Photography by Sara Barcaroli for Sehnsucht Atelier Fucina Series I

Aline Derderian: ‘Defining My Roots Is Both Simple and Difficult’

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YEREVAN/PARIS — Dancer and choreographer Aline Derderian was born in Marseille. Graduating with a BA (with honors) in performance design and practice from the Central Saint Martins University of the Arts in London, Derderian spent a year in Paris studying dance. In 2016, she received the Leverhulme Grant for the Arts enabling her to pursue her path for an MFA in the choreography program at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Many trips to the United States and Armenia created a vivid wish to connect her performance art background, Armenian roots and postmodern dance influences in order to develop a choreographic process that questions and challenges the archetypal female dancing body as a catalyst for contemporary feminine performance writing and cultural survival.

Currently on her third year of a PhD thesis at Rennes 2 University supervised by Marie-Noëlle Semet-Haviaras, Derderian is exploring innovative ways to envision a feminist historiography of dance through the lens of postmodern choreographer Anna Halprin, Southern California feminist activist performance art pedagogy, and Armenian female artists in diaspora.

An associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins from 2016 to 2020, Derderian taught as an associate lecturer/tutor in set design for dance and choreography at the occasion of modules such as Dance Lab or Design for Dance in collaboration with Rambert School of Contemporary Dance & Ballet, Central School of Ballet and London Studio Centre. Aline currently choreographs, dances and performs with the company Consensus & Aline Derderian, she founded in 2014 and teaches choreography on the Fine Arts department of Rennes 2 University. Dance works include performances for Bouchra Ouizguen, Mette Sterre, Anatalovi Vlassov, Scatter Dance Company, Dimitra Petsa and Corinne Lansell, among others.

Aline, you both dance and direct, also design costumes for your choreography. This is something that female dancers often do. Have you ever heard about a male dancer who designs his own stage costumes?

Absolutely. When entering Central Saint Martins’ Performance: Design & Practice BA course, I had the chance to be immersed in an environment where the majority of students shared a common interest in both set design/costume making and performing arts regardless of our gender. For my peers and I the creation of a choreographic piece and its efficacy always relied in how these design factors interacted with our dances and the dancers’ physicality. Saul Nash, Londoner break-dancer and choreographer for example, ended up joining a fashion course that allowed him to mix his performing background to his menswear fashion interests. He now owns his own brand, SSAN, and gets to choreograph the presentations of his collections.

Jasper Winn says that dancing is all about wordless communication. But oral speech seems to be often present in your work. When does body language become not enough?

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I am all up for multisensorial works. Therefore, I believe that oral speech can be very effective in adding up layers to the wordless content of a piece, or in adding up elements that the body does not say. In “Jacket of Memories (Or how to hold the dulcimer),” Jean Ritchie’s voice over teaches how to play the dulcimer referring to technical words about the body parts solicited such as how to seat or use our fingers. Spectators find themselves confused between what the dance is trying to communicate and what they are hearing which I believe creates a surreal grid of lecture depending on what aspects of the piece you are focusing on while watching. To me, the use of verbal elements can be as essential as the design, they can equally structure the trajectory of the dance both for the performers and the audience. In Kanayk’, the Armenian phrase that is being shout, works more as a feminist manifesto that contrasts with the extremely slow pace of the piece.

Few dancers combine theory and practice. What are your main interests in choreology?

Dance theory helped me to better understand what it is that I wanted to say through my choreographic practice. My mainly British academic experience in the arts trained me to understand research as a support to articulate a performing practice that is theoretically rooted. This drove me to push the main features of my pieces further and most importantly, to be able to address these same topics to a universal audience. I do not want to create work that only matters to me, or my collaborators. If someone tells me after a show that the complexity of the subject took over the poetic it aimed to convey, I instantly question how I could have been more direct without losing the essence of the idea I wanted to express. That is when theory comes into play and supports in again contextualizing your concerns in a wider range of passed works, historical facts, sociologic issues …

Kanayk’ (2018), photography by Nicolas Saracco

My impression is you offer gender and identity issues in your work. For instance, in “Jacket of Memories (Or how to hold the dulcimer)” a male dancer wears an Armenian headdress and plaits. It is beautiful, but how is this justified?

Throughout my MFA research and currently with my PhD thesis, I am looking at how in the late 1960s American women artists-teachers developed pedagogic tools for young female art students to express their femininity and issues through creative practices. In “Jacket of Memories (Or how to hold the dulcimer),” I was very much interested in questioning how what you wear as well as when and where, affects your everyday physicality. Putting that reflection in mirror to the gendered codification of folk dances made me want to explore whether this worked both ways. As in, can the dance and its interprets affect what their costumes and in the case of Armenian headdress and plaits suggest, in terms of cultural traditions and collective imagery.

Some your projects have Armenian titles, for instance, “Karmir arev” (Red Sun) or “Kanayk” (Women). How much your Armenian inspirations and heritage shape your artistic image?

My Armenian heritage has a major impact on what I guess can be defined as my artistic aesthetic. It started quite early on at Central Saint Martins, while creating “L’antigonie” and sort of increased since. I am yet not entirely sure whether my social and cultural concerns influenced that fact but it definitely became conscious while studying at Trinity Laban where Tony Thatcher, my research supervisor, subtly made me realize how present it was in what I was saying, the way I looked, my influences and what I was choreographically experimenting with at the time.

Your choreographic tribute to “The Prophetess by Anna Halprin,” the recently-deceased American postmodern choreographer, is entitled “Hayastan Dancer. But we hear an Armenian song at the end, while most of the choreography reminds one of the movements of whirling dervishes. So where is Hayastan?

This tribute to Anna Halprin was made while looking at how can a dance heritage be celebrated without visual traces of the original work. “The Prophetess” is one of Halprin’s first solos she created in 1947 on a music by Alan Hovhaness, “Mihr” (Ancient Armenian Fire God). It only has a few pictures and a 30-second footage shown in Ruedi Gerber’s biopic “Breath Made Visible” as visual documentation. These resources actually show her performing a whirling Sufi dance that encapsulates her wish to connect the sacred and the earth through movement. Also this particular technic resonates in me, and my dance in many ways.  Halprin explained on numerous occasions how spirituality was at the core of her practice and how the memories of watching her grandfather at the synagogue inspired her to become a dancer. My tribute was performed with a particular interview she gave about faith, what it meant to her and how this intertwined with her art as a soundscape mixed with Hovhaness’s piano. I gave it the title “Hayastan Dancer” for that; the solo concluded a bigger project that was “Karmir Arév (Or the sun reddens at night)” and that had to do with Armenianness and identity quest. I wanted to make clear that it was not a trial to recreate a piece I missed fragments of, but a result of what I have imagined could be the content of that solo filled with my own imagery, references and beliefs.

Last year you organized a digital colloquium entitled “Dancing Beyond Memories: Armenian Women, Cultural Heritage and Corporeality (South Caucasian approaches creative practices).” How did it go?

The colloquium was a very long process. It was intended to take place at the University of Chicago Center in Paris who supported my project, mixing performances, film screening and research communications. The sanitary crisis made us decide to go for a digital format that eventually gave us the opportunity to gather panelists from Armenian heritage or with an interest in Armenianness across six different time zones. This would have otherwise been impossible. I was so moved by the quality and generosity of the artists, scholars as well as the coordinating team. This event gave us the chance to reflect on the differences and similarities between diasporic and extra-western artistic problematics whilst celebrating Armenian historical, literary, artistic references that inspired some of our works. I was and still am very much attached to the fact that this colloquium could be the starting point for a female collective bridging choreographers, dancers, artists and theorists around the topics of South Caucasian heritage, corporeality and the different ways these parameters can be addressed through visual and performing arts.

Becoming a dancer and musician  is often a family tradition. Does this apply to you?

Absolutely not. None of my parents, grandparents or siblings has anything to do with an artistic field. It is going to sound tacky, though I strongly believe that this has forced me to work as hard as I could to fight for my dreams. For example, I understood very early on that I was going to have to move from Marseilles after my A-levels if I wanted to open up professional perspectives, as the city did not offer much opportunities culturally speaking back in the days.  I also was very lucky to cross path with amazingly inspiring lecturers and course leaders when I moved to London, and these people became a sort of artistic family whom I am still in touch with and that I can reach out to whenever I need advice or expertise.

You once wrote: “I now believe in the idea that we as people cannot contrive our true essence or fragility: they are both things you cannot learn: the roots.” Please tell us about your roots.

I was born in Aubagne (southern France) to an Armenian father and a French mother. I have always been very attached to the Armenian side of my family spread across France, Armenia and California. France to me is very much connected to childhood. Defining my roots is both simple and difficult since I believe that the family you belong to and the one you choose are key to whatever you decide to undertake and the choices you make. When my grandfather Kevork passed away 10 years ago, I felt he left me without knowing everything I should and this sort of created my wish to deepen up my understanding of Armenianness. On the other hand, spending 10 years of my life in the United Kingdom had most definitely influenced me in numerous ways either artistically, culturally and as a mixed-heritage woman.

Always being inspired by your Armenian heritage, I think it is time to initiate a project in Armenia, where we have a proper soil for innovative choreography.

I actually did in October 2015, on the occasion of the Yerevan Performing High Fest. We were performing “L’antigonie” with Consensus at the National Chamber State Theatre. I got to spend several weeks in the city and this only made me want to come back as soon as possible and create site specific work. It also was the idea behind the wish to connect with Armenian artists and scholars while curating Dancing Beyond Memories colloquium last year. I digitally met Hasmik Tangyan who played an essential role in introducing me to other choreographers and I am forever thankful we managed to make this happen despite the sanitary situation. So I would most definitely love to initiate a creative project in Armenia and everything seems to point in that direction for the next two coming years, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

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