Cocteau Voices: Aletta Collins in rehearsals
French surrealist Jean Cocteau was an extraordinary and remarkable talent: as writer, filmmaker, artist and bon viveur. He knew all Paris and collaborated with most of the great artists of his day, from Picasso, to Man Ray to Serge Diaghilev. His work has long been a fascination of the choreographer Aletta Collins, an ROH Associate Artist , who has collaborated with director Tom Cairns on a truly Cocteauesque combination of dance and opera – Cocteau Voices (17-25 June).
We went to find Aletta in her studio as she rehearsed her dancers a week before the show. She explained how the new work came about and what it’s like working with Scott Walker on a brand new score.
On working with Scott Walker
It’s hugely exciting that Scott Walker has created a brand new score for me. I really wanted to be able to combine the very established piece, the Poulenc opera, with a brand new work. It brings Cocteau alive. There are no singers, it’s all pre-recorded with an array of disparate instruments and sounds: electronic and orchestral. There’s violins, cellos, trumpets, glass harmonica, anvil, bells, tom tom, sax… It’s very much its own world: a dark, haunting, often surreal world. The sound surrounds you. It moves around the room.
How to describe it? There are angular parts, more haunting parts. There’s a sense of turmoil, of a relationship crashing. It has all the strands and angles and different possibilities of how a relationship can be fixed or mended. Can the relationship be fixed? You’ll have to come along and see.
This collaboration was a natural progression. We first worked together when I choreographed two pieces for his Drifting and Tilting show at The Barbican in 2008. We were brought together by the arts commissioner Michael Morris. We started working on this score a year ago. We had a very positive order to our collaboration – initial lengthy conversations, long emails with different ideas. Scott then created an overall shape, which I worked with.
Duet for one voice
The dance piece for the first half of the show, Duet for one voice, is based on a Cocteau monologue, a very short piece written for radio for Cocteau’s close friend Jean Marais, the actor. It’s called in French ‘lit ton journal’ (‘read your paper’). It parallels La voix humaine: there’s a man talking to his lover, wanting to know where she’s been, what she’s been doing. But this time the separating device between them is a newspaper (not a telephone as in La voix humaine). She sits behind her paper, not answering, as he talks. Cocteau reworked it later for the singer Edith Piaf, but the original was written for a man.
It’s not easy to create a 30-minute solo for a male dancer. I wanted to address it slightly differently. I’ve got a company of six dancers, three men share the male role, and three women share the female role. The different performers almost represent the fractured different sides of these two characters. It’s a dialogue that can’t happen. Someone wants to initiate a conversation/exchange ideas, but is being frustrated.
La voix humaine
Poulenc’s opera ‘La voix humaine’ was my initial starting point for this double bill. Poulenc wrote it in the 50s, and every word of Jean Cocteau’s famous monologue, La voix humaine, is set to the music so exactly. It’s about a woman at the end of a relationship. She’s on the telephone talking to her departed lover, whom you never hear. You only understand what he says through her replies and questions. The opera is usually done on a big stage with a 54-piece orchestra. I wanted to do it in more intimate space; it’s about a private moment.
I’ve been fascinated with ‘La voix humaine’ for many years. I created a solo dance piece inspired by it for the ICA some years ago. Tom Cairns saw it and said he’d like to make a film of it, which we did for Channel 4 in 2000. I said then to Tom that it would be fantastic if he could direct the opera, and I could create a new dance piece go with it. That’s what we’ve done for ‘Cocteau Voices’.
Interview by Emma Beatty