Solo in the moment

Berlin-based choreographer Tino Sehgal brings ‘Untitled’ to Jerusalem stage

TINO SEHGAL (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the great conundrums of the dance medium is in its documentation. Somehow, regardless of the skill and commitment of the videographer, much is lost in the translation from live choreography to film. For decades, dance artists have grappled with how to preserve their works, which otherwise disappear the moment the dust settles on stage.
Unlike many of his peers, Tino Sehgal is not the least interested in taking on this challenge. The Berlin-based artist is perhaps a bit wary of technology. He prefers not to fly and insists that the only documentation of his work be in the memory of his audience.
Because the only place to take in Sehgal’s work is in the here and now, the performances of his seminal solo Untitled (2000) this weekend are that much more of a special occasion.
Sehgal, 44, is one of the most revered choreographers out there. His works, which Sehgal refers to as “constructed situations,” are cutting, clear, precise and unpredictable. Many of his creations, such as Kiss, The Progress and This is So Contemporary, were made for museum spaces rather than the stage. Among others, he has been commissioned to present work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Guggenheim Museum and the Tate.
Untitled (2000), which will be performed three times this weekend as part of the Israel Festival, marks an early moment in Sehgal’s rise to international recognition. In this piece, Sehgal presents 20 different styles of dance in succession.
“A solo can be so self-focused,” explains Sehgal over the phone. Sehgal has a disarmingly warm voice. He speaks slowly, taking the time to articulate each thought.
“At the time, my intuition was to efface myself and to do all the styles. For me, it was a cannon of what represented Western, artistic, staged dance. The piece itself is in that tradition.”
Showing these various dance styles was Sehgal’s way of envisioning a world in which society organized itself around movement rather than technology.
“Society defines itself by technology… we are defined by social media, the Internet, self-driving cars… I don’t want to say that that’s not true, we do define ourselves by those things. But I wanted to show the complexities of the human being, which is still the most complex technology on the planet. I wanted to present one human being alone with no props costumes or accompaniment, unraveling the 20th century values in movement. In the (dance) styles, you can see the values and air of that time.”
At the time of the solo’s premiere, Sehgal was 26 and at the height of his performing career. Since then, he has mostly exited the stage, preferring that his works be performed by other dancers.
“I stopped performing the solo in 2004,” he sighs. “It’s quite exhausting to do and I had other things going on. In 2013, other people asked me if they could perform it. I was always a fan of Boris (Charmatz, who will also present work in the Israel Festival), even in school, I followed what he was doing. So, when Boris asked me if he could perform the solo I was like, ‘Okay, that makes sense.’ Then I thought different people should dance it.”
Today, Untitled (2000) is performed by both Charmatz and fellow choreographer and performer Frank Willens. Each man takes certain liberties with the work, in the few places that are left open to interpretation.
“It’s quite set. There’s one part where they can improvise. Both Boris and Frank heavily improvise,” says Sehgal.
For the Jerusalem engagement, Willens will perform the work.
“Boris and his organization have taken the work under their wings and I’m happy about that. Once a year, I check up on them, which they’re not so happy for,” he laughs.
When asked if he misses performing, Sehgal takes a moment to consider.
“Not really. I have, and I sometimes do… I step in occasionally to my works, but it’s not heavily announced. Maybe for the 20 years thing (anniversary of the piece) I will want to dance it again.
Something tells me I should. But I’m 44. I’m busy enough. I have two children. I’m exhausted enough at the end of the day.”
Untitled (2000) will be performed on June 7 and 8 at the Jerusalem Theater. For more information, visit