It’s been many years since Claudia de Serpa Soares left her hometown of Lisbon for Angers, then Ljubljiana, then for Berlin, where she finally settled. For now, that is. One of the performers in the Sasha Waltz & Guests dance ensemble, she joins the company when touring repertory pieces as well as for short term projects, while all the while working on her own choreographies and building a closer relationship to theatre and film. Recently she was onstage, with the latest Sasha Waltz choreography at the Schiller Theater. This time it was the “Sacre du Printemps”, with a live orchestra directed by Daniel Barenboim. “I love to go from bigger to smaller projects, to keep moving and exploring art in several different ways”, she says. “To go from dancing with twenty six dancers and a live orchestra to doing improvisations alone with a drummer, which is what I just did”.
How did it feel to be part of a new interpretation of the “Sacre du Printemps” ?
I was extremely interested in doing it, this is a classic. The Sacre has a history that is most exciting, the scandal that it provoked when it was first performed by Nijinski…You know, Stravinski’s music is totally crazy! When Sasha told me about this project, I was very, very tempted. And the prospect of dancing with a big live orchestra was also a first, I liked the idea. So even though in recent years I tend to prefer to work less often as part of a big group of dancers, this one was a very exciting proposition.
When did you start working with Sasha Waltz?
That was in 1999, right before she took on the artistic direction of the Schaubühne. Actually, that was how I first came to Berlin, in 1999. I was in Portugal at the time and was keeping an eye on auditions internationally, when I found out that Sasha Waltz was looking for dancers. So I came, for the audition and that’s how it all started. The audition was taking place over a whole weekend, at the Sophiensaelle, and I still remember how packed the space was. There were so many of us that it was practically impossible to move without touching one another. So anyway, I auditioned, stayed for a week, saw very little of Berlin and flew back to Lisbon. But a week later, I was invited to come back and work with Sasha in two projects. At the time her company numbered six dancers, but because she was going to be one of the two artistic directors of the Schaubühne, she was planning to start with a piece that needed 12 dancers. Basically, she was looking to recruit six more dancers, but she first wanted to try us out.
So the project that you would be working on was a preparation for the Schaubühne? And what was the project about?
That’s right. Sasha needed to see how the new dancers would integrate and work with the already existing company. We did two projects and one of them was performed in the Jewish Museum. The building had just been delivered by Daniel Libeskind and Sasha was asked to create a choreography and stage a performance in the space while it was still empty of exhibits. It was an ideal space, the architecture is so powerful, so extraordinary… I remember how we were rehearsing and improvising in the Void, a very dark space inside the museum. And I remember rooms where there are only slits in place of windows, so we would work with the thin rays of sun that would slip through and incorporate this effect in our work. It was an amazing experience. The architecture, but also the theme of the museum, had a great effect on our work. And in fact, many of the things that we explored and experimented with during that project, were later included in “Körper“, which was the first piece that Sasha Waltz choreographed for the Schaubühne.
Did you also get to know Berlin a little better that time? How did the city look in 1999?
Yes, sure, I was living in Oranienburgerstrasse, I was very centrally located and during that time I actually came to feel the energy of the city. And I was fascinated by it. There was a very vibrant underground scene at the time. You would go to a club that you knew by name, but not by address. I mean that you did not know where it was going to be located the following week. Or you would go down the stairs of an underground place and people would put some candles and sofas, a dj would show up and it was a club for the night. There was a lot of improvisation. In fact there was something very ephemeral about everything in Berlin.
Was the city as international as it is today?
No, not at all. The community that I was a part of was international because that’s how it is with dancers, they come from all over the globe. But the city was nothing like it is now. It was already ten years after the fall of Wall and one could see that the Mitte was going to eventually be full of fancy places, it was obvious that the city was going through a transition. However Berlin was not yet seen as the place to go to. I remember going back to Portugal and saying to my friends that I was moving to Berlin and everybody was reacting with surprise. “Berlin?” they’d say. They were not at all impressed, not at all. It was not considered cool.
How did you feel about working in the Schaubühne at such an exciting time for the theatre?
Well, I had not exactly realized that part. It’s funny. That was a very exciting time for the theatre world of Berlin. The Schaubühne was entering a new phase under the artistic direction of Thomas Ostermeier and Sasha Waltz. That was also remarkable, she was there first choreographer to be appointed artistic director. Until then choreographers were collaborating with the theatre as guests. So, anyway, on my part I was just looking at it this way: I am going to Berlin to work with a choreographer whose work I like. But to be honest, that was all. Sure, I had heard the name “Schaubühne” but I was not aware of its symbolic weight. And that was also true of the rest of the foreign dancers. I remember that we began to realize what was going on only when the pictures of the ensemble started appearing in all the newspapers.
How was the experience of Schaubühne with “Körper”?
It was a big success in every sense of the word. We were a group of thirteen dancers all hailing from different countries, each with a different artistic background and personalities and Sasha brought us all together in a way that made the piece very rich. We became very attached, we loved working together and were very interested and excited to watch what each of us was contributing to the piece. We haven’t performed “Körper” in Berlin for a long time, but we still do it on tour. It was interesting to belong to a theatre, do so many shows all the time and share the everyday life of the theatre and its people, to be a part of that. You become a family in the theatre. Then what was a completely new challenge was the fact that I was performing so much!
In which sense was that a challenge?
Because you reach a point where you start questioning yourself: As a performer, what can I bring to the piece today? You may be very tired, you have performed the piece so many times, you know every tiny movement perfectly, your body practically moves by itself. So the question is how can one be in the moment, always. One day while doing a performance, I went “oh my god, I am thinking I have to call someone tomorrow”. And I said to myself “Claudia come back to the piece.” That was very disturbing, because I am someone who always wants to feel present in the performance with all my senses. I was feeling guilty when my mind was drifting. By now, however, I very well know the difference and how one can still do a good job. For me Schaubühne was like a school in that sense.
Do you believe the audience can feel it if the performers’ mind is drifting away, as long as they are still executing the choreography perfectly?
I think so, yes. Or I like to think so. However there have been times when people would come to see the show and find it amazing on days we thought it was not so. You know, the truth is that people react to the performance because of the piece itself, because the piece can stand and will still “talk” to them, it will still be a surprise. The challenge is for the performer to manage to feel surprised and challenged every night, after having conquered the physicality of the piece, after being able to do it mechanically even. For me that was the question. It’s a question I don’t even know if I have answered.
Why did you decide to leave the Sasha Waltz company as a full member and be a Guest?
One answer could be that as with all things, when something is new it is very exciting and with time it becomes less exciting. In my case I think that time went by very fast, I was working very intensively. When you are in an ensemble like this, you have schedules that tell you exactly how your life is going to unfold in the coming year. And I wanted be able to choose the projects that I as going to work for, to have the freedom of choice. Of course I knew I had been very happy and truly doing exciting work. There was a part of me that did not want to leave the Sasha Waltz Company, because I was doing great work there. It was also emotionally hard to leave, working with someone for so many years is like a relationship. But I was feeling that I needed to experiment a little more, to have more chances to work with different people. People even from different disciplines. I needed the variety. I had done some theatre and I wanted to do more, I had a cooperation with a video artist and that was very interesting. So I became a Guest.
You have also done video art?
No, I collaborated with a video artist, Eve Sussman, on a project she was preparing. I had met her in Berlin while she was doing a video for a piece of Sasha. We kept in contact and at some point she said she was doing a video of a very choreographic piece. She wanted to do one continuous shot, so there was a choreography of the actors and of the camera that had to be set and decided. That’s where I came in. The idea of the choreography of the camera was extremely interesting to me. So this collaboration with Eve and the Rufus Corporation for “89 Seconds at Alcazar”, woke me up to all the several prospects and possibilities with which I could challenge myself with and learn. It also was a great success, so we started working on a new, bigger project, The Rape of the Sabine Women. We went to Greece for filming, we were a big group of people working for it. We shot in Greece and in Berlin and it was a unique, very creative and challenging project for me.
So these were your first choreographies, the ones you did for video?
No, I had done small things before. But until now it never was my first priority to be only a choreographer. I still like very much to perform. I want to explore performing in various areas – in theatre also. And in my case, anyway, most projects do not normally start with an idea that I want to make real, no. Most of the time they start with people. It is the person and the possibility of collaborating that works as an inspiration. So it is people who inspire me to work with them.
What is most characteristic about the way you approach art as a performer?
When I am exploring a choreography, I think there is always a part of me that wants to do something I haven’t done before. Because that’s more fun, to go to a place you haven’t been before. There are things I want to explore physically, or theatrically and creation makes me go there.
What is it about theatre that excites you?
I have always liked theatre, I have always been a theatrical dancer, I like to play characters. Parallel to dance I have done acting, also. And I have already done two pieces, in France, and plan to do more. And I definitely want to integrate the two things, I am interested in telling a story by working more with the body of the actors. In general, I don’t like to separate things in art. That’s why I jump from one thing to another, from one project to another. OK, I am a dancer, but first and foremost I am a performer. Art encompasses every kind of performance one does, I don’t care to put a label on everything.
Are you working on something right now, apart from the “Sacre du Printemps”?
Yes I am working on “Rover”. It is one of those collaboration projects that inspire me. ”Rover” is a project with the drummer Jim White and the visual artist Eve Sussman. Eventually it will be presented here, in Berlin.
Do you think that dance is very demanding on its audience? That one needs an educated eye in order to appreciate it?
Sometimes…It depends so much on the dance piece…I think that it is a different experience depending on how you approach it. It’s not that it is more demanding. For sure an educated eye can help you out sometimes with some pieces, but I don’t think that that’s the point in order to appreciate it.
When you talk to people after a piece, do you find that what they have seen is something new?
Yes, and it is fantastic. It is great when people are open for this to happen. People who say “Oh I don’t know dance, so I don’t get it” are not open. You don’t need to push yourself to understand. No one needs to understand. At the end of the day, what matters is if something touches you, if something happens to you – on an emotional or intellectual level.