Dance Conversation with Anne Nguyen and Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim, Compagnie par Terre

September 6, 2016 | By French Culture Arts
Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim

Breakdance world champion Anne Nguyen makes her U.S. debut at FIAF's Crossing the Line festival with Graphic Cyphers, a commission from the organization Dancing in the Streets, and the presentation of the quartet Autarcie (…) at Gibney Dance Center, New York, and then at Theatre Raymond Kabbaz, Los Angeles this September.

Anne Nguyen and Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim, one of the dancers of Autarcie (…) speak with Nicole Birmann Bloom, Program Officer, Performing Arts, French Cultural Services.

Nicole: How did you meet? Sonia, what was your training before meeting Anne?

Anne: Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim, alias SonYa, is one of the key-dancers of my company, Compagnie par Terre. She took over the role of a dancer in PROMENADE OBLIGATOIRE (a non-stop on stage journey for eight popping specialists), then my role in the quartet Autarcie (....); she also dances in bal.exe (a composition for the same popping specialists and a chamber music ensemble). She is an excellent dancer mastering popping and waacking styles (waacking being another stand-up hip hop style). I met SonYa while she was dancing for another group on stage and in battles. I saw an immense energy coming out of her dance. She was intense; it was like dance flowing through her body without any resistance.

When I created Autarcie (….), I was dancing in it too. It was not easy to dance and to choreograph at the same time. I had to use video. During the first year of touring Autarcie (….) in France, I was working on a new show and I could not be performing in it. That’s when I got SonYa to replace me in the show. Since then, she’s been dancing it. Being outside of Autarcie allowed me to see it from another perspective; I could make changes in the choreography that I was very happy with.

Sonia: I met Anne Nguyen while auditioning for her performance PROMENADE OBLIGATOIRE. Because of time conflicts, I couldn’t stay until the end. Later, Anne called me to replace one of the dancers from that piece, and then to take over her role in Autarcie (.…).

I was so happy. I never could have imagined replacing a dancer as powerful as her and with movement so different from mine. Anne gave me the opportunity to be part of bal.exe and it was a great chance for me to work closely with her. She allowed me to perfect my fluidity, my ease on stage and to experiment with the different facets of my own body language.

Nicole: Tell us about your creative process, about your work together…

Anne: The choreographies of my performances are structured as sorts of katas, like in martial arts. They are series of movements and danced principles offering the dancers a thorough experience, a kind of treasure hunt or obstacle course, that requires commitment and stimulates them to push their physical and mental abilities.  

The accuracy of the interpretation is implicit in what they experience on the stage: they have to find it by "being" and not by "thinking". I make sure the movements are balanced between the right and left side of the body, and balanced so the dancer doesn’t leave the performance damaged or bored, but well-informed about the experience of the  performance.

While being attached to the excellence of the execution, I refuse all forms of academism in my dance. Instead, I focus on developing the individual and original traits of the dancers I’m working with and on building relations between movement and space with technical constraints or games.

During the creative process, I often ask the dancers to detail their movements; I then deconstruct and recompose them. In my compositions, I try to make movements look like they are flowing naturally. I don't mean movements you do without thinking, because dancing without thinking could simply generate stereotyped movements, thus going against more freedom. The fact of doing something without thinking doesn't mean it is going to be new or original. It is most of the time the opposite: we reproduce what we know or what we have already experienced without even being aware of it. The goal of all my instructions is to go towards movements that free the dancers from their automatisms; and the public too, from any habits of watching.

Sonia: Anne always comes to rehearsals with new ideas, new things to do and develop. Her commitment to stick to her goals is huge, even after the creative process is completed. This is an exciting way to work. It allows us -- the dancers -- to challenge ourselves during each performance.

Yes there are some choreographed sections that Anne articulates with our propositions but there are also sections that are more freestyled, improvised.  These parts allow us to bring out our personalities, to single ourselves out, and it is often at these particular moments that the magic of the live performance may reach its peak.

Nicole:  Could speak of your most striking moments with the audience?

Anne: The most striking experience I had were workshops I gave in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo in 2005 and 2008. Some of the dancers were breakdancing barefoot while a large crowd – always present - was watching the class. It was intense; we almost never stopped and I learned a lot about myself and how to push myself to the limits. At the end of the week of training, I dance my solo Square Root. It was not easy because the dance floor was full of sand, and because of the wind, I could not glide. And at one time, I did a headspin, and several young people climbed on stage and started to run in circles around me screaming!  It was quite difficult to keep spinning, but I still remember it with emotion.

Nicole:  What does it mean to be a hip/hop dancer – a breakdancer - in France. Could you speak about your experience?

Sonia: I always danced, first in my room.  When I was a teenager, I was captivated by music and video clips from TV channels such as Trace TV.  At that time, this was the only window I had of the world of hip hop.  Once back to school in fall 2004, a group of my friends and I decided to take some dance classes. I say “dance” because I had no idea what style of dance we were doing. The teacher used funk music, sounds we had never heard before, and we did fresno (the fresno is a basic movement in popping dance, where the dancer moves side-to-side doing a hit on each turn with the leg and arm of the side the dancer has moved to). We didn’t know anything about it but we loved it. Then we learned that it was popping and that they were many other movements in that style of hip-hop dance. In 2010, as an autodidact, I tried waacking moves and it became one of my specialties. What I like with these dances is that you constantly evolve. We always are students and our perspectives are endless.

Anne: I started breakdancing in 2000. Before I started dancing, I was listening to rap music. I felt very close to the hip-hop culture; I could understand through the lyrics of rappers like KRS-One or Nas. What I love about hip-hop culture is that you can use your art form to develop as a unique individual. Everybody seeks to be unique and different. And yet, all hip-hop dancers belong to one big community, anywhere you go around the world you will find hip-hop dancers who will be happy to share with each other.

I founded the par Terre Dance Company in 2005 to explore my vision of hip hop dance within the choreographic art form: a accomplished form of dance, pure and de-constructed, far from the usual clichés. I did not make a conscious decision to become a choreographer. I simply felt the need to change the image associated with hip hop dance and to promote the virtuosity of it after having spent a long time as a breakdancer, in battles, and as a performer for other choreographers. I dream of being able to bridge the gap between the audience attending battles and the one of other choreographic art forms; they usually have opposite agendas. More often than not, hip-hop dancers feel that performing on stage disrupts their dance and their very essence. I base my work on this premise and address the issue by challenging the form and intended purpose of on-stage hip-hop performances.

Nicole: Do you train daily or how much do you train?

Anne: When I started breakdance, I was training 3 to 6 hours per day, every day of the week. It was vital for me to dance everyday, it helped me to channel and balance my energy. I could train in a studio during the day with a crew, and in a different spot in the evening, for example at le Forum des Halles (a big mall in the middle of Paris where all the hip-hop dancers used to train at nights). In addition I attended capoeira and yoga classes, and I swam a lot. At that time, I participated in many battles. However my greatest pleasure has always been to dance inside the cyphers (cyphers are where hip-hop dancers perform freestyles, in the middle of circles).

Today with my work as a choreographer combined with my family life (I have a daughter who is 17 months) I have slowed down the training, but I still have a lot of pleasure in joining dancers when they train or during rehearsals with the dancers of the company.

Sonia: I started dancing while I was 14 ½. I attended classes in an association, 3 hours per week, and some training during the afternoon. It was an urge like Anne; it was a way to express and center myself and to escape my environment. Now that I am a professional dancer, I train differently and not as much as before.

Nicole: Thank you, Anne and Sonia. Can’t wait to see you this September!

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