We invited NSCD alumnus James Finnemore, friend and long term collaborator of Léa’s, to find out more about her new work “The Ephemeral Life of an Octopus” ahead of its arrival at Riley Theatre on Saturday 9th March as part of a unique double bill.
Why this animal? What is it about?
Léa: The Octopus… In the space of 3 weeks in 2017 I came across 3 octopuses. The picture “Octopussy” by German Photographer Juergen Teller, Thomas Stern’s essay “The Human and the Octopus” and reading a book about cancer – octopus is also an animal used to describe the disease. When I first started to think about the piece, I wanted to call it The C. Word I wanted a reference to life, illness and the female organs. Octopus(sy) was the perfect alternative to a title that might have made me sound like an angry teenager.
Thomas Stern in his essay, quotes Marcel Proust “to ask pity of our body is like discoursing in front of an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the tides, and with which we should be appalled to find ourselves condemned to live.”
The Octopus is the body: the body we don’t understand, the body we don’t have any real power over… Once it’s broken or expired, it’s hard to repair it properly or to extend its expiry date. Once the body lets us down, we’re done. I was very interested in the relationship between the mind and the body. Having experienced operation/diagnosis, having faced my own mortality, I strongly felt my body and mind were dislocated. “The Ephemeral Life of An Octopus” is about that dislocation. It is about the sensation that your body is doing its thing, without your consent, it is about the cells growing abnormally in your body, it is about the absurdity of cancer: an illness I understand to be full of life.
“The Ephemeral Life of An Octopus” is scientific: we collaborated with oncologists, gynecologists, geneticians and surgeons to understand what makes a healthy cell become cancerous. It is philosophical: wouldn’t we/I be happier without a consciousness? I always refer to this quote from Thomas Stern’s essay “There is the ancient, religious idea that man is the unhappy combination of beast and god: if only we were divine, we would be liberated, immortal spirit; if only we were beast, we could be content in our instinctive ignorance.” And it is phenomelogical: it is also about the experience of the patient. The feeling of having your body taken from one place to an other, open, pierced, observed through different mechanisms and scopes, each going always deeper inside you.
In a word, it’s about having a body and how weird that is.
James: Although it might be said every piece is personal to a choreographer regardless of the idea, how was your experience of making a work that related to such a strong personal experience?
Léa: It took me a while to openly talk about it. I did not want to scare my collaborators, I did not want to scare theatre goers. I would never go watch a piece about/inspired by an experience of cancer and yet I am making one. At the very beginning, I hid myself behind the philosophical concepts of the work.
So one day, I admitted it. I opened myself about it more and more. We shared stories, discoveries, we talked about what we had learned about cells/disease etc.
I realized that I needed to be 200% honest with my collaborators: I needed their trust, but they needed mine too.
The process has never been tearful or painful. It was about the absurdity of the disease. I think I needed to objectify it in order to be able to talk about it/see it almost every day.
On top of this, I feel that the piece is the coherent continuity of my previous ones. I am refining my choreographic language, I am understanding and deepening my own aesthetic. This goes beyond the subject of the piece.
James: During your process you held talks at the Wellcome collection facilitated by Gynaeco-Oncologist Adeola Olaitan, Philosopher Thomas Stern and Artist Brian Lobel.
How much did those talks inform the work? Were they helpful within the process?
Léa: It was like being back at Uni: listening to their explanations of cancer, notions of pain or studies on cancer in the arts was so interesting.
I gathered those collaborators because I wanted to learn from them.
They did inform the work at different stages and in different ways. Some discussions informed the work without me realizing it at first. For example: I did not realize how much the definition of a cancer cell had impacted our work until I re-read some notes from a discussion with Adeola.
Those conversations were definitely helpful within the process; if they didn’t lead to some movements or situations that we kept in the final piece, they paved the way to what the piece is. They also allowed me to meet so many different people, from so many different background and horizons. The talks were very informal, participants would interact and thus, would give their opinions, share their experience. These weren’t lectures but real conversations with real people.
More generally, it raised the question of Art and Science. I came to the conclusion that an artist is not much different than a scientist/a surgeon. They need imagination to invent something, and repetition to achieve the best movement.
James: For Octopus you have worked with some of the same collaborators as your previous work/s. Is building a consistent team of collaborators important to you and for your works’ development?
Léa: I don’t think so. I believe in group dynamics. A different group for a different piece.
I like the feeling of refreshing and resetting myself. Not having a consistent team of collaborators allows me not to feel too comfortable too quickly, it forces me to re-imagine myself, to re-articulate my approach to dance/art. I mentioned trust earlier: trust, excitement, surprise. Maybe I like to surprise myself in working with collaborators I have never worked with before. And I feel reassured to work with collaborators I have worked with before. Mmmh…
James: Who will like this show? who will it appeal to?
Léa: Adventurous audience members.
Anyone who has a body.
Anyone who ever wondered about their relationship to their body.