On October 9th and 10th, Dansateliers, in collaboration with the European Dancehouse Network, organized the inspiration-atelier Gaining new perspectives: exercises for body and mind. With the atelier Dansateliers kicked off its 25th anniversary. During the meeting a diverse pallet of professionals from the (international) dance field joined together. With lecture-performances, movement exercises, guest speakers and creative working methods, participants changed perspectives in order to come to new insights. Wendy Lubberding, writer and participant, wrote the following reflection.
A Matter of Doing
25 Years of Dansateliers: Gaining New Perspectives
A reflection by Wendy Lubberding
Here we all are. Lightly navigating the room in our socks or bare feet without speaking, avoiding collisions without breaking our stride, swiping through space like a murmuration of starlings. We are being bodies. Just bodies in a room. Thirty-odd bags of bones practising their motor skills. The room is a dance studio; tall with white walls and a black floor, with windows high up across the length of one wall. Filtered by the tall trees in the Dansateliers courtyard, the sunlight dapples the faces of those we avoid crashing into as we walk.
It is day two of Gaining New Perspectives, the two-day bootcamp to celebrate 25 years of Dansateliers Rotterdam and ‘we’ is a mixed group of dancers, dance makers, choreographers, dance dramaturgs, critics, lecturers, organisers and teachers. From contemporary dance as well as other forms, from the Netherlands and abroad, young souls alongside more seasoned personalities. Choreographer Ingrid Berger Myrhe has asked us all to walk across the room and become aware of who we are physically and where we are in space. The overwhelming sensation is one of quiet, natural togetherness, of relative closeness. A new perspective for one so used to observing as a critic. But it’s day two, I have long since swallowed any reservations and my body has accepted it is a matter of doing.
Yesterday we started the morning with a similar exercise, not thinking, just doing the physical act of touching hands palm to palm and speaking our names. The patient repetition of the act and the lack of storytelling in this form of introduction created a serene, receptive atmosphere which was carried through into the keynote speech, a powerful lecture-performance by Efva Lilja, artistic director of Dansehallerne in Kopenhagen.
Lilja’s insistent argument was for art to claim its place. To be unapologetic. To state the fact that what art does, matters. It matters to human beings on a personal level and it matters to them on a societal level. Everyone you know is a human being. Everyone you know needs to feel like they belong, they need to be lifted out of themselves, to reflect on the world and to gain a new perspective on it every now and then. This is what art does, Lilja argues, and it is no small feat. In fact, despite what politicians claim today, it is part of the fabric of society, as necessary and inextricable as research, entrepreneurship or education.
Lilja doesn’t waste words or movements. She punctuates her speech with physical markings. Stamping her feet in a determined rhythm. Squatting, head bowed, with arms outstretched. When she speaks, every word counts, every statement is determinedly to the point. The point being that the art world has been lulled into mimicking the politicians’ claim that art is something outside of the natural realm of human necessity.
What art needs to do, she argues, is break out of this frame. What we do has value. Why wait for a government-imposed deadline to apply for funding? Ask for what you need, whenever you need it. Why copy the turns of phrase dictated by the people in power? Be the one to set the tone when you address them. Speak in a language that you wish to hear; sensitive, open, affirmative. There is no point in being supplicant, apologetic or narrowly defined. Who would listen?
Broadening the definitions and breaking free of set frames of thought. These forms of changing perspectives were further explored in the afternoon sessions. Choreographer Monica Gilette has devised an interviewing method that clears a path for getting to the core. Called a physical interview, she asks her subject to close their eyes and surrender to the guidance of the interviewer. Dansateliers’ Kristin de Groot was the first to volunteer. With her eyes closed, she allowed herself to be gently steered around inside the circle of listeners.
The exercise was a beautiful demonstration of the fact that our bodies are more than a mere vehicle for our minds. The body possesses knowledge. The body feels. And we are sentient beings. If we allow it, the body can teach us to think along other lines than the structures of speech and argument. As Gilette coaxed De Groot to take increasingly unexpected steps inside the circle, she began to prohibit her mind from taking the lead and liberate her body from its supporting role.
And the body began to tell its own story. As De Groot recounted the bumpy history of her seven years directing Dansateliers within an increasingly hostile political climate, her shoulders started sagging, her back began to slacken and stoop, her steps became a crawl until finally she was resting on the floor, on her back, the swirl of sensations inside her belly exposed to the tall room above, and she cried. All she wanted was to celebrate 25 years of Dansateliers.
The room went very quiet. But it didn’t tense up. Instead, the physical truth was allowed to resonate. And it helped. De Groot recovered in her own time, saying she was glad this had happened now and not during her speech that night. We felt as if somehow her struggle had become our own.
Back to day two. After Berger Myrhe’s walkabout session, Merel Heering and Kristin De Groot discuss the inclusion of young, urban perspectives into the field of dance with choreographer Alida Dors and dramaturg-at-large Peggy Olislaegers. A spirited and energetic plea for increased dynamism within the sector, for openness to different organisational approaches and different physicalities. Their conversation challenges us listeners not to question newcomers, not to ask them to do things the same way as we would. But, once again, to plunge in together and try to find shared new ways.
“Theatre buildings do not resonate with large parts of society,” Dors illustrates the issue. “Not only does the program not represent their lives; they do not even recognise themselves in the pictures and images that are meant to attract audiences in the bars and foyers.” It prompts Olislaegers to describe the attitude with which she has had the most success in achieving openness: “In our longing to connect we need to be aware of our own position and bias. We all need to be shaken sometimes. I need to become aware of and understand my own superiority. AND my own stupidity.”
Performing arts theorist Konstantina Georgelou then offers a final afternoon session. She divides the group into sets of three, asking one person to interview the second for ten minutes, while the third sits down with a large sheet of paper and draws and writes down the highlights of the conversation. But the conversation is steered by a set of instructions. Georgelou uses the Tuning Scores format developed by Lisa Nelson to disrupt the tropes and logical trains of thought people use as a form of research. Speakers are asked to close their eyes, repeat a random word, rephrase a given thought or to say their last sentence backwards and start thinking again from there. The conversation thus turns from linear to random, another valuable overturning of the dominant linguistic structures we use to assemble our thoughts and construct a narrative. By now it has become clear that dance needs a new narrative to reclaim its place.
For two days, Dansateliers has insisted on generating alternatives for the way we think and speak about dance. The focus throughout has been on openness and firmness and on trusting the body to offer a different frame of reference. And as Efva Lilja pointed out in her keynote, changing people’s perspectives on art, its position and value is a matter of doing it. Not that this is a simple act, it takes a drastic and constant effort. But it must be done. “Exercise 88”, she quotes her manual 100 Exercises for a Choreographer and Other Survivors,
“Convince yourself you can do anything you want
if you do it one thing at a time.
One thing at a time.
A reflection by Wendy Lubberding