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Conversation with Performer Thibault Lac

Trained at P.A.R.T.S. in Bruxelles, French dancer Thibault Lac has participated in many works by choreographers such as Eleaonor Bauer, Daniel Linehan, and Mathilde Monnier, among others. Over the past two years, he has been working with the American artist Trajal Harrell.
was awarded a research grant in New York by Institut français, part of the program "residence hors les murs". We met him and discussed his current work.

Thibault Lac (T.L.): Michelle Robert, from Institut français in Paris, put me in contact with [dancer] Audrey Gaisan Doncel because our projects had similar themes: Audrey was a career dancer and her project was to remedy that by creating her own "work". Similar investigations brought me here, but not at all with the same game plan. My research deals more with the dancer's practice, concentrating on a dancer's work...as a dancer.

The desire was born from the experience I had during a year and a half of touring, where at the end of the performances people congratulated me for my performance as a dancer. The question that often followed was: "Do you do your own work?" It was both positive and flattering, but at the same time, I often wanted to answer that what I had just done was also my own work. I compared my experience with that of movie actors: you wouldn't go see Catherine Deneuve at the end of a movie to ask her, "Catherine, you were wonderful in the movie, when are you going to direct one?" Those are considered two different professions.

In dance, the tradition is different, because generally big-time choreographers (Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown) have also danced in their own work. I understand where the question comes from.

Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): It's hard to imagine a choreographer who never danced...

T.L.: And his movement is really idiosyncratic. We all have a style. A stylized movement can become characteristic of an entire company. I wondered about the finality of the dancer's practice, without becoming a choreographer. That's what brought me to New York. Similarly, and especially thanks to the performances by Trajal Harrell, the New York press gave me the impression of being acknowledged as a dancer. Strangely that is something I had not noticed in France or elsewhere. I was really surprised by this cult of the dancer, of the role of a dancer in feeding the work. I imagine that it is also present in France, but there it's mostly a culture of the author - the one who signs their work.

That is what generated both the project itself and my willingness to come here. It was not at all to create a piece like Audrey, but rather to try understanding the practice of the dancer, what it rests on, how it can be developed and worked on.

N.B.B.: You said that you share research questions with Audrey Doncel, who also was awarded a residency. What were those questions?

T.L.: [...] The questions derived from the parallels that Michelle Robert had found between our interests: that fact that we both had professional dance experience, which we eventually began to question. We questioned becoming a choreographer, both practically and artistically, and the development of a dancer as an artist. What struck me in Audrey's project was its vindictive side. She wanted a space for liberation. At least that's how I understood it, as if creating her own work was a necessary way out. I think that her desire for that work was born from her feelings of submission and exploitation as a dancer.

N.B.B.: Which isn't your experience?

T.L.: [My work as a dancer] was not so negatively affected, I guess? My project investigates that dynamic, but is not trying to place the act of creation, of becoming author, as some kind of liberating act - or at least not as the only possible one. In dance, in some alienating experiences, becoming choreographer, one's own "author", can appear as an emergency exit! But it's not my case - at least so far. In that sense, our projects are both similar and opposed.

N.B.B.: What did you take away from your collaboration with Trajal Harrell, as a dancer, compared to previous choreographers or collaborations?

T.L.: Many things. Trajal's work is very specific. He grounds himself in malleable and interchangeable identities. I really like that from a personal point of view, I have this ideal of a contemporary dancer who is versatile and can go from one work to another. By partnering with many choreographers, I have tried to uphold that ideal. With Trajal, [that variety] was present in the work itself, I didn't incarnate a particular kind of dancer [...]. For some, there is one way of approaching the movement. Maybe this is also the case with Trajal, because he has a strong aesthetic, but at the heart of his work is the challenge of changing identities; pretending that you're one type of person and then another translates itself easily into movement. You move differently. That discovery was very interesting for me. Trajal's work has brought that to me.

N.B.B.: And as for your contribution?

T.L.: The relation between dancer and choreographer always turns out interesting and rich. It is a not a dialectic of master and slave, but there is tit-for-tat interdependence! Trajal's work brought me in a new direction that I would never have considered with other choreographers. My presence onstage, what I do onstage, all that stems from my collaboration with him. Nonetheless, Trajal's practice leaves lots of space for the dancer. In the dance material that I perform, I'm under the impression that there is lots of autonomy. It's very enriching. I once read a Bagouet quote where he said he didn't want to work with dancers but with men and women who dance. That's the sensation I get with Trajal: I'm onstage both as a dancer and as Thibault Lac, the person who dances. That way, I can engage my subjectivity.

N.B.B.: In the text presenting your research, you use the word "interprète". Do you see a difference between the words "danseur" and "interprète"? Is that the crux of your investigation? What do you think of the word "interprète"?

T.L.: I realize that I juggle between many different words. I don't know which one is most useful; I get the feeling that "danseur" brings to mind certain clichés that narrow that person's work. "Interprète" is a term that interests me and yet is very vague… "Interprète" of what? I don't quite know. But at the same time I like that the term is broad.

Here in New York, I've interviewed lots of dancers and choreographers. These different terms are variable: in English, they don't use the term "interprète" [loosely, interpreter]. There is however the term "performer" for which we don't have an equivalent in French. How do the terms we employ encourage different practices, and allow dancers and choreographers to establish themselves differently? That is what interest me in the project : reappropriating a vocabulary to potentially enable practices. I feel like there are dancers who, using that term, reduce their expertise to moving, whereas the term "performer" references being onstage no matter the medium (singing, speaking…).

N.B.B.: You reminded us that “performer” implicates more media than just dance. Do those other media interest you? Would you consider using more than movement, like voice or sound?

T.L.: What interested me in the term "performer" was to see how dancers in the US identify themselves with one tradition or another, and how that determined their practices. The most notable difference is in media variety. The "performer" seems to represents a freer figure. But I also get the impression that "performer" references the place where pieces are presented. I have observed that dancers are on a dance circuit whereas performers have shows in museums and other unusual contexts.

N.B.B.: There is a strong undercurrent of conservatism in  U.S. society. However, there is an equally strong alternative tradition where one can discover performers who could never access mainstream venues. Alternative dance has its own history there.

T.L.: Yes, absolutely. In a traditional dance world, there is a separation between dancer and choreographer, whereas on alternative scenes, the distinction disappears. The notion of a "performer" encompasses authorship in its definition. Really digging into that interests me, more so than a simple distinction between words. I realized that here in the USA, people can establish their practices as performers. The performer's image is seductive to me because it doesn't fit in a frame, it provides potentially more freedom… It encompasses more than the idea of an executor.

N.B.B.: For your research, you are spending time at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. What is your goal? Which artists are you researching?

T.L.: I don’t yet know where I want my research to take me. I’m interested in a variety of mediums and artists. I’m trying to find dancers who never became choreographers and investigate their careers… I am also trying to understand more famous figures, like Martha Graham, Trisha Brown, and Merce Cunningham, all American: what is the relation between the fact that they sign their pieces and their personal practice as a dancer? But in the end, all of this is the wonder of appropriating icons. If you want to become an actor, I get the impression that there are already stars who can serve as models in the industry, whereas for dancers I feel it's a less obvious. It's a question I frequently ask interviewees, whether in their approach to dance, they had different references or role models who inspire them. I realized that very few role models were simply celebrated for being dancers. Most of the time they were celebrated because they contributed in other ways, like choreography and production.

N.B.B.: You use the term "to appropriate icons" and you remind us, throughout these interviews, that among the artists who could be role models, not many are just dancers. What do you mean by "appropriate icons" in dance? Does it mean to retrace a choreographer's career back through his path as an artist?

T.L.: There is a little of that. It may seem ambitious, but what I'm looking to do is more than a specialized history of dance. I don't have the ambition to finish it, but it's the trying that counts, in order to feed my own practice. I aim to rediscover choreographers, to celebrate them in other ways so that they are not necessarily a "creative figure". You uncover more personal information.

N.B.B.: You must find lots of surprises!

T.L.: Yes! Sometimes I fall across totally incongruous interviews. Instead of Dance History, it's more like Dancer History. And that is what interests me. I get the feeling that it’s this attempt at deconstruction that permits a dancer, in interpreter, or a performer to see their creation differently, without being stuck with the perception that they don't have value as an interpreter as soon as they are a choreographer.

N.B.B.: So, for you, "appropriating icons" is more deconstructing icons?

T.L.: Yes, but to try and reinvest them differently. It's not at all to remove icons' aura, but to see how that positive aura may be used differently. I often get to this point in my interviews with choreographers and people who create their own work. They often place their creations in relation within the history of dance. They compare their own work with work by other choreographers. They are capable of entering into that dialogue. I'm looking to see if it's possible for dancers to have the same intellectual perspective without necessarily having choreographic experience.

Robin Guivarc'h: Dancer, choreographer, "inteprète", performer, icon… Lots of terms. In "interprète", is there an undertone of sharing? As opposed to the dancer, that we "use for", would you not do something "with" an "interprète"?

T.L.: Yes, that’s an important question. Strangely, in France, that never really happens, but here in the States in 2013, I was named best dancer of the year by the New York Times. Being recognized goes beyond personal honor, it was a wake-up call. I didn't know that was possible! It was as if all of a sudden, the fact that there was that window of opportunity allowed me to throw myself into my work differently. I think opportunities for recognition, even if they seem minimal—even if they have no value in themselves—can have an impact on practices a posteriori.

I did not think I would be selected for the residency hors les murs by Institut français. The fact of getting it as a dancer, without choreographic work of my own, to have access to this support is symbolically very strong. Throughout my discussions, I got the impression that here in the US there is a real culture of individual celebration.

N.B.B.: "Dancer" means that almost every day, you have to work your body: warm up, try new things, be sensitive to it...It's like a living instrument. Do you work every day?

T.L.: That is another facet of my research: what is the practice of a dancer? This month, and it had been a while, I took a dance class. It's interesting to surrender to a dance class' discipline, and that's what's required of a dancer, to go everyday to a dance class. But what interests me is to know if there is an "other" space, one where the dancer is alone with their body. Does there exist such a time/place? If so, what does he/she do with it? In my interviews, some dancers admit they don't have a regular practice, while others have a very developed routine. Some even go to the studio just for themselves, without practice or rehearsal. Simply a physical practice that is theirs. During my visit in the United States, I would like to put in place a physical practice that is neither technique nor rehearsal. Just a physical practice!

N.B.B.: You said you took a dance class. What technique was it? What did you explore?

T.L.: It was a classical dance class with Janet Panetta, classical dance for contemporary dancers. It was interesting because we all get the impression that classical dance founded all dance technique: the mirror, the barre… all these clichés that define the dancer...I wanted to physically re-explore that. As a dancer, I have my dreams...

N.B.B.: It's also surprising when the body changes and gets older. What plans do you have for the future?

T.L.: I have to think about it! But as for my practice I am not at all worried. Maybe it's a confidence that I've built in my body. Of course it will change, but it doesn't scare me. When I talk with people who aren't from the dance world, they often ask, "But when you’re 40 what will you do?!" I also talk with ballet dancers for whom, it's true, the end of their careers is quite concrete, because their practice and their movement can't evolve with their bodies. But in contemporary dance, or at least in the works I'm in, I'm not worried yet!

Talk of time also reminds me of the very interesting idea of desire. I feel like dancers put themselves at the service of others' desires (the choreographer, for example), but that relationship is not one-way. Dancers must invest their own desire into a piece, so that they enter into dialogue with the choreographer's desire. It's a relation that takes time to build. With Trajal it's strong: little by little, I understand his desire, his interests, his motivations. Even inconsistently, I integrate them into the work we do together.