Interview with Serge Desroches – performer of the lead part in the production „Othello” at the Latvian National ballet
Our conversation starts already in the opera stairs when Serge laughs that he can’t wait his killing job will be over and tomorrow morning he will turn back into nice guy again. When asked about how the premiere went he said even if Othello doesn’t die at the end of the performance Serge’s body definitely did die at the ballet’s finale.
– Did you also have the moments during the show when you almost died but then got the second wind?
-Yes, almost. I had a cramp at one point here (Serge is showing at his right side) and I said to myself, ok, ok, just keep going. It was during Othello’s solo.
–You did very well, I didn’t see it and I was paying particular attention because I think it is veru hard and complicated solo.
– Yes, yes, at one moment it just makes to stop breathing. I’m glad you couldn’t see I was not feeling that well. Good acting, right?
At this point Serge checks out which paper I’m from, I explain that we have two websites – one is www.journal.dance.lv which is for contemporary dance and another is www.ballet.dance.lv, which deals with ballet. So I ask Serge, which site this interview should go on?
-There is much color in this performance, you could say that it’s ballet, especially looking at how the corps de ballet works – the symmetry in the steps, pointing of the feet. When you look at what the soloists do, it’s not ballet, it’s more pedestrian. I wouldn’t even say it’s contemporary, it’s acting. The choreographer definitely draws her material from dance but the hard thing is being an actor on stage. As dancers we are often taught to exaggerate any move, also simple ones as „pick up the phone”. For me in this ballet the most interesting thing was trying to be real, to be myself. I have done many productions where you have to act but still with augmenting everything, this was very different, it was real emotion, there is nothing you can fake and if you fake it just looks weird.
–For me the very beginning of the performance looks like one of the most complicated parts for the dancers to find the right emotion. I saw ballet faces looking out, which is kind of safe mode, what you think about it?
– They are very classical company and it is shaky when they have to find a different aesthetics, a different way of moving. I think the company is as strong as its weakest member. Everybody tried their best to be at modern, I assume that this is probably not their cup of tea, it’s different to just shift shapes and lines, it’s different from what they are used to do.
– Another thing about the same section – I can see that you are fine about dancing only in underpants and probably you are also used to that, but for our dancers it’s different – they always seem to be shy, it is visible in their bodies that they feel a little uncomfortable. When dressed they look much more confident.
– Usually the women have hard time with this because they want to look nice on stage, with men it depends. For me if I know that I have to be topless or semi-nude I work my body to the fullest because it’s also a picture, it’s nicer to be lean and in shape than to be flabby. Men should be strong on stage and be really men and if we look too skinny or a bit flabby it can be a bit bad.
– How do you feel about the fact that probably the tickets sales partially are going so well because everybody wants to see the black man on the stage?
– It’s cool when people enjoy but I don’t dance for ticket sales, or for everybody liking it, even if one percent of audience takes something strong from my performance, I’m happy. For me it’s not important to worry about critics or money because then it becomes a business. Of course, it is a business but then you lose the sense of artistry, the sense of beauty of dance. I think art keeps people saint.
– Is this the first time for you working in Eastern Europe, in any of ex-soviet countries?
– Yes, I have worked in Austria, Germany, but in this part of the world it is my first time. I even didn’t know where Latvia is, somewhere next to Russia, Lithuania…The second time being here is much better, the first time was a bit different (end of July to almost end of August).
– Can you describe the major difference?
– I’m a very joyful person, I say: hi, how is it going? and so on and people sometimes are shy or it’s too much, so sometimes I wouldn’t say Hi! or Buy! anymore. I’m not saying that people are walking around sad or dull, there are people who are joyful and there people who are still. It was hard to know when to be happy and when to be melancholic. And also the languages – Latvian is very complicated and also Russian which was because of Alla [Sigalova] mostly used during the rehearsals. The people tried to translate as much as they could, now it was better because I had a translator from outreach program. So I got to understand Alla a bit more and I enjoyed the process. It was very interesting working with her, she is very strong, dominant and passionate woman.
– And what was the major difference in the way the company works from the one in Graz?
-The company in Graz opera is very international – people from USA, France, Switzerland, Japan, Slovakia, Columbia – so it’s a myriad of ethnicities. Here where majority are Latvian or come from Russia it’s a different aesthetics, it’s a different way of working, it’s a different way of being happy, welcoming, it’s a different energy. I think they have a very good strong group, I think they are doing well.
–Did you also take ballet classes here?
– That was a bit difficult because if have ballet technique and but none would speak English and they would teach fast and showing everything just with hands so it was hard to follow, but I took it a class. But for this performance I don’t have to be very flexible or showcase and amazing virtuosity so I just did my own warm up.
– So you don’t see „Othello” as technically complicated performance?
– I wouldn’t say its technically complicated, the harsh thing of it is the acting. The dancing, of course, is essential to the whole piece but without portraying anger, jealousy and happiness it would be just nice dance with nice movement, instead of acting with movement, so I think I’m more acting than dancing.
– Would you like to have some sections where you could really dance?
– For this production it wouldn’t really make sense to, because it is so square, things are in a box, every scene is very set, it transmits certain emotion, it wouldn’t make any sense to move more. I think also the beauty of this piece is that it has a lot of stillness which makes contrast and gives audience time to process – whether to understand the story going on or to make their own story. In that sense I think what she has done is great, it’s just enough of movement otherwise it would be too much decoration.
– And what about the choice and mixture of music of different times?
– The first time I heard it, it was a bit random and a bit difficult because a lot of it is hard to count. It’s not that I’m a person to count I just feel the music, still I felt like I’m kind of flying through the music. It’s not really a set choreography there, for me it feels a lot like noise to be honest, like I’m in a room and I’m screaming.
– And what about music by J.S.Bach?
– I’m a huge fan of Bach so this gives me a lot of sense of happiness and also brings into the emotions, I’m trying not to be too drown into the music, I try to keep true the emotions and enjoy the beauty of music with body.
– What do you think – how important the theme of war is for the choreographer and also for you? For me this is so much about the person who came back from the war.
– We can take it differently, of course, for the one who comes back from war, there is urgency to be with the one you love. But what is different is that he is the leader of Caucasians, what makes this piece so different and also in a sense dangerous is that he is black, it’s about interracial relationships. I guess I have more sense of that than of the war aspect.
– Is Othello surprised that Desdemona chooses him?
– I would say no because he is a man who knows how strong he is, knows his value, know that he is beautiful. He just says – you are the woman, I’m going to have you!
– And what about Yago, is he gay?
– I wouldn’t think so at all. I would think he is an everyday human being, Yago can be male, female or nowadays even a kid, it’s just a human characteristic.
– I don’t know how Sigalova works but there are choreographers who do one thing with dancers and have some another thing on their minds, dancers sometimes don’t even know what the choreographer had in mind. But the fact there are tricky questions and layers definitely tells good about the performance. And what about the oranges, do you like oranges? (oranges play significant role in the set design of the performance – I.B.)
– I love oranges, but since I’m here I don’t eat them at all. I think when I go to Austria I will probably have an orange but for now I don’t want to see one at all. No more orange, give me a lemon or something! (laughing)
–They have entered your nightmares – when you are most tired you see an orange ball rolling towards you. You have been performing with two Desdemonas – Ieva R?cene and Alise Prud?ne, what’s the difference between them?
– Each one of them brings a different effect and emotion – Ieva is very strong, very passionate and very womenly, very mature. Alise has soft, innocent but also welcoming energy. For me it’s fine to dance with both of them because both are supertalanted and they are doing great.
– Have you danced also with another Yago, with Aleksandrs Osad?ijs?
– Yes and again each person brings different energy, he is also a very good dancer and I enjoy his presence. Andris (Pud?ns) is very aggressive and it’s real, it makes me to even be more, it’s kind of like two tigers fighting each other. With Sasha it’s more his eyes glare at you, there are like bullets flying from his eyes. Both are different energies but still strong.
– For me Yago by Aleksandrs is more like a smarter guy…
– He has very sneaky energy, that’s true.
– While you were here did you some other productions of our ballet company?
– I saw two classical productions. It was nice. But for me it is that I’m working in theater but it’s not my life, after I leave I’m a pedestrian, I go to the city I have coffee or drink, have conversations, it is very important for me. Of course, my body is my capital, but I also need a change of scenery, I would read a book, do poetry, learn languages, when I’m out, I’m out.
– What languages are you learning?
– My parents are from Haiti, so I speak Creol and French. Also German and I plan to learn Italian this summer and then Spanish. I think it is important to adapt to many cultures, I wouldn’t say it’s practical in America but in Europe it’s very practical.
– How many times you will be coming back during the season?
– So far I know I’ll be back for 17th of November and then probably in January and then with my season in my opera house in Graz, my priority is there.
– What do you think how smart the dancers should be? There is always a question – some say the dancer be really intellectual and be updated about latest tendencies and thought and some say just train your body and be a good tool in the hands of choreographer?
– I think in any status in life you have to have intelligence, you don’t have to be scientist or philosopher but you have to have common sense to be in art form in order to communicate with people, to welcome audience, to tell them a story. You can’t be a machine because then people can just put on a DVD and get the same effect. Also with success come people who whether want to abuse you or use you or also just help you so if you are not intelligent you are going to be amazing but you will be surrounded by people who are just using you to have their own personal gain. For me to perform I have to have substance, you can’t be lost or limbo.
– What was the worst experience you had during your time in Riga?
– The first time I came the people were sometimes looking at me funny, which is fine because you see black persons on TV but not so many in the streets, also getting pushed in the shoulder in the street or going to the grocery store and being looked at as if I want to steal. But it’s everywhere you can’t just blame one country or another one, it’s just levels of it. For me I used to bother but now I say whatever. I guess the worst thing was „feeling black”, because for me I don’t look at color when I see people, I just see people. Everything is the same, when we go to bathroom everything is the same. We’re all under one bubble and no one chooses to live on earth and to be black or white. Of course, he is a black Othello, but I think people should stop looking towards the color, you limit yourself because always think of color – he is good because he is a black guy etc.
– I’m sure we look at the performance with those color eyes.
– Of course, but it’s important not to limit yourself. I can say you are journalist and doing well but not like because you are white you can be the most amazing journalist. I think that’s the problem. If I see somebody on stage I’m happy to see a black Othello but also I just see the artist.
– I know exactly what you are saying but when I see those sections in „Othello” where you do bit of afro-jazzy move I can’t stop thinking – he does it so well and the white guys cannot do it like that. It’s some muscular thing, there is something in the body proportions, there is also anthropological difference making people move in different ways. At 100 meters final in the Olympics white guys are not getting close. It’s tricky, because nature reminds that we are not completely equal and cannot be. But to continue with being different within the dance world – would you call yourself more ballet or modern or contemporary dancer?
– I would just say I’m an artist, I hate labels, it limits you, I am trained in ballet, I did jazz, I did many things, because being in Europe you have to be like that, because there are hundreds like you and even better and more beautiful, so you have to know many things. So I just say I’m an artist. When I do ballet I’m an artist doing ballet, when I do modern, I’m an artist doing modern. I respect classical ballet, when I was younger I did “Nutcracker” and stuff but now I enjoy moving my body more than just standing up straight and changing positions and beautiful shapes.
– Anything else what you think is important to tell?
– Life is good and I’m optimistic but also realist. It’s important to always think positive, especially now with the world with war and all bad things we should just enjoy the beauty that we have in arts.