This Difficulty: A Conversation with Ivo Dimchev
On September 14th, the Bulgarian choreographer and performer Ivo Dimchev will have his Bay Area premiere when Songs From My Shows is presented by CounterPulse in partnership with Open Space and Jess Curtis/Gravity.
In anticipation of this event, the San Francisco artist and writer Bean Gilsdorf, who most recently saw Dimchev’s work during her 2015-16 Fulbright Fellowship in Poland, sat down with Dimchev for a transatlantic Skype session.
Bean Gilsdorf: One of the things that always strikes me about your work — while you’re singing particularly — is that it feels like you’re really pushing the words out, as though it’s not possible in that moment for you to say enough, and I wonder if you want to talk about what inspires that emotional urgency.
Ivo Dimchev: For me, the voice is just part of the body, and if there’s intensity in the body it will transfer into the voice. So, yeah, my work is intense vocally. I always train my voice to movement and through my body, and I enjoy very much working with high intensities: high intensities in the body, high intensities in the motion, high intensities in the soundscape of the piece. Musically, I need those crescendos. I suppose it comes from my love for the theater and my affection for, and sensation of, tragedy. I like when something becomes difficult to accept for the body, when it’s hard to be borne by the performative body. I intensify particular elements and then I enter this realm of tragedy, which I find very beautiful and very important — to be part of the history of the stage itself. So I cannot escape it, you know? And if I were to escape it, then it would feel a little bit unnatural for this context — what the stage has and what the stage is. My love of tragedy makes things a little bit more intense than is probably necessary, and then this intensity goes into the body, it goes into the relations between the elements, and it goes also into the voice, so the voice is always a little bit pushed out.
Dimchev: But I think with the years it’s changed and now I allow myself a more diverse approach to voice. I’m enjoying exploring a more delicate energy, more fragility in the voice, being more vulnerable in this sense. Compositionally, it just allows me to have a more complex musicality, because the crescendo and high intensity were very dominant. Now I also love to use a more kind energy — more delicate, more soft and tender.
Gilsdorf: There’s the intensity in the voice and the body, but you might be employing it to, for example, sing the same silly phrase over and over again. Or in Som Faves you’re crooning tenderly to a porcelain statue of a cat, so there’s also an absurdity there.
Dimchev: Yeah, probably the absurdity comes with the unexpected relationship I establish with different elements [of the performance]. I think the role of the artist is to control the value the audience would project onto a particular element. In Som Faves I use this very cheap painting that I bought from a flea market; people would [normally] not give so much importance to it, but art can make unimportant things extremely important. Art can also be very sarcastic and playful with sacred things on which people project extreme value. Art can break those norms, and politically it’s very important that art does that.
It’s important that we keep this freedom in art, that we don’t serve imposed norms of value. I can sing a very dramatic song about this cat, and then I can give a monologue to it, like an obsessed mother would have with a child that will not eat. And as it becomes more important for me, it breaks the audience’s sense of value towards this cat, this little porcelain cat becomes something very alive, very vulnerable, very dominant and important in the composition. It’s good if the artist can manipulate the perception of value.
Gilsdorf: That state can inspire real unease — when I saw I-Cure at the CCA Ujazdowski a few months ago, I could feel the tension in the audience, at certain points they didn’t know whether to laugh or not. What is your feeling towards the audience?
Dimchev: Well, I have a great respect for the audience. I think I’m quite audience-friendly.
Dimchev: In the sense that I take care — I don’t try to provoke people for the sake of provocation. If I have a particular taboo, I explore it on stage; I am challenging my own taboo. At the end of the day, I’m working on my own limitation, and many times this taboo is shared with a big part of the audience. People might feel I’m trying to provoke them, so I’m trying to be clear and precise in the way that I articulate subjects that are on the edge. I know that if I’m not clear enough, people will reject the exploration of a particular topic, they will reject my approach. It’s not so much about controlling the audience, it’s more like being extremely focused. If I’m doing something difficult and challenging, I share it so that people see that they’re not alone in this difficulty.
I don’t think the stage should be a safe place, no? You have to be in control, of course, with your body, and you have to protect yourself physically, but I don’t think a stage should be a safe place, spiritually or aesthetically. It should be challenging, but not only for the audience — it should be challenging for the artist.
Many times artists approach the audience as an enemy, as somebody who is not intelligent enough. Not directly, but you see it in the attitude, no? And I don’t like this. If I’m just together with them, I take care of them. So in this sense, I am an audience-friendly artist, which probably makes me — some people will probably call it “commercial.”
Gilsdorf: I don’t know about that! You cut yourself, you’re bleeding on stage, you’re getting a blowjob… Have you always trusted your viewers, or is that something that you’ve developed over time?
Dimchev: I think it’s important that I sacrifice something, and for me blood is kind of the easiest way to show it. But if I have a bloody scene, I try to make it as light as possible. The cutting will not be the only element at that moment, the blood should be the price I have to pay for the luxury of doing whatever I want onstage and just entertaining myself as a performer, because I’m very playful — I jump and I make songs and have monologues, I meet all my needs as a performer, you know? [laughter] I think it’s important after all this entertainment that I’m cutting myself and I’m also giving to the audience.
Blood is a sign for cruelty or for violence, for pain, for death — but blood is also life, no? It has a sound, it has its own musicality, so it doesn’t always have to be painful and dramatic. [The audience] is shocked in the beginning, but then when they see that the element of suffering is not there, when I show them that I’m having fun and it’s beautiful and I’m celebrating, then I think people change their perception of it.
I’m always very careful with this element, ’cause I know of some performances that are very, very violent and people are really affected and traumatized watching this, and I don’t — I don’t think this is so important for me as an artist.
Gilsdorf: There’s a quote on your website from Som Faves: “If you want me to be your mother, then you have to come to the theater.” Your characters exist along a very fluid continuum of gender. How do you conceptualize this part of your performances?
Dimchev: From the very beginning I found out that it’s important for me to connect with different forms of expression. If the performative body is gonna be my instrument, my vessel, it would be a pity if I limit myself gender-wise. I don’t really believe that all the genders are really so separate, and it’s important that I don’t lock myself into a gender when I’m exploring a performance. For me, the performative body is more the idea of a body that can really transform into anything, and connect to anything. And the more open it is, the more undefined in terms of gender, the easier it is to connect. Also, I don’t want to limit my vocabulary — there is a female energy in me, and if I don’t explore that part of my energy, yeah, it would just be like fifty percent. It’s very important that I work with my masculine, my feminine, my animalistic, and my extraterrestrial [laughter] energies. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Gilsdorf: It absolutely does.
Dimchev: I’m very conscious of the idea that my body has to be free to articulate all kinds of energies. If you don’t limit yourself to a gender, if you don’t limit yourself in affection or a particular choreographic language, a particular vocabulary… I never learned a particular technique of movement. I don’t want people to recognize a fashion, to recognize a technique when they watch me, I want them to be busy with more serious things, you know? [laughter]
Gilsdorf: Concentrating on the concept.
Dimchev: Yeah. And to concentrate on the content, on the statement, and not the style. If you’re trained a particular way, people will always put a category on you, they’ll say, “Ah — this is opera, this is Butoh.” People love to put other people in categories. I like to mix things in a more natural way, so I prefer to train myself in exercises I find, or that I create. Maybe I trust myself a bit too much. [laughter]
Gilsdorf: Well, that brings up a really interesting question — some of the performances seem really tightly scripted, and some of the performances that you’ve done are very improvisational. Is that just another case of going back and forth between different methodologies so that you can feel freedom in your practice?
Dimchev: I think it’s a lot about control. I have a tendency to over-control and over-choreograph my work. I like it when the detail is there and is executed in a very precise manner. I just like to compose, you know? It’s joyous for me to write a composition. If the concept is challenging for the audience, I am obligated to be very precise and very articulate.
But sometimes there is too much control and too much precision — I kind of lock myself into my own composition. I need to escape from this and be more vulnerable, more playful, more open to challenges and surprises. In [the improvised performance] P Project sometimes I don’t like what’s going on, but I have to deal with it. I have to get in contact with elements that I find very stupid and very bad and very disgusting as dramaturgy or as movement material. I put myself in relation to those subjects, and I look for the beauty.
Dimchev: It’s very hard for me to fail. It’s almost impossible for me to fail. But in P Project, everything’s falling apart. The lyrics people write are always really bad and sometimes very weak. I have to immediately make a song out of it, and I have to accept and find joy in it. And it’s possible to find something beautiful and have a nice experience with combining elements, but everybody’s failing and nothing is perfect — and somehow, because of our intention, it somehow works, we accept these failures and find beauty in them.
Gilsdorf: I want to return briefly to the idea of education, because I know that you also teach. If you could go back fifteen or twenty years and give advice to yourself as a person who was just beginning a career in performance, what advice would you give yourself? Looking back at the beginning of your work, what would you want to say to that person now?
Dimchev: I think I would just congratulate him [laughter]. And tell this person not to do anything in a different way, ’cause I think all the mistakes that I have made have been my biggest teachers, and without those mistakes, and without those kinds of errors and crashes I think I would not manage to do anything in my life. My biggest teachers are my own fuckups.
When I was twenty, I was like, “Oh my God, I have so many different interests! I love theater, I love acting, I love movement, I love singing, I love pop music, I love opera, I love visual art, I love playing piano.” And there were many people who said, “you have to choose something, you cannot jump from one thing to another.” But I didn’t — I never sacrificed one thing in favor of something else. If I had to talk to this person, I would just say, “Go on.” [laughter] “Don’t change anything. Don’t fight. It’s fine if you just break yourself or you fuck up seriously, if you lose your voice, if you get sick. All of this is good because it teaches you a lot of things that no other person can teach you.”
Gilsdorf: What’s the biggest struggle in your work now?
Dimchev: Right now I have a kind of identity crisis in my work because my project with the songs became very much wanted, and I didn’t want to enter this context of song-making and song-performing. This is a context that has a huge history, there are so many people who work in this format, and I don’t believe I can contribute something to this. I don’t think that I have enough of an individual voice, I’m too traditional and I don’t think I’m good enough to just go onstage and sing songs. I was writing songs because it was part of my work, of my shows. And I would sing in a very raw, very violent way, intentionally because I don’t want good singing to be a part — to be the thing that I’m showing off.
But I thought, okay, I have like fifty, sixty songs, maybe it would be nice if I let them out of these performances and see if they can survive by themselves. And this project became very successful. I don’t know, this situation is very absurd to me. Tomorrow I’m going to a studio to record for three days. Now I see why a lot of singers become drug addicts. [laughter] Because it’s much more difficult to be a singer than to be a contemporary performing artist or a choreographer who can do whatever crazy thing is possible. [The singer is] very, very limited in expression, and has to find freedom in this extreme limitation. You have three minutes to sing this simple melody with these simple lyrics, and you have to affect people. And people have to be with you all the time, and I find this very, very challenging. Much more challenging than “just go crazy and be postmodern.” And so this is my dilemma at the moment. Am I a traditional singer, or am I a contemporary radical artist? ‘Cause there’s nothing radical about singing songs, you know?