This the Choreoroameurope-Rotterdam report by Aukje Verhoog. It all started in June 2012…
Claim your night
An introduction to the choreographers in ChoreoRoam 2012
“This week is about getting to know each other. Getting to know the person behind the artist, the artist behind the person, or where the two come together.” It is the first week of ChoreoRoam 2012 and with these words, spoken by Kristin de Groot, the project is opened. And as always during the first week of a workshop programme, this week is centred on introductions.
There are many ways to get to know a person. Amy Gale, the dramaturge who will be travelling with the choreographers to every city that ChoreoRoam will visit these coming months, is looking forward to the warming-up – the first time she will be able to see the participants move. She says: “once I see you dancing, I will get to know you, and I will never forget who you are.” For similar reasons, I myself am looking forward to the round of introductions. The way a person introduces himself is very revealing. Does he talk about the things he does, or about the person he is? Does it sound like a coherent (perhaps even rehearsed) story, or does this person seem to be trying to find words for the thoughts that are popping into his head? Does this person mimic attitudes or words from others within the group? Is his behaviour clearly different?
Those who introduce themselves answer the question of who they are, or who they would like to be. It is a perfect time to test a new definition of yourself. I have been asked to be the ‘writer-in-residence’ during this week and have given much thought to how I would like to introduce myself as such. I would rather not stand out, certainly not as an observer/writer. I have no desire to be a voyeur; I want to participate, or at least think along with the participants. Not someone who stands to gain from other people’s revelations, but someone who takes an equally vulnerable position. That is, of course, provided they want to see me; ‘the group’ will decide for itself whether it wants me to be involved. If, that is, there will be such a thing as a group.
We do the rounds: Eva, Marina, Ruth, Loïc, Tommaso, Irena, Giorgia, Amy. They come from Switzerland, Spain, France, Italy, Croatia and the UK. Four of them once lived, worked, or studied in the Netherlands – or are still here. Most of them introduce themselves by talking about what they do. It turns out none of them is just a choreographer; they are also dancers, dance teachers, rehearsal assistants, philosophy students. And they come from a range of backgrounds – from having started as an English literature student, to dancing with a repertoire company, to being a trained visual artist. Giorgia is the only one who mentions her age (23). Loïc is the only one who tells us why he is a choreographer (“I wanted to create something that is my own”). I am introduced with “This is Aukje, she will be this week’s writer” – it seems to be enough.
The introductions are followed by the warming-up, in which Rita Vilhena guides the choreographers through a series of exercises that starts with the dancers moving across the space as individuals and ends in a series of dialogues between bodies. When Peggy Olislaegers, a dance dramaturge and supervisor for the workshop, joins us and is introduced, it seems ‘we’ have already started to get to know each other.
Who you are and what you taste like
The theme of this week’s workshop is Essence/Fingerprint. As Peggy explains, two questions will be the focus of our activities: who you are as a choreographer (“how do you move?”) and how your work is received (“how do others ‘taste’ your work?”). Our motto for the week is “dare to play”; an invitation not to take ourselves too seriously, to be naive, to approach the workshop with an inquisitive eye and an innovative mind.
We start by each sharing a question that is important in our work as choreographers. It leads to a wide range of questions. Some are related to the aesthetics of a piece, others to the perception of it or to the creative practice, and yet others to the realities of life (as an artist).
How can one prevent ‘noise’ in a choreography: those movements that are not strictly necessary? How do you bring across to an audience the things that are so personal to you as an artist? How to continue to reinvent yourself as a dance maker, without losing your identity? How to transform an image into a movement? How to play with an active audience, or a passive one? How to switch off the critical mind at the right moment in the creative process? How does the audience observe the thing I am presenting, and how far am I willing to go to take this into consideration in my work? What would be a smart master plan for my career?
Each of these questions is discussed at length. Peggy keeps challenging the participants to rephrase the question. “When you ask this question, do you mean…?” “What is it exactly that you want to find out?” We explore the values connected with each question, and which of them takes precedence. Many of the questions are about the maker’s integrity, professional skill, responsibility, desires, and truthfulness. Others bear on what transposition is and what can be transposed; on personal and universal themes. Ultimately it all leads to the question whether a spectator should be able to understand everything about our work of art – or anything specific, or nothing specific.
We stop talking, time for some action. Peggy tells the group to go and create a first sketch: a three-minute clip that is representative of the work (as choreographers). The sketch should be an extract of an entire ‘body of work’, as it were; an embodiment of each choreographers’ work balled into a few minutes. For me as an outsider, the assignment is constrictive; there are so many possible outcomes that it makes the pieces chosen seem so all-embracing. However, the participants have taken the motto ‘dare to play’ to heart and seem already familiar with Peggy’s wise lesson that “There’s no creation without limitation.” They reduce the, to me, enormous assignment to a series of bite-sized tasks and set to work without the slightest inhibition.
As the sketches are about to be presented, Peggy gives us a second assignment for when we will be watching: describe what you see – state the obvious. It sounds so simple, but it turns out to be far from easy. The first problem is that we tend to describe our observations in broad terms: “I saw a woman”. We forget to describe the details that led to this conclusion: observing her breasts and rounded hips, and her long hair and earrings. More importantly, ‘woman’ does not say a great deal about what we saw of her. Was she tall, or was she short? How long was her hair? What colour was it, and what colour was her skin? What was she wearing, and how did she wear it – casually, neatly fitted, inside out?
Another problem is that we confuse the things we think we are seeing with what we are actually seeing. Many of the ‘observations’ we list turn out to be associations or interpretations: I do not literally see a child, but I am seeing a grown man who reminds me of a child because of his naked body in a folded-up position and perhaps also because he is in a cart which, although it clearly is a shopping cart, still reminds me of a stroller.
Peggy is merciless. Each interpretation is reduced to the element that caused it. Each assumption must be supported with observations, making us discuss not only the performers, but also movement, the space, the sound and the phrasing in time. It is a crash-course in close-reading choreographies. When the day is over I am overwhelmed with the plethora of meanings a mere three-minute sketch may contain. Not a single element is without meaning, it turns out, even if the artist had no intention to instil it. Or, as Marina summarises the lesson learnt from this exercise: “Nothing is for free.”
In. Out. In. Out.
The alternation as described above between intellectual reflection, creating things on the stage and reflection again (or feedback), is characteristic of the first week of ChoreoRoam 2012. The group moves back and forth between action and reflection, intuition and intellect. And instead of approaching the two extremes as separate chapters, they are seen as the extreme values, the peeks and dips, of a cycle: opposites, but part of the same movement.
The next assignment for a sketch is to create a ‘diapositive’, a reverse image of the first. This reverse image is outlined afresh by one of the other choreographers, a version which the original creator then takes as his starting point for the final assignment: sketching the scene that precedes this piece. The feedback sessions continue to fan out, like a snowball dance. From plain observation to association. From interpretations to their implications. From aesthetics to artistic codes in dance. From creative practice to the ethics of creating. From an artists’ position within the art world to his role in society.
Peggy describes making choreographies as breathing, a continuous repeating of an internalised intention and an externalised one, an ingoing movement and an outgoing one. It is a description that appears to apply to the rhythm of this workshop as well.
The workshop’s ingoing and outgoing movement is also an echo of the Essence/Fingerprint theme. Essence is the heart of the matter, stripped of all marginal phenomena. It is a tricky and emotionally charged term that is associated with purity and clarity. Concepts that were once about beauty and cleanliness have become soiled over time, and have turned out to be dangerous ideals in whose names people have justified the most horrific actions. When people talk about the essence of a piece of art, I am always reminded of an onion: when stripped of all its layers, ‘in essence’, it contains nothing but an empty heart. I wonder to what extent we can reduce or trace a work of art, let alone a body of work, to its essence. A melody cannot be reduced to a single note; a choreography cannot be reduced to a single movement. I prefer not to think of essence as something that is ‘contained within’ the work, a place to which everything can be deduced. I would describe essence as a movement from within – from a starting point that is impossible to trace, to an unknown ending.
A movement that keeps on budding, keeps unfolding – from the inside to the outside.
The opposite of essence is the fingerprint, which illustrates a movement from the outside. After all, a fingerprint is the ultimate externalisation of the self; it does not reveal anything about who you are, it simply determines that it was you and no-one else. The fingerprint is not a piece of DNA; it does not say anything about the person who left it behind. And yet, a lot can be found out by observing where and how the print was made. It is a metaphor for the spectator’s ‘tracking down’ the essence of a piece of art or the signature of the person who made it. Little by little, the spectator finds more information, thinking he is getting better at understanding what took place here. But in the end, the only unequivocal conclusion is that this is the fingerprint of this one person – whoever they may be – and not someone else’s.
Two opposing movements, yet inextricably tied up: the essence of what an artist tries to bring across, which a spectator will always try to trace with only a fingerprint and its context at his disposal.
The Audience Is Us
Who you are as a spectator is an important leitmotiv in this workshop. Peggy tells us that traditionally, the spectator has been regarded as the ‘exotic other’. For me, this is a remarkable shift in perspective: with my background in theatre studies I have always regarded the person onstage as ‘the other’. But the conventional division spectator – work of art has long since been left behind. The creator and the spectator are both part of the same collective. We are all people. And what’s more, we are all people who are involved in the performance.
Peggy draws us a scheme: a big rectangle (the work of art) and two smaller circles (the creator and the spectator) which partly overlap with each other and with the rectangle. There is only a small part of the drawing where all three figures overlap. What this illustrates is that the meaning instilled in the work by a choreographer does not necessarily correspond with the meaning the spectator reads into it. And that the spectator will add different meanings to the work than the creator had in mind. And so the spectator becomes, as it were, a co-creator, a part of the artistic team.
Not only do the ‘spectator’ and ‘creator’ circle display only a limited overlap, they each have only a limited overlap with the rectangle that represents the work of art. This means that even the creator may find meanings in the work that are not necessarily there. Moreover, the two circles together cover only a small part of the rectangle – so there is a significant, unexplored potential of meanings that may only be tapped into at another performance, viewing and experiencing of the work.
The things ultimately seen in a work of art depend on the person seeing it, when he sees it, and where. A creator, too, may experience his work of art anew every time, discover new aspects. The choreographer is part of the audience.
The artist is not the only one who places himself or his work in a vulnerable position because of his willingness to show himself; the spectator, too, places himself in a vulnerable position because of his willingness to be receptive and available. Watching a show is an erotic gesture, a mutual willingness to give and to receive, to enter into the other person’s space, to come together in this space.
Watching is a vulnerable process. This is why there is a ‘safety code’ in the theatre: the unwritten rule that I am safe as a spectator, tucked away safely in my comfy chair in the dark, far removed from the fictional battles, the dying swans and daredevil stunts. And I am safe thanks to this other unwritten rule, that everything that is taking place on the stage – however real and non-fiction it may be – has been ‘staged’. I am counting on the speculation that, whatever happens during this performance, it will not have any consequences outside the performance, there will be no repercussions on my ‘real’ life.
It is the choreographer’s responsibility to make his spectators feel safe. Nevertheless, there are quite a few choreographers who consider it their responsibility to strip the audience of its sense of safety. When you break the safety code the spectator becomes a witness, an accomplice. And those who turn into witnesses are forced to relate to the things they are seeing. They can remain aloof and consider the things they are seeing as ‘acted’, but suddenly this becomes an explicit choice. A witness shares the responsibility for the events. Do they interfere, or not (yet)? Or do they refuse to be forced into this role, to be a part of this, and walk off?
The position of the spectator is a popular subject not just during the reflective parts of the workshop, but also in the sketches. The choreographers like to play with the (literal) position of the audience and the roles of the performer (active) and the spectator (passive). In one of Ruth’s sketches the spectators are placed on the dance floor, like set pieces or fellow performers; in another, each spectator individually is given 10 seconds to walk right through the choreography – a piece in which the dancer is lying still, as if fallen from a great height, covered in a pile of electric cabling. In other sketches the spectator-witness tensions feature more strongly in the form of an ‘imminent threat’: in his sketch, Tommaso drinks many litres of water in one go; in one of Eva’s she keeps falling backwards off a table, landing with her legs at a weird angle. But even a small gesture can turn a spectator into a witness: in their sketches, both Loïc and Giorgia play with pointedly looking at their audience and looking away from them. There are times when they acknowledge our presence as witnesses – ‘I can see you watching me’. But at other times they lock us out and ban us to that place beyond the fourth wall.
Although the aesthetics of the sketches made here are also discussed during the feedback sessions, it turns out that the question “who are you as a choreographer” is discussed mostly in relation to the role you take on as a dance maker: what you are like as a choreographer.
With regard to the relationship as described above between the choreographer and the spectator, we could for instance ask ourselves to what extent we should protect our audience as dance makers. And what about the choreographer’s ‘obligation’ to send his audience home satisfied, or giving them enough ‘clues’ to be able to understand the piece?
The choreographers discuss the codes of conduct that apply to the relationship between the dance maker and the performer at length. In their talks, the participants draw from their own experiences as dancers. There is talk of auditions lasting for days on end, almost as if the dancers auditioning were initiated as new students; of choreographers who refuse to share any information about the artistic process; and of choreographers who, by contrast, are afraid to take decisions, who seem to want to delegate their artistic responsibility to their dancers.
As with the other subjects we discussed, here, too, the striking thing was the lack of judgement. The choreographers do not make any statements about what is good or bad– although their personal preferences are clear. They do ask what the arguments for certain decisions may have been, and determine what the consequences are. One reason for a choreographer to treat an audition as a student initiation rite may be that he is looking for performers who will not hold back and who are prepared to place the work of art before their own interests. He will take it for granted that dancers may cross their personal boundaries and hurt their feelings (or bodies), or he will accept responsibility for it.
The group justly notes that in the collaboration between a choreographer and a dancer, the latter has an equal responsibility. If a choreographer places the work of art before the performers’ personal feelings, and the performer agrees to this, then he or she will be equally responsible if his or her feelings are hurt.
However, you may wonder if choreographers should protect dancers from themselves in certain cases. After all, there is a certain balance of power between the choreographer as an authority and the dancer as a subordinate. And what about working with children or amateurs – can you make them do anything (or ask them to)? If you typecast a person only because of a set of outward characteristics, are you obliged to tell them, even if it may be harmful for the production?
In one of Tommaso’s sketches I ‘dance’ along as an amateur performer (I am sitting on a bar stool watching him dance). When Tommaso asked me if I would help him out with his sketch, he said his reason was that he wanted his fellow choreographers to watch the piece from the audience so that they would be able to give him feedback afterwards. But during the feedback session he said his reason to cast me had been “first and foremost” because I was a beautiful and very tall woman. The feedback thing was only secondary. Apparently as an amateur I did not need to know this…
The group also discusses the mutual responsibilities of the choreographer and his commissioner. Working on commission turns out to be a balancing act between your ideal way of working and the opportunities or restrictions the client offers you. Choreographing on commission means committing oneself to someone else’s codes. This can be enriching and a challenge, but it can also restrain you – certainly if the client’s traditions are very different from the codes you use yourself as a choreographer. And more importantly, the two will often emphasize different things during the work process, as Loïc says: the client will fixate on the outcome, whereas the choreographer will find the process at least equally important.
The participants are uniquely aware of the opportunity to work on commission. It is not always considered ‘the done thing’ to work on commission; indeed, it is said to hurt your integrity as an autonomous, independent dance maker. But if these eight choreographers are representative for a new generation, the qualms about working on commission seem to have disappeared.
The Ethics of Choreography
In the end, all these discussions about the choreographer’s responsibilities are about the ethics of choreography. Many of the questions that were asked could, for instance, be grouped under the heading “does the end justify the means?” Another ethical problem that kept cropping up in conversation is “the rule of truthfulness”.
An artist must be truthful, a piece of art authentic. Since the Romantics deemed this the truth it has been impossible to imagine an artistic world devoid of these clichés. Still, the authenticity of a piece of art or the truthfulness of its creator are difficult things to determine – if it is even possible to do so.
If we turn our thoughts once more to the scheme ‘work of art-creator-spectator’, it shows that as spectators we can only take in a small part of the work of art, and that we can fathom even less of the artist’s intentions. In addition, it is simply impossible to determine an objective scale of authenticity. Which is why Peggy responds fiercely whenever one of the group describes a show as ‘not authentic’. And the participants try to describe this sense of ‘un-truthfulness’ differently, for instance in terms of expectations that were not met, or preferences that were not satisfied.
By doing so, the group managed to shift the focus in the talks away from ‘truthfulness’ as a criterion to judge a piece of work, in favour of ‘integrity’ as a value that is considered important within the choreographer’s own working practice.
To the participants in ChoreoRoam 2012, being a choreographer seems to go beyond the work of art or the arts. They do not present themselves in accordance with the cliché of the artist as a fully autonomous creature, independent of the world. Each of these choreographers appears to be very aware of the world in which they live and of the fact that they are part of it.
It is a world in crisis, with a great deal of insecurity about the economy, the environment, and society. The world as we know it today may not exist in this form next year. This is why we are constantly measuring the value of things – how much money, energy and time we are willing to spend on it. We are living in a time in which artists will have to be able to legitimise their work and their profession more often than not. In today’s politics neither the ‘purpose’ nor the ‘necessity’ of the arts is self-evident.
Although they show themselves to be passionate about society during the feedback sessions, the participants’ social involvement is not clearly reflected in their sketches. But why should this be a must? With unemployment figures hitting the 25% mark in Spain for instance, the highest since the seventies, the fact that you are working as an artist while your friends are unemployed at home may sometimes be a stronger political statement than any piece of art could express.
To me this typifies the impression this group of choreographers has left on me. These are artists who will not be fooled, but neither do they pretend to be beyond influence. They are choreographers who refuse to conform their aesthetic and ethical ideas to what is considered ‘the done thing’, but who will not apologise for playing by the rules if they want to. They may not be visionaries or prophets of some great ideal, but these artists are trying to stand for what they do and to do what they stand for – and isn’t that idealism!
And although I know that, ultimately, as a writer/spectator I am unable to determine the truthfulness of the artists, their actions possess a certain integrity to me. However much the participants in ChoreoRoam 2012 may differ, to me they also share a desire to know why they are doing things – and why they are not doing something else. They want to legitimise themselves – not least to themselves. Being a choreographer appears to be just as much an inner urge as it is a privilege, one they want to treat as conscientiously as they can. These are artists who are not afraid to keep questioning and justifying their work and their artistry – even if the answer is not (always) very evident.
During the workshop I was moved by their willingness to be open and receptive, to offer feedback and share their reflections. And most of all by their willingness to become a group (without wanting to hide behind it). A telling example was the sharing, the closing presentation of the workshop week.
Instead of a compulsory showing, something to be dreaded, the presentation was taken as an opportunity to share the experiences gained here with an audience. An opportunity that was seized immediately by all sixteen hands. Who says the leaders of a workshop should organise a closing night? As a strong collective that seemed to have existed much longer than these past five days, the choreographers themselves determined the dramaturgy for the evening, which – it was decided – would focus on the exchange between the artists and the audience.
The presentation began with eight individual sketches. Each spectator was given a sheet of paper and asked to make a drawing of one moment that had stuck with them from one of the sketches. When the eight sketches had been presented the drawings were collected. Based on this collection the participants presented a group improvisation after the intermission, the icing on the cake: playful, intelligent, funny, associative and sensitive.
Dance and I will never forget who you are
For five days I was allowed to get to know Eva, Marina, Ruth, Loïc, Tommaso, Irena, Giorgia, Amy (and Peggy and Amy G. and Ronald and Kristin). I am still unable to decipher their DNA, and I still do not know exactly who they are or what their constituent parts are – idealism, realism, aestheticism, neoliberalism, anarchism, minimalism, (post)postmodernism, activism… But what I can say is that I have been able to find nine fingerprints, eight from the individual choreographers and one from the group. Fingerprints which from now on I will be able to recognize as theirs– and no-one else’s.
These eight choreographers are not afraid to follow their own compass and question their own progress vigorously. This is not a group that merely follows, or that is driven by circumstances. Nor is this a group that believes change can be brought about no matter what, but their actions bear witness to the conviction that people can choose how to act. And you had better claim responsibility (and authority) for that: take control – claim your night.
 The scheme Peggy draws is based on one created by Pascal Gielen.