Interview with Signe Becker

Skeleton Woman. Becker/ Langgård. Rehearsals during Costume Agency Workshop # 3 November 2019. Photo Espen Tollefsen.jpg

By Christina Lindgren, January 7th 2021, online, on zoom

CL: You are a costume designer and scenographer, and you also create performances. I am interested in this combination of being a costume designer and a scenographer creating performances. Maybe we can focus on the work Skeleton Woman. It was presented in the Critical Costume 2020 Conference and Exhibition as an opening performance. 

I believe all participants in a performing arts team have different talents, competence and experience. And you are the costume designer and scenographer, as well as director.  The questions is: Why do you want to make performances, and what is important for you when you create a performance?

SB: Why do I want to make performances… I don’t know, I am very curious and interested in the live moment, in the meeting that arises between the art and the audience. I also like that it is a form that… How do you say, that it contains many other art forms? And how I juggle these art forms is crucial to what the work communicates in the end? Like in Skeleton Woman, when I work with space and clothing I also cross over to several disciplines, to dramaturgy, choreography, lighting, spatial thoughts and all that. Yes, it is a complex and rich format. And I like to be inside of this complexity and the challenge that lies within it.

CL: So, you are interested in working with all the elements, sound, audio elements, space?

SB: It feels very natural for me to have it all in mind when I work. I love to focus on the whole concept, instead of only i.e., the dress or the chair. But this also, I guess, has to do with how I am used to working, because I am educated as, I would say, a quite traditional scenographer learning how to build models, create visual concepts, making costume drawings and stuff like that. But I mainly worked in the so-called free field, not that much in the institutions. This has given me the opportunity to work more freely and interdisciplinary, and I guess this is what led me to i.e., participate myself on stage. And in the latest work, I have also been more in charge myself and more of a choreographer or a director or whatever you want to call it. And this comes from that I have been in productions and worked with people that made it possible to blur the borders of my role as an artist.

CL: So, since you have worked collaboratively, you started to get experience, confidence and ideas that also made you want to create performances yourself.

SB: Yes. Or I think an idea of working like that was there, already before I did my bachelor, this was something that challenged me a little during my education. I was very worried how I would manage to fit into the role of being a scenographer in a traditional way. But this concern, I dare it has nurtured my artistic practice in a way. And at the same time I am very happy to have the craft of a scenographer as a base, and it made me handle quite traditional institutional jobs also. I like to do that too. It is just a different role, and a different way of working, a different freedom.

CL: How did you start with Skeleton Woman? How did that emerge?

CL: Skeleton Woman, the figure skeleton woman, she came to us in the in the earlier production that I did together with the composer Ingvild Langgård in 2017, called New Skin. It started with us being interested in dealing with feminism in a more positive way…..or how can I say this? We wanted to deal with our history in a convincing way. And how to do that when we live in a time where what we call history is these two thousand years from year zero, and it is kind of based on that Adam and Eve in Paradise, where Eve is ashamed and doomed to give birth in pain and to be nice to Adam. We thought this is just too sad and depressing. Let’s look further back! There is archaeological traces forty thousand years back where you see human cultural activity, and in this prehistoric period, there is lots of female figurines found which points out that it could have been different times before this year zero. Not that there was a total matriarchy a thousand years before Christ but let us say it was more an equally divided society in function. Anyway, this too, made us want to create a new proposal on a female figure. And we just started out testing practically: what could this be? How could she be? How could she move? What do we miss in today´s image of women? We started looking for something more raw, massive and forceful, and more unpredictable. I started off with the pants, I made a pair of pants in a very thick, strong, shiny textile. I made both the legs and the waist extremely long and oversized. And by wearing super high platform shoes inside these pants, it made the proportions of my body shift and I became rather alienated and animalistic. And then the rest of the costume just came straight out of it, because i.e. I had my jacket there and I took the jacket and I lifted it over my head with one of my hands to make the shoulders higher. And so: OK, what if I put a head on top of that with my other hand? I had this skeleton head in my studio, and then suddenly she was there. She had a certain look, a certain body that with its limitations also gave her certain quite clear possibilities i.e. in the way she could move.Since I used both my two hands to hold the head and to hold the jacket, her hands was just the jacket sleeves hanging down all the time. So, she became a figure that can move around slowly with long, heavy steps, because of her long feet and her heavy and long trousers. But her arms are useless, they are hanging there passively, only affected by movements from the body itself. And then there is this small head on top, which is a human skull that can be animated by moving the hand, and it can look around as if it was a human head, or an animal.

CL: …and then you started to explore what she can do?

SB: Yes. In these very high shoes, how is she able to walk, and in what way cannot she walk? What makes her more uncanny, and what kind of movements should be amplified? I found it very interesting because I felt we got so much from the costume and from the figure created. We found movements that I couldn’t have thought out beforehand. This is my favorite way to work, when the material outsmarts me.

CL: So, you couldn’t have predicted or designed it? It emerges because it is the premises of the figure. The figure is guiding you in telling what she can do?

SB: Yes.

CL: So how, in a sense, does she speak to you?

SB: She speaks in a kind of more scary and raw way than what we had predicted. Mainly due to the displacement of the bodily proportions, and I guess also because the human head is hidden. And also because of these arms that are just there, they’re dead, but still, they’re moving in a certain way. And the skull, since we decided to just use it like that, it is naked and just a plastic skull. I think there is something raw and kind of naked and not romantic at all about her, which I like. So, of course, we could have developed her further by i.e. adding hair or other details in her face, but to keep her simple in this way, to keep her limitations, made her interesting, I think.

CL: That is, she is not completely designed… she is kind of put together with the elements that were incidentally there. You took the jacket, so: OK, that’s the jacket!

SB: Yes. I guess it would look very different if she was designed for a specific purpose or function and if we skipped the practical testing. The process made her into what she is.

CL: So, there is some kind of coincidences? – that you are guided by?

SB: Absolutely. Choices made through practical work rather than thinking and planning beforehand. And a touch of intuition.

CL: Yes. So, you make decisions based on explorations in the practical work. And then you make decisions based on that?

SB: Yes.

CL: Both on what she does and how she looks?

SB: Yes.

CL: And what kind of impressions and feelings it evokes as well?

SB: Yes. And of course, it’s an artistic process all the time. You add and you take away, all the time. We discussed for a moment, if the white trousers should be black, more in the direction of something fetish-like instead, to make her even more vulgar, but then we ended up making her more meat-like. Further, what if she was covered with hair, it would make her more like an animal or a centaur. But then we ended up making her fleshy. It looks like she has been skinned to the bone.

CL: Yes. Or like from birth, or menstruation, or by handling meat in some way?

SB: Yes.

CL: So that the material was there in the start, was a coincidence, that these white trousers were there, but then you discovered that it was good and the right thing.

SB: Yes. Again, by practically testing it out, we found what we were interested in.

CL: You were talking before about this theme of the ancient, this very old matriarchically system, and then you created the trousers or was the trousers something that you had at that point already?

SB: No, the theme was there firstly. And then we said: OK, what if we propose a new, alternative female figure, what do we miss in today´s typical female figure? That’s maybe why our Skeleton Woman became the complete opposite of what we know as typical female today, or the last two thousand years. Like, she is certainly not beautiful, nor romantic. No softness, no round curves, no smiles, she is just very strange, ravenous and ragged. She is tough and she is constantly changing, both shape, voice and gender. 

CL: So, then you decided to make the trousers in that fabric? These trousers are the first step into responding to that which you wanted to make.

SB: Yes, and I remember that we talked about it: what if she was half animal, half human, with more centaur-like legs? So, I guess this was a part of it, too, to just figure out if she was half human, half something else, and then this something else needed to be more flesh-like.

CL: When you tried the trousers, was that during a costume rehearsal, or was it made in workshop, like as if you put it on and it just happened, then you grabbed the jacket, then grabbed the phone, the skull… Was it kind of finished when you started? Or were the trousers meant to be the starting point?

CL: No, I think, Ingvild was in her studio making some music. I was in my studio. I had an idea of making a half human and half animal thing. Therefore came this idea of a pair of pants that can change the normal proportions. I think they ended up looking quite exactly like the one I first made. Just that I added that flesh-like color.

CL: Does this mean that when you started to explore it, you were actually at the point to say: I have an idea that this can be the starting point, and I need to stop now and test it, so that I can see from here where it goes?

SB: Yes, I guess, that´s it. And then Ingvild came to my studio and I had put them on. I was crawling around. What if I lie like this? What if I stand like this? What if I have really high shoes, or imagine if I have even higher shoes? Just this very analogue way of testing out things practically, getting to know the material.

CL: And did she also work with music at that moment? Or was that added afterwards?

SB:  I think she was already working with the music. Or, sorry I kind of forgot to complete the explanation of how the performance Skeleton Woman came to be. All this with the pants and this with proposing an alternative female figure, was a part of the earlier project New Skin, and from this the figure Skeleton Woman was born. We saw that this figure had potential, that she had some qualities that deserved to be examined further. It was therefore we decided to apply for support for a separate performance Skeleton Woman, but this time with nine replicas of her. And then Ingvild made this «kvad» for them, inspired by Norwegian folk music.

CL: That is very important to know, yes. So, you saw potential for working more with that character, this figure, because she was still a lot to explore.

SB: Yes, that is what we felt. And that working on nine replicas of her would take us to a new place. 

CL: Yes, what happens when there is many of them?

SB: By being nine instead of one, of course she becomes more powerful because then she is more like a herd instead of being a single, lonely person. Or character. But it also gives some scenographical possibilities, because when you’re many, you can in a slightly more obvious way create space, spatial experiences and spatial dramaturgies. But we also worked on merging them back together to becoming one figure again, like in the beginning of the performance when they are lying in a heap, where only the flesh-like pants are visible. Then the lump of meat crackles and they slowly starts to occupy the space more as individuals, but still with a common will and a common project. 

CL: Aha. There are more possibilities when they are many, because you can work spatial with them?

SB: Yes. And of course, since Skeleton Woman is as much a concert as a performance, it was an advantage to have nine voices, to have a choir. 

CL: How do you work with spatial dimensions? How do you compose in space with bodies?

SB: With this one, the whole process was very intuitive. We had some limitations because we applied funding for working during six weeks with nine professional dancers, and we didn’t get it. But we decided to carry out the project anyway, with all nine dancers, but only with one week rehearsal period. This greatly affected how we worked out the performance and how it ended up being. All of the decisions just had to be done quite effectively. We knew that this was going to be a site-specific performance in the staircases of Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo. But… your question was how we worked spatially.

CL: Yes. How does the costume make the premises for the use of space? But you say you work with a staircase. You want to explore that too.

SB: Yes, the staircase gave us some clear answers on what worked and what didn’t. The stairs where almost like an inverted amphitheater, where the performance took place in the amphitheater and the audience are placed on the flat stage floor. It provided certain opportunities to work with distance and closeness, with depth and perspective. We ended up being partly distanced and partly very close to the audience.

CL: You want that which is a benefit for you. To work with these possibilities.

SB: Yes. The idea was originally that we should move more freely among the audience, but due to corona we ended up with being in that staircase, because of security and stuff. 

CL: OK, and then something about the performers. It is obviously not psychological Stanislavski-/ method acting-trained performers that can be seen in Skeleton Woman. Could you say something about what kind of performers that you prefer to work with? With Skeleton Woman as an example?

SB: Yes. We asked dancers that we knew and that we knew were good singers. They are all dancers and choreographers that also create their own productions. I am very thankful for this because since we had such a short time, the process was quite ad hoc, but I felt we managed to agree easily, and make decisions together, all the way.  

CL: You have worked together and that is positive because you have the same aesthetics.

SB: Yes.

CL: And how would you describe this kind of aesthetics of the performers? It is not acting, nor dancing. How would you describe this way of performing?

SB: We worked a lot with slow transformation, slowly giving life to the costume and to the character. We worked quite a lot on doing less, doing it slowly, because, you know, more often it was too much. And this had a lot to do with the character and her inherent qualities. You can´t walk like a troll in that costume because it already contains so much troll and then she´s just too much of a troll. This way of searching for the right movement is also about searching for the costume´s own movement, its own life. It is about giving life to something dead, to a dead object, if you can call the costume a dead object.

CL: …let it unpack itself in some way.

SB: Yes, I think so. This has to do with what I’m looking for in my PhD too, which is about giving life to dead objects. Well, even if it wasn’t said in that way at the point when we made the performance, I find it interesting to see what kind of life we actually found. Or, what kind of life the costume found. What kind of life is that? I like that dissonance that arises between the «dead» and the «living», it creates an alternative language, a language of the object, a language that perhaps resonates as something ambiguous and maybe vulnerable in us humans? 

CL: And why is this ambiguous? Is it double-sided?

SB: Because, I guess it has to do with, it has its own kind of anatomy. Or its own way of moving, or its own way of making sound when it moves, and by letting this be the main focus of the performance, then this character really gets a life of her own, if you can say it in that way.

CL: And it gets as much time as it needs.

SB: Yes.

CL: So here you are into the premises of the figure.

SB: Yes. I mean, how does this enrich my artistic language? What if it is not the actor that’s going to make us cry, an actor on stage, but it’s a textile? And what can I add to that textile, to help the alternative language? And in Skeleton Woman, it is the language of the textile, the costume.

CL: So, what is the key to make the audience being moved?

SB: I don’t know. I think it has something to do with that the textile that is moving on stage has some limitations; it has a simplicity. It reminds us of something human, without being so.

CL: There is a kind of space in between.

SB: Yes.

CL: For the interpretation of the audience to make.

SB: Yes, maybe that´s it. It makes a foundation for your own emotions and your own imagination?… you can add a part of yourself in it.

CL: Are you interested in puppetry, or figure theatre?

SB: I don’t know puppetry very well, but I see that there are some connections in a way, and I would actually like to explore this more.

CL: Something about the animation.

SB: Yes. And puppetry is also very much about giving life to objects, but it’s… Maybe it has to do with approaching the human, both for an object and for the puppet, only in different ways…I mean we read everything through our humanity… The language of things too, in a way.

CL: Yes, the language of the object. To discover that, to let it inform you what it can do.

SB: Yeah, that’s what I meant with these pants.

CL: Now, you could make an object that doesn’t have a relation to the human. It could just have a relation to a… it’s like a box.

SB: Yes, in a way. I think like that over scenography……and art, or artworks, that they communicate, and they talk, and they have their languages. It’s just in another language.

CL: So, for you, things speak and have an agency that is not connected necessarily to the human?

SB: No, not directly, but still connected. But yes, I guess it´s different for all of us what we perceive. Yes, I tend to think of the object as something that has its own language. I like to play with this language and to help that language to become alive… like blowing wind into a textile or adding a new quality to a sculpture.

CL: That means that when you create a performance, you also want the other elements to support this, is that right? That if you’re working with light, if you’re working with sound, you want a kind of exploration which is what the figure can do to emerge, or to help the figure. Show what it can do, in a way.

SB: Yes, in a way. Not always, but yes.

CL: And you said you work with music. Why do you like to work with a composer, musicians, and music?

SB: I like that very much, and I guess it’s because it’s a second language and it can help to support the language of things. To me, music is very visual, containing an imagery. It’s a very rich format.

CL: So, is it the kind of the mood, the ambience of it, is it the mood and the color and the emotions of it?

SB: Yes, of course it has to do with that. It could either go against what you see, or it can draw a new line, or yes, it has endless possibilities.

CL: Are you interested in working with text? Is it important for you?

SB: It depends, in Skeleton Woman it is part of the process to read and write down stuff, but my starting point is more often the materials or the aesthetics.

Regarding the music, it’s again about what direction you want to go. In Skeleton Woman, we chose to make a “kvad” for her, it is not techno music. I enjoy how music then added another layer to the character, to her life and to how you read her in the performance.

CL: Do you feel that music is less competitive to scenography and costume? Is it easier that they sing and make music than if they had said the lyrics of the music, for example.

SB: Yes, to me it’s more of a similar language.

CL: A very last question: I think Skeleton Woman can be seen as a performance that is generated from the costume. Do you agree with that?

SB: Yes.

CL: And do you know others? Have you seen other performers that kind of starts with costume? The figure.

SB: I guess I have, but I can’t come up with one now. No, I can’t remember.

CL: What could then be characteristic of a performance that is generated from costume?

SB: Well, it’s a bit hard to answer, I guess it’s has to do with all the things we talked about. It could be that the human or the human body is kind of in the second row. We are so used to read the language of the body and the meaning of words. I guess, it´s just a matter of what you want. If you want to address the costume as the most important thing then it needs to have some space to unfold.

CL: And in Skeleton Woman, it is for one hour.

SB: Yes, or no, half an hour. And yes, we let the costume literally unfold. In the end of the show, we partially undress, we take off the jackets, the heads, and reveals our upper bodies, but still we keep a distance from the human body by wearing masks out of pink silicone. A flesh-like mask so that you never actually get to see the real female face. Maybe in next performance we can let go of that mask too, but this time it wasn’t time, and the materials,  the costumes and the sound got the space they needed.

CL: Thank you!

Link to full version of Skeleton Woman:

Link to more information about Skeleton Woman:

Link to the webpage of Signe Becker:

Skeleton Woman 2020. Costume design Signe Becker. Concept Becker/Langgård. Photo Tale Hendnes
Skeleton Woman 2020. Costume design Signe Becker. Concept Becker/Langgård. Photo Alette Schei Rørvik
Skeleton Woman 2020. Costume design Signe Becker. Concept Becker/Langgård. Photo Signe Becker
January 18, 2021
Written by christinasodja

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