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A meeting of minds

Prima ballerina POLINA SEMIONOVA, memory champion CHRISTIANE STENGER and perfumer GEZA SCHOEN riff on bottling the Bolshoi, mapping memories, and making beautiful fragrances together

Polina

When I was a little girl at ballet school in Russia we were sometimes called upon to dance at the Bolshoi, an experience I will never forget. To get from the stage to the dressing-rooms we had to pass through the understage. As I ran under the stage where all my heroes and heroines had danced I would close my eyes and say to myself, 'Aaaah, now you are breathing the perfume of the Bolshoi, the perfume of ballet itself.' It was only fifteen years later that I discovered what this perfume actually was.

Christiane

What was it?

Polina

Cats. They had moved into the Bolshoi during the war. Ever since they have made the theatre their home and paid their rent by catching mice.

Geza

When you told me that story I knew I had to put something catty into your fragrance so I added cassis, which is made from blackcurrant buds. Cassis smells like cat's pee.

Polina

Mmmmm!

Through you I could feel the power of scent to unlock very strong memories

Christiane

Geza, how did you find Polina? Did you see her dance at Berlin Staatsballett?

Geza

Uh … no. I was lying on the sofa late one night, zapping through TV channels and there she was in a documentary on some weird arts channel. I contacted her manager, and he told Polina ‘hey some guy has an idea about making a fragrance with you.’

Polina

And I knew immediately ‘yes, I will do this’. To dive into this world of perfume, I never imagined that this would happen to me.

Geza

We met at my laboratory here in Berlin and began to smell the primary materials together. I would give Polina a natural extract or a synthetic molecule and she would go ‘oh this one reminds me of my grandmother’s little house in the country’ or ‘this reminds me of the earth after rain’. Through Polina I could feel the power of scent to unlock very strong memories.

Polina

What was wonderful for me was discovering that the smells of my memories each had a name or a formula.

She’s the opposite of Paris Hilton so why not create a fragrance with someone like this?

Christiane

For me too, Geza’s invitation came out of the blue. I was 19 and I knew nothing about perfume.

Geza

It was when Paris Hilton had just brought out her first fragrance. I was pissed off that someone famous for doing nothing was launching a perfume as a money-making machine. Then I picked up a copy of Zeit Wissen, the science magazine. On the cover was the youngest ever junior world champion in memory-training: Christiane. I thought ‘here is a woman doing something extraordinary with her brain. She’s the opposite of Paris Hilton. So why not create a fragrance with someone like this?’

Polina

How do you train yourself to have this huge memory, Christiane?

Christiane

I connect each thing I want to remember to a picture. Then, in my mind, I place these pictures round a room or a building that I know well, forming a route from, say, the door to the table to the window. At the door I put one memory-picture, at the table another memory-picture, and so on. With practise you can memorise everything.

Polina

Everything?

Christiane

Everything. The more fantastical you make the picture that goes with the memory, the easier it is to remember. That’s why the fragrance is called Intelligence and Fantasy. The fantasy part is important. How do you remember the sequence of movements in a ballet like Swan Lake, the one you were dancing last night?

For 3 weeks we got together every day all day to smell the raw materials in his laboratory

Polina

Swan Lake is easy because in classical ballet every movement has a name. A modern ballet, where the movements have no name, that’s tough. So I make up names for them myself. I name one movement ‘box’, another ‘flower’ and I string them together in a story.

Christiane

It’s not so different from the technique that I use.

Polina

When you are on stage there is a lot going on in your head. All the corrections your teacher has told you to make. Adjusting to the layout of each different stage. The conductor playing too slow or too fast. But the best is when you don’t think. That’s what I believe our art is about - those moments when you are not you, when you fly.

That’s what I believe our art is about - those moments when you are not you, when you fly

Christiane

I was so happy when Geza told me you would make Beautiful Minds No. 2. I remember you in the Herbert Groenemeyer video. That was one of the first things that made you famous in Germany outside of ballet circles. You look so beautiful and free…

Polina

Tell me more about how you made Intelligence & Fantasy.

Christiane

I had been offered an apartment in Berlin for the summer. So when Geza got in touch, I said, ‘why not?’. I came to Berlin and for three weeks we got together every day, all day, to assess the raw materials in his lab. It was crazy to see how quickly the sense of smell becomes educated. Soon I could smell a fragrance and say ‘oh yeah there’s sandalwood in there’, or ‘that’s osmanthus’.

I came to realise that when I love a note it is because there is a connection to my memories, conscious or unconscious.

Polina

Which ingredients did you love?

Christiane

I was fascinated by the mysterious ingredients such as Iso E Super and hedione, which is very very light but has so many nuances to it. Immediately when Geza gave me something to smell, a picture would form in my mind .. the ocean.. a plant….a fantasy animal. It’s because of the way I trained my mind to memorise things through pictures. And it worked particularly well because it’s hard to describe smells in words.

Polina

What’s the picture you have when you smell Intelligence & Fantasy?

Christiane

A fluffy kugel.

Polina

Kugel?

Christiane

In English it’s a ball, or sphere. So what I see is an orange-yellow sphere, like a little sun, that has a buttery, fluffy centre.

Geza

I know exactly what she is talking about. This fluffy effect comes from –

Christiane

Cashmeran.

Geza

Yeah. Cashmeran. And the yellow-orange is from the bergamot. Intelligence & Fantasy has a huge freshness, but it’s a soft fragrance.

I was fascinated by the mysterious ingredients such as Iso E Super

Christiane

What picture do you get when you smell Precision & Grace, Polina?

Polina

I get a memory… in the forest, in summer, picking pears and plums and placing them in my basket.

Geza

For me Precision & Grace is a smell-image of you dancing. The transparent layers of the classical ballet costume, and then underneath, the warmth of the body in motion.

Christiane

Do you ever wear fragrance when you are dancing?

Polina

Yes, I like to wear Precision & Grace when I am dancing - but only in a performance. I want the fragrance to remain special, exciting.

I like to wear Precision & Grace when I am dancing - but only in a performance. I want the fragrance to remain special, exciting.

Geza

What was really different about this process was that both of you learnt to recognise and assess the primary materials. After we had smelt hundreds of ingredients, I asked both of you to write down your association for each one, so I could have an insight into your olfactory brains.

Christiane

Then we made the first base. It had just six ingredients: cashmeran, bergamot, Iso E Super, mandarin, hedione… and what was the sixth thing?

Geza

Muscenone. And the thing is, while each of these ingredients in itself is nothing unusual, the combination of these six had never been done before.

Polina

No really. Never?

Geza

Not in this way. It’s like six words. Depending on how you place them in a sentence, the sentence will be different.

I wanted to have an insight into your olfactory brains

Christiane

Towards the end, Geza added something special, a gardenia from Tahiti, tiare absolue.

Geza

Ah yes, amazing stuff. That extract wasn’t available until we were working on base 20 of Intelligence and Fantasy. Tiare absolue has this quality of being exotic and fresh at the same time, something I have never encountered in a flower before. I have some right here in my pocket. Would you like to smell it?

Christiane

Mmm. It reminds me of that thing I always search for at the airport… wintergreen.

 Geza

Yeah you’re right. Wintergreen is basically methyl salicylate and this molecule is in natural tiare as well.

Polina

It’s not like a flower. More earthy than I expected. Did the tiare change Intelligence & Fantasy?

It reminds me of that thing I always search for at the airport

Geza

Tiare melts into the fragrance, giving it an exotic allure.

Christiane

How did you choose the ingredients for Precision & Grace, Polina?

Polina

We would meet and I would say 'Oh I like powder' and he would say, ‘Ok we go with powder’. We would meet again and I would say ‘oh but I also love plum’. And he would say, ‘OK lets go with plum’.

Geza

Both powdery and plum notes made it into the final formula for Precision & Grace. It’s very transparent and, in the base notes, warm and kind of yummy.

It’s as if that’s what fragrance really is –bottled memories

Christiane

In the end, did you choose notes because they smelt so good or because you had a special memory associated with them?

Polina

I came to realise that when I love a note it is because there is a connection to it in my memories. The note that I felt had to be in Precision & Grace was plum. When I was a child in Russia we had plum trees in the garden. This is the heart of the fragrance for me.

Geza

I was happy when you chose plum over other fruits. Plum is something you can use in a sophisticated way and it gets a push from the pink pepper, which has a berry note to it.

Polina

I would never have thought of pepper. But when you gave it to me I thought, ‘wow’. And then I love the woody notes. I love the forest. I love the smells of the earth so much. When rain is coming, I can smell it.

With smell, you feel the memory with your whole body

Christiane

I think you were more connected to smells through your childhood in nature. Funny that we had the same impression - that it was about memories. It’s as if that’s what fragrance really is –bottled memories.

Polina

With smell, you feel the memory with your whole body.

Geza

What I loved was that we tried to combine my experience with your memories and perceptions. Usually when someone brings out a perfume, there’s not much of them in there, it's just about the use of their name. We did the opposite, we tried to make fragrances full of soul.

We did the opposite, we tried to make fragrances full of soul

Interview
Susan Irvine

Images
Susannah Baker-Smith