Theater and dance director, Elisa Ohtake is committed to think the contemporary scene to its limits, always in the intersection between performance and visual arts. She won the São Paulo critics award for 2014’s best dance performance. Her company is named Cia. Vazia (literally ‘Empty Co.’) and it consists of just Elisa herself, at a stretch. To occupy or nurture this scary emptiness, she calls on different artists for each new piece’s transient cast, each with their decisive idiosyncrasies for whatever notion she is investigating. Heavily influenced by contagion from performance, dance and theater, Empty Company attempts to raise questions about art, the world and itself – irony in this case is self-irony, hence the 'void' in its name. Each of her projects is a renewed attempt to dialogue with contemporary emptiness – be they infertile or profoundly open. Her more important projects have included Let's Just Kiss and Say Goodbye (2014); Take My Breath Away (São Paulo critics [APCA] award for 2014’s best dance performance); False Spectacle (2007), and Apathy (2004). After attaining a dance and performance degree at PUC-SP and drama at Célia Helena Theater School, Ohtake worked with Trisha Brown Dance Company and, in Japan, with Yoshito Ohno, Akira Kasai and Yukio Waguri. In Brazil, she trained contemporary dance, flamenco and African dance for several years, and she currently teaches body language and acting at Célia Helena Theater School.
You are a many-sided artist: a director, writer, choreographer, set designer, actor and dancer. How do you manage so many roles?
I can’t really separate things. Sometimes I do try, unsuccessfully. If I am writing a play, I think about the body, an aesthetic content that ends up informing the set, costumes, and my approach to direction. If it’s an idea for a scenario that comes first, then the associated atmosphere will point toward a dramatic structure, bodily involvement etc. In relation to acting and dancing, its different. I do a little acting and dancing in every piece or play just to get the feel of being inside the work, being together with actors or dancers, 'getting my hands dirty' alongside them, if only a little.
What kind of artist do you like to work with?
I like working with artists who are not afraid of being totally exposed and tackling novel situations. Artists who will flirt with the extremes of both intensity and irony, with ridicule, with posturing on stage. Artists whose views of art have been blown wide open; artists who are shuttling between art forms.
Tell us about your two current spectacles Take My Breath Away and Let's Just Kiss and Say Goodbye. How were they developed? What are they saying?
Both attempt to radically show vitality in close proximity with pain, death, risk and celebration. Take My Breath Away posed a totally absurd situation for contemporary dancers: giving proof they are in love, dancing one at a time. Absurd because emotion is not usually the way into contemporary dance pieces. The structure of the piece is ironic and provocative but when it comes to showing that their passion is for real, the dancers are placed in a situation of life or death, an all-or-nothing situation that is beautiful to see. For Let's Just Kiss and Say Goodbye , I asked the actors to pretend it was their last play ever, their faked and fatal farewell to theater. This was the strategic device or artifice that was taken to its logical extreme to prompt the explosion of vitality. There is reference to the history of theater too. Although all the actors are extremely talented with huge reputations in São Paulo, the idea is not to have scenes look good. The actors' swansong gives them a chance to do everything they ever wanted to do on stage but never did, come what may. Both pieces are provocative but they also affirm vitality. They provoke to radically affirm vitality. Aesthetic plasticity is structural for both of them.
The titles of your latest two spectacles feature a lexicon related to "extremes", unlike your previous (False Spectacle in 2008, Dance with a Bunch of Japanese kids in 2008 and Apathy in 2006). Could this be the beginning of a new cycle?
I think it might be. After False Spectacle, I went through a very depressing personal experience. I saw someone I loved very much lose his mind to schizophrenia – a disorder that altered his personality forever. I was left in a state of shock for years, feeling dejected and incapable of creating anything. Trying to be creative again while being unable to do so was traumatic for me. Wanting to live life to the full, but not being able to do that at all. I appeared to be well but it was a nightmare deep inside. I no longer had any vitality in the subtle but powerful sense of the word. However, teaching gradually brought me back. Being with students brought me back. Now I’m fine. Maybe that’s why my projects in this new period have this extreme aspect. Each in its own way is an attempt to radically discuss vitality.
You have been alternating between theater and dance. What takes you to put on a play rather than choreography, or vice versa? Are both languages combined in your creative work?
They are always combined, sometimes more, at times less. Sometimes dance predominates, other times it’s drama, but they are always combined. Depending on the concept being developed, dance may be better suited to tackle it than theater, or vice versa. Performance is always part of it too. Performance sets the tone for my projects.
What about the difficulties involved in producing the kind of work you are developing?
Everything is difficult for non-commercial theater and dance in Brazil. Everything is a huge struggle. However, if there is a place for artistic freedom in the strong sense of the term, for the creative power of artists freed from subordination to what Tadeusz Kantor calls the 'intolerance of an indifferent world' – a place in which life may be lived in its fullness, then it is a theater that is lively and restless, that problematizes itself, that is self-apotheoteic, celebratory of itself and our world. That makes it all worthwhile.
Could your creative projects be interpreted politically?
Gilles Lipovetsky (sociologist and philosopher) wisely notes that capitalism's allure is the cult of hyper excitement and addiction to stimuli coming at us from all sides. My latest two pieces pose this in the form of a question: How can there be a radical discussion of vitality if capitalism's allure is precisely cultivating total emotions, intensely exploiting sensational sensations, vibration and freshness? How? It is a political challenge.
A play on reality and fiction seems to be a feature common to all your projects. Could you tell us more about that?
I like this simple but infinitely fruitful device of blending reality with fiction. In my pieces, I like saying that fiction is reality and reality fiction. Depending on how it is used, it can be a powerful device, since this is the human condition, constantly between dream and reality.