An Interview with Thierry Alexandre
Thierry Alexandre's work is often described as a cosmic-scale baroque odyssey: exploring boundaries between the sacred and the profane, using mythology, symbolism and surrealist shamanistic rituals to create immersive, site specific theatrical interventions, exuding vitality through their unique style, deep humanity and vulnerability.
Thierry's performance work has taken them across Europe, from renowned theatres to remote rural locations, church crypts to bijoux museums. Their work spans from raw and minimalist physical expression to landscape altering costumed interventions, using wearable art, installation art, live projections and laser technology to inhabit and consciously reclaim the environment preformed in.
In this article, Thierry shares their creative journey, their exploration of form and medium and the emotional connection to art, creating art and being a source of artistic inspiration.
What are your earliest memories of art and creativity?
I grew up in France in a pretty middle of the road, conservative rural area, so as a child, and later even as a teenager, creativity was not a terribly prominent part of my life. I believe we had one hour a week of art plastique that did nothing to awaken my creative streak. That was probably due to the way the class had to fit into a standardised educational framework and my feeling like a depressed misfit all the time! It was just terribly uninspiring – as was the whole childhood experience, in fact. I suppose I ran away to London with this raging fire inside, not knowing what the fire was, or how we could use some of the flames to illuminate my existence.
How did you discover and connect with your creativity?
It all started through drag work. As a child, I had this enormous longing to experiment with drag, costume, performance and gender. That was incredibly difficult to do there because of my direct environment and the pretty conservative family that raised me. So, when I finally set foot in London I tried to make up for lost time and truly maxed out on Drag! In those days, there wasn't all the extraordinary drag queens you get today in clubs and on television. This was late 90s England and drag was mostly fairly tame and quite often focused around female impersonation. There was little experimentation but thankfully I came across Burnel Penhaul known as Transformer (who had the brilliance and exuberance of the late Leigh Bowery) and everything changed: suddenly I had become a part of this rich and experimental niche scene that nurtured me into breaking down all boundaries.
How did your drag work help you explore your creativity?
Back then, we had to make and invent and create and extend everything we knew to make it something special: teaching each other transformation makeup in a café or nightclub dim lit back room, exchanging tips on where to go for precious sequins or rare sachets of ultra-fine glitter, crafting our own eyelashes out of individual peacock feathers, building our own platform boots from recycled materials, making props for the clubs and performances we were involved with and so on. You'd have to think sideways to create unforgettable looks! No Youtube, the internet only just starting out and of course we were all broke so invention had to prevail and that forged my artistic potential I feel. I did this type of work for years: wearing 12-inch platform shoes and enormous headdresses, incredible costumes, far out make up and lashes out to there being a “walkabout character”, so mostly just prancing around the clubs striking dramatic poses or holding a guest list clipboard if I was lucky! I did all this at night while running five-star hotels and private members’ clubs in the day too!
What led to you connecting with art?
I had a nervous breakdown! As a hyper sensitive individual, working the corporate environment five days a week and having a creative outlet for only a few cherished hours in the clubs led me to a place of ill health, mental and spiritual imbalance. Shortly after losing my mind, I started therapy with a wonderful counsellor: I showed him my portfolio, which was all the clippings, articles and photographs of my drag work and he said to me: “Thierry, this is the most creative thing I have ever seen. You are an artist, and you need to go to art school to learn the craft and develop your gift”
How did it feel to be called an artist by someone else?
It was an absolute shock! It's something that happens for a lot of artists I think. We struggle with that moment where we're going to be justified calling ourselves Artist. “The Arts” is such a nebulous and commodified realm that you can feel like a bit of a fraud. If you're earning a living from what you create or made a name for yourself, then perhaps - perhaps - you “deserve” to be called an artist. It is sad really how we are conditioned away from recognizing and owning our wondrous gifts and talent just because they aren’t valued in an aggressive capitalistic arena rigidly formed around outmoded systems. Let us reclaim our universal and divine creative power, let us embrace our unique gifts and question how they can elevate humanity rather than fearfully wonder whether our existence is justifiable!
How did you discover Butoh?
Butoh is an avant garde, Japanese contemporary movement form. It is sometimes called the dance of darkness, or anti dance. I came to Butoh after exploring more traditional dance forms, taking courses in ballet, contemporary dance, jazz, tap, and various forms of personal expression including physical theatre and greek tragedy. I think by that stage I had started training in modern clown and physical comedy as well and although I was getting something out of all these, I didn't feel they could channel the substance that was waiting to emerge out of my soul. So when I happened upon Butoh (through a leaflet in one of the dance studios) it was a most brilliant revelation/revolution! Suddenly there was a medium for the unfiltered expression of what I was going through, which was enormous pain and discomfort at a very challenging time in my life. Butoh helped me to process and shed a painful past, to start healing my wound by laying it bare in front of an audience.
Credit: Earth Shutdown, multimedia performance with Timebomb Theatre, 2019
What draws you back to dance and traditional dance forms?
Traditional dance concerns itself with elegance, lightness, grace, beauty, harmony and flow. Butoh concerns itself with the deep human struggle, with mythology, the deep senses, stillness, with the dark side of the soul, the magma in the earth’s core and the essence of what humans are, the birth and death of a cell: it seeks to span over an organic progression, and that's what really did it for me: in a five minute presentation, I could become a self-standing journey. I could embody the seed that meets the water, swells, remembers its own intelligence, becomes activated, sprouts, germinates, and grows and pushes and expands, shines bright blooms and then withers, dries and dies, blows to dust and vanishes. Ultimately for me, it is about helping audiences remember that we haven’t come into the world but that we have come out of the world. Through dance I feel that I can transport viewers in a very direct way to parts of our humanity I spent years understanding and reclaiming, those parts that unite us all and know no boundary, no separation, the very places we all long to turn to but that life often forces us to keep on the back burner.
How would you describe your artistic process?
I see the artistic process as that of unravelling the essence of our journey here, uncovering the truth about ourselves. I hear many artists who say: ‘I have to paint, I have to create, I have to draw, I have to dance, otherwise, I will die’. They're uncovering their truer self through the work - but there's more than one way of uncovering and that is what I prioritise, feeling my way through life to expose and dispel the lies about my person, the lies the world put upon us, and those we tell ourselves. This process of uncovering can happen through someone who will draw, and draw and draw and draw, or paint obsessively, or create and invent and design and make and craft and eventually they see a pattern emerging, finding new facets, get different angles and perspectives on who they are, sometimes even confronted with how our identity has become tied to what we do rather than who we are.
Credit: Thierry in front of Pentonville Prison wall. Photography by Richard Kaby.
And so, even if I am not in a productive phase per se, I can still be creating through the process of uncovering my deeper self, remembering and processing the pain, releasing early trauma and tending to the wound. What I have found is that the more I do this, and the deeper I can go with this process, the more impactful what I will put on a canvas becomes, the more communicative, profound and relevant the expression of my movement becomes for an audience. It’s the timeless truth Gandhi brought to us is it not? “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”
9. You work as a life drawing model too. Could you talk a little about this experience?
It's interesting being on both sides of the drawing board. I suppose life modelling offers a place of great tranquility, a contemplative opportunity if you will, a time to really just relax into our ability to radiate, and be appreciated in our most raw, pure and essential form- and be immortalised in the process! There is a very comforting cocoon like warmth in a modelling environment: a great calm needs to descend upon a room full of artists for them to channel their talent. In a sense it is a time of great communion where the model feels witnessed, held, celebrated even. As far as the growth of online modeling classes over lockdown, I have not had any experience there: I made a conscious choice to reduce social media to a pretty strict minimum in that time to focus on my deeper evolution. I suppose that, to a point, you can recreate some sense of encouraging togetherness and enjoy drawing from a screen, I imagine not unlike drawing from a photograph? But I think there's an emotional intensity that exists in the ethereal flow of a shared space that cannot easily be mimicked through the medium of a screen or an image.
10. How do you feel about being an artistic inspiration to other people?
Nothing short of feeling deeply humbled and honoured to have created an outcome where I can inspire anybody at all! To imagine that I have turned my life situation around to the point where I? me? could be a source of inspiration to someone else… How did this happen? It's just the greatest thing that could possibly come about! To have reached a place where I can not only believe in myself and feel excited about my work and potential, but for that to become a part of someone else's reality is enormous. I feel it's a testament to the magnificent interconnectedness of our earthly experience and of course the fantastic opportunities this country has offered me. Ultimately, I believe this is what the world wants and needs to see more of: they want to witness a victorious human spirit, they do not wish for artifice, they do not thrive on superficiality, on traditional standards of beauty, success or fame. Our subconscious may feast on these, but that's not what nourishes our soul. People feel nourished when they are heard, when they are seen, when they feel included in someone else's journey, energy, enterprises, whatever it may be, where sharing happens from a place of truth, of realness, anchored in the questions that truly matter. So, it’s an incredible privilege, every time I am asked to contribute, and I've met such sensational humans in that process!
Thank you, Thierry!
If you were inspired by this interview with Thierry and would like to find out more about their art and work, head to their website here.
To find out more about Thierry and their work, follow them on Instagram here.
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