Interview: Paul White

 Paul White in The Oracle. Photo by Regis Lansac

Renowned Australian dancer Paul White will be starring in the UK Premiere of The Oracle at the Southbank Centre this month. Alex Hopkins caught up with him to find out about his inspirations and what it’s like being a part of legendary choreographer Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater.

How did you get into dancing? Was it something you always wanted to do and how did your passion develop?

When I was three years old, my grandmother and I were looking in on one of my sister’s dance classes. I got free of Nana’s hold and made my way into the studio. I stood at the Barre behind my sister and I started copying her movements. When Nana came to take me away, the teacher stopped her and said “no, no, we need boys!” and from then on I’ve been training. That teacher will visit me in Paris in a few weeks to see me dance in Kontakthof by Pina Bausch. It was never a choice to dance professionally, just something that grew on me naturally, and my passion for creating and performing hasn’t diminished yet.

Who are your major influences? Who inspires you, and why?

I have had the privilege to work with some extraordinary artists. I have learnt so much and grown creatively from time spent with my great friend the late Tanja Liedtke, an excellent mentor and leader, Lloyd Newson from DV8 Physical Theatre, and Meryl Tankard with her unique artistry, to name a few. Currently, I am a member of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. The rich repertoire that Pina has left in her wake is truly inspirational in its timelessness and it’s relentlessness. I’m inspired by the generosity and humble nature of the special people I am surrounded by in this industry.

What is The Oracle about? Why is it a project that you wanted to be a part of?

Meryl Tankard (director of The Oracle), had seen me perform at the Sydney Opera House in a work called Honour Bound (by Nigel Jamieson). She asked me to be involved in a 3 week research period, exploring the emotions and physicalities evident in the work of the Scandinavian painter Odd Nerdrum. It was relaxed, productive and fruitful, and at some point during the project Meryl had the idea to create a solo Rite of Spring, which she called The Oracle. The piece explores the forces of nature, and the strengths and vulnerabilities of man. It’s about foreseeing inevitable futures, and the sacredness of the earth.

How does The Oracle explore ideas of masculinity and femininity?

The Oracle explores many polarities . Determination and hesitation, fight and surrender, strength and frailty, wonder and expectation. We also play with the contrast of masculinity and femininity. Sometimes the movements are dainty or sexy, other times they are grotesque and bold, much like the dynamic of the music. Although the piece is quite abstracted, I dance the characters of the Spring Maidens, the Village Elders and the Virginal Sacrifice, changing movement vocabularies from moment to moment. I have quite a chunky physique for a dancer, so performing soft flowing movements challenges my body and often creates an odd contradiction of gender.

The Oracle is scored to Stravinsky’s infamous The Rite of Spring. Nijinksy’s choreography to this piece caused a riot when it was first performed in Paris in 1913. What sort of choreography can we expect from Meryl Tankard – will it be as revolutionary?

I don’t think Meryl would claim that the choreography is as revolutionary for our time as Nijinsky’s monumental portrayal was in 1913. I know that for a long time, she had never considered to create a version of the Rite of Spring, as she had danced many times the masterpiece, Frühlings Opfer choreographed by Pina Bausch. The early stages of development for this work were very experimental and as I said we engaged mainly with images of the Scandinavian painter, Odd Nerdrum. It wasn’t until Meryl played the Rite of Spring music over the top of an improvisation of mine that she considered creating her own adaptation. Perhaps the process was revolutionary, if only for us. “It was a revelation and at that moment the idea of creating a choreography on the whole Stravinsky score seemed a possibility. Paul could be all the characters and I felt this version would have nothing owing to Pina’s version. From that moment on, it all made sense.” (Meryl Tankard)

 You’re part of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater. What is this like and did you know and work with Pina Bausch?

Accompanied by British dancer, Scott Jennings, I am one of two performers to join the ensemble since Pina’s death. It’s a very unusual working environment full of charming traditions and idiosyncrasies from 40 years of performing one woman’s work. My colleagues unite in an intense dedication to the perfection of performing the pieces, week after week, country after country. For me the work is unparalleled worldwide in its ability to transcend time, and punch through into people’s hearts to connect with their humanity. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Pina, and having only met her twice I can’t claim to know her in anyway. The company are so welcoming to both Scott and I as new “family members” and their determination to uphold the standard of the work as they pass on their knowledge of the roles and pieces is unwavering. I’m thrilled to be a company member to immerse myself in the beautiful work, and to contribute a fresh and objective viewpoint as the company creates its future sans Pina. My first performances of Pina’s Frühlings Opfer will be in Naples in July this year.

Where do you go from here? What parts do you want to dance in the future?

I’m looking forward to a very busy year with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, there are mountains and mountains of repertoire to learn. I’m also thrilled to have just finished a research period for my own work in Sydney (Australia), performing with and manufacturing theatre masks. I will also not pass up the opportunity of my summer breaks to head back home Downunder to collaborate with my Australian counterparts, such as Nigel Jamieson towards the development of new projects.

The UK Premiere of Meryl Tankard’s The Oracle is at Southbank Centre on Friday 31 May.

Words: Alex Hopkins

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