Оn the project “A Piece of you”-

a conversation between Galina Borissova and Thomas Lehmen

Mid June 2013 the German choreographer Thomas Lehmen arrived in Sofia on a motorcycle on the route of his worldwide choreographic project „A Piece for You”. The Bulgarian choreographer and performer Galina Borissova, who took part in the project’s Sofia series, met him for a conversation.

 Galina Borissova (choreographer):  Thomas, it’s really nice to talk with you again after we worked together a few days on the project “A Piece for You” – a very poetic and romantic title, indeed. I would like to start this conversation now with some general thoughts on contemporary art and dance. Do you share the idea that when we start as choreographers, first we copy other choreographers we like. Later, if we are lucky to define ourselves and who we are, we are able to declare our position, style or whatever. And finally, when we reach mature age, we give up all of these attempts and what remains is who we really are…

 Thomas Lehmen (choreographer): Basically, of course, I agree. This is the traditional way, when people learn from masters before they do anything by themselves.  In fact this is the master-system, which nowadays still exists in some disciplines and particularly in some cultures. For example, in Japan it is still very strong, especially in the traditional forms, but also in more contemporary areas. People refer there a lot to their teachers and many Asian artists do still have them. They might do their own versions of something, but you usually see the imprint of the master. Nowadays we tend to regard this as “old-fashioned”, but I think there’s nothing wrong about it. When I compare the amount of output that comes as an own artistic standpoint from people, who learn from a master, and those, who from the very beginning try to do their own thing, it doesn’t work out so well for the artists in the field where there’s no master system. I think it’s probably about the equal amount of people on the both sides who make art with an own standpoint that has indeed integrity and is even inventive.

G.B.: How did you start?

Thomas Lehmen

 T.L.:  Well, I always did my own “little things”, starting from my childhood when I was painting and did sometimes performances for myself, when no one else was at home. And if I didn’t have the intention to make exhibitions in a gallery, I would still consider that as an art practice. I’ve had many different teachers. Some were working with me very profoundly for at least a couple of years.  Four years are not enough to work with a teacher, I think, as it is in the art schools. But that information, which I received at school, really remained in my physical system. Let’s maybe think first about the physical side, because after all we are dancers. Those techniques were taught to me already with the thought that the student would do something out of them. This is information and it is always up to the students what they will develop with it. I found that it makes always a lot of sense in class, during the time being with the teacher, with the master, to hold myself completely back. I’m not important, there’s a great person in front of me who knows more than I do, so the deal is to try to learn as much as possible. This definitely has to do with copying certain physical forms, dance techniques or whatever you take. That makes sense, but of course, it’s important for young students and artists to make up their own mind and work with the provided information on a system of their own. That’s the tough thing to do. In some universities now they push that point really a lot; they provide theoretical and physical information and now they are turning the other way round, especially in programmes at universities for dance and performance, theory is much stronger. They provide the students with lots of information about it, a lot of discussions take place and they are given a lot of examples of what artists nowadays do with the hope that students will make their own thing out of it. Most of them do, but I see very often in their work that there is not much of an own thought yet. Still, everybody is copying a lot, everybody takes examples from what people are able to do on stage and they take over these forms, sometimes ideas, ways of presentation, and ways of being on stage. That’s why we say that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. You give students whatever you want; you provide them with any kind of thinking and so on, but “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. That tells me what I’ve always thought when I was a student and later on as a teacher (which is now quite a long time, I’m teaching at different kinds of places) – students have to work out after the school, they really have to work seriously on their own practice. It’s very naive to think that university will make you a good, ready artist. This is a big mistake, supported sometimes by the universities themselves, but it doesn’t make sense for the whole art field. Many students in the art field finish school and think they are already the new generation… But then each year comes a new generation. That’s a very big difference in comparison to how it was a long time ago. Back then when you came out of the university, for ten or twenty years you would do all kinds of work with all kinds of people. And after that you would really know what you are doing. Now there are just a few exceptions of dance artists coming from the universities who are very strong people with their own mind. They make some really good pieces out in the “open field”. But many of them then get into some kind of crises and don’t know what to do further. Very few are aware of what they are really doing and I think this is a matter of age and experience. Of course, a twenty-five years old person can do good things too, that’s not what I want to say. You can make great things, but do you know what you are doing? Maybe it’s also not that important to know it…

G.B.: But how far can we go from ourselves? For example, you have a lot experience. Where do you find yourself now?

T.L.:  Me personally?

G.B.: Yes. If you turn back and reflect from a distance on the last twenty years,                                                  where do you find yourself now? HowGalina Borissova have you changed? Do you want to continue in any particular direction or you want to go back to your beginning?

T.L.: Maybe I have to go back quickly to the previous “chapter” and then I will try to make a connection. The most important thing for any artist is to develop his/her own method. They develop their own tools to be creative and also to question “how and why am I doing something”. The artists who develop their own method, have a very high level of integrity. So, each element within the dispositive they are working with, has a creative effect on the other ones. It sounds simple and a little bit old-fashioned, but actually it’s not. These components are forming the content and they are in a creative relationship with each other. Then the artist knows what is happening. And that’s the own method to do something. This is difficult to teach at universities, I mean creativity. I think I elaborated a method for myself in the stage pieces when I worked with different dancers or alone. I haven’t come up with a scientific or a theoretical method, but I worked on my thinking itself as one component in the dispositive of creative relationships among all the elements. So, I accomplished that development and at the moment I am quite saturated with the theatre form itself. Some people make wonderful things within it and I also love to do it, but at the moment it’s not really my focus. My focus now is what is happening between people on a very small and intimate scale. It is not necessarily meant for big audiences.


G.B.: Like “A Piece for You”.

T. L.: Yes. That’s the last consequent point of my work. I’ve been busy since quite a while with different kinds of relations. When working with other people, communication is a very strong factor… Communication between people, between different functions they take on. But that was more on the level of the theoretical structure of this project, “A Piece for You”. I was thinking how to make it practically with people from the art field and also with ones who are not involved in the arts. That’s a strong interest for me too, because I involve them in the creative situation and do not only use them as in the so called “participatory piece”.

G.B.:  Yes, it has been speculated a lot with this idea of participation making spectators go on the stage and do whatever…

T.L.: Yes, but I think it makes sense to involve other people, if I take them completely seriously as creative human beings, not less creative than me as an “artist”. People just have different functions; different languages and they are used to different things. But they are creative human beings. Otherwise, nothing would be able to exist. But anyway, it always makes sense to me, if the so called “spectator” has influenced the constitutive factors of what’s happening. Then it is indeed a reciprocal relation between the artist and the so called “other”. Anything less than that is simply not far from the old model. Spectators are maybe more creative than actors and dancers on stage, because the latter are doing only what they are trained to do, so they don’t necessarily experience creativity at that moment.

G.B.: What are you going to do with all these collected experience and material when the project “A Piece for You” is over? Do you want to present it afterwards in the classical way on stage?

T.L.: No, I wouldn’t know how to do that. I could think, for example, to collect  all my pieces that I personally made as presents for people and put them together in one stage piece and then show it in a theatre. That would be possible, but I don’t see logic in that. I don’t know yet whether a kind of a structure is going to develop. For now I can say that “A Piece for You” is a series of reciprocal encounters of people. In each piece two people experience firsthand something which is not possible to be translated to a third party. Of course, I saw what you did for Elisaveta, you saw what I did for Krassimira and you could also participate in a way, but still you are not the person for whom it was done. This is something that I always try to emphasize and this brings me a lot of problems with producers, because they need a theatre piece, made for a stage, made for an audience. But this is a completely different process and it’s not at all my focus now. The focus is indeed that one person is doing something with another one and then the “piece” is theirs. And everything else around – the other guests-spectators, the camera, the photos – is a third party.  


G.B.: It is nice to have a dialogue between two people…


T.L.: Yes, and I think it’s more important to point out that such thing exists – a kind of intimate space. It is not necessarily about secrets that cannot be told to anybody else, but about the fact that within the entity of two people something is happening and no one else can participate firsthand in it. We tend to oversee this. 


“Schreibstück”. A project by Thomas Lehmen where he hands over a script (written material) to other choreographers.Considering the author’s rights, everybody is free to develop his own version of it and to communicate with the other ones already done. 


G.B.: You saw a rehearsal of my new project “I Dance Maria Callas” and after that we had a very nice conversation. You said that there are so many layers in it and in this case the message should be clearer. But I personally like to leave that open and maybe make the spectators even wander what they should perceive or understand. I don’t want to be too one-dimensional and too much understandable. I know that when it’s not clear, people are lost. On the other hand, the producers always want to know what kind of audience will come to see the piece, but sometimes the artist doesn’t know. What do you think about that?

T.L.: Absolutely. In my work I usually don’t know this for a long time. I know some things, but often during the working process people tell me something and I say: “What? You think I’m doing this? Interesting!”. At the end the audience might see things which I even haven’t done. The instinct of the artist is only a sensation. Everybody expects the artists to know everything. The piece should be something which is worth to look at, something new and at the same time everybody tries to talk to you about it in the language of what they know. They only talk about what they know. That brings the artist into a conflict. The artistic instinct is a mixture of believing, knowing, sensations…

G. B.: In art we usually experience something and later on we start to understand it and have knowledge of it. Nowadays we talk about cultural products as of something we have to make and sell. This is the commercial logic of the market, but of course performing arts is so ephemeral and it can be much more than that.

T. L.: The performance exists only in the moment you see it and then it’s gone.

G. B.: How can we struggle with this market logic? Everybody wants to sell now artistic products and to be successful.

T. L.: In my observation I see only a few artists who are not going into compromises when it comes to selling. But they become less and less.  

G. B.: Can you say some names of colleagues?

T. L.: For example, I observe the work of William Forsythe. Once I asked him:  “How often you happen to make really great pieces you believe in?”; he answered: “Oh, maybe every seventh year I make a piece which is really good. All in between is not bad, but these are not the greatest things. They are good, with very good dancers on the stage”. He is able to make pieces on a big scale, there can be lots of people sitting in the audience and it works. Of course, he comes from the tradition of ballet; he hasn’t any thinking of another kind of range so that’s his stuff in a way. He has done this for quite a long time and he hasn’t compromised about the form, about the structure of ballet. If you take people who work on a smaller scale and they become really good and start making pieces for one thousand people for theatres all over the world, I don’t know… For example, Sascha Waltz from Germany, I know her from school times...

G. B.: So, when artists go on the big stage, they change and become more commercial in a way?  

T. L.: Well, Sascha Waltz was initially really interested in the human aspect of a performance, that’s what she was really good at – to get out something from the dancers which was a bit more than being simply a character. One or two generations before Sasha Waltz, in dance you could see more stereotypical characterizations. For example, Pina Bausch used a lot of stereotypes of men and women. As well as the “Rosas” Company of choreographer and dancer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker.  But for me personally it’s not that interesting to see how men deal with women and vice versa, how they abuse each other etc. I really wouldn’t like to see that. They actually fitted to certain ideas of stereotypes. And Sascha did a step further, because she individualized, she worked more with the individuality of the dancers, they had much more to expose themselves. That was great, but at a certain point it was not enough for her. She needed to be the new star of Germany. And when she was going bigger and bigger, of course, she realized that what you can do with a single human being on stage, being her/himself, has in a way limited options. And she had to start compromising. And I don’t think it worked out very well for her artistic development. She didn’t develop that far on a big scale, using very big spaces and working with many people… Here you have always to work more complex, on one hand, but also more simply. Forsythe, for example, succeeded in that. But that is how it is in the dance field. Another good example for me has been always the work of Joseph Beuys and his ideas of what art can do. He went into big, huge scale and in fact everybody could understand what he was doing. It was connected with very fundamental resources of life, of biological existence. People all over the world could understand him through his way of using the material and its power to affect. Everybody depends on it in some way. He was one of the people who very early really understood how to work on a global scale. His ideas reached many people without him doing any kind of compromises.

Galina Borissova in her solo “Huanita Hildegard Bo” (2004)

G. B.: You mentioned the word “star”. I think now it is not any more time of the real, big “stars”. For example, I cannot say any more only one star name from Germany. The names there are already so many. This is already a bit in the past, I feel. But on the other hand, I would like to know and have one name. Who told me once, that if you don’t become a “star” at the age of twenty-five, then you have a problem. And now we have so many really young artists in the dance field. But I am also asking myself when then is the best time to stop, when do we have to stop?

T. L.: Yes, on the stage it’s so exhausting… If I dance now again, my back would hurt doing all those crazy jumps and lifts I used to do when I was between ten and thirty. I just don’t want to do that anymore. And, of course, I cannot satisfy the audience with that. But if I keep developing as an artist, if I still put questions to myself and be honest about what I could learn more from other people, then I think I would still go further. When I see older artists doing something and are still inventive, it’s fascinating to watch them on stage. But when they only reproduce themselves, trying to keep hold on something, this might be simply fear of the moment “for years I don’t know what to do” which is normal in everybody’s life. I remember Ishmael Houston-Jones from the US, he didn’t produce anything for seven years, he didn’t go on stage. And when he was asked “Why don’t you do something?” he said: “I don’t have anything to say at the moment”.  And then, click and “Oh, I have something to say again, let’s do something…”

G.B.: This is really very honest. Not many people would do that.

T.L.: Exactly. And Ishmael could have done the mistake to hold on what he was good at and what people know and expect from him and reproduce it till he would run empty. So, I think that maybe the question is if we, the artists shouldn’t be able to recognize where we are in our own development, what are our necessities and how to act. But it’s fascinating to see older people on stage. In the dance field you hear so much: “Ah, the dancers have to be young and sexy and so on”…  But I’m not young and sexy anymore.

G. B.: I performed once in Graz, it was a one-day festival and I was the last performer in the evening. And some people said: “Ah, it’s so nice that you’re not twenty-five!”

T. L.: That’s what I was thinking about you also. Because you are also linking generations. You are a good friend of your dance teacher Elizaveta who is from a completely different generation. You establish connections and also have an overview of all the developments in the last decades.

G. B.: Yes, and on the other hand I still like a lot to do improvisations now, and also to do organizational work like dance concerts, festivals…

T. L.: I also think that you should say more what you think because I don’t think that people here hear enough good critics about what’s happening…

G. B.: Oh, I have done this a lot. And even yesterday I wrote a letter to the Ministry of Culture, it was very tough. There I commented on the results of an open call of the National Culture Fund for projects in audience development.  In the results and the arguments that were put forward to them you could see such contradictions! These explanations of the committee are really a new style in literature! So, I think that we should have again a next big discussion with my favorite Ministry of Culture. But we have to speak out, it is really important. Maybe we, our generation, were lucky, for it was in a way easier for us. But now, if I were twenty years old, I’m not sure how I would have existed in such circumstances. And on the other hand, now we have these enormous information and possibilities to travel and to make so many choices. It is difficult. But what are your impressions of the Bulgarian artists?

T. L.: Well, I haven’t seen much, but people seem to be incredibly open. Now there are these political protests, and there are very serious issues in this country waiting to be solved, like in many other countries too. Now through all my travelling I see artists and young people who just cannot take all the old ways of thinking and old political concepts anymore, and cannot accept the corruption in the governments of their countries. I sympathize a lot with that combination of seriousness and easiness in them. Your history is a bit unique. And people seem to me very open, especially people under the age of thirty…They are open for quite a positive future.

G. B.: A small country like Bulgaria should find its own specific way and place.  Yes, we are in Europe, but it’s also nice to stay a bit different.

T. L.: I think it’s important to keep certain integrity within the country, within the language, within the culture but not at all conceived as a “mono culture”. According to me a bigger context cannot exist without the single elements on a smaller scale. The size of a country like Bulgaria, I think is fantastic; it’s too difficult to run a bigger country. Imagine how in ten or twenty years you could have a highly educated population that will travel all over the world. It would be a development of twenty years. Why doesn’t the government say: “If we need to take a big loan, let’s invest it in education and in twenty-thirty years we’ll gain so much profit out of it”. Why not? No one can explain to me why they aren’t doing this! I don’t believe anymore in the official interpretations of economy that the politicians are presenting to us. I just think that it is a big lie.

G.B.: We ended up with the political situation .Very well. Thank you very much, Thomas, for this conversation!

25th June 2013, Sofia


Elena Angelova and Angelina Georgieva worked on the publication.

The publication is part of the The Independent Scene in Focus Rubric maintained with the support of National Culture Fund.