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Interview with the choreographer, visual artist, and puppeteer, Gisèle Vienne

From October 29th and November 1st, 2014, New York audiences have the opportunity to see the U.S. premiere of Kindertotenlieder at New York Live Arts, a collaboration between Gisèle Vienne, the author Dennis Cooper and musicians Peter Rehberg and Stephen O’Malley with whom she has been collaborating for many years.

With a repertory of a dozen works, her productions have toured internationally. In January 2010, Under The Radar Festival presented Jerk, a piece for one performer and a few hand-puppets. Recently, the Whitney Biennale presented one of Gisèle’s ventriloquist dummies also with a text by Dennis Cooper.

Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): The piece at New York Live Arts is entitled Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children) also the title of a renown cycle of songs by Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Does your production of the same name relate to Malher’s Kindertotenlieder? Is Mahler an inspiration?

Gisèle Vienne (G.V.): Kindertotenlieder can also be translated into English as Song from the dead children. With Dennis Cooper who wrote the theater play and worked on the dramaturgy, we discussed the entire project together; the poems by Friedrich Rückert were a source of inspiration among others (Mahler’s musical work was also based upon Rückert’s poems).
Romanticism was another source of inspiration for Kindertotenlieder. I was interested in similarities between romanticism and the romantic behaviors of teenagers of the 21st century. Romantic references and icons are also found in musical genres like Black Metal that make direct references in the use of iconography to artists like Caspar Friedrich or Theodor Kittelsen’s paintings for example. They are strong references to Black Metal culture in Kindertotenlieder. I also found correspondence between the romantic hero like the Young Werther by Goethe and the contemporary heroes with suicidal behavior that are becoming idols (like in rock bands). The aesthetics of the ruin, the idea of falling apart and the resulting strong attraction to it are part of my main interests.

N.B.B.: You have French and-Austrian roots. Is there something specific in Austrian culture that you feel connected too? How about French culture?

G.V.: I’m not sure I can precisely identify that, but I can try.
I grew up bilingual, with German and French, certainly the strongest connections to these cultures. I also read many books in both languages.
My mother is Austrian and I frequently go to Austria since my childhood, I mainly grew up in France and a bit in Germany. My mother taught me a lot about art and she introduced me to strong artists such as, among many, Hans Bellmer and Franz van Stuck. It had quite an impact on her as well as on me.
I grew up in France with Austrian roots, I feel European.
Dennis Cooper is from the United States, Los Angeles. Our collaboration is also the result of a cultural dialog between the US West Coast and Europe.
We are interested in the correspondences between very local traditional events - that become international or global. The Austrian Pagan rituals like the procession of the Perchten - that is referred to in Kindertotenlieder - is a good example. The Perchten belong to a cultural, and local, tradition from the Gastein Valley near Salzburg, but at the same time, it inspires artists working for the mainstream Hollywood movie industry. Teenagers in Austria have quick access to this mainstream culture that, in return, inspires them to developing their local traditions.
It’s interesting that we are presenting Kindertotenlieder in New York during Halloween.

N.B.B.: As an artist, you combine several skills: puppeteer, choreographer, stage director, visual artist. The production Kindertotenlieder and many others of your works include puppets human-size like (or more exactly life-size dolls). They often depict teenagers, boys or girls aged between 11 to 16, or women. What did attract you to the art of puppetry and to the fabrication of dolls?

G.V.: I am captivated by the artificial body in our culture and our relationships with them, and artificial bodies are one of the central topics of my research. In our culture, there is mainly a rational link to the objects, but the human shape of an object is always confusing; it brings uncanny feelings.
Theater, various stage arts and puppetry interests me in its wide range of forms, for example from its religious history to its most entertaining and commercial forms.
I was recently deeply struck when I could discover live ancient form of puppet theater. I was at the Holly Week in Seville, Spain, where the large sculptures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus are carried, elevated on an altar and decorated with candles, through the streets of the city to the cathedral. The sculptures seem like walking above a sea of people. The procession with penitents, music, encens burning creating smoky effects was extremely moving and remind me what I read about the origin of puppet theater, when the Egyptians were carrying around sculptures of their idols.
The word for puppet in French is “marionnette”. It comes from the name Marie (Mary); some of the first puppets represented the Virgin Mary, thus the name “marionnette” (little Mary). This religious background blends with popular culture and step by step, the marionnette fell into disgrace. From holy art to popular culture, or how the puppets one time linked to spiritual and religious events became partly a minor art, or part of the entertainment industry. This history of puppetry certainly reflects the range of my interests.
Since I created Jerk (a work that was presented in New York in 2010 and that toured on the West Coast), I have also developed a strong interest in ventriloquism. My next production will be a fictional reconstitution of a ventriloquy convention.
To explore the strength of these ancient tools and objects, their role as intermediaries and the connection between pagan and religious rituals that they were attached to, are captivating to me.

N.B.B.: Most of your works are visual experiences with a sophisticated and meticulous staging. In Kintertotenlieder, its wintery landscape and the minimal and visually powerful movements of the performers lead the audience into an emotional journey between reality and fiction. How do you envision the experience your audience may have?

G.V.: With Kindertotenlieder, I try to create a physical experience, a stimulating challenge for the audience. The lightings, the objects, sounds, movements, words, and any parameters that are parts of the elements that can be found on stage are like different music instruments for me, with which I compose something like a stage language. I’m orchestrating all these parameters.
I also work on trying to question the perception of the audience, in strongly stimulating their senses and the imagination.
I was deeply impressed by experiences I had in Japan with NO theater performances. There you can also experience a kind of slightly altered state. You arrive in the theater with your own rhythm and energy from the outside, then you start to watch the performance and soon your body adjusts itself, creating a deeper connection to the rhythm of the NO performance.
I try to create a specific rhythmical experience with Kindertotenlieder where the audience imagination and senses can be stimulated to reach various states of consciousness - and enter the game of the theater – I try to create an intimate experience for the audience.

N.B.B.: Texts – often by Dennis Cooper - are an essential element in your work. However the performers in your productions are often mute projecting another type of tensions through their silence and movements. I understood that your next piece is about ventriloquism. Could you tell us more about your use of the voice? And your next piece?

G.V.: Texts by Dennis Cooper are not obvious to bring on stage. Cooper’s characters can be confused; and having difficulties to use words to translate their feelings. Although even if in our plays characters are not often talking a lot, the text in it is essential. In our several play created together, we explore several placements of the voice in relation to the body. Associated or dissociated voices are essential in my work.
The new work that I am developing is based upon ventriloquism and it will premiere in July 2015 in Halle, Germany. It is with Jonathan Capdevielle, an actor I’m very close to and who is performing key roles in nearly all my plays, and 8 puppeteers from the Halle PuppentheaterIt is a fictional reconstitution of a ventriloquy convention.
Jonathan and I had the chance to discover the annual ventriloquy convention in Cincinnatti this year and it was also an incredibly inspiring experience. Cooper is developing the text for that play based on 9 actors speaking 2 to 3 voices each; the dissociation of the voices from each other create different layers of inner voices. This complex sheet of words reflecting multiple layers of a conversation is extremely fascinating to work on.

N.B.B.: Thank you, Gisèle. We will be at New York Live Arts from October 29th to November 1st, 2014.

To know more about Gisèle Vienne’s production, please visit her website.