partnership and his music?
Gavin Bryars is a master of his discipline and art form. I have had the privilege of working with him twice before, and on both occasions there was a special connection between us – a coming together of personalities that fit very well. We wanted to work together again, but I had wanted to wait for a project that would be the right opportunity for him to create something special. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am with what he’s made. It is vast. It is like looking at the horizon – the line where the sky meets the earth – or where the universe meets heaven. But at the same time it is also very personal because it is packed full of our belief, emotion and faith. The honour of creating to the REQUIEM that Gavin Bryars has written is beyond words. That is my faith – his music makes me stand up every day. It’s what drives me, and gives me the will to battle all the obstacles that may come my way.
Where is your REQUIEM set? What is the significance of the set design?
Eno Henze is creating a space of timelessness and infinity – of what may have been, and what was never there in the first place. He is creating an enormous wall that has been built using panels of burnt wood. In a sense this represents a ruin. He is trying to create something and then destroy it. As humans, that seems to be what we do. We create and we destroy each other too. It seemed appropriate that this work should be set in some kind of ruin. We will also use mirrors and light. These ideas came to us while we were imagining what the REQUIEM could be. It could represent eternity and the reflection of time. You will see endless reflection – infinity. Past generations could be seen reflected through these parallel universes. Even though people might not see all of that, it’s what it has meant for us and brought us to the realisation of our vision.
You spoke about our generation. Is this a work specific to our time?
Everyone who has gone before, still remains here within all of us. That means something to me, because it still connects us to all the people who have passed. I would like it to speak to the history of humanity, past, present and future, and remain timeless in some way. We can go back through our own family tree, but it can only take us so far. We can’t go back to the beginning – whatever the beginning may be. We are only one link in the chain, the chain doesn’t stop with us, and it’s important that we don’t only focus on ourselves, but also on the generations to come. This creates a sense of responsibility alongside a sense of faith. It creates room for goodness, kindness, modesty and awareness. It creates love, because it’s not just about you or I – it is about everyone. I can’t speak for others, I can only take the thought process that I have and respond to it. For me, it’s about the sensitivity required to be a human being. The kinder we are, the better it is for those who will follow us. This is more important than who we are today. It gives us a purpose.