Q&A: Emanuel Gat on music, process and putting dancers in the driver seat


Ballet BC is known for its innovative programming, but putting choreographers Emanuel Gat and Ohad Naharin on the same bill is inspired.

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Gat is an Israeli-born, France-based choreographer known for his architectural style and intimate sense of movement. Naharin, also of Israel, is a dance veteran, the artistic director of the Batsheva Dance Company, and someone Gat personally admires.

The two have never been on a program together before. 

For Program 3, the final program of Ballet BC’s 2016/17 season, a new, full-company 30-minute work by Gat will sit alongside a new piece by Ballet BC artistic director Emily Molnar (which features a custom score by Canadian “musical scientist” Nicole Lizée), and the Ballet BC premiere of Naharin’s internationally acclaimed piece, Minus 16.

We caught up with Gat after a long day of creating with both Ballet BC and Arts Umbrella, to learn more about his process, his amateur beginnings, and this world premiere work.

Ballet BC reached out to you and asked you to come create a work on its dancers. What have you learned from that process about the dancers and the company?
Rep companies are built in a certain way, and I usually expect the same thing; but I kind of found another energy, I would say, here. Another way of the dancers to work that I found very pleasant and efficient.

How have you approached this commission. What has been your inspiration for the piece?
I always approach it in the same way; it doesn’t matter: I work with the people that are in front of me. So the inspiration is what we, as a whole group, create together. It’s always about the dance encounter with these people and what will come out of it. I don’t come with external ideas or themes into the studio. Until I actually meet them in the first rehearsal, I can’t actually start working.

Do you have any exercises that you go through to build that relationship with the dancers? You must have to get to know them at a very fast pace.
It’s basically layers of tasks I play with. Sorts of games… choreographic games that we play and its a way for me to get to know them, how they react, behave in different situations, and for them to learn my process and how I work. The work [the world premiere] is built up on these games we play together and things get structured out of those experiences.

It originates then from a sort of… playful, game-playing place. Is the piece a serious piece?
[Laughs] It’s funny, because I told the dancers today… I was putting not the music of the piece but something else that was very serious and they all got super serious. I said, you know, it’s not a serious piece. It’s full of humour and lightness and it’s important that you don’t fall into the trap of, oh, this is so serious. We’re going to make this serious face. But it travels. It’s 30 minutes and it travels between quite a few layers of atmospheres and vibes.

Did you end up keeping the serious music or were you just experimenting with something?
No, I was just playing. Actually, it’s rare that I actually put the music of the piece when we work. Ninety per cent of the time I use different music [when creating the piece]. There’s something in keeping the freshness of the encounter with the music. Once you’ve overworked it or over-rehearsed it with the music they’re going to dance to, it kills something in it. They can almost go to autopilot because they know exactly how [it goes]. So, I always like to – I’ve been here now for a week and I still didn’t put it [with the piece] once, since I’ve been here.

Do you have set of music that you often use for that process?
I just have my bank of music. Thousands of tracks. Because, also, it exposes different things. You put the same choreography with different music and it changes their perception of what they’re doing and changes my perception of what I see. It’s a tool to enhance their understanding of the choreography.

You studied music earlier in your career, and I’m curious how the final music fits into your creative process. When do you start thinking of what the piece will be set to?
It changes, because it’s a bit different in each process. This one, I made the music myself, which was kind of an ongoing thing I was creating while we were working. I would give them tasks, they would work, and at the same time I would work on my musical ideas. So, it got strutted in parallel to the choreography. Some other times, I would work with another musician or existing music, so it would be different.

The piece itself, now that you’ve seen it coming to fruition, is it the continuation of an idea you’ve been exploring or something entirely new?
Ah, there’s nothing new. There’s, like, three questions in choreography [laughs]: movement, time and space, and how do you organize it? You just get deeper in the process for understanding those elements. How they come together, how they effect each other, how to approach it. But you keep asking the same question. Then, of course, the piece can have a lot of resonance to other themes or ideas, but they’re not the starting point. They’re almost like a byproduct or side effect of that process of examining those three questions. It’s not a piece about those themes or ideas, but they will emanate from the piece later on.

What’s the name of the piece?
Lock. It came from them. One of the tasks was to find certain kind of tools for partnering, and then they came up with names for them so they knew which one they were relating to. One of the tasks, one of the tools that they developed, they named it Lock. And just like that, we kept it.

You talk about how themes ultimately start emanating from a piece. What are some that you feel can be found in Lock?
Ohhh [laughs] I would say everything. It’s, really, people, and they do things together. You can take out of it references to any single subject you want, so it doesn’t even matter what I see in it. I don’t have an official version of what it’s about or what you need to understand when you watch the piece. It’s a very open proposition.

I kind of feel that, going from musician to amateur dancer to, now, professional choreographer, can only come from a real clarity of purpose, clarity of vision. What would you say is your artistic truth? Something you put into everything you do?
Choreography is a system, you’re installing a system for all those people to be within, to be creative within or to work within. So I think I try to check all the time that I’m creating a system that goes more towards support rather than control.

Am I installing systems that control them? Do they have a say? How is the responsibility distributed in the situation between me and them? Etc. I look at systems and how they can become systems of support rather than control. Choreography is a way to examine those questions.

Do the dancers help you create the pieces?
They basically did everything. It’s all their material, all the compositions, situations, all the decisions… I give them certain rules to the game that they’re playing, but they’re completely free to make their own series of decisions or choices about everything. In a way, choreography is like a car, but someone has to drive it. I can decide to remote control and drive it, or say okay, you drive it. I try to install a system where I don’t remote control the way they’re going to drive.

Looking at the program you have Emily’s work and Minus 16 coming. Does this piece sit in in conversation with them?
I haven’t seen Emily’s piece, so I don’t know. Ohad’s work, of course, I know for many years. But I’ve never shared a program with him. It’s the first time, so it’s interesting to see how it will work together.

How do you feel about sharing the bill with him?
Oh, I’m honoured. He’s one of the masters so I’m very happy about this.

• Ballet BC’s Program 3 runs May 11-13 at 8pm at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Tickets from $21.25 at ticketmaster.ca.


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