Phil Von: “All my life I’ve been trying to learn how to breathe“

Artist Phil Von, together with avant-garde Japanese dance butoh artist Sakurako, came to live in Lithuania a year and a half ago. Phil, best known as a member of the “Von Magnet” theatre group, who have created a unique “post-electro-flamenco” style and technique, now is working intensively with new projects in Lithuania. Together with Sakurako, he founded the first butoh dance theatre Okarukas in Lithuania, and started cooperation with representatives of Lithuanian music and visual arts.

After travelling half the world, experimenting with many art forms, today Phil is talking about inner peace and the new chances of life found in Vilnius.

February 28 and March 3 will see the artist presenting his first solo work “Human, Lost and Found” to the audiences of Kaunas and Vilnius. This will be an open meeting with himself and the viewer.

Pictures by Svetlana Batura

– Lithuanian audiences have met you first through a butoh dance theatre “Okarukas”; you’re one of the founders of this theatre, writing music for performances. However, today you’re going to speak with the audience in flamenco’s language. What have you found out about these different dance disciplines?

Phil Von: Flamenco dance is my base; I have spent fifteen years with great masters, teachers, improving my skills and later experimenting, creating, and expanding my own techniques. Butoh dance came into my life much later. During that time, I met Sakurako, she shared her vision of Butoh, the elements of which I use in my solo performance. This meeting made me realise that I could feel my body and energy differently. Flamenco is full of inner fire, dancing with great energy, whereas butoh also has very bright energy, but it’s more subtle, going deeper into the interior of person.

– You were born in the southwest of France, near the Catalan region, close to the culture of this region. How did the flamenco dance, atypical for Catalonia, come to your life?

P.V.: Yes, the flamenco dance style wasn’t in my blood from childhood, I discovered this dance unexpectedly. Young and rebellious against certain events in my life, I stopped my studies and went to work in London. There, I was destined to meet a flamenco teacher, white woman from South Africa who taught flamenco dance to kids from Jamaica. It seemed incredible! She invited me to try this dance. I was a young shy man, and flamenco helped me free myself, my emotions, and my energy.

I had to devote for years to understand the versatility of flamenco music and dance rhythm, it’s shades and different emotions.

– You decided not to continue to develop traditional forms of flamenco and started working with your own style and techniques, later you called it “post-electro-flamenco”. Why?

P.V.: I started to create electronic music; I flipped it with flamenco rhythms. When you understand this rhythm and its possibilities, you can start experimenting, combining different paces. I have also created and started using some of my movements that are not typical for flamenco dance, and I have combined performances with avant-garde theatre elements. In the 1980s, together with “Von Magnet”, we created this term “post-electro-flamenco”. This way of dancing helps me express my emotions and energy in the best possible way.

I don’t intend to introduce traditional flamenco to audiences; I use my steps, I experiment with shapes, rhythms. And I enjoy freedom. It’s a great pleasure to be free, to not to commit to one style, to one movement, and to constantly be searching, trying, enriching yourself in various disciplines. Then the inner force, the true emotions unfold. When Israel Galvan – a famous flamenco dancer – appeared, everyone went completely mad when he blended flamenco, contemporary dance, and dance elements from other nations together. He was open to experiments and new forms.

My relationship with my old life has ended; my teachers are gone, so now it’s a whole new life, a new phase. Masters have given me so much, I can use this knowledge, I can create new ways of flamenco, not interrupting the bonds with this dance. Flamenco is a dance of life, people choose this path and dedicate their lives to it.

– I think I’m right to call you a multidisciplinary artist. Why do you reach to experiment with new art forms?

P.V.: At the beginning, I thought I’d only work with music, but I started watching different artists, like La La La Human Steps, artists of physical theatres. That’s when I realised that I didn’t want to confine myself to music only. I was fortunate to live in London for a long period of time, and I had the lucky opportunity to meet people from very different fields of art who wanted to work together, to create new experimental art subjects. The “Von Magnet” team consisted of musicians, actors, dancers, and visual arts creators; we could use all these disciplines for our performances as well as create new art syntheses.

I don’t want to limit myself; I’m interested in combining different ways and forms of art and enriching the audience coming to the shows, opening up new opportunities, new worlds of art for people. I go to the stage alone for the first time in Lithuania – I will present a solo performance; this is so unusual for me, because I’ve never appeared alone before. I’m used to sharing the stage with other artists.

– In your solo performance “Human, Lost and Found” you talk about the essential questions for every person – “who am I? Where am I going?” and so forth. Why did you choose to speak about these issues on stage now?

P.V.: I have reached a certain part of my life when I feel I have opened new doors. I look back, take a glance at my life, and think about where I’m going today. I’ve realised that after thirty years of my artistic career, the dreams I had as a youngster had come true, and now it’s the perfect time for new challenges. This performance of crucial importance to me. I come on stage, a sacred place for me. I’m alone there, completely open to the audience. It’s a kind of confession, a very personal meeting that I take very, very seriously. I want the spectators to feel that this isn’t a story about another person, this isn’t a play or a theatre. It’s a very open and sincere dialogue with the audience.

– Are Lithuanian audiences ready for such an intimate dialogue?

P.V.: It seems to me that the audiences in Lithuania are still shy, but I feel that they respect the artists very much, and that’s marvellous.

I know that spectators are observing, going through, and perceiving the processes happening on the stage; they sense what’s sincere and what’s not. I trust the audience. I’m not really known in Lithuania; maybe someone knows me from the music world. Today, I come on stage with my solo performance. I understand that it can cause different emotions, and that’s absolutely normal, but I believe it’s important to expand the concept of art in Lithuania, to discover new art syntheses with the aim not to settle in certain forms, especially for young people.

– Phil, the title of your solo performance “Human, Lost and Found” gives hope. How are you finding yourself here in Vilnius, Lithuania?

P.V.: I had an intense, colourful life, I’ve made a lot of mistakes… If I had the chance to fix them, I’d use it, but it’s too late. Today, I’m given a new chance – together with Sakurako, we’re trying to create wonderful things, as artists and as two people who have found each other. We’re waiting for our baby to be born, and this is the best gift for us. Vilnius, the city we live in now, has given me the inner peace that I didn’t have when I lived in big cities like Paris or London. My life was polluted, full of stress and anxiety. Here, I feel calm. That’s exactly what I was trying to achieve throughout the period I lived elsewhere. I was looking for harmony between nature and travelling. In Vilnius, I find peace just by being here. However, I know for sure that there are people in Lithuania who now feel anxious too, stressful, they have unanswered questions, and they will definitely understand what the core of my performance is about.

I’ve created a song – I will sing it during the performance; it has a key phrase – “whole life just learning how to breathe”. All my life I’ve been trying to learn how to breathe. I’ve always been fascinated by meditation, the opportunity to stop and breathe deeply, but I’m constantly running somewhere, so I’m talking about all this in my work. We spend our lives trying to learn to breathe, but unfortunately we still don’t know how to do it at times.


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