Photo of Sascha by Sandrine Monteiro
I met Sascha Ley in Ottawa. We were both participating in an international artist ‘creation hub’ where, for almost two weeks, eighteen artists from eight different francophone countries across the world created together. As we shared our artistic practices with one another, it was inspiring to say the least! During our time together, Sascha showed me the trailer for one of her theatre pieces about Frida Kahlo called Mi Frida. I was so impressed that I asked to interview her for She Said Notes. Inspired by the international beginnings of our connection, it seemed only appropriate that we would do a Skype interview since Sascha lives in the city of Luxembourg.
We’re so used to speaking in French, will it be weird to speak in English?
How many languages do you speak anyway?
Well, there’s Luxembourgish, of course, as well as English, French, German and Italian.
No big deal right?
Ha! More and more visitors come to the city of Luxembourg so I end up speaking a lot more English even when I’m home. Last night I went to a jazz concert and we spoke Luxembourgish, German and English. Oh and the server was French so a bit of French!
Wow! Before we jump into the thick of things—in English! (laughing)—can you tell me what food Luxembourg is known for?
Or fried fish. What else… oh, Kneeddelen! That’s like wheat gnocchi.
Kneeddelen. Great word. OK, now are we ready to talk art?
Kneeddelen. (Laughs) Yes, art!
So! You do so much Sascha, how would you describe your artistic practice?
Ah wow. OK. Well I come from theatre and music. As a child my dream was to become an actor. My vision of actors came from what I saw in musicals meaning I thought every actor could dance, sing, make music, and act. So for me, that was basically the plan. To do all those things.
And you DO all those things, on top of creating a lot of work… and you direct! Like your piece Mi Frida that you created, directed, and acted in (and which has been produced by Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg). How did that piece emerge?
(Sascha doesn’t even take a pause to think about her answer.)
I’m an intuitive person. I’m quite fast when making decisions. In the year 2000 I met this Argentinian contemporary dancer and was intrigued by both her feminine and masculine qualities. I thought, “Wow, I would love to do something about Frida Kahlo. I would love to have music, projections, dance and four actors on stage.” And then I put it aside and only occasionally took further notes. And, oh, I thought I must visit Mexico and Frida Kahlo’s house, the casa azúl, before I should even dare to dive into the subject. I’ve visited those places in 2009.
In 2013 I was asked to record poems written by Frida Kahlo for someone else’s project and the idea I had through all those years sprang back to mind and I thought, “Yeah, now is the time.” So far, I had only occasionally directed. Turned out I like it. Eventually I staged it with the wonderful dancer Sylvia Camarda.
Frida Kahlo is such an intriguing person/subject!
I was drawn to her eccentric appearance since I was a teenager. She had these amazing eyebrows, and I had big eyebrows at the time. And she had this moustache. Then I started reading about her. Not everybody likes her art—I do. Even if it’s self-centred… why not be? All art is. The question is whether or not the observer sees themselves in it. Because the observer is self-centred as well. (Laughs)
This woman who had suffered so much also fascinated me. She had a body that was almost destroyed and I wondered, “what is it like to deal with a broken physique; how would a dancer manage?”
I know she had polio and a severe car accident. Is that the suffering you refer to?
Yes polio, and then at eighteen years old she was riding in a bus that collided with a trolley car. She suffered several injuries one of which was a pole that went into her vagina and pierced both her pelvis and abdomen.
Yeah. In one of her interviews I found a beautiful piece of writing on sex. She was very sexually active. She had affairs of her own, not just her husband. Long love affairs with plenty of men and women—quite a nice line-up of people really. But in her diary she doesn’t talk about her pain as affecting sex. That surprised me.
I feel like Frida fought her way into living. Into leaving something of herself on this earth.
She was a fighter.
Creating a piece of theatre takes so much time. To sustain the years of creating, it almost seems necessary to be in love with your subject or to see yourself in it. Do you see yourself as a type of Frida—as a fighter?
(Again Sascha answers with no hesitation.)
Yeah. (Laughs) I’m a fighter—since forever. There’s always been a lot of movement in my life. Even as a kid, I always saw myself as a fighter. I always wanted to be strong.
You have over thirty years of work experience. How do you see your ‘emerging artist self?’
Well… I wasn’t always taken seriously as a woman though I would see men my age get taken seriously. At the age of seventeen I thought, “It’s OK, I’m just starting out. They’ll all take me seriously with more experience.” But then at ages 20, 30, 40 people are still provoking me in this doubting manner sometimes because I’m a woman. I got very angry—often—and wasn’t scared of showing my anger. But then I thought, “Ah, I need to become softer!” as I want to be sensitive and sensible towards the people I’m working with and the people I meet.
You were with me!
Yes. And there was also this other thing that was strange for me: cuteness. I never thought of myself as cute but it turns out people like cute. They like it… but then we women are told that you can’t be cute, intelligent, talented and powerful all at the same time. So it’s a balance. I don’t always want to impose my strength but if I’m pushed I will show it.
How do you fight inequality?
Well for one I cut my hair six year ago. I wanted to stop being offered these boring I-have-no-life mommy parts for film. After I cut my hair though, some people would actually pet my head like a dog and say, “Oh cute, you cut it all off.” No one would pet a man’s head and say that. I would say, “You do that again and you pay next time. You can’t touch me just like that.” (I definitely get better parts since!)
I love it.
Ha! I also talk about inequality more and more. That’s really how I try to create change. I’ve had this experience a lot: Often in bigger groups I had suggested an idea and nobody seemed to really listen. Then a little while later a man will suggest that same idea and everybody will say ‘oh, yes, that sounds good’. We still have work to do to reach real equality in the arts.
I meet other women artists who never had problems… or say they never have. I think that maybe they are more focused on other things and don’t listen to the negative comments. Or if they do, they ignore them and keep going. I listen to everything. With my skills, if I were a man, I would have had a bigger career. I’m quite sure about that.
Did you grow up in a feminist household?
I did actually. My stepmother and my aunt were very involved in the feminist movement. So much so that I could explain what it was before I could even write the word out. As a kid my vision of the world was, “Wow, when I grow up I will be a free person in a free world—in an equal world. Men and women will have the same rights. People from all the nations will have the same rights.” And then, when I was sixteen, AIDS came on the scene and it was a total shock for everyone. Of course just when I was ready to have sex! (Laughs) I felt that [in response] people went back to their conservative lifestyles and opinions, thinking AIDS was only for homosexuals, which is just completely ridiculous of course.
Do you try to combat inequality in your theatre creations?
(For the first time in our interview Sascha really pauses.)
Probably. I don’t put it in the foreground—it’s never the theme. But after my shows I often get feedback from audience members saying that they perceive equality somehow. I get feedback from women especially saying they felt stronger after watching me, that I gave them courage.
That’s so nice.
I certainly don’t feel like I’m trying to do that. I guess it’s just who I am.
That just made me think of this little piece we created together in Ottawa. We sang a poem I had written and had to present it to the group. I would have never willingly started singing the poem because singing in front of people makes me really nervous. But you did. And you did with such gusto that I just decided to follow you and start singing as well.
I have an image of you Sascha, are you ready?
You’re holding a torch and you’re running full speed ahead. If people want to follow you they also have to commit entirely. If not, they’re quickly left in the dust. That’s how I felt singing beside you; there was no halfway point. And I didn’t want to be eating dust. So thanks for the push!
Sascha sidesteps the compliment, focusing instead on my singing of that poem. We laugh, reminiscing on our short and intense time spent together in Ottawa. Before hanging up our Skype call we promise to connect again soon—I look forward to it!
As a versatile stage performer, Sascha Ley occupies a solid place in the Luxembourg art and cultural scene for years. The Luxembourgish artist with German and French roots surprises every time with her projects, most recently with her brilliant vocal & double bass duo Sascha Ley & Laurent Payfert or her idiosyncratic dance theater piece Mi Frida on Mexican icon Frida Kahlo. Convincing as a singer, actress, composer and poet, she loves to follow unconventional paths—musically especially oriented towards jazz, free improvisation, imaginary folklore and contemporary music. Parallel to music and drama she has devoted herself in recent years increasingly to writing and interdisciplinary performance. Sascha is based in Luxembourg and works internationally.