Interview: Jean Abreu - exploring the body

Wednesday 12 June 2013 by Carmel Smith

Jean Abreu with Gilbert and George. Photo: Paul Scala

Brazilian dance artist Jean Abreu was studying to become a doctor until he took a dance class and “that was it – I was hooked for life” . He came to the UK, won a scholarship to Laban, was a founder member of Protein Dance and winner of a Jerwood Choreography Award. His interest in matters medical resurfaces in his new work Blood – coming to the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House later this month. The multimedia production is inspired by artists Gilbert and George’s The Fundamental Pictures – a microscopic celebration of bodily fluids – and uniquely, they have allowed Abreu to use their works in his production – and even posed for him in some promotional photos…

What was the starting point for your new work?
Blood is inspired by the art work of Gilbert & George. I was fortunate in meeting them at the Venice Biennale in 2005 and we remained good friends. I love their dance ‘sculpture’ from 1981 but it was their series The Fundamental Pictures that led me to want explore spiritual, scientific and philosophical question about the body. Though, in many ways, Blood has evolved to be a lot more than that during the process of making the piece.

Did they need some persuading to allow you to use their work?
Gilbert & George’s art work has had a major impact on me as an artist and they have been a true inspiration for my work. I always told them that one day I would make a piece with their work. So when the right opportunity arose, they just said ‘yes please, just get on with it’. By this stage, I knew exactly which series of paintings I wanted to use and how to use them.

And how did you bring the rest of the team together?
My work is always about how I can best express my ideas, concepts and emotions and most of the time this determines the team I work with. As I get older, I feel more confident about following my creative intuition and instinct for collaboration. The team for Blood brings together artists I have come across in a variety of ways: digital artists Mirko Arcese and Luca Biada (BCAA, Italy) I met when I came across one of their amazing interactive installations in the main square of a mediaeval village in Croatia in 2008. Composer Paul Wolinski from the band 65daysofstatic worked with me on my last show INSIDE in 2011. I liked what he did so much and thought we worked very well together so I immediately asked him to collaborate with me on Blood. Designer Richard Nicoll was the final addition to the team but it has been a long time coming. His bold, minimalist aesthetic really appeals to me. Lighting designer Michael Mannion and I first worked together when I was dancing with Protein Dance in 2004 and dramaturge Lootie Johansen-Bibby met when I was choreographing the Young Vic’s Christmas show! Voice coach Nia Lyn is my new find and mainly works with RSC. She’s been responsible for breaking down my fear of using the voice

How do you go about creating a solo on yourself – especially as you’re working with projections? Do you work on your own, filming what you can do, so that you can step out and see how the piece is working? Or do you get someone else in to provide an outside eye?
All of the above and none of the above! There is not a text book or an easy way of doing it. Performing, directing and choreographing is as hard as it gets. Time is the element that I most treasure, especially in a complex show like Blood. Most of all, trusting the choices you make and the people you working with is essential as they will help you understand what you’re dealing with. For Blood, I worked closely with my dramaturge and a rehearsal assistant/understudy, Aaron Vickers, which was great help.

I hear Richard Nicholl dresses you in a white suit specially created to act as a screen for the projections. Is it easy to wear?
Working with Richard has been one of the highlights of Blood. Until now, I was only a distant admirer of fashion. Sometimes it can be misconstrued as just a commercial thing without appreciating the art that goes in to it.
Richard really knows what he is after and understands about fabric and design which makes moving in the suit very easy. It was refreshing to see his understanding of what the costume needs to say in this show. Most important I think I could go out in that suit any time!

Tell us about the dance class which made such an impression on you that you gave up training to be a medical doctor!
Ha ha, it’s such a long time ago. The class was with Carlinhos de Jesus who is like a dance god in Brazilian popular culture. He is one of the grand masters of Brazilian dances – samba, gafieira, soltinho (the Brazilian version of jive/foxtrot) and slow dances like bolero. I don’t even remember how I got into it but it was in the city of Belem, one of the big Brazilian state capitals in the north of the country. I hadn’t attended a formal dance lesson before this and suddenly I was at a week-long training session with this Brazilian master. It totally turned me upside down, I had found something that was totally natural to me. I also remember writing a long letter thanking him for the amazing week and how the workshop had affected me (I was only 17 at the time). At the end of the workshop there was a party and he read the letter out in front of everybody. As you can imagine, there were tears everywhere, true Brazilian style! That was it, I was hooked for life.

Do Brazilian dance forms continue to be at the centre of your practice?
Brazilian dances form the basis of my work and it is from there that I develop my own movement language. When referring to my early influences, what I focus on most of the time is the Latin dance movement whose influences are vast – European, African and native indigenous. I try to peel away the external layers of it and get to grips with the essence, leaving a kind of pure quality. That is what I focus on when working in the studio, trying to capture a sense of the spontaneous freedom of movement that is at the heart of the Brazilian/Latin dance tradition.
Having said that, I do like to practice the more traditional forms as a reminder of where I came from. But the ability to let go of it and transform it is as important as the ability to keep it alive.

Why did you choose to come to the UK? How has it affected the development of your own dance style?
It was a chance encounter. I would love to have a better explanation but the only thing I knew about the UK is that it was outside Brazil! There was one thing in my head, I wanted to develop further as a dancer and possible do some formal dance training. When I first arrived I was lucky enough to bump into Marion North [Principal of Laban]. As soon as she saw me, she said ‘you are coming to Laban’ and I thank her for that. Through my training and exposure to the European contemporary dance scene, my knowledge of movement and dance has totally evolved and I enjoy that. I would like to think that this evolution is continuous and infinite and I am glad I have found here in the UK a place where this is possible.

You’re touring with Blood but are you already working on/planning your next work?
I am always thinking about and planning other works but, as I learn more about my own way of developing work, I’m realising that some ideas only arrive later, as I get closer to creating a work. I have also learned to talk less and do more and not disclose my ideas for the future too early. The one thing I will say is that my own need to perform is being well satisfied by Blood. I’m looking forward to working with a big group of performers next and trying out some of the new tricks I’ve learned while making the show.

Blood - Linbury Studio Theatre
Thursday 27 & Friday 28 June

Photo: Jean Abreu, with Gilbert and George by Paul Scala

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