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Curtis Uhlemann: Together through conflict

By | Published on Friday 15 August 2014

Curtis Uhlemann

A young musician searches through his late grandmother’s trunk and discovers mementoes of her life, which together tell the story of two people, from different sides of an ocean, brought together through the turmoil of World War II. That world is recreated through video, sound and dance in ‘The Warriors: A Love Story’, a show inspired by a real-life relationship, conceived by American group ARCOS Dance and presented at the Fringe this month by Ines Wurth. We spoke to ARCOS’s Artistic Director Curtis Uhlemann about that true story, how it inspired his show, and how it’s now being retold on stage.

CC: Tell us about the premise of ‘The Warriors’.
CU: ‘The Warriors’ is inspired by the idea of the legacies our grandparents leave us and what we choose to do with them. The show is based on the actual international marriage of a German dancer and American philosopher after World War II, two people who transformed their horrific experiences in the war – the bombing of Dresden, the inhumanities that come with seeking out and killing ‘the enemy’ – into a lifelong commitment to acts of love and beauty.

CC: The story is inspired by your multimedia director Eliot Gray Fisher’s real life grandparents. What influence did their lives have on the piece?
CU: The recorded voices of Ursula and J Glenn Gray, taken from interviews in the early 70s, are played in the production. And Glenn’s book ‘The Warriors: Reflections On Men In Battle’ provided thematic and narrative inspiration. Plus even a few of the set pieces are objects that actually belonged to the couple. As far as the form goes, we experimented with post-modern and contemporary dance styles, trying to create movement that honours the era in which Ursula danced in Dresden – with German pioneers Mary Wigman and Gret Palucca – as well as our own. Their artistic influence and spirit of innovation in the past is present in our own choreography.

CC: Your show is set in a world in conflict, and a city surrounded by destruction. But, as the title tells us, this is a love story. Is there a message in that juxtaposition?
CU: In the show, Ursula is heard using a German phrase “über leben” in reference to “living through” the bombing of Dresden, but goes on to say that it felt more like “dying” through it. The show explores how such profoundly destructive experiences make the elements of material life less important for survivors. The parts of our life such as love and companionship become more important for them, as we see in Glenn and Ursula’s life. It’s really not the kind of ‘love story’ one would think about when you hear that phrase: it’s actually about people learning about a deeper love and deciding to live it and teach it in their lives. And perhaps the people they touched with this understanding led different lives for it and passed it along to everyone they knew. This production is an extension of that legacy.

CC: The multi-media content is a key element in your work. What kind of footage is used in this production?
CU: There is a wide variety of audio-visual material from the past century incorporated into the piece: rotoscoped versions of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1890s studies of human and animal movement, in a stylised animation depicting the Dresden bombing; actual war propaganda from multiple countries; audio and film footage from a BBC interview in the 70s with Glenn and Ursula; home movie video from the 80s; contemporary news reports; and time-lapses shot during a recent trip to Germany. There are also sequences involving filmed dancers and actors that interact with the live performers onstage in various ways.

CC: With the choreography, music, and multimedia all seemingly equally important in the piece, what is your creative process like? Which ones come first, and how does each element develop with the other?
CU: With this production in particular, we decided to create the show in a bit of a different way than we’re used to doing. Because the story was inspired by real lives, and we had so many documentary, archival, and found footage sources, we started by developing the video and audio pieces and real-life inspired scenes first and created the choreography around them. We also considered all the transitional moments as though they are their own pieces or ideas. That’s something that we also think sets us apart from others: the work we do in seamless transitions between what might normally be distinct scenes with beginning and endings. We like to blend and overlap the moments just as we do the different media, looking at the entire show as a series of choreographed moments.

CC: Some of the music is performed live. Is the live music element important?
CU: Yes. Having some of the music performed live in conjunction with recorded audio and music is related to the way we think about the interplay of live performers onstage with visual media. The electricity and unpredictability of having dancers perform to a live musician at key moments provides vital contrast to recordings, which will not vary night to night. Additionally, having a single instrument, the piano, playing onstage, we have to think differently about how we’re creating what the audience sees choreographically. It’s stripped down compared to the variety of sounds that is possible in a grandiose recorded piece, which can almost be used as a crutch to more easily evoke emotion in the audience. Having a single live musician forces each of the elements to be stronger on its own, making the layers even more powerful when combined.

CC: Tell us a bit more about Arcos.
CU: We are a relatively new multimedia contemporary dance company. The creative directors have been collaborating for a while, but the company really only began three years ago. What sets us apart from other dance companies is that we have a design team of creative directors that work highly collaboratively and democratically, a bit more like a devised theatre group. Our intention behind this organisational structure is to continue to develop a consistent trademark across productions that has more to do with the dynamic interplay of multiple media as opposed to a number of recognisable stylistic qualities. We also collaborate eagerly with other artists and designers outside of our disciplines of expertise, which helps bring in new ideas and thought.

CC: For those unfamiliar with your work, tell us about the choreography. What styles do you perform, and how was that influenced by the setting of the play?
CU: When we choreograph, we consider three main elements: vocabulary, space and performance quality. Of these, what makes our choreography stand apart from others is the use of ‘spatial pathways’ in staging. In each production that we create, we use the layout of the stage and set pieces as a map to inspire new ways of moving the dancers through and enveloping the space. As far as vocabulary goes, in each of our productions it has evolved a bit more; our choreography is in a constant state of evolution at this point. Currently, we’re experimenting with a lot of staccato, gestural movements and trying to pay a great deal of attention to the subtlety of movement while still maintaining our strong, visceral quality.

CC: This is your first time performing at the Fringe. How are you enjoying it?
CU: It’s inspiring and humbling to be performing at the Fringe for the first time. We’ve never done anything quite like it. It’s particularly stimulating for us because of its constraints – especially time and space – which always exhilarates artists. It’s incredible to be around so many fellow performers and creators that are as dedicated to and expert at their craft as we push ourselves to be. It’s also our first opportunity to work with such a highly experienced producer, Ines Wurth, who has put her resources to use to make our time at the Fringe as full and rich as it has been so far.

‘The Warriors: A Love Story’ was performed at Zoo Southside at Edinburgh Festival 2014.

LINKS: www.arcosdance.com



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