Solo for Two is a new work by dancer and choreographer Jean Abreu, which has its London premiere in our newly refurbished Purcell Room on 23 & 24 May. Ahead of the performance Jean spoke to us about his past visits to Southbank Centre, this latest piece, and how he views the future of dance.
Your first major choreography with Jean Abreu Dance was INSIDE with the rock band 65daysofstatic, which drew a full house at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in September 2011. What are your memories of that collaboration?
It was the dream! INSIDE is a production that explores life within prison walls. It features five male dancers and I did a great deal of research on psychological and physical means of imprisonment. One part of that was looking for the right sound to pair the choreography with. I was wandering around a music shop in Soho and heard 65daysofstatic for the first time. Their hard-edged industrial rock combined with an incredible depth and softness, is what the piece needed. I bought all their albums and immediately dropped their record label a line. To my surprise, they immediately embraced my ideas for Inside. The rest is now history, as all of a sudden I found myself at the Queen Elizabeth Hall for full house performances with 65daysofstatic.
How is Solo for Two different from your last work?
In November 2016 we performed A Thread at Southbank Centre. This production was a huge force of nature with heavy weights, cables and a big lead covered ball, all in a kind of labyrinth that was created in collaboration with Brazilian sculptor Elisa Bracher. Five dancers from China, Brazil and the UK had to try to find their way out of this creation. I can’t be grateful enough to Southbank Centre’s backstage tech team for their invaluable help in making that happen. In 2013 I collaborated with visual artists Gilbert & George with projections of their art in Blood, which ran at the Royal Opera House and now we face more technological challenges, by bringing a little robot on stage with us.
What is the main inspiration for Solo for Two?
It was actually literature that triggered my thought process for Solo for Two. To be more precise, it was the book The Hour of the Star by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector that got me thinking. Just like the main character in the book, I grew up in the north of Brazil and studied in Rio de Janeiro. Now that I’ve spent the other half of my life in the UK, I feel to be at a crossroads in my life. Reading Lispector’s deep, eloquent writing and thoughts, made me reflect on my origins, identity, migration and new beginnings.
The robot in my show is called ‘Macheba’, naming her after the main character in the book. And I can’t believe it took me so long, to have only now discovered the books and the artistic brain of Clarice Lispector. She is such an intriguing narrator, full of wit and deep thinking.
Can you tell us more about the process of creating Solo for Two, ahead of its London premiere in the newly refurbished Purcell Room?
Solo for Two is part of a trilogy exploring human identity. Focussing on the outward journey, I worked closely with the renowned dramaturg Guy Cools to develop a dance language that reflects how a migratory identity is created by cycles of loss, letting go and new beginnings. The dancers struggle in a powerful duet to find their place in the world. Individual solos explore purity of movement in its origin with the female power referencing new beginnings.
The robot is the creation of technologists Michele Panegrossi, sound engineer Luca Biada and Artificial Intelligence expert, Professor Leon Watts from the University of Bath. The robot is a two-headed female character, equipped with a birdy-light as the conscious eye and a projector as the subconscious level, scans the dancers’ memories and projects their feelings. Operated and cued on the spot as part of the choreography, she is a witness to their struggle, scanning and limiting the space and determining their options.
In the run-up to the first performance, what are you thinking about?
My biggest concern is to balance my energy. From my partner in this piece, the wonderful dancer Rita Carpinteiro, to the technologist Michele Panegrossi and sound engineer Luca Biada - I like everyone involved to be able explore and achieve their potential so we can showcase our best together. Last week, we visited the refurbished Purcell Room to check all the tech requirements and feel the stage.
I have such good memories also from 2005, when I first performed there with Dance Umbrella as part of my Jerwood Choreography Award. The intimacy of that room is unparalleled, yet the stage is large. I am thrilled to bring Solo for Two to the Purcell Room as part of its reopening season and introduce everyone to ‘Macheba’. Memories and creating new ones that is what Solo for Two is all about.
As a choreographer, what do you hope the future of dance will look like?
As a choreographer, I am constantly looking for new ideas and trying to evolve my dance language to provide different experiences to surprise and engage with audiences. My search for innovation in dance will be a continuing journey and form the basis in addition to the various dance languages that have shaped me.
For Solo for Two, all I knew is that I wanted some kind of robot. Nowadays, we spend so much time on our phones, that I see them as an extension of ourselves. I wanted to capture that thought by linking dance with robotics and exploring artificial intelligence and the challenges of technology. As a third performer, a robot joins the two dancers on stage, holding all our memories, reflecting and mirroring the two dancers.
Solo for Two is co-commissioned by Southbank Centre and Horniman Museum & Gardens, and supported by Arts Council England, University of Bath, Bath Spa University, Swindon Dance and South East Dance
Its London premiere takes place in our newly refurbished Purcell Room on 23 & 24 May