Choreographer Nacera Belaza Interviewed by Ariel Osterweis, August 27 for PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival.
On a respite from the heat and humidity of the New York City summer, I tuck myself into an air-conditioned corner of my bedroom to call choreographer Nacera Belaza in Paris. She tells me she is “outside.” I sit at my mirrored desk, barely noticing my fingers and palms reflected back to me whenever I poise my hands atop the keyboard or reach for a pen. Instead, I try to see the sounds I begin to hear on the other line, realizing over the course of our interview that Nacera is in transit, being transported from stop to stop on a public Parisian bus. I come to find out that moving inside small spaces is where she is most comfortable. When she told me she was outside, she did not (at first) tell me that she was inside outside—inside her body, inside a bus that was, in turn, outside in Paris, outside New York, outside Algeria. Nacera claims her English is terrible (it is not!), I admit my French leaves much to be desired, and we chat over the phone—ears and mouths (no eyes).
Ariel Osterweis: It’s a pleasure for me to have the chance to interview you. Can you please say something about how you started dancing and how you envision your choreography today?
Nacera Belaza: My work comes from my personal experience. I couldn’t practice dance as a “dancer” because…I had to study; my family didn’t want me to dance. I used to think [dance] was going against my freedom….When no one’s telling you how to do it, you have to find your own way….You open a path between you and the “other,” and the question is how to stay focused on this inner life and how to share it with the other. And I’ve worked on this without any concessions.
AO: When did your personal dance practice begin?
NB: I started dance very early, at 7 or 8, in my room. When I started to dance, it was like when you start talking or singing or walking; you realize it’s a way to express yourself….But I was in a context that didn’t allow me to practice dance for many reasons, so I had to find a way. For example, in Le Cri…we are stuck in the same place onstage…digging inside of us, trying to find a very deep energy to throw out. This is how I did it in my life. I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t travel, I couldn’t explore, so I said, okay, I will dig inside of myself. It’s another way to find freedom.
AO: Can you say a little bit about your family background? Were there religious reasons for the restrictions?
NB: A lot of families in the ‘60s and early ‘70s came to France to work. My father came first, and then he brought us with my mom and my oldest brother a few years later.
AO: From Algeria, yes?
NB: Yes, I was born in Algeria in the countryside. My parents came from the countryside, from another culture, another religion, and found themselves in a totally different world, and their first reaction was to protect themselves, to protect their children. [I hear a baby on the bus crying in the background.] So, they wanted to protect us and they closed everything around us. They are Muslim. They were afraid. That’s why we couldn’t have a normal life here. Every summer we went back to Algeria and realized people were changing there, but we were not changing because [my parents] brought with them a kind of schema that they kept the same, and we kept on living that way. When you protect, it’s not always a good thing.
AO: It sounds like it felt more like sheltering than assimilation. Were you ever encouraged to adopt “white,” French culture, or was it always more of this protection you speak of?
NB: It was more protection; it was a kind of contradiction because [my parents] went to another country but did not want to be open to it. So, we came here [France] and closed ourselves, to culture, to everything. It was like living life in a box. It was heavy. I felt it going against a very strong, deep desire. This might come from the studies I did in literature: freedom is not doing whatever you want, going anywhere. It is a deep, inner feeling. I realized very quickly that I could be free everywhere.
AO: What kinds of studies were you doing at university?
NB: I did French literature. I used to love (and still love) poetry and literature, but I think that behind that, the main thing I was really interested in was philosophy, the main questions of life and death, the human condition.
AO: Who is your favorite French (or non-French) poet?
NB: Baudelaire. Hold on, I’m just getting off the bus now.
AO: Were you just on a bus in Paris?
NB: Yes! I was really in love with Baudelaire’s work. His old work was exploring life and god and women, but it was really about the human condition….This was very important for me. I realized that the human is really a balance between many contradictions, not just one thing. And I had to deal with those [contradictions] because I am woman, Arabic, Muslim, and at the same time I want to dance.
AO: Speaking of contradictions, I’m interested in the paradoxical nature of your practice. You claimed that when you were a young girl you found this “digging down” into the ground in your room, in your personal space. But then you indicated that that practice changed over time, that you sought to negotiate your regard for the other. I’m wondering what your rehearsal practice looks like now, and in which spaces you prefer to spend time dancing (when you’re not onstage). For example, where do you improvise and create, and what does your practice look like today? What kind of process do you go through?
NB: You know, very early I read this sentence from Aldous Huxley who said there are two ways of being free: either you explore the world and travel or you just dive into yourself. This idea helped me to live in a certain way. I’m convinced that the [fate] we meet in life we meet because we are already convinced of it. It’s not just by chance. I think I will always be convinced that the freedom is inside. It’s not something you can see from outside. You can observe that in this kind of society: everyone can do what he wants to himself the way he wants to, speak the way he wants, and still say he is not happy and not free. He still looks for freedom. I had to deal with a very small space and try not to feel limited in it….Now, even when I’m in a big space, I have to rebuild this [small] frame around me.
AO: How do you do that?
NB: You have to build the content. I always say my work works well on a very small stage or on a very big stage because the [environment] is pushing you to build up the right space. I’m not going to try to “feel the space” by running around on the stage. I have to feel a way to get connected to this whole empty space around me. In a way, I have to go back to the same point I was describing (same thing with a very small stage). When you go inside [yourself], you have a feeling of infinity that you cannot have just by feeling the space around you….Once you have this feeling, you realize that you create the space. You create the consciousness of the space. It’s not the space as it is. You transform the space with this consciousness. I know when I look at some dancers who learned dance in the school, in a very big space, you can see that they don’t have this consciousness about the space. They cannot have this dialogue with the space. It’s impossible because they don’t feel it as something that can go against them or with them. It builds a lot of aspects of my work, this question of can I move, can I go out of where I was?
AO: You place yourself in opposition to those who have trained in dance academies. Did you, at any point, take formal dance classes?
NB: I did a dance class when I was 23 years old. It was my first class, a jazz class. And I remember I didn’t want to learn things, I just wanted to dance. I wanted to hear the music and such because I was looking for that, and I never took contemporary dance because I knew I didn’t want to learn anything from outside. I had no choice. I had to find my own path.
AO: So, you still only do your own movement?
NB: Yeah, I think it’s an obligation for any artist to feel that, to feel that he has no other solution but to find his own path. You cannot follow someone, even if the one you’re following is very good. Finding your own path means you have to face yourself all the time.
AO: How did your sister get involved in Le Cri? Does she normally dance?
NB: She was in the same room, of course! She started to dance the same way, with me. At the beginning she was not looking at dance the way I was looking at it. As soon as I started, I started looking at it as work, as hard work.
NB: Yes, labor. There is a French word that means hard work that you do on yourself your whole life, to find answers. [My sister] Delila has worked with me for more than 20 years. She shares with me all those questions. It was also very personal for her. I asked her two years ago to do her own solo; she wanted to do it, and I think she also had to go through another experience – we built the main idea by dancing together.
AO: Is she younger than you?
NB: She’s five years younger.
AO: Which pieces are you presenting in Portland?
NB: We are presenting Le Cri and the two solos I was talking about. We have almost the same dancers onstage, almost the same costumes (which are not costumes, they are the clothes we work with in rehearsals), the same big empty space. The question for me as an artist is, how can I go further? And what does that mean—go further? Does it mean doing another movement, pushing this experience further? It is very interesting for me to find myself in this very tight space. I’ve always worked in tight space. When it’s really tight, I know that the solution doesn’t come from my mind, doesn’t come from me, but it has to come from a very strong emergency.
AO: It sounds like you find that your pieces are connected or come from the same impulse.
NB: Yes, this is why in many places we perform two or three pieces. It’s really a kind of journey, and you go through a piece and another and another. It’s very important for me to share this with the audience because it’s a way of telling them, it’s not what you’re looking at that’s important; it’s what you’re going through from one piece then the other—are you looking for something new from one piece to another, or are you really letting yourself go in it? That also changes the way they are looking at us.
AO: In the concept of self-labor that you have, how do you like your body to feel at the end? Do you like exhaustion? Do you like pain (does it mean something)? Or do you like to leave a piece feeling something other than pain or exhaustion?
NB: I’m not sure I understand the question.
AO: Well, you talked about the importance of your practice as a kind of labor, so I guess what I’m wondering is, how do you feel at the end of one of your pieces? How does your body feel, and does that hold meaning for you in some way? What does the labor do?
NB: You know, the only thing I’ve said since the beginning is, what’s going on inside? The body for me is like a small room where I have to work. I don’t care if it’s a small room. I don’t care if it’s a small stage or a big stage. I stay focused on what’s going on inside. So, I always say something that is a bit shocking for dancers: I tell them I don’t care about the body. You have to give up the body to experience things the way we have to experience them.
AO: Like a trance?
NB: Yeah, but it’s not just, “give up the body.” I always give the image of a container. It’s not a physical attitude onstage. It’s not material. It’s really about mentally focusing on what you feel—all the little movements and events going on inside of you. Once you feel that and forget about the body, you create the same kind of thing in the audience. The audience starts to (instead of looking outside of themselves) looks inside themselves. When you create this strong bond between the audience and the dancers, I feel like they don’t care about what they are looking at; they just want to stay connected. We all want to stay connected. I think I create pieces just to reach this point.
AO: Do you feel that your personal politics—your concept of a kind of non-body—contains a spiritual dimension?
NB: I think so, yeah. You know when you start to work on your body, you realize that 95% of the body is the spirit, the mental. The body’s nothing without the mental. But we are all stuck to the body because it’s the only thing we can see of us. Because I have faith, I have always looked at the body as something unlimited, in terms of energy: what makes it move, what comes from inside (not from the material things from outside)? I had to forget the body to reach this other reality.
AO: How does this kind of transformation or spirituality coexist with your own religion and religious practices?
NB: The same way. And I often have this conversation now because a lot of people are talking about Islam in many manners, and I feel like they are talking about something I don’t know. I’m not interested in what people can see. The believer has to work very hard on himself, and shares this in common with the artist. You really have to explore each second of your behavior, each of your intentions. Why is it good, why is it bad, etc.? Introspection. Looking inside yourself all the time. It’s the same way an artist works. For me, it’s the way to live religion, to live it from inside. This is the most intimate thing. And it’s not something you have to show. You know, I read a book when I was around 20. The man in this book left the city for the countryside and he lost himself in the countryside just to be connected to nature. He said something that was very important for me. He said, if I didn’t know about religion, through this connection with nature, I will find the deep meaning of religion, the inspiration for religion. Humans want to talk about what they see, and to talk about it means to know it. He cannot talk about the things he cannot see because it’s too abstract for him or it’s too abstract to share with a lot of people.
AO: So maybe that’s what your dance does.
NB: For the dancers, it’s hard work because they have to believe in this. They have to go against the human tendency to look all the time—how to repair myself, how to fix myself, how to settle myself.
AO: Yes, we find this especially in the mentality of classical western dance training; it’s always about correcting yourself.
NB: Yeah, I’m surprised to find how far the dancer is from dance, really. I can feel people closer to dance who are not dancers.
AO: Speaking of dance, non-dance, and dance-away-from-dance, do you have any favorite choreographers, living or dead?
NB: I appreciate some choreographers now, the ones who reassure me [through their] very high expectations. When I was younger and I was building myself, I was more by influenced literature, cinema, and theater than dance. I didn’t look at dance at all because I knew I came from another culture; I had to find another way to live in my body, to make it move. I really closed my eyes to a lot of European things.
AO: So who are some of your current favorites?
NB: I like Japanese work a lot. Sankai Juku, butoh—because it is really strong internally.
AO: A lot of what you say about freedom and the body reminds me of Faustin Linyekula from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
NB: Yeah, I know him a bit. We have to talk about that one day with Faustin because I think he’s talking about freedom in a more political way.
AO: I think so, too. I feel like he’s talking about the idea of the practice of the arts as a mode of social healing and imagining. But some of the things he says about the body (as his country) resonates with some of the things you have told me about your own approach. Where were you going on the bus?
NB: I’m going to meet a friend. I’m going to see a movie!
AO: Which movie?
NB: I see a lot of movies. I don’t even know which one we are going to see tonight! I read a lot of film criticism (just as used to read a lot of literary criticism): I feel like they are talking about art the way I want.
AO: Hm, my partner is a film scholar.
NB: They are not talking about dance, movement, nice things. They are talking about the dramaturgy, the meaning, the way images are built. I feel close to that.
AO: You must have a favorite film, then. Do you?
NB: I have a few favorite films: the Italian new realists, Wim Wenders, David Lynch, Korine…
AO: Have you ever been to Portland? I’m in New York City, and I’ve never been to Portland.
NB: I’ve never been to Portland; I’ve never been to San Diego. I know LA quite well, New York too. We were supposed to do a big tour two years ago but we didn’t make it, and I’m really fascinated by long roads (such as those in a Wim Wenders’ film) and the dimensions of the country, the dimensions you give to everything.
AO: Yes, the proportions!
NB: Proportions and the question also of the journey, traveling. I think it comes from America. You find it in many movies, many books, and you cannot travel like this in, for example, France, because it’s too small. You cannot lose yourself. About Portland, I really have no idea; I’m just always curious to see how people from a different culture can be interested in my personal work. Even in Japan last October, people [connected] to my work. That shows me that when it works, it’s a very simple thing: what we have deep inside of ourselves is universal. I’m not coming to show you my difference, but to show you what we have in common.
AO: People (especially Americans) will look for some exotic difference. It’s a very habitual way of viewing here. Nevertheless, I think you will have a special audience in Portland. Hey, did you know that Portland is in (or near) a rainforest climate?
NB: Um, no. Okay. I’m sorry for my poor English. I put a lot of attention toward using the precise words, but in English I’m really poor.
AO: No, your English is great! I’m sorry for my almost non-existent French!
NB: Thank you!
AO: Thank you and enjoy your movie!
Ariel Osterweis is Assistant Professor of Dance at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). She earned her Ph.D. in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and B.A. in Anthropology at Columbia University. At work on her first book, which theorizes virtuosity, race, and sexuality in the dance career of Desmond Richardson, Osterweis also researches contemporary African dance and the disavowal of virtuosity in feminist and transgender live art and performance. Publications appear in Dance Research Journal, Women and Performance, e-misférica, Theatre Survey, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, and more. She danced professionally with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Mia Michaels, and Heidi Latsky, choreographs, and is currently dramaturg for choreographer John Jasperse and performance artist Narcissister. Osterweis is currently living in New York City.