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Interview with Sidney Leoni by Nina Branner, Aug 28, 2016

"Under Influence" by Sidney Leoni | Credit: Thomas Cartron
Choreographer Sidney Leoni’s first feature film Under Influence is like a dance: an eternally evolving movement which, when it’s good, keeps its characters and the audience on their toes in the search for truth. Nina Branner met him for a talk about female idols, Scandinavian darkness and the return to basic, human sensations.

You’ve been working as a dancer and choreographer for over ten years. Why did you want to make a film?

Leoni: I’ve been interested in cinema since I was a teenager. Another reason I went for it is that, for years now, I have been making performance projects which are taking place in total darkness, where I orchestrate the media like sound, light, bodies and temperature. Making films was somehow a natural and logical extension of that.

What is your fascination with darkness about?

Leoni: It started when I moved to Stockholm, where darkness is literally very present. During my first performance project, Undertone, I was very engaged in reading the French theorist and poet Georges Bataille. Bataille’s erotic poems often mention the holes in our body: holes, that are tunnels to the unknown, to darkness. That inspired me. For me darkness is an invitation to freedom.

Darkness also offers an intensification of experience. In a performance context, but also in the real world, I see in darkness the promise of a greater physical interaction between people beyond the normative rules of sex, gender, race and class. The goal of my work is to challenge how we interact with each other. In our technological world, we tend to forget our capacity to interact and connect with one another in a sensory way.

What is the difference between choreographing a dance performance and directing a film?

It was a big challenge for me to find the right terminology and the right way to give the performers clear instructions. During the first period of shooting, I was saying things like “can you look more sad” or “show her that you are in love.” Very quickly it became clear that this wasn’t working. After that, I started giving them physical instructions like, “this scene will be totally static. Stand still as long as you can. If you can't hold it any longer, say cut”.

Which I suppose is the way you work as a dance choreographer…

Leoni: To a certain extent, yes. The screenplay for the film is quite thin because 75% of the film isn’t verbal, but based instead on short descriptions of character's actions. Of course, there is a completely different atmosphere and work rhythm in a dance studio or theater.

In Under Influence, the main character stars as Kate Winslet in a movie and confuses herself with her in a psychotic journey towards independence. How did you get this idea?

Leoni: I have idealized actresses like Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Gena Rowlands who have taken on strong roles-- or musicians like Nina Simone. My desire was to portray women who aren't afraid to challenge people and know what they want. I came up with this plot - an actress who turns into other actresses – because it allowed me a basic freedom from a linear way of telling the story. Rather than having the action in the film go from a point A to a point B, like narratives usually do, I thought: why not just have a point A and no clear point B? I wanted to keep things as unpredictable as possible.  

Through the film, the signs of what belongs to the real world and to the main character's fantasy, like for instance when the film director shouts 'cut', gets more and more blurry. I hope that will bring the spectators to stop wondering what's real and what's imaginary-- I want to put these two things on the same level and show how our imagination can invade the real world, and influence our actions-- and vice versa.
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Lily Kelting Born 1986, Stage editor, Exberliner magazine. Works internationally as a freelance dramaturg, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of California, San Diego. Postdoc at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Originally from New York City, she lives in Berlin.

Nina Branner is a freelance cultural journalist from Denmark, based in Berlin. She has studied at the University of Copenhagen, Berlin University of the Arts and at Copenhagens Academy for Music, Dance and Performance with awarded choreographer Kasper Ravnhøj. She writes about theater, performance and music for publications like Weekendavisen and Gaffa. Writing for Exberliner since March 2016.