Luca Vegetti: A Creator of Our Time

Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti speaks on art, New York, and the nature of his work.
Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti speaks about art, New York, and the nature of his work. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Luca Veggetti was born in Milan and received professional training as a dancer at the La Scala Theater. His dancing career took him from Italy to London and then to New York, where he began his new career as a choreographer and director of dance, theater, and opera.

Veggetti’s latest opera will be shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art starting on March 27. The opera is a staging of Tempest Songbook by Kaija Saariaho, which is itself an interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It will feature artists from the Martha Graham Dance Company.

You just arrived from Milan, and you travel all around the world. Where do you feel most comfortable? Most at home?

I feel at home everywhere and nowhere, in a way, because I’ve traveled since I was very little. I think I’m someone who needs to constantly move in order to, I don’t know, to bear existence. Rilke needed to constantly move, like he had no place. Of course, he found himself well in Paris—I live part of the year in Paris, and I live in one of Rilke’s addresses. Somehow, I need big cities. New York is very exciting to me, it has always been, but Paris is wonderful, and I lived in London in my life, and I spent a lot of time in Moscow. Somehow, the secluded little village, no matter how charming that might be, doesn’t calm me down at all.

So you would say you are restless?

I’m restless, yes, of course. But somehow, I do find more calm in complete chaos! Although I love nature, I love mountains and secluded places, but I think some people need that in order to cope with existence and reality. On the contrary, I need the life of the city.

Is there anything that makes New York exceptional for you?

The unique thing about it is that you walk two blocks down in Washington Heights, and you’re in Santo Domingo! And you walk back, and you’re in a place that looks like Old Europe. It kind of keeps you in touch with people, with different levels of existence. Somehow, I need to be in touch with humanity without me being very social. I’m very solitary. In New York, you can live in this extraordinary diversity, which ultimately I think is very enriching. That’s why I like New York. It’s very diverse. But ultimately what I find exciting about New York is the idea that when you are in New York, whether you are successful or not, from the moment that you’re here, doing something, you’re a New Yorker.

In what city do you find it easiest do get your ideas together?

I think possibly here because it’s a chaotic place! Strangely enough, I find that I can concentrate better in chaos than in solitude. Over the years here, I did a lot of work in choreography, but I directed opera, theater, and puppet productions here. I did visual art installations. The great thing for me was to be involved with a vast array of people in different disciplines. In other places, it’s not necessarily so. If you have an idea, I feel, it was easier to talk to people about that idea here, over all other places. You have to go to a place that is in tune with your inner life, essentially – because the outer life is a reflection, in a way, of the inner life of many.

You work with contemporary choreography around the globe. A broad question – how has contemporary dance evolved from Dhiagelev and Foukine in Europe and Balanchine here?

Of course, this is a very complex question. I think that dance, as a form of expression, is something that is in continual development; it needs to exist in the present time. The form needs to be reconsidered, and the language of that form needs to be developed constantly for the art form to remain relevant to our time. For me, to say that I am a contemporary choreographer is strange. I am of today; I work with what is available today. I understand there are other choreographers who stay within the boundaries of what one might consider ballet as a genre, which to me is a little bit absurd because it would be like, in other forms, for a composer to write today within the ideal of Mozart or Beethoven. I think every form of artistic expression needs to be of our time, just to capture what is of our time. Of course, I don’t sit down and think, oh, I’m contemporary, so I have to do new things – I have no intention of doing new things; I just do what I do. Reproducing the past doesn’t make much sense to me. I believe that you should develop the vocabulary, knowing, of course, that what you are doing does not come out of the blue, but that it comes out of centuries and millennia of historical facts. And I do study my art form, so I do not refuse the past. I do not say that it is all wrong, and therefore, we must do it in other ways.

Something you just said was that the work that you do has to be of our time, that it has to capture our time. So how would you characterize our time?

I think it’s a decadent time. It’s a time where there is little light coming through. The signs are very evident, and having the luck of traveling the world very, very often, I see this in other places too. I see the decadence in the excess, sometimes in the vulgarity of expression of different media. There is hardly anything that is essential in much that we see. I see the sign of decadence not only in art but also in politics. We have most obviously a quite mediocre, spoiled political class of leaders! There’s also a lack of humanistic culture compared to other generations. That’s why I think that the arts have a role in finding what is essential for people to know and also to raise questions, obviously. That doesn’t mean that we only have to write political plays or do dance pieces that deal with political issues or our social issues, no. I think that art has to be sincere, and that time you spent in the theater has to have been concentrated for you. We also suffer from television, which is an extraordinary tool! But it has become something that almost lobotomizes people. To quote an author that I like very much, Harold Pinter, when he was asked, oh, why do you have such a negative view, he said, “I think that life is beautiful but the world is hell.” That summarizes it so perfectly. 

You’ve said there is a lot of negativity in life, but what is beautiful for you?

It’s one of those impossible questions–what is art to you? Ultimately, I think that I find beauty in what is true, what I perceive as true. Including what I do myself, of course. There’s something very interesting that I discovered: in Orthodox art, beauty is in an ethical category, not in an aesthetic category. If we perceive what is not true as beautiful, then we fall into mannerism, into decadence, indeed. I see a lot of things now that are empty, devoid of a truthful content, which don’t necessarily come from a truthful expression. There are very few people–I think those come every few centuries–for whom the ethic and the aesthetic fuse in one. Very few. Goethe. Indeed, Dostoevsky too. Or Samuel Beckett. I think to me, honestly, that’s the only truthful answer. I have no other parameter, in a way, that would not be immediately doubtful to me. I think that a quest for truth in expression is also almost the only possible thing that one can do. All the rest is secondary. That’s possibly why beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s what we feel in ourselves that is true.

Bringing all of what you just said into one question, how do you bring that into your choreography? Or how would you characterize your artistic vision, your artistic mission?

It’s beyond me to characterize what I do. What I aspire is to work truthfully with the dancers or with the actors or singers I’m working with together. One can imagine a writer or painter who can produce work without the collaboration of others; ultimately, a writer is alone. But theater-making in general only exists through collaboration with others. So it’s a further challenge to be true to yourself but also somehow to infuse the same vision to others that have to express it–also truthfully. But I have no claim for my work; I cannot define it. I cannot tell what it is, how to characterize it. It would be false, no matter what I say, and partial, anyway. And also, my work – like every work in every discipline – means something to one person and something else to another person.

One last question: are you a happy person?

No. I think I’m a fortunate person in that I’m a lucky person. I don’t want to be arrogant, but I am gifted for doing what I’m doing, so I think I’m very fortunate in that sense. But it also depends on how we define happiness. No, I don’t think that happiness is being at ease and calm. No, life is always a struggle. The quest for happiness is elusive. Essentially, I think why life is a struggle for many things is because we live in fear of many things. It’s fear, actually, that dominates us–at least me! Fears at every possible level: fears of being sick, fears of contact with others, fears of failure. I think when you don’t have fears, when you’ve possibly reached a place where you’re not dominated by events, that’s what one might define as happiness. But most of us are dominated by events. At least I am dominated by events! I am conscious of it, at least. Some people are not even conscious of that and that gives birth to constant complaints and bitching about everything. But the truth is that you are dominated by events.

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