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Balancing Act: Clément Layes on Performance, Philosophy, and the Art of Play

Clément Layes’ Allege is based on a simple question: “What can I do, and not do, while balancing a glass of water on my head?” Each performance of Allege is a 45-minute exploration of the possibilities and limitations created by this balancing act. With water bottles, glasses, and other everyday objects, Layes subverts the structures that constrain him by […]

Clément Layes "Allege"

Clément Layes. Photo: Dieter Hartwig

Clément Layes’ Allege is based on a simple question: “What can I do, and not do, while balancing a glass of water on my head?” Each performance of Allege is a 45-minute exploration of the possibilities and limitations created by this balancing act. With water bottles, glasses, and other everyday objects, Layes subverts the structures that constrain him by making a game of them, pushing them to the point of absurdity, merging research and performance, logic and phenomenology. As with the glass of water, he creates a balance with elements from his training in dance, theater, circus, and philosophy, while still refusing to be defined or confined by categories.

Allege is a performance and a question. As Layes writes on his website:

It is not an art for the future nor a culture for now. It is five hundred quotes disguised in few plastic bottles. It is not a geometric demonstration. It is not about Clément Layes, it is not a rock concert although it would be great, it is not only happening, it’s also unhappening, it is not ambivalent.

In advance of his visit to Minneapolis, I had the chance to chat with Layes over Skype to learn a bit more about his eclectic background, the philosophical inquiry in his work, and how Allege came to be.

Allege Clement Layes

Clément Layes in Allege. Photo: Karen Linke

What was your creative process for Allege? How did you come up with the ideas for this piece?

It started with some research I was doing with objects, particularly with glasses and bottles of water. I was working with a few other performers at the time, and we started practicing balancing a glass of water on our heads — which is not so easy to do! But I realized that there was very interesting potential within the structure of the glass. I wanted to explore how I could constrain myself in order to not be able to dance like we would expect a dancer to, but rather to move in a very specific way that would be defined by the constraints we had created — in the first place, the glass of water. So that’s how it developed. It wasn’t something that was planned; it was more ongoing research about these constraints and these objects.

On the topic of constraining structures: you’ve studied philosophy, and it seems to find its way into many of your pieces. How does philosophy figure into your work?

First of all, I am not a philosopher. But I have a great interest in philosophy, and for me, creating a performance is not so much something that is meant to entertain people, but rather to create some thinking in the audience. And not just conventional logical thinking — I see performance as a way to experience the world through the senses as well. I was very influenced by the phenomenological thinkers, the type of philosophy that invites one to come back to the experience of things. The question for me, particularly in performance, is how to find strategies to re-engage with the world, how to rediscover the things we actually know. By rediscovering them we also discover how the inscribed knowledge we have accumulated can be made dynamic again.

I’m also very interested in the creation of systems. This is maybe not so much about philosophy, but it’s something that is very present in bureaucratic systems and so on: we endlessly create systems that constrain us in different manners, being totally ineffective. I was curious to see what is produced on stage if I do this to a kind of extreme absurdity.

You have an eclectic background in circus, dance, theater, and philosophy: how does your background contribute to your work?

It’s a very strange path. I did theater and circus in high school, and later I pursued philosophy and circus. I was a juggler — it was my first specialty. At circus school I also did all kinds of acrobatics and trapeze, but my main interest went very soon to dance. I had been struggling in between circus, philosophy, and dance, and somehow I ended up only doing dance and attending dance school.

What’s interesting for me is that it took me around ten years to finally be able to combine these different elements of my background on stage and to make them play together without excluding elements of one or the other. And because they are so different in terms of form and aesthetics, I feel like part of the creation I’ve been doing in this performance particularly was to find ways to make those interests merge into one specific form that was satisfying for me.

In this sense I think the performance speaks a lot about categories, about how we organize categories — which to me is very complex. I started to reflect really precisely on the category of dance: what does it mean if I, as a creator of dance, place myself in the dance category? Am I not keeping myself within certain boundaries which are defined by the institutions with which I work? So now I try not to think in those terms, not to define myself while I’m working.

That actually was one of my questions—“Do you have a way to describe yourself and the work you do?” It sounds like from what you’re saying, you don’t really describe yourself as doing just dance, or theater, or circus, or art…

Exactly. I cannot escape being defined by others and particularly by institutions, because there is a need from theaters and critics and so on to define something for the audience. But in order to have the chance to create something new, I have to take care not to be defined within these frames. For example, I find that dance and visual art actually have a lot in common, but they are created in two categories that are very strongly socially divided, in terms of the practice and the people involved. In dance, we tend to be dependent on the dance studio and can only access it for a certain number of hours per week or month, and only in relation to a production. That is, dance as a practice is defined by the time frame of the rehearsal schedule. This is the opposite of practice for visual artists: they have the studio, where they can work every day without having to produce something. Now I am trying to create a space where I can work whenever it’s needed, to not only function in order to make a production, but to also be able to try out things, to research without being bound to make a piece.

One of the most important aspects of Allege is “play,” as a way to deal with these categories. I never take a very serious approach, but more a kind of childlike way of working: putting things together and seeing what happens in order to decide the next step to take.

Clément Layes "Allege"

Clément Layes in Allege. Photo: Dieter Hartwig

Your company, Public in Private, also seems pretty uncategorizable. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

Jasna Vinorvski is one of the main members and a co-founder with me. The primary thing we do is create performances, but since it’s a young company, the idea is to also develop it as a collective. We have worked with performers, visual artists, musicians, theater makers, etc., but often just for the creation of a production. The next step for us is to have a group that would be linked to Berlin, or to people passing through there, doing ongoing research and thinking and discussion, on a very playful basis — it doesn’t have to be very serious or academic — about how to position ourselves as artists within the contemporary scene. Because the artistic act is not only on stage, it’s not only something that relates to the stage itself, but it’s also a way to enter into the social context in which it is happening. We are working on a project we call the “Private Theater,” as a way to deal with these questions, and to involve more choreographers and artists in our discussions.

Clément Layes performs Allege at 8 pm January 23–25, 2014, in the McGuire Theater. Stay after the performances for a post-show reception with the artist (Thursday, January 23), a Q & A with the artist (Friday, January 24), and a SpeakEasy discussion with local artists and a Walker tour guide (Saturday, January 25).

Join Clément on Saturday, January 25, 11 am1 pm in the McGuire Theater for Inside Out There. This charmingly philosophical workshop creates theater and choreography with everyday objects. Each participant is asked to bring an object that they use daily to imagine what dreams it might imply, invite, or induce. Open to all. $6 ($4 Walker members).