Manuel Vignoulle’s ability to create intensely engaging choreography is something that a lot of people in the dance world have known about for a while now. Not surprisingly though, his choreography gets even more attention now, because last November, his work Black and White (performed by Vignoulle and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Rena Butler) was awarded the 2017 Choreography Festival Grand Prize Award at the McCallum Theatre Choreography Festival. Vignoulle combines an intricate understanding of movement design with a passionate awareness of human interaction, and his work often explores, in remarkable depth, themes of interpersonal engagement and personal development.
Vignoulle combines an intricate understanding of movement design with a passionate awareness of human interaction
Vignoulle is in Chicago, having created a brand new work called I Am … for DanceWorks Chicago, who will present the piece on Saturday, March 24 at 7:30pm and on Sunday, March 25 at 3pm at the Ruth Page Center. We asked Manuel about the new work, about his process creating choreography, and about working with DanceWorks Chicago, and here’s what he told us:
The biggest challenge is to be able to give direction as clearly as possible to the audience, but also to leave enough space for imagination and for personal interpretation.
Johnny Nevin: You are unusually thoughtful in the way that you conceive of your choreography. In thinking in particular about your work Black and White, I was struck by something about your work in general, which is this — while everyone discusses the concept of a ‘through line’ for a choreographic work, you actually work from what could be called an ‘idea line’, or a ‘thought line’. Yet the great advantage of dance — that it can be exquisitely expressive — is also one of its greatest challenges, because dance is so nonverbal. Before we talk about the thoughts you are building into your new work for Danceworks Chicago, I wonder if you could talk more generally about how you think dance can express very coherent lines of thought, ideas that would usually be expressed in spoken or written language?
Manuel Vignoulle: To me, art with no meaning or intention behind it finishes by losing its drive, and often ends up missing its purpose. That’s why an “idea line” is so important.
The biggest challenge is to be able to give direction as clearly as possible to the audience, but also to leave enough space for imagination and for personal interpretation. It would be a bit like a silent theatre play or movie where you don’t hear the text, but you still follow a script through the body language which is unraveling before your eyes. As an audience member, you can then create your own story with what you see and feel.
I try not to approach my work from a mental perspective. I do have ideas, concepts, situations, and images that I work with to give life to the creative process, but I tend to approach them from an intuitive place when creating new work. Dance can express thoughts and ideas, but it won’t replace the precision and specificity of spoken language. Nevertheless, it can emphasize some spoken words by giving them a 3D effect. I believe that a dance is sometimes worth a thousand words, as it speaks to your heart and soul rather than your brain.
I’ve started by thinking in terms of a few questions about how we see ourselves, and about what I think of as the ‘masks’ that we sometimes seem to wear.
Johnny: What are the ideas that you’re exploring in the new work, I Am…?
Manuel: “I Am…” is the starting point of a longer work in which I would like to investigate more fully what I think of as the quest of self-identity. I’ve started by thinking in terms of a few questions about how we see ourselves, and about what I think of as the ‘masks’ that we sometimes seem to wear. Who am I without the many masks I’ve created as a consequence of my wounds, both wounds from childhood and others from later in life?
I think that these masks are usually created as defense mechanisms; I think we create them, at least partly, to be accepted and loved, but also to be able to survive and to protect ourselves from potential dangers.
In doing so, though, we enter a downward spiral, a series of games, where we are really only adapting our many masks and personalities just to gain something, from a person or in a certain situation. It’s really too bad, because we become a pleaser at our own expense — it is as if being our true, simple selves was not enough. So we go forward in life, adding more artifice, more makeup, more layers between ourselves and others, between ourselves and life. But the essence of our being is so much more than enough. It is so full of infinite possibilities.
I Am… treats the endless possibilities of who we could be, as opposed to who we think we should be
Johnny: When you have such a clear and well-conceived line of thought, what is it that you hope to convey to the audience, who rarely have the chance before seeing a work to ever hear of the depth of thought that may be woven into it?
Manuel: I Am… treats the endless possibilities of who we could be, as opposed to who we think we should be, and I wanted the audience to be thrown right into the core of that idea, so I began the piece by using a recorded spoken text, as if it could be the voice of our ego.
The score design, created by Dan Agosto, Johnny Nevin and myself, adds a lot to the dramaturgy. It immerses the audiences in a very specific mood with its driving rhythm — a rhythm that could either be a heartbeat or an internal battle between the many egos inside of us. There is this pulsation that keeps on going, a bit like life in the way that it always moves forward, whether you stay still or not, until it ends. Then there’s a musical break, a kind of pause in time where the real you — who a person really is — could be revealed, even if only for a short time before other things unfold. I won’t say more, because I would like everyone to be able to experience, interpret and imagine this work in their own way. (Personally, I hate to know the end of a movie before I start watching it!)
I always loved the idea of the mask, as it challenges the audience’s perception of what it is to be human
Another thing that I’ve done to try to convey these ideas is that I am using masks as part of the costume design. I always loved the idea of the mask, as it challenges the audience’s perception of what it is to be human, versus just being a puppet. And hopefully, it also transforms their experience of watching dance. As the mask is extremely still, the body has to talk more loudly than the face — the body becomes even more like raw material that you shape in order to express all the emotions that are rushing through you.
It also creates a feeling of confinement that pushes the dancers to a deeper introspection, as if they are facing their own fear of suffocation. The loud breathing (as a part of their own breath stays in the mask while they breathe) intensifies the need to take some fresh air, the desire to get rid of the mask.
Johnny: How much do you try to involve your dancers in the thought line that you are working on? How do you do this, is it mostly through discussion, or are there other ways that you include this in the process of making the dance?
Manuel: In rehearsal, I am usually not a big talker. Of course, I communicate ideas, but I am more into the action of trying and researching movement than into reflection, or any explanation of why we are doing what we are doing. We only sit down and talk if there is a real need for it, or if there is some misunderstanding.
I usually don’t talk about the theme right away — I try to keep it a mystery for the dancers for a little while. I only give some elements, try some steps or situations, or develop an idea here and there, but I let them explore on their own. Once they have started to create their own story, I explain more the core of what we are trying to achieve. But because they’ve already added their personal layer and nuances, I believe it creates a more complex and a more interesting piece. It also gives me the possibility to discover aspects I didn’t think of. It creates surprises and I love it.
Johnny: What has it been like to work with DanceWorks Chicago?
It has been a wonderful time collaborating with them all.
Manuel: Julie Nakagawa, the co-founder and artistic director of DWC, knows very well how to chose her dancers — each of them has their own special qualities, their own way of moving and interpreting. They all add a different color to the group and complement each other. I was very impressed, from when I met them for the first time during a workshop.
Everything went very smoothly; in fact, we finished the structure of the piece in four days. Of course, there are tons of details to be worked on, as the piece can be tricky and complex at times, but I am very confident they will overcome the challenge. I can’t wait to see it on stage with the lighting design and witness the dancers’ growth. It has been a wonderful time collaborating with them all.
DanceWorks Chicago will present their upcoming show DanceFlight at Ruth Page Center on Saturday, March 24 at 7:30pm and Sunday, March 25 at 3pm. The program will include new works by Manuel Vignoulle and Shannon Alvis plus repertoire favorites by Joshua Manculich and more! Tickets can be purchased in advance here at or at the door.
PHOTOS (from top): DanceWorks Chicago dancers in rehearsal for Manuel Vignoulle’s “I Am …” (Photo by Joseph A. Hernandez) • DanceWorks Chicago dancers in rehearsal for Manuel Vignoulle’s “I Am …” (Photo by Joseph A. Hernandez) • DanceWorks Chicago dancers in rehearsal for Manuel Vignoulle’s “I Am …” (Photo by Vin Reed) • DanceWorks Chicago dancers in rehearsal for Manuel Vignoulle’s “I Am …” (Photo by Joseph A. Hernandez)