Michael Langan talks to the dancer Paul White about the highly anticipated UK premiere of Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle at the Southbank Centre.
The first performance of The Rite of Spring in 1913 is considered to be a pivotal moment in modern art. Stravinsky’s score, commissioned by Serge Diaghilev and choreographed for the Ballet Russe by Diaghilev’s lover, Vaslav Nijinsky, was a success de scandale. Much of the fuss at its notorious premiere, including punches being thrown and tales of a ‘riot,’ was orchestrated and stirred up by Diaghilev himself, who knew the value of such publicity. Having said that, it’s no exaggeration to say that The Rite of Spring, more than any other single work of modernism, altered the course of Western cultural history.
The Rite of Spring’s centenary is being marked by different cultural institutions, in different ways, and the Southbank Centre is offering the UK premiere of Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle, a solo dance piece co-created and performed by Paul White. Such was the success of The Oracle when it was premiered in 2010 that Tankard and White were awarded top honours at the Ausdance awards that year.
Paul White has been acclaimed as one of the most exciting male dancers performing today. He started dancing at the age of 3, gatecrashing his sister’s ballet classes and then being allowed to stay because boys were needed. Eventually, his dad built their own dance studio at the family home. His training and experience includes a mixture of classical ballet, acrobatics, tumbling, martial arts and yoga, and it shows in his incredible strength and fluidity. At the age of 21 he did a two-year project with DV8 and now works with the legendary Tanztheatre Wuppertal, spiritual home of the late, great Pina Bausch.
Of his work in The Oracle, Meryl Tankard said, “He can be so strong and masculine, but he has this soft, gentle side to him. It’s very graceful. The contrast between nature and life and fragility and strength has always interested me, and Paul has that ability to pull that off. It was like working with the forces.”
I spoke to Paul White a few days before his performance at the Southbank Centre.
The music and original choreography of The Rite of Spring evoke the notion of a sacrificial rite. What is the significance of the title of your work The Oracle, and how does the idea of predicting the future tie in with sacrifice?
Our piece also evokes the concept of sacrifice. I imagine the Oracle himself as an omnipresent being remaining constant throughout the piece. He is infallible in predicting the future. For me, he is a guide towards the inevitable sacrifice that awaits one of the anticipatory Spring Maidens. They are simultaneously frightened and enticed by the honour of being the Chosen One.
What are the central themes of The Oracle and the ideas underpinning it?
The piece explores the forces of nature, and the strengths and vulnerabilities of man. It’s about the precious sacredness of the earth. In The Oracle we explore many polarities: determination and hesitation, fight and surrender, strength and frailty, wonder and expectation. We also play with the contrast of masculinity and femininity. Sometimes the movements are dainty or sexy, other times they are grotesque and bold, much like the dynamic of the music.
You jointly choreographed The Oracle with Meryl Tankard. How did that process of creating the piece together work?
Meryl had seen me perform at the Sydney Opera House in a work called Honour Bound by Nigel Jamieson. She asked me to be involved in a three-week research period, exploring the emotions and physicalities evident in the work of the Scandinavian painter Odd Nerdrum. It was relaxed, productive and fruitful. She set a lot of choreographic exercises for me to interpret and then shaped and edited my responses, which were often improvised. Whilst watching a video recording of one improvisation, Meryl intuitively played a section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and had the thought that a solo adaptation of the work could be a possibility. Meryl’s vision for the concept and the design of the piece grew, and soon we couldn’t avoid being drawn into using Stravinsky’s music.
You basically dance to the score of The Rite all the way through, on your own and without a break, which must be incredibly taxing. How do you physically and emotionally prepare for that? What’s the come down like afterwards?
Every performance of the show is physically and emotionally intense for me. In fact, if I’m not exhausted and shaken up afterwards, I don’t believe I’ve done my job particularly well! Sacrificing oneself, even in theatre, is never easy. I try to clear my mind before the show. That way, I’m free to fully experience each moment as it comes. Every performance I play with the nuances of each character and go deeper into my interpretation of the piece. Dancing The Oracle is mostly quite a lonely and vulnerable experience despite the obvious presence of the audience. Usually after the performance, I would be happy to rest alone in a private, comfortable place, which of course never happens!
Your body is an extraordinary tool in your work, combining an obvious physical strength with a deeply expressive quality. How have you worked to bring this about?
Perhaps my early history in the more entertainment-based genres helps me express emotive qualities. Undoubtedly, working with Meryl and witnessing how her body moves has altered how I perform. She has incredible line and a special sensitivity in her movements. Throughout the development stages of the work I endeavoured to absorb as much information from her as I could. Nowadays, being a choreographic collaborator is an assumed part of most contemporary dance projects, as choreographers are interested in lifting the lid on their own physical restrictions by asking for the input of their performers. In this way, I have been choreographing more and more over the last 13 years. I have recently begun creating my own work, which is of course challenging and rewarding.
I’m fascinated by how artists in any form who identify as gay and/or queer feel that their sexuality has informed and influenced their process? Is there anything you can say about that?
Although I am gay, my sexuality doesn’t dominate or define who I am, or how I relate to others. I also don’t intend for it to be an integral part of my processes. I would say however, that the freedom I have around sexuality influences how uninhibited I can be in my physicality, and possibly allows for an openness in my creativity.
You currently work at the legendary Tanztheatre Wuppertal. Can you tell me what that’s like?
Accompanied by British dancer, Scott Jennings, I am one of two performers to join the ensemble since Pina Bausch’s death. It’s a very unusual working environment full of charming traditions and idiosyncrasies from 40 years of performing one woman’s work. My colleagues unite in an intense dedication to the perfection of performing the pieces, week after week, country after country. For me the work is unparalleled worldwide in its ability to transcend time, and punch through into people’s hearts to connect with their humanity. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Pina, and only met her twice. The company are so welcoming to both Scott and I as new ‘family members’ and their determination to uphold the standard of the work as they pass on their knowledge of the roles and pieces is unwavering. I’m thrilled to be a company member, to immerse myself in the beautiful work, and to contribute a fresh and objective viewpoint as the company creates its future without Pina. My first performances of her Frühlings Opfer will be in Naples in July this year.
Pina Bausch devised a very famous version of The Rite of Spring, and many other choreographers have tackled it. You must have been aware of that history when creating The Oracle. How daunting a task was it?
Thankfully, during the creative process for The Oracle my knowledge of Pina’s version was limited only to its word-of-mouth reputation. I had neither seen it live nor on film. I watched very few of the other versions of The Rite of Spring and concentrated as much as I could on fulfilling Meryl’s often seemingly impossible requests and visions for our work.
Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle, is performed on Friday 31 May 2013 at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre.