The American director Peter Sellars will this year be awarded a star on the Walk of Fame and the Sibiu International Theatre Festival will host his performance FLEXN (American Dance Show).
One early morning for him and one late afternoon for me, between rehearsals for a new project in New Mexico and a performance that is to take place a few hours later in Amsterdam, I have a Skype call with the electrifying and controversial American director, Peter Sellars.
Born in 1956 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, Peter Sellars has over the last 30 years been one of the most influential and most imposing opera directors in the world. Sellars has directed performances at the Dutch National Opera, the English National Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opéra National de Paris, Salzburg Festival and San Francisco Opera. Some of his most important collaborations include: William Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, produced in Southern California with a mixed group of Latin-American, Caucasian, Afro-American and Asian artists, and a reinterpretation of Euripides’ Heracles, entitled “The Children of Herakles”s, a story showing contemporary refugees’ immigration, problems, and experiences.
Peter Sellars doesn’t look like someone who is in a hurry, although his schedule is set three years ahead, but like somebody who takes the time to enjoy the present, to look beyond it and enrich it through his presence. Having read about his warmth, I can now feel it in our conversation as I quickly forget about any formality. The distance between the United States of America and Romania is compressed into a live image in front of a huge bookcase. We talk about sacred things and music, performances and morality or conveying one’s principles to the new generation. For Sellars, theatre is a platform for debating democracy, through dance, music, and poetry. His projects focus very much on sacred music and on various forms of music, especially in recent years.
When asked whether we still hold anything sacred, he replies that there’s nothing not sacred: “the appreciation of everything that is sacred makes you value everything. There’s this song which is moving across the generations. The beautiful thing about music is it’s time outside of time. And the rhythm is not just your heartbeat, you realize your heartbeat is part of a much harder rhythm. And so, this beautiful transfiguration which music gives – it can be just a simple tune, an elaborate complex symphony or a community manifestation with hundreds of thousands of people all doing things that you think will be total chaos and instead it isn’t. It’s joyous. And a sense that there’s joy inside of everything. That’s something very, very special. And music finds – again, even inside painful matters – that there’s also joy, presence.”
FLEXN on the Sibiu stage
Although Peter Sellars will not be in Sibiu, where he’ll be awarded a star for his impressive activity, his performance FLEXN, which bears his mark, will. Created after the assassination of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and of Eric Garner in New York City, in a time marked by uncertainty and hopelessness, FLEXN was designed alongside a crew of 21 street dancers from the districts of New York where the movement Black Lives Matter emerged.
“Most people cannot imagine what it is like to grow up in these neighborhoods, where literally something as normal as children playing cannot be done. When you start running, immediately police are attracted, a problem arises. As a kid growing up you are not allowed to run. (…) One of the most beautiful things about FLEXN is that human beings are a lot deeper than all these things that surround them, and in fact, it’s exactly the very set of people that were wondering how they could ever make it through life, who are the most brilliant people in the world and become superhuman.
And that’s what FLEXN is about: young people who became superhuman in order to survive, who did amazing things with their bodies and just said: ‘Whatever the world is going to do to me I will be more creative than that. If the world is going to crush me, I will rebuild and reimagine my bones and come back in some new amazing form that you could have never guessed’. That’s why one of the dance styles is called bone breaking and illustrates life that has deformed and twisted your existence and then you take these twists and turn them into something spectacular. And you take into your body all this anger and craziness and you come back with something creative and virtuous and brilliant, that all your friends have to applaud and say this is awesome.”
Teaching principles that transcend generations
UCLA professor, Peter Sellars teaches Art as a social action and art as a moral action, having developed a special relation with the new generation and an unusual teaching style.
“I don’t teach anybody how to make art because if you are and artist you have to figure that out with your friends and every generation must figure out what they are doing and what they care about and how they care about it and what their language is going to be and what their rhythm is going to be. In fact, every generation of young theatre-makers is here to destroy the previous generations.
But what I do is really create a situation where students are exposed to the world in such a way that you have to respond from some deep place, you can’t make a superficial response. So, this class I was just finishing a couple of weeks ago was focused on students’ movements in Kashmir, in Egypt and in Syria and when a young person living in California realizes what a young person living in Syria is going through tonight, what it means in Kashmir that 700.000 troops of the Indian army are occupying this tiny heart of the world against 700 young fighters… It’s the largest occupying army everywhere in the world and this conflict has been going on for 30 years. What is it that our young people have to hope right now in Syria? When the students are confronting these things and beginning to look deeply, you cannot just be optimistic, you have to say: life is asking you the most hardest and most painful questions. That’s the real issue in this next generation. Right now, we really have very far to go. And I have to say my students are very inspiring. I am very moved by them and when you spend time with young people you just think: ‘Oh right, the world is going to be just fine.”
cover photo: Clementine Crochet, Courtesy Park Avenue Armory