Are You With Me?
Nine young choreographers join in a talent development scheme during Europe in Motion at SPRINGDANCE 2011 in Utrecht.
A report by Ingrid van Frankenhuyzen
“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say; in fact, I don’t think you know what you want to say to your audience. But it doesn’t matter, because what I’m seeing is honestly making me very curious”; participant Clara Garcia Fraile (Spain/ UK) tells the Austrian An Kaler who is presenting a taping of Untitled Stills/Insignificant Others on the beamer. In her choreography three dancers (including Kaler) are elegantly shrugging their shoulders and convulsing in an empty space. They appear to have withdrawn into a world of their own and do not respond to one another. Solitude in collectivity.
An Kaler and her work will be the focus for the next two hours in this Europe in Motion-session. She shares with them the things she explores in her work, the questions she has, the things she runs into in her tender professional practice. Kaler is sitting in lotus position on the chair next to her laptop, answering questions from the other choreographers.
The international assembly was brought together by Springdance in Utrecht, Dance4 in Nottingham, iDance in Istanbul and Brut in Vienna. In each of these cities the talent development programme takes place with different sets of mentors. This time, the mentors are choreographer Jonathan Burrows from the UK (a familiar face from conceptual dance) and Cosmin Costinas, a Romanian curator working in the Netherlands at BAK, the centre for contemporary art in Utrecht.
An Kaler explains to the group that she was researching the space between the dancers, but also the architectural space. They are dysfunctional bodies in a certain state of consciousness, near to immobility. So what does it mean, one of the participants asks. To Jonathan Burrows the question seems to act like a red rag to a bull: he immediately begins to contradict the idea that an artist is supposed to produce meaning. And when another participant contradicts this, the session assumes the character of a semantics lecture thanks to the mentors’ stepping in. What is Kaler’s inner self, what are its semantics? What is her interiority (a new term)? When the discourse becomes increasingly hard to follow, Burrows asks: “Are you with me”?
Kaler further explains that the piece is about dysfunction: the dancers do not dance, but they have bodies that appear not to function (unaffirmative bodies), and the distorted rock music is not doing what it was meant to, either. The piece really does not represent anything but that. It is striking to see, alongside the sometimes deeply conceptual flow of thoughts from the mentors, the participants’ fantastic readiness to understand each other, to help, to ask the next question. Modest Kaler takes it all in, immediately answering even the vaguest questions: she is at home in conceptual dance.
The Wild Animal
After the elaborate lunch, it is Asli Bostanci’s turn. The slender, chain-smoking choreographer from Turkey is setting up her laptop. She has forgotten the DVD presenting her work and confesses that she hates putting extracts from her work up on Vimeo or Youtube. “To me, it doesn’t represent the performance. My work is about creating an atmosphere with the audience, and this effect gets lost in the transfer to film”. As she folds open her laptop to present some pictures, her father calls her using Skype. In fluent Turkish, her eyes sparkling, she explains to him that she is busy right now.
Bostanci is a very different artist from An Kaler. She uses a great deal of text and dramatic scenes as well. Onstage in her performance Panic in the Zoo she (as we can see in the pictures) talks to miniature animals. Sharing stories and experiences on life, on animals who are vegetarians, on hypnotising dolls, she intends to create a childlike fairy-tale illusion. Bostanci sees herself as a big child with lots of imagination, fighting her own ‘demons’ with stories and theatre. “A part of me was dead inside. I created the solo In Between in France in 2007 while I was depressed. I wanted to shake that dead part of me to life, looking for the wild animal inside of me, looking for that death, my inner voice; I wanted to touch it. You could say that in my work I research my inner state. My body. I use it to experiment onstage”.
To the group’s laughter she proceeds to explain the scenes in the pictures. Look, I am talking to my feet here, and here I am trying to be the world’s strongest woman; here I am beating cotton (a reference to a Turkish ritual). Bostanci declares that the almost surreal images from her performances choose themselves. She is herself onstage.
Burrows and Costinas immediately ask her if her work manages to transcend self-expression. They immediately draw the Turkish choreographer’s stage vocabulary and images into the abstract realm: in one sentence they combine words such as horizontality, democracy and semantics. But no matter how much the participants discuss and question, the debate becomes bogged down in a confusion of conceptual terms. Which prompts Bostanci’s colleague and fellow Turk Ilyas Odman to sigh: “I’m getting tangled up in all my questions”.
Cast from a completely different mould is the Austrian Gabri M. Einsiedl. She has a strained relationship with art, and especially dance. She therefore describes herself as an artist who is always thinking about leaving the arts. At the moment she is studying elsewhere because she also takes an interest in things such as politics. Einsiedl is unable to deal with the system that goes with art: the applications for subsidies, the market in which she is operating. They are an abomination to her. She is, however, a fervent collector of material for performances and then, when she really needs to, she will create a performance.
She presents a quiet video displaying two people inching across a diagonal, hardly making any progress. It is dark, the two are wearing hoods. Einsiedl is able to laugh when she says: “One critic once called my work a terrorist attack on theatrical conventions”. She explains that, apparently, she often offends her audiences; she hates her audience, but by contrast she thinks it is perfectly alright to be criticised herself.
Opposition seems to be the key word in the Austrian participant’s work and life. She takes up an opposing position. The group asks her if this attitude is an artistic strategy, a statement, or if it is something personal? It turns out to be both: “I am more or less in conflict with my work”.
This tempts the group to start a discussion on their ‘umfeld’, the network, the market, the system in which they as young choreographers are operating. How do they determine their own position in it? To what extent do they go along with the demands from presenters, the expectations of the audience, the criteria set by funding bodies? How do they learn to deal with these, and how can they find their own way in that pattern without making concessions to the things they stand for?
The Garden Sessions
The weather is lovely the next day, so we sit in the garden at the Huis a/d Werf theatre for another day of sessions. But on this final day the group does not need another day of joint talks. The discussions of the past few days have been very abstract. Can the mentors offer a different form? Can they think of a different set-up? The group comes up with an idea for a type of speeddate-sessions; presenting their questions about their profession to another person. Cosmin Costinas adds another layer: each question should deal with their ideas as to how they as individuals, as artists, relate to society with regard to politics, society and democracy. So they have to come to a bigger central question out of their own individual questions. This turns out to be a difficult assignment. Even the interpreter for the deaf, Aly, is having trouble explaining the assignment in sign language to the deaf Japanese/British participant Chisato Minamimuri. Minamimuri says that the mentors’ question is problematic. But she, too, is willing to give it a try. The point seems to be: what have they learnt; to then come to a joint viewpoint or, if this fails, to convince the other of their viewpoint. The main idea is: ideas become lost along the way, and other ideas will come up. This is a process everyone needs to go through at some time.
Because they set off in duos and the number of participants is uneven, I find myself sitting across from Ilyas Odman. Like Asli Bostanci he is a chainsmoker, but his laptop is always on hand and he takes his own notes of the sessions. His most burning question: how can I rid myself of my own context and meaning; how can I influence the effect I have on my audience? In other words: how can he escape his own stereotypes? He is a Turkish man and he is gay. This means that in Turkey he is immediately seen as an ‘impossibility’, whereas in the West he is seen as the stereotypical highly emancipated Turk. If he whirls round and round like a dervish in one of his performances, he is almost a traitor because of who he is, whereas elsewhere people will immediately say: you see, he is quintessentially Turkish. So he automatically has a different meaning in different cultures and environments. How can he escape that? He does not want to be pinned down, because that is what he must sell himself with within his work field. For one presenter, for instance, he will be that modern Turk, but in another place he will be that traitor of his culture. How to define the self?
Pleasing the Audience
After the speed dates, a number of questions has risen, but the one that is eventually chosen as THE main question is: where does the balance lie between questioning the context in which they create their work, while at the same time using this context to be creative?
As a final assignment the participants are given 3 minutes to write down what they have learnt from all these sessions, the things they will be doing differently in future and, for instance, the things they will never be doing again.
Ilyas Odman, it turns out, is left with even more questions than he had before. He laughs heartily: he would really have liked to have been given some answers. The Swiss Melissa Ellberger who has represented the Netherlands is still looking for the position she takes up within the field of dance: is she, as a (former) urban dancer and now a choreographer, allowed to ‘please’ her audience and provide them with entertainment, or should she shatter the expectations of the different types of dance audience? In every dance scene she will be the odd one out. And this is difficult.
Einav Eshel (Israel /the Netherlands) is hoping for a good deal of feedback on her performance from her audience and from professionals. As an Israeli she cannot escape the fact, she says, that when in her work someone holds a blow-dryer to his head, this will often be interpreted as a gun. She, too, is ‘troubled’ by her cultural baggage; she, too, refuses to be pinned down as the ‘political choreographer’.
The statements have made us curious for the excerpts, the works in progress which will be presented later on during Springdance. The participants are all curious for the feedback they will receive from the audience, both layman and professional.
Europe in Motion 2011-2012: Springdance in collaboration with Brut (Austria), I-dance (Turkey) and Dance4 (UK)
Dialogue sessions 14-17 April // performances 21-23 April