We interviewed Serge Bennathan, a Vancouver-based choreographer who founded dance companies in both Toronto and Vancouver. He has created nearly two dozen works for these companies, and has been a guest choreographer for SFU, LADMMI in Montreal, Ballet BC, DanseEncorps, Sara Roche and Lise McMillan, The School of Contemporary Dance, and Mocean Dance. He has also choreographed for opera companies and staged his own productions, including a mainstage production of Rossini’s Tancredi for the Canadian Opera Company. He is also a painter and a writer, and his work can be found at https://www.sergebennathan.com/. We are interested in his thoughts and experience related to cultivating a healthy mindset in dance.
We would like to share with you highlights of Bennathan’s interview, especially his thoughts on dance an authenticity. Conducting and sharing interviews on dance, psychology, and mental health is part of our Dancing with a Healthy Mindset Initiative at Voirelia.
On dance and authenticity.
Dance is not easy. As audiences to dance, we are privy to witness moments of effortless flying into the heavens. Yet, we feel that on some level there was nothing effortless about it. We are amazed by these moments, and sometimes even overwhelmed in awe, but we instinctively know that this effortless soaring had a price: blood, sweat, and tears. Hundreds, if not thousands, of hours went into that one moment, the one moment that took us to the heavens and back again. Disappointment, failure, and pure determination went into that one moment. The moment does not stand alone, but is connected to the dancers’ whole lives of struggles and the desire to push on through those struggles.
Of course, this romantic vision of effortless soaring is no longer as ubiquitous among dance artists as it once was. There are a plurality of visions that artists seeks to achieve in their work. Each of which justify to oneself all the difficulty and struggle associated with life in dance. Having a vision to hold onto can bring a source of comfort, knowing what one is looking for in dance, can help secure one’s feet to the ground. Serge Bennathan has a vision of his dances which require the dancers to push themselves past their comfort zones.
Bennathan prizes authenticity. He looks for, “a true naked integrity for the dancer,” as if there was not anything hidden or disguised, and everything is alive and true in the moment. He tries to “help him or her, [because he needs to have] peeled all what you learn about dance…[Because] it’s ingrained in you …So [he needs] the dancer to peel himself and to arrive at this moment where ‘Okay, here we are now. We can start to move, to go.’” And he can detect a loss of this nakedness as soon as he can see it, he would say, “You do it because you know it. You learn it. That’s not the direction we need to go.” Or in other words, he sees that they are doing the movement just because they were taught the movement. They are not performing the movement from a genuine place within themselves. It looks artificial. He said that “the learning part is just direction which then generates motion. If you go like this, it’s not this that you learn. It’s the direction of the energy.” For Bennathan then, it is less about learning the form and the structure of the movement, and more about grasping the inner impulse of the movement, or the “direction of the energy.”
Drawing authenticity out of dancers is difficult, and patience is key. Bennathan does not always have his own dedicated dancers to create work.
[He often goes] to ballet companies where they have a repertoire…and every night they have 4 pieces to learn… you need to be patient, you need to be patient and I need to let them know that this [movement] is not true. This is not true, and try to help them get a bit deeper and try to find this sense of this energy that’s going to help them move. And really it’s like peeling an onion. You know, you take this part and sometimes it becomes a bit frustrating because the person will not feel it. You know it’s okay. All this part, the frustration part, it’s all part of it.
He considers this slow, meticulous process as similar to an artisan crafting a jewel. All the time, frustration, and patience you use to pull out this energy, to peel away the layers, just makes the jewel, the product, the performance that much more beautiful even when you only have so much time to work.
It is not just patience that’s important generating authenticity, it’s also a relation of trust, safety, and respect. Bennathan ask the dancers to be vulnerable with him and on stage so that he can create art and poetry through motion. The relationships he builds with dancers often have strong personal undertones, and for those he’s worked for with years, it can be difficult to break away. He spoke about one such time. He had been with a dancer for around 15 years, and he realized that they were no longer present, that they had moved on:
Maybe he needs to absorb the fact that he is done and he has to open a new door in his life, it’s a new chapter, there’s a new crossroad, whatever it is. That’s a thing, because suddenly…you have to talk to the dancer in a way they realize himself that is there. And because it’s there, it’s true he’s not giving, not just me, but the company or his peers, [everything he can]. And for me, you have to do it with a huge, huge tenderness, because we all know the life of a dancer is a very hard life, and an artist who dances is someone who is courageous. They give you a lot. When a dancer trusts a choreographer, it’s huge. You give your body. You give your mind. God knows that any kind of abuse can happen. Not just physically, but some morally, and figuratively. So when a dancer gives you this, and you have to talk to him, you have to do it with tenderness, just because of the gift you received from this person. So in my life for example, in Geneve, I tried to do this. It happened once. But I consider once in a lifetime is not too bad, that it happened with difficulty. It’s not pleasant, because you can’t recognize each other on the gift you gave each other, but once, it’s okay.
So Bennathan asks a lot out of his dancers, and in turn, he feels he has a large amount of responsibility toward his dancers. But what makes all of this risk, all of this effort, worthwhile? Clearly Bennathan prizes this all, but does such authenticity translate to the audience? At least sometimes, it does. He spoke about a recent piece he did with the Ballet BC, Poesia:
I had a few comments from people that wrote me, that told me, things, simple things like thank you so much, thank you so much, I cried, I don’t know why. AND I know why. Why? Not because the ballet is sad. It’s not important. It’s not that I am happy that the person cried. It’s not this. Once you peel all this da-da-te-da-la-da. What stays is this person cried without know why because somewhere through well of the artist of the piece through well of the text through the music through all the dancers through one moment, the person saw poetry. You know what I mean (they saw beauty) Yes! And then it opens the door that makes you vulnerable, and then maybe you cry and maybe you laugh. And so I would say I’m happy. I made a piece through that. I touched a few people. That’s my healing properties.
For Bennathan, being able to touch someone in such a way is what heals him. It’s what makes all this effort worth it. He’s developed these relationships with dancers, and has been patient with them as they go through this journey with him to find something truer, something real. And sometimes at the end of it, he finds that he has touched people, that they have seen what he sees: poetry in motion.
Article written by Ian Heckman, a graduate student in philosophy of dance and a Voirelia collaborator on the Dancing with a Healthy Mindset series.