Exclusive Interview: André Semenza Talks Sea Without Shore

Sea ShoreToday I’m very pleased to bring you this interview I conducted with André Semenza (above right) about the new dance film Sea Without Shore. The interview also has the input of his wife and co-director (above middle) Fernanda Lippi and goes into some detail about the process behind crafting this hypnotic and powerful film. Read on for the interview…

Hello there, thank you for taking some time out today. How are you?

Very well, thank you. Thanks for taking an interest in Sea without Shore. It’s been quite hectic for a few months; sharing this film with audiences has been a powerful experience.

I can imagine! So what initially motivated you to write this piece? How did you develop the concept?

Having made Ashes of God, a ‘visual poem’ based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Fernanda, Marcus (the Director of Photography) and I got together, we felt ready for a new creative adventure.

Its theme emerged in the rehearsal room. Fernanda was working long hours with Brazilian dancer Livia. Marcus and I watched a relationship evolve between them; rules and dynamics crystallized. We began to get a sense of loss, of abandonment, an impression of a journey: searching for the disappeared one, our main character was being ‘initiated’.

We began to develop a dramatic structure. I suddenly had an image of two women draped over horses, and a strong feeling the film should be shot in Sweden.

While this narrative thrust was formed we were constantly gathering and deciphering clues, excited about how the material would evolve in the vast spaces of Sweden and exposed to extreme temperatures.

Sea Without Shore StillAnd what about the use of Katherine Phillips, Renée Vivien and Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poetry? At what point in the process did you begin using them?

The poetry came in during post-production. I read several anthologies of Lesbian literature, written by both female and male authors since the 15th century. Coming across Swinburne’s poem ‘Anactoria’, a monologue by Sappho to her lover Anactoria, was jaw dropping. It brilliantly expressed the sense of loss, the passion, rage, violence and longing at the core of our film.

I delved deeper into Swinburne’s vast work. Swinburne’s power lies in his absolute mastery of form, but also, to me, in the use of obsessive trance-like repetition and subtle shifts of words and their meaning. Just as music and dance repeat motifs and patterns, so does poetry. (As Swinburne’s contemporary Walter Pater said, ‘all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’.) These variations are not static repetitions; the motifs evolve expressing different aspects and can build to an unexpected, contradictory climax.

Repetition is also central to our character’s psychological experience, expressed in her movement patterns and flashbacks; dealing with the loss, she tries to come to terms with the loved one’s absence. Memories are obsessively replayed, shifting and mutating, until they eventually dissipate.

Finally, there is Swinburne’s strong agnostic, pagan component that resonates in the film. Sweden has a strong pagan tradition. Some 19th century lesbians celebrated pagan beliefs in their search for spiritual context and a blessing for their love.

In 17th century lesbian poet, Katherine Philips, we found some utterly delicate, graceful lines. And in Renée Vivien, whose lesbian fin-de-siècle poetry expresses a romantic, utopian vision for a world of lesbian love reflected our character’s aborted dream. Fragments of lines were collated, translated, recorded and brought to the film; some lines fit perfectly, others reappeared in a different context or fell away.

Wasn’t this originally intended for the stage? What prompted the move to film?

No, we never intended for this choreography to be on stage. The choreography was created for the camera, in fact the camera itself has a participatory quality, a ‘point of view’; it hovers, moves, and witnesses the dance, especially in the depths of the forest. It has an eerie presence.

To state the obvious we didn’t place beautiful ready-made choreography in an attractive post-card landscape. On the contrary, it’s important to mention that the choreography is not driven by aesthetic choices but conducted purely as an expression of the character’s inner impulse and state of mind. It might not be aesthetically pleasing at times, but it had to be ‘truthful’ – and as such, it becomes beautiful in a different way. In other words, if we don’t ‘understand’ the movement while shooting, we’ll have to dig deeper and challenge ourselves (including the dancers), until we do.

Sea Without Shore SnowI think that certainly comes across when watching the film… How does changing your usual medium affect/develop the dance and story?

Our work, live productions included, has often been site-specific: choreographic material will change in response to the locations, its history and energy. With dance captured on camera there is no need for stage ‘projection’ as the camera can pick up the most minimal details. While on stage you might get away with technique, any artificial, bogus moment will be exposed by the camera.

Moving in minus 10 degrees, in snow, in forests, hugely impacts the performers and the choreography, but we embrace such change. There is an element of risk in our work – things may not always work, some of it we’ll laugh at and move on, but at least we didn’t go for the obvious. During this shoot there was also a sense of urgency as winter daylight was scarce, and with a minimum of electrical lights, natural light was key.

In Sea without Shore’s editing we reveal and retreat, and hold the film in breath-like suspension, as the character’s journey moves through memory fragments and deeper layers of consciousness.

How does the audience’s interaction with dance change on the screen compared to the stage?

The immediacy of live performance, of dancers or actors in the flesh, can be electrifying and contagious; a ‘shared ephemeral moment’ in real time which cannot be accurately captured or replicated and will only live on in the viewer’s subjective memory.

Our approach to choreography, composition and stagecraft in live production differs from films where we respond and capture movement as we would actors’ performances. What is in common is that in both we seek to create an immersive experience. But in live productions each and every performance is slightly different as performers feed off each other, the audience and vice-versa. (This can be both exciting and a source of great anxiety for a director.) Once the show starts the cast has control of tempo, projection, and energy levels. In cinema however, from director, choreographer, director of photography through to the editor, frame-by-frame, editing decisions are made. This type of editorial ‘control’ is unthinkable in live performance.

With regards to the experience of dance in film, in Sea without Shore rather than being more contained or removed, I believe the film paradoxically generates a visceral, almost tactile ‘live’ experience.

Which do you prefer to create (stage/film)? Is the process very similar?

For me personally nothing beats film, but live performance is a close second. In both cases our work is constructed in a collaborative manner and involves taking risks, artistically, emotionally and sometimes physically; we never aim to follow genre conventions or to reproduce something that already exists and that has already been executed perfectly.

We follow intuition and instinct and aim to create a captivating experience that moves not just the intellect but generates a sensorial, somatic response. In practice, while the beginnings of both are quite similar (and resemble the process of devised theatre), the medium will soon dictate a completely different approach. In live work we aim to blur the boundaries between audience and performer: the entire venue carries a certain atmosphere, the stage ‘bleeds’ to the auditorium. There are challenges such as point of view to ensure that every spectator has an equally satisfying experience.

In film, once we start shooting the process becomes very focused in a different way; the presence of the camera and a tight schedule dictates that everyone involved be completely focused. In truth, meticulous preparation is important to create a space for the unexpected. The key is to let the performers feel they can trust the process, and that they have the space to explore, to move into unfamiliar territory. When something suddenly shifts, revealing something none of us could quite imagine, it’s a huge pay-off.

In post-production, editing becomes another choreographic tool revisiting the choreography. It’s a whole new journey.

Now we have to talk about the soundscape that’s created here; it’s so haunting, emotional and at times frightening… how did it develop? How did you come to decide on creating this sonic environment? And if I understand correctly it was used on set, how did that guide the performances? Did it impact upon your understanding of the piece as you filmed it?

I have admired Andrew McKenzie’s work (The Hafler Trio) since the 90’s. We invited him to rehearsals very early on. He gave the dancers specific instructions and recorded the sounds of them moving, falling, breathing, their voices. This resulted in a first piece of music of about twenty minutes entirely built on these ‘organic’ live elements, and this music was used in rehearsals and then on location. The performers were moving in a cloak of their own sounds, a reminder, a pointer…

During post-production, Andrew composed much more material, exclusively based on the dancers’ sounds and voices. Perhaps his music can be described an energetic ‘extension of the dancers’ (and vice-versa) and undoubtedly plays a huge part in the film. Andrew’s music is not to illustrate or to set a mood – it’s an active ‘performer’ itself.

I placed the voice over narration rhythmically, embedding the voices as part of the musical soundscape, as if they were music, also. Glenn Freemantle’s hugely talented and committed team brought great subtlety and craft to the final sound design, giving it suggestive context. At times, in transitions, it was essential to suspend all sound: as if the film itself were breathing, or dissolving.

AndreAnd finally how do the two of you work as co-directors? Do you shoot together or does one focus on some aspects and the other on others…

Fernanda and I have worked together since 1999. We work together from the outset until the end of each project; Fernanda choreographs and I focus on dramaturgy and structure – or in film, on the cinematic point of view and screenplay.

Since Ashes of God, Marcus Waterloo (Director of Photography) has been an absolute key player in the creation of our films.

During the shoot I and Marcus are concerned about the shots and the casts’ intentions, while Fernanda facilitates scenes and directs the cast. In postproduction during Sea without Shore our roles reversed somewhat in that I as the editor needed a fresh pair of eyes (Fernanda’s). We viewed the edits away from the editing environment to allow for a distance and objectivity. We had regular viewings and her insights were fundamental.

Fantastic, thanks again for sitting down with me today for this great interview!

Thanks for taking an interest in the film!

Well I hope you all enjoyed this interview about Sea Without Shore! There’s a screening in London on the 2nd of April for all of you who want to check the film out. Just go here for more details:

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