Interview: Paul White - on Nijinsky, Stravinsky and Pina Bausch

Tuesday 8 July 2014 by Carmel Smith

Paul White in 'Anatomy of an Afternoon'
Photo: Paul Hyde.

Earlier this year Australian dancer Paul White picked up the UK’s National Dance Award for Outstanding Modern Performer for his performance in Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle as part of the Stravinsky centenary celebrations last summer. This week there’s another chance to see him at Southbank Centre in a new solo dance work by choreographer Martin del Amo. We asked him about the making of Anatomy of an Afternoon – and dancing with Tanzatheater Wuppertal..

Last time we saw you in London was in Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle – which used Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring (and Stravinsky’s music) as a starting point, and this time you’ll be dancing Anatomy of an Afternoon – based on Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune. We’re spotting a bit of a theme here! Did one piece lead to the other?
Sure there’s a theme there, but it wasn’t overly intentional. With The Oracle, Meryl and I didn’t set out to make a Rite of Spring, the piece arose organically throughout the creative process. Martin, on the other hand, always wanted to make a study of Afternoon of a Faun and create something in response to it and I think having seen me perform The Oracle was impetus to begin approaching the subject. Martin wasn’t interested in a recreation of the original Nijinsky work, but rather in creating a work “in the spirit” of Nijinsky. We tried to uncover how he worked to create these incredible pieces, and the motifs and questions that Nijinsky was perhaps driven by.

Was it the centenary of Stravinsky’s Rite last year which inspired your interest in the artists who were part of the Ballet Russes – or was it already fertile ground for you? It’s possible the timing of Martin’s decision to create Anatomy of an Afternoon was partially in response to the centenary. For me, it was really special to perform both works so close to their 100 year milestones. I had the experience of paying homage to the great artists involved and their adventurous creative spirit.

In Anatomy of an Afternoon you’ve moved even further away from the original (in The Oracle you had Stravinsky’s music) – developing the movement with choreographer Martin del Amo and the piece has a new score by film composer Mark Bradshaw. Tell us about how the creative process worked….
As I mentioned, Martin’s interest was not in a recreation of the work, Martin wanted to discover more about the spirit in which Nijinsky created the piece (what we could gather of it). We researched the choreography, costuming, set design and accessed numerous written accounts of people’s experiences with Nijinsky, the piece and the process. We also observed different recreations of the work by other artists, such as Raimund Hoghe (Martin and I are both fans), noticing their interpretations of the piece.
To create the choreographic vocabulary Martin and I worked a lot on stimulating physical sensation, particularly sensations one associates with an afternoon atmosphere. We worked outside under the hot sun in Sydney, we climbed trees, we literally got in touch with nature. We spent time at the incredible Taronga Zoo observing different animals passing time in humid afternoons. We created imaginary landscapes in the studio – some textures inspired by the work of Andy Goldsworthy – and through improvised responses to all this information the choreography was formed.

How did you work on developing the movement, which is extraordinarily animalistic… Throughout his career Martin has developed his own process of creating movement partially based on imagined physical landscapes, restrictions and sensations. I was honoured to work under his instruction, and with his very specific guidance managed to create a new vocabulary for myself. There are very animalistic movements, and big influences on this were the zoo experience and Nijinsky’s own faun character. I would say though, I am actually not attempting to impersonate the animals or the Faun, instead I’m trying to recreate what I imagined might be their experience of afternoons, including being scrutinised by visitors of the zoo. In Anatomy of an Afternoon I have the chance to observe the audience as they observe me, which is really interesting. In some moments it’s unclear for me who is on which side of the fence.

Movement wise, how have you got to the point you are at now? What sort of training have you had?
I’d say I’m a real mixed bag when it comes to dance training. As a child (starting from three years old) I participated in any kind of dance on offer. Jazz, tap, classical, acrobatics, cabaret, folkloric… As a professional my experiences have also been varied. My first jobs were in clubs, casinos, and music events, and subsequently I have worked for the Queensland Ballet Company, Australian Dance Theatre, DV8 Physical Theatre, and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. I also worked as an independent artist for quite a few years with some inspiring artists like Tanja Liedkte, Narelle Benjamin, Meryl Tankard, and Nigel Jamieson, and each of them generously shared their skills and processes. So, Jack of all trades, master of none?

At the moment you are also a guest dancer with Tanztheater Wuppertal. How did that come about and how long have you been dancing with the company?
In 2012 I moved from Sydney to Berlin, looking to challenge myself in new ways including language and lifestyle. I continued to work sporadically, but was attempting a sabbatical of sorts when long time company member and friend, Fernando Suels Mendoza sent me the audition notice. I was curious to see how the company was operating without Pina [Bausch, who died suddenly in 2009] and so applied for the audition. After the first day of the audition, I was very touched to see how the ten or so company members and directors hosting the audition were working together. It was clear that they were in new territory, having never held an audition or invited a dancer to the company without Pina. I was intrigued by what I saw – a big family working together to hold up Pina’s incredible legacy – and decided that if I was lucky enough to be offered a place in the company, I would join.

Which works have you been dancing in?
Scott Jennings (my British comrade who is also new to the company from the same audition) and I have been well and truly thrown into the repertoire. We are fortunate to have already danced in around twelve different works of Pina. I remember seeing Palermo Palermo in London and wishing that the piece would never end – it was so dreamy and film-like. Now I see the enormous effort and thousands of detailed actions that it takes to produce the works and it’s incredible. So far, some of my favourite pieces to perform have been Auf dem Gebirge hat Man ein Geschrei Gehört , Nelken, and Viktor. It is incredible to perform work created before I was born, that remains so modern and impactful.

The company have announced that they will be making new work – has that started yet, and are you involved?
So far we have created our own works for three choreographic seasons called Underground. I am looking forward to working on a new piece from the company, and hope to be involved but I believe it is still some time before we will have that opportunity.

You picked up the UK National Dance Award for Outstanding Modern Performer for The Oracle. Do awards matter to you?
I was very pleased to receive the award. Awards are of course gratifying and acknowledging and I am always appreciative of the recognition. But for me, it is more important that what I do and how I perform touches or impacts people, than the accolades that I might receive. I believe in the power that performing arts has to move and inspire people and contribute to peoples’ well being and experience of life, and that effect is what I hope to be a part of.

After your Southbank performances, what’s on the top of your ‘must see/do’ list when in London?
I lived in London for a few years, so that means that my ‘must see/do’ list is, friends and old haunts. Looking forward to brunch at Ottolenghi in Angel, walking around the East End and having a flat white at Flat White.

Paul White – Anatomy of an Afternoon
Purcell Room, Southbank Centre
10 – 11 July, 7.45pm
Tickets: £15

Photo of Paul White in rehearsal of Anatomy of an Afternoon by Paul Hyde

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