Interview with Cláudia Dias and Karas
Tuesday: All that is solid melts into air focuses on refugees. Using a single white thread, layered sound effects and a projected narrative, Cláudia Dias (choreographer, perfomance artist) and Luca Bellezze (clown, musician) recount the story of a 10-year-old boy who flees to Italy from Syria after his grandparents and parents are displaced from multiple countries. We spoke to the project's creator, Cláudia Dias and her dramaturgical assistant, Karas, about their creative process, personal and professional values, and the piece they'll bring to Trafó: Tuesday.
Trafó: How long have you known each other? What drew you together?
Cláudia: Karas and I have been friends for over 30 years. We used to belong to the same artists’ collective called Ninho de Víboras. That’s where we started creating together too, in an autodidactic way — Karas in the field of theatre, me in the field of contemporary dance. After I left the collective, I worked exclusively with Joao Fiadeiro for almost a decade, and then I started the Seven Years Seven Pieces project. I invited Karas to take part in it as just a narrator originally, but then he ended up becoming my dramaturgic assistant for the entire project. It means a lot to me to be able to have such intimate discussions through the process with someone who knows me and understands my work as well as he does. He's like my right hand.
Karas: Cláudia was never interested in doing contemporary dance the “proper” way, and I always felt the same way about theatre. My initial training was in martial arts. The basis of our connection and working relationship with Cláudia is not only through our shared work ethos, but through the way we see the body and its modes of expression. The way it can convey ideas.
Trafó: Tuesday is part of Seven Years Seven Pieces — a long-term project that started in 2015. Each day of the week becomes the title for a new piece and is created in collaboration with a guest artist. What motivated you to create such an extensive piece of work?
Cláudia: The idea came to me in 2011. There was a huge economic, political and social crisis in Portugal at the time, and we were dealing with a lot of uncertainty in the arts sector. Artists felt lucky if they had work at all, even if only for a week or a month at a time. So my decision to start a project that would take years to create was a profoundly political move — but it was also in that year when I began to explore and develop a new relationship with long periods of time.
Trafó: Monday through Friday, the pieces are finished. Do you have any plans set for the weekend?
Cláudia: In Monday we discuss the role of the European Union. Tuesday focuses on refugees, Wednesday on the relationship between neoliberalism and death, Thursday on the idea of language being a tool of emancipation for women, and Friday discusses the future and possible endings of our world. Right now, we're working on Sunday, which will be a collective piece that brings together everyone who had been involved in the project so far. Saturday will come after that; I want it to focus on our project with schools (Seven Years Seven Schools), and invite students to create a collective piece.
Trafó: Cláudia, you spent almost ten years working with Joao Fiadeiro, who developed the CTR (Composition in Real Time) method in 1995. Has this approach remained significant in your creative process? If so, how?
Cláudia: The CTR method combines improvisation and composition. It’s based on choice — more specifically, the act of choosing. In our work we improvise, but we do things by choice rather than impulse — and choice, of course, is an act of composition. Since working with Joao, this approach is my main tool and method of work in every project I do. It's about not having this idea of freak control over everything, and allowing instead to find yourself in a position of not knowing what is going to happen, or when, or why — but knowing how.
Trafó: In one of your workshop descriptions, I read that for you, “the act of performing is not synonymous with pretending. And it is precisely because one does not pretend that one is in reality, that one is conscious of being in a fictional space”.
Cláudia: When you are in a studio or on a stage — that’s not about reality. It’s a place of fiction where you can merely be connected with a certain quality of what is real. I think it’s very important for an artist to keep this in mind when they are working. There are several principles to this method, but the idea of not being afraid of not knowing is perhaps its most fundamental one, because through that we can become free to find what we don’t know yet, to be confronted with things that we couldn't prepare for. I always say that this tool has allowed me to discover the pieces that I do instead of doing pieces that confirm what I already know.
Trafó: How do you begin assembling each piece?
Cláudia: Neither I, nor the guest artist know what we'll be working on when we set out to do a project. We don't prepare anything. The only tool at our disposal is to “wait”: standing in front of each other at a chosen distance. Every performance starts in this same way, which allows us to clear away all external pressure, all expectations of ourselves and/or each other. When the first gesture arrives — because ultimately, that is what we are waiting for — we unfold everything that is in that initial move and go, go, go until the material forms around it.
Trafó: In Tuesday, your co-creator is Luca Bellezze, a clown artist and musician. What was his first gesture?
Cláudia: We sat down in front of each other, and then Luca decided to come and sit next to me, so we were looking in the same direction. Two people, side by side, looking for something. We decided to unravel this question: what are we looking at?
Trafó: Can you walk me through how you reached the topic of the refugee crisis from this initial question?
Cláudia: Once that first gesture was set, Luca and I began to gather experiences of looking at the same thing together. We went on walks outside, but also explored within the space by adding various objects and materials and examining them together. One day, Luca added a rope, and we started shaping it into various images — we didn’t know what we were forming yet, but in one of our drawings, I saw the outline of the Mediterranean sea. The media in Portugal and Italy (where Luca's from) was extremely focused on the refugee crisis at the time... maybe this is why we associated that image with this topic.
Trafó: Let’s talk a little bit about the story, the text. Tuesday tells the tale of a 10-year-old boy who flees to Italy from Syria after his parents and grandparents are displaced from their homes in Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. How did Omar's story find you?
Cláudia: The story is fictional, but it is framed by historical facts. When I was writing the text, I felt that I didn’t want to speak as someone who had the experience of being a refugee, when all I had seen was the coverage on TV or in newspapers. I wanted to know more, and I wanted to understand the whole issue better — so I decided to work with José Goulão, a journalist who specialises in this topic, and he helped me build the text. We decided to focus on the story of a young boy, because then we could talk about his parents and his grandparents, and show people the relevance of this topic in the scope of at least the past 50 years. José had been to Palestine many times, so we were able to use a lot of information and stories that had come directly through his experiences. Some parts that appear to be poetic are true as well. For example, many people really do keep the keys to the homes they left — keys to houses, homes, that don’t exist anymore, that were parts of a village or a town that don't exist anymore either.
Trafó: How does the sound we hear during the performance tie into your approach to this topic?
Karas: The sound was composed by Luca. He used a technique called "foley" that is commonly used in the film industry. Then, it was my idea to take traditional theatrical methods (where physical language adapts to the text) and flip them over, so that the text would be the last layer to reach the audience. This way, we built a hierarchy of the different layers: foley served as our base, then came the live animation using the threads, and finally the text through the projected subtitles.
Trafó: The animation seems to take inspiration from Italian cartoonist Osvaldo Cavandoli’s clasic “La Linea”, an animated series from the 1970's — is this also something that came from working with Luca?
Cláudia: No, La Linea came from me. When I was a child, we had a TV programme in Portugal led by Vasco Ganja that showcased wonderful works of animation. La Linea was one of them, and I really enjoyed watching whole worlds be created from a single line that would also rapidly change into something else, and create another scene, over and over again. This was very interesting for me.
Trafó: What has been your experience so far with how this piece has been received?
Cláudia: Tuesday has intimidated many programmers in the past. Some even said that although it is a very beautiful and poetic piece, it would be impossible to present because of “ideological problems”. I'm not sure if it is the piece that has ideological problems, or them. Perhaps the issue lies somewhere else.
Karas: I think there is a certain way that people immediately perceive the narrative of Tuesday based on the fact that it is so heavily based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the fact that we trace a very personal voyage — the voyage of Omar — in the text, through the words. Some people told us that it’s a one-sided perspective on history, which is not true... yet most of the narratives we can find in the media from the last 60-70 years have been heavily biased regarding this topic, while the case for an Israeli-Palestininan state is still unsettled.
Trafó: Not to mention the fact that the refugee crisis as a global issue is just as relevant today as it was in 2017.
Cláudia: Exactly. I think from its premiere until now there's been a huge shift in how this topic has been portrayed in the media in Portugal, and with that came a difference in public opinion, too. Something that used to be in the news every day simply isn’t present any more, and so much depends on these political decisions of how much visibility or invisibility someone decides to give a topic. We might be hearing less about it, but we know that the issue still remains.
We know that hundreds of thousands of people are still forced to flee their homes, their countries. We know they are forced to set sail across oceans or journey on foot, and many of them don't survive. We need to know that their fate is not only the responsibility of governments, but the responsibility of us all — and that the more invisible they are, the greater our responsibility toward them becomes. So, I think the focal message of Tuesday is perhaps more important now than ever — though I'd be happier if the piece had lost its relevance by now. If we no longer had a reason to perform it.
Photo: João Miguel Fonseca
Tuesday: All that is solid melts into air will be showing at Trafó on the 28th of January.