Transferable skills of the dancer with Dana Caspersen

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Interview by Guy Cools

Dana Caspersen is a performing artist and conflict mediator. Born in the United States, she has worked in Frankfurt in Germany since 1988 as a member of the Ballet Frankfurt and The Forsythe Company. Caspersen has contributed to and created numerous works for the stage as a dancer, actor, choreographer and text author. For her work, she has received a Bessie Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement and has been nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance. In recent years, her research into the dynamics of conflict situations has led her to develop projects that explore how persistent structures and systems that produce destructive conflict can be transformed by the people living inside them.
Dana, what are your first memories of having a desire to dance, to be on stage?

Dana: I remember my grandmother saying that I was ‘always dancing’ and I think they saw that and put me in a class for kids. I remember, actually, one particular class, I must have been four, and one of the tasks was ‘to jump over the fence’ and I remember the feeling of ‘jumping over the fence’ and the excitement about that, which was kind of a story you were doing, that was inside the body.

At the time in Minneapolis there was a great public school system that offered kids connections to artistic institutions. When I was in grade school, I was in a theater class where we performed the opera “Carmen” with the University of Minnesota’s professional theater, which was my first time ever on stage. When I was older, my high school offered the opportunity to go to a professional theatre school in the afternoons at the Children’s Theater, which I did for four years, training and performing with the professional company.

What drew me into it, was some kind of fundamental excitement that you get out of this basic, human aliveness that gets heightened in the theatrical situation.

In the Body:Language Talk we did in London in 2010, you already mentioned being in theatre school at an early age and you referred to it as an ‘unruly environment’.

Dana: It was! It was a kind of renegade situation. The school was inside a professional theatre and so our teachers were the actors and directors and everybody did everything. I grew up with this feeling: ‘it is possible to do whatever you want.’ You can mix things however you want to. There are no rules. I really appreciated what that mindset allowed for as I grew older. The curriculum there was broad and moved from dancing to acting to singing, and we could audition to perform in shows with the professional company.

I feel lucky, actually, that I didn’t end up in a ballet academy because I really value that diversity of training. At the time, most ballet institutions had a pretty narrow offering. Often there was a sense of hard borders between types of dancing and a kind of fear that one technique could be tainted by knowledge of new systems. This has changed quite a bit now, but I still I find this kind of exclusionary, fear-based attitude surprisingly prevalent both in modern and ballet training. I think this is damaging for young kids. You leave them to think there are borders, where there are none. Which not to say that there are no distinctions to be made, but rather that we’re free to move among ideas about dance.

I think about the balletic as this very generative source of information and possibility. The ideas not only lie in the form, but can move around and be useful in other situations. Like in the work I am doing now with conflict mediation, I am still quite influenced by my work with ballet; how it teaches you to practice fundamental actions that allow you to create larger, adaptable wholes that are the product of relationship between actions and between forms.

In these formative years, what were the skills you were learning and developing?

Dana: I also studied piano for my whole childhood and I think that influenced me a lot, too. Both way that when playing music you physically create counterpoint and learn about the kind of invisible architectures that create music, and then just the notion of practicing every day for an hour and a half. Becoming accustomed to practicing things like scales. It is something you need to practice constantly in order to become fluent in it. This whole idea of practice, not to reach perfection, but to attain fluency. The kind of mastery which has to do with the ability to adapt what you do to whatever you may run into.

When we were practicing in theater school, there was already the assumption that all of us would go on stage. We were very much educated in the practice of making a piece, rehearsing it and then do ten shows a week. We constantly made work and were in a professional situation where we saw how the actors, dancers and directors we were working with didn’t know always what was happening and were struggling to find out. We saw that doubt, change and discovery were always part of the equation.

Learning to be present with a bunch of professionals, trying to figure out things. So you learned also to develop the patience you need to develop as an artist, with yourself, with others, with the situation, like ‘right now I don’t know what we are doing, but I am going to stay with it and see what comes out of it.’

In the dance classes, I got used to working in a very rigorous way in order to get stronger. We also did many different kind of dance disciplines. So I was constantly researching how these different actions work. What makes it possible for me to do them? How can I use them on stage?

We were also given a lot of autonomy, a lot of situations in which we had to work on our own or with other students to create things or think about them. There was a lot of critical thinking required. I remember one time, you had to come up with an idea for a character and then someone would write a monologue for you. You got acquainted with the idea of seeing yourself as capable of inhabiting these different spaces, approaches, characters, a different physicality. Things becoming malleable, while still having their own strength.

Walking over here this morning, I was thinking of this Buddhist teacher who said that we often mistake our pile of habits for ourselves, and I think one thing actors and dancers do, is to become conscious of how we can move between these different states of being and not become reliant on a particular collection of habits that we have in our own body. We can understand what it means to adopt a different set of habits in order to create a character or allow for different relationships to happen between me and another person. I think this is a valuable form of ritualized transgression that can be useful in helping people, also in situations like conflict, to imagine situations becoming other than the way they are now.

On a concrete level, we also did voice training, which I have used throughout my career and which helped me a lot. We did acting, improv, even mime, which actually became very useful, too. Because mime is a way of placing space in relationship to you and understanding that you can shift space. Starting to understand the body not as a simple inhabitant of space but as being in relationship to it and how you can create an abstract environment around yourself. Shifting the nature of space through your mental approach. Which is something that helps me now a lot in conflict mediation: to find fluid ways to help people to shift their own mind sets, their own understanding of their environment.

After your high school training, you focused on your ballet training. One of your teachers was Maggie Black.

Dana: Originally I couldn’t find a job or even get into a school. It was a total disaster. So, a good friend of mine suggested that I go study with a teacher, Annette Atwood, back in my hometown to get my technical self together. I did this and then eventually got a job with a tiny company in Northern Minnesota, The Duluth Ballet. I was thrilled. It was my first job and it was a company that did a mix of stuff, and I could quit cleaning houses for money. I was only there for six months and then went to New York and had a little gig in a junior company. I continued studying while I was there, with Finis Jhung and Willy Burmann, and then eventually got a job with the North Carolina Dance Theatre, which was a great place for me to start out. I was there for three years. The company had a very mixed repertory: Bournonville, Balanchine and also very modern work. It was a great opportunity to gain experience and we had an excellent teacher there, Kim Abel, who also introduced me to Maggie Black. Maggie and Kim really helped me to get my act together, physically, both offering a tremendously clear practice for unifying the body and moving with ease and differentiation. I also studied at the Eric Hawkins School during that time, which taught me a lot about connecting through the pelvis. Throughout my career, ballet has always been my primary training.

In our earlier conversations, you talked also about the need for clarity of technique.

Dana: What ballet technique offers me is the capacity to differentiate in the body, one part from the other, but also to experience the parts as connected. I often feel people have a misunderstanding of what ballet is and see it as repressive or constraining. Whereas I see it – it is like learning a biological system: to become conscious of what is there and how things are connected. Through the repetition, there is a growing awareness of what it means to move from, for instance, ‘effacé to croisé’ with the arms and the upper body and to understand that things are created out of relationships. It is this constant sense of remaining in relationship to yourself.

What I find so interesting and what we worked with a lot in Frankfurt was the fact that inside a ballet idea – take for example ‘tendue – effacé’ – is a series of relationships that are not only present in that particular form, but can be used in very different kinds of situations and can inform different kind of actions. You can turn a tendue effacé as an idea inside out, you can spread it across a field, you can turn it into a spiral or it could be the structural basis for an exchange. It is not just a form, engaging with the idea of tendue effacé is about being able to differentiate between forms, components and actions and the relationships between them. This capacity for differentiation is a basis for creating movement and it is also a basis for having a singular clarity of direction of emotion and intention as a performer. The ability to link and to extract and to have a range of dynamics. The ballet focus is always external and in relationship to the room, the space. Ballet can stand as a place from which to depart, which we did in Frankfurt. Ballet became part of a way to think analytically, which doesn’t mean that you become emotionless and have no flow. It is the opposite. You discover the internal flow of these systems and you become able to ride them and they become part of you and it helps you to see other systems.

From North-Carolina, you came to Frankfurt to join Bill and the Forsythe Company. How did you get there and what was that environment offering you that you hadn’t experienced before?

It was a much different environment. It was a constantly investigative environment and at the same time there was a steady, underlying sense of common work. We were all working on something together. The work might change, fall apart, reconfigure or change directions, but there was a connection between all the things we were doing and it was, again, quite unruly but in a great sort of way. There was a tremendous sense of possibility. If you came up with an idea, it was possible to work on making it happen. There were ideas coming up left and right and eventually they would be brought together.

My practice there started to include a much stronger focus on my own capacity to create, to think and to have this really voracious, physical hunger for more skills and the ability to move, to move deeply into physical work. There was always a very analytical aspect to the work and it was, at the same time, extremely vital and organic. We worked our asses off. It was great!

Over the years, there were very different kind of work we were doing. It required me to become more skilled in technique, so that I was capable of doing more things, pulling them off. At that time we were really dancing a lot on pointe, doing very difficult ballet work. We were working a lot with the transformation of motion material. How do we take an idea and transform it? What else can it become? This basic idea, which artists often have the opportunity to think about, is so valuable: ‘What else is this, that we haven’t noticed yet?’ And this is such a transformative mind set. Also in conflict mediation, it is one of those things that help people to get passed where they are stuck.

Within the rigorous life of the dancer within a company, you take class, you rehearse, work, teach things to people, create together; you have terrible disappointing moments where it doesn’t work; there are extraordinary Wow!-moments. And there is the ongoing daily practice. So you learn to develop a patience, a steadiness of heart, so that you are willing to stay with yourself and the people you are with, even when everything is a disaster. To trust that within this is the seed for understanding that will allow things to happen later. And it really does.

Some years ago, I was interviewing a lot of the dancers in the company, with the question: ‘What do you practice?’ I started to see that what we are practicing at a very fundamental level is the ability to approach somebody and to stay with them in a way that is real; to be present on stage in a way that is real for the people watching you. Real is a very subjective word, but for me it means the single, physical connection we have as a dancer. ‘Do you feel me when we are touching? And if we are not touching, can you feel me anyway? How do we align our energies and our physical intelligence and our minds so that we can understand from each other what we are doing; surprise each other and still stay in some kind of overall dynamic system?’

One of the things I practiced a lot in Frankfurt was how do you align yourself with a large group of people or with a single person in a way that doesn’t slow things down or become heavy but enables new things to happen.

How do you practice that concretely?

Dana: Anyone is capable of doing this. It is just a matter of practice. Working with a lot of different dancers, I see that, physically, it helps to develop the ability to sense the other person through touch and then moving through to a point where you really connect, regardless of whether or not you are touching. You can feel and see it in their face, in their eyes, when they connect. One of my favorite things in dance has been partnering. Dancing can be this extraordinary, heightened state of being alive, because it requires this very intensive, vibrant, internal connection that is not fixed. Even if the choreography is set, the connection is changing all the time. People I have danced with a lot, I can maintain that relationship with them across a room, feel them.

And again this is very relevant to conflict. One of the first things that tends to happen in a destructive conflict is that we disconnect. We stop feeling the other person. One of the things dancers do learn, is this capacity to really be present with someone and to be willing to be seen even if you know that you are moving in different directions or hold different beliefs. Often we are not even conscious of it, but we are constantly practicing this capacity for connection, and it is transferable.

Dance work is a very layered work: developing this physical capacity to do whatever you are trying to do, and then to create a relationship between yourself and the other people on stage, or wherever you are dancing, and then to understand how that might impact the overall experience for a viewer. These are all life-long practices.

For me, Frankfurt was really an environment of inquiry, where people were stimulated to go into very different territories, studying new subjects and developing new skills. It had a very similar vibe to the school where I was as a kid. Frankfurt was very much like ‘there are no rules.’ Nobody is going to tell you, ‘you can’t do that.’ The basic attitude and the environment of work was: ‘let’s try something and see what happens.’

Bill is a very curious person. He is always experimenting and studying to increase his ability to see things from new angles. In Frankfurt, he would bring in people to help him study. He was always looking at different systems to understand how things work and trying to translate them into a dance context. He is always wanting to see differently. He wants to see deeply and he gets there by seeing differently. Through his approach, he created a company situation where there was a lot of openness, where you could decide to try things out.

For instance, I was very much attracted to voice work and language. I started to write things. I think the first thing I did in that direction was when Bill asked me to put together a text for The Loss of Small Detail, based on the index of a book that he gave me. Eventually I wrote many of the texts that we used in a variety of different pieces. Another example is Stephen Galloway, who early on started to have ideas for costumes and Bill told him, ‘Great, do it!’ Bill is always very much a supporter of people who have ideas and want to try something.

There were always many processes going on simultaneously. We made a ton of pieces, one after the other. There was this constant ongoing thing, everyone in the studio, just doing things in different groups. It felt like a laboratory. And this process helped me to develop a curiosity – how can we not become attached to specific outcomes, but become more curious about the fundamentals, the living equations of things: ‘when this happens, then that happens and let’s see what else might happen’.

I find that this is something we do learn as dancers – often through moments that are painful and have a sense of failure – learning to let go of things. I think this is something that is very good for young artists to be introduced to: learning to see points of seeming failure as points of curiosity. I’m thinking again of a Buddhist teaching that says something like: ‘First when you see a poisoned tree, you go: ‘Oh, it is a poisoned tree, let’s cut it down.’ Later on, you develop a little more understanding and you say: ‘Oh, it is a poisoned tree, let’s put a fence around it and stay away from it.’ And again later on as you gain more experience, you see a poison tree and you think: ‘Ah, perfect, a poisoned tree, that’s exactly what I need!’ As I grow older and more experienced, I become more curious about the poisoned trees, about, for instance, conflict and how it hold the keys for unfolding and possibility.

You already mentioned curiosity, patience, the ability of letting go. In Frankfurt you practiced the latter to a certain extreme.

It is true– to a radical extent. Not only would you make stuff yourself that you would have to let go, but we would make entire pieces and then throw them out. It happened very frequently. We would create a whole piece and then the night before the premiere, Bill would decide to throw the whole thing out and then we would make a whole new piece the next day. We got really accustomed to that. So you become less attached, more free. You are more curious: ‘What now?’, which, at the same time, is an attitude that doesn’t preclude working on a particular thing and refining it in extreme detail, which we also did, some pieces for over twenty years. What this taught me was to be more willing to notice when something is not supported anymore, when a kind of vital energy has seeped away, that certain things don’t function anymore. Even if you got attached to them, if you don’t let them go, the next thing will not come up. So Frankfurt was a very good ground for practicing ‘letting go’, which has helped me a lot in life in general and also in conflict work.

In conflict work, every action we take is the result of a basic human need and then we chose strategies to meet those needs and a lot of the time we get stuck on the level of strategy. Both in artistic practice and in conflict work, we easily get stuck arguing about strategies – fighting back and forth – ‘no, we should not do that.’ We waste incalculable amounts of energy that way. But we don’t have to.

We are getting closer to the present. In 2008, you went to study conflict mediation. What was the original desire to do this?

Dana: I have always been a kind of analytical person. I function through the assumption that if we start to understand the basic mechanisms of something, then we might understand why it happens and can start to better understand what it might be possible to change.

At that point in my life, there was a lot of conflict going in different arenas and I was so tired of it. I noticed that I didn’t know how to help things change. I felt really stuck. A friend of mine dragged me to a conflict workshop with Marshall Rosenberg, who was the founder of Non-Violent Communication. I just went to an introductory talk he did and something struck me. It was literally like a lightbulb going on. I saw this alternative way. I tried to go to him afterwards to thank him, and I had this strange experience where I found that I couldn’t speak, the shift in my mind had been so surprising and so moving.

I originally started to work with Rosenberg’s system, and as I got more and more curious about conflict, I wanted more information and decided to get a MA degree in Conflict Studies. I looked around and found a program at the Woodbury Institute in Vermont, and I commuted to the US to do it, while at the same time I was still working full-time in Frankfurt.

The more I got into it, the more fascinated I was by how blind I had been previously to the mechanisms and to the assumptions and habits we tend to fall into in conflict. How they impact our freedom and negatively influence both work and personal relationships. I started to notice it didn’t have anything to do with anyone else, but only with me. How I processed being with people in difficulty and what it means to not just to be in a reaction of pushing and pulling, but to be there with them and really try to understand what was going on with them. When I was able to do that, to understand better, situations flowered and opened up. Situations that I thought were stuck and done. It was so exciting and it remains like that because I see it happen all the time with people. You are struggling and suddenly something new emerges and you can see how people’s selves emerge to each other and exchange is possible even if they don’t agree. That is why I started my MA.

Since you finished your MA, you have been applying this new knowledge into concrete projects in different environments. Can you give some examples?

About five years ago, I started creating a series of projects that I call choreographic public dialogues, these are interactive public events that use choreographic thinking to create exchange and reflection around topics like immigration and violence. The first one started while I was still in school and I was talking to Bill Forsythe, who had been invited to do a project. He was thinking about this idea of creating a room with qualities that would impact what people would do. He said, ‘I would love it if people would talk to each other too, in the room.’ So I started thinking about some of the stuff we were working on in school and eventually we made this project Knotunknot together. One of the things I was thinking of, was this very simple exercise called a continuum line, where one end is a very extreme opinion and at the other end, the opposite extreme opinion and in-between is everything else. So, for example, at one end: ‘abortion should be illegal’ and at the other end ‘abortion should be legal in all cases.’ You ask people to stand on the position on the line that feels right to them, according to their beliefs. What I saw is that everybody knows exactly where they stand physically and they know it to the tiniest degree. I was struck when I saw this happening at school with these non-dancers. The way that in the body itself, we know where we stand in relation to ideas. So eventually when I took over the direction of Knotunknot, I created a version that changed the continuum line into a triangle and I developed a series of different physical events that provoke and allow for exchange between participants.

One of my primary interests is the question of whether it is possible to reduce the amount of violence in the world, between people, between communities, between countries. Concretely speaking, is it possible? And if it is, what would it take to do it? My assumption is that in order for that to take place, there has to be a greater dissemination of ideas on how we might communicate with each other productively, and a more common practice of actually doing the work needed to make that communication happen. How do we create dialogue between people and communities that are in conflict with each other, who don’t care about each other and who are doing harm to each other?

The first time we did Knotunknot, we didn’t have a physical component to the dialogue sections and it was kind of stiff, weird and uncomfortable. We had an idea for a physical component but we didn’t include it, because at the time we sort of chickened out, thinking that people might not be willing to engage physically in that way. So the next time, I thought, ‘Ok, let’s do it’I wanted to make something that anyone could do without being embarrassed. What I eventually discovered is that as long as a physical model is effective as a communication strategy, people have no problem using it. So I just used walking. I made a big triangle, which was divided in three sections, with a video monitor of each side. On the monitors, sets of statements would come up on the topic of immigration. People were asked to walk in the sections of the triangle they associated most with the beliefs they held. For example, it started with this set of statements:

Section A: ‘My family is of German descent.’

B: ‘My family is not of German descent.’

C: ‘I am mixed.’

Everyone divided themselves up, by walking into the section that made sense to them. Then the second set of statements came up:

A: ‘I feel German.’

B: ‘I don’t feel German.’

C: ‘I don’t know.’

People reform into different groups. We move through 27 sets of statements about ideas on identity; what our beliefs are; where we learn them; through to more concrete questions about migration. This simple action of moving together in changing groups creates not only a sense of community in the group, between people with very different opinions. It also creates a permeability between groups that people assume are rigidly held apart. It also relaxes everybody. Even if we deal with really difficult questions, people always laugh because it is often hard to decide where you belong and you end up between two groups. There is a lot of light conversation going on, easy discussion within this overall structure.

Another project which I did, which I started last year, is called Violence: Recode. I have been thinking a lot over the years about posture and how we communicate and understand each other by simply observing how people are sitting or standing. At the same time I was thinking about structural violence: how do these systems like racism or sexism seep into our bodies and become part of the way we are in the world, part of what we accept and how we behave physically. And how what we chose to accept as normal physically also might help to create these systems, to maintain or dismantle them.

I was commissioned by Lyndon State College in Vermont to make the project and worked with a group of students there to create it. My initial question to them was: ‘Let’s take one of these types of structural violence, for example heterosexism. How can we make a scene, using a single body and only posture, no motion, that clarifies an instance of heterosexism?’ Which is much harder to do than you might think. So we would test things out. One example ended up being that gay people still can’t get married in a lot of places. What does that mean? How do you make the absence of that simple, physical action visible? How do you then create a dissonance that helps people recognize when that system of violence and its effects have become lodged in their unconscious? And especially, how do you do that in a way that invites investigation and not shame?

I created a very formal situation. People are in two lines and everyone moves simultaneously through a series of postures. It is a kind of room action. For example, in the first posture everyone is invited to adopt the same posture of sitting in a chair, and to feel what that feels like. Then two statements come up, one after the other on a screen. People are asked to stay in the same posture and imagine themselves in the situations proposed by the sentences while in that posture. The first sentence says: ‘A man waiting for his wife.’ Which is something most people can get a sense off. Everyone is going to have their own story about what that means. Then you keep the same posture and you get a second title saying: ‘A man waiting for his husband.’ Often there is a little shift of how people feel and that shift has often to do with the fact that there is still a huge amount of heterosexism in the world and often it affects us, whether we intend that, or are conscious of it, or not.

When working with the students, we noticed that often when we found ourselves laughing in response to a posture/ statement combo, it was because there was a little snag in there, in us. It was a place where the mechanisms of structural violence had worked their way into our unconscious approach. These were the statements we kept, and the participants move through a whole series of such experiences. So, through using the body in a simple way, we create a kind of system for experiencing the mechanisms of structural violence. And it is only an internal experience. You don’t have to talk to anybody about it, although there is also a part of the project that is based on verbal exchange, so you can, if you want to.

These verbal exchanges are small highly choreographed dialogues that are interspersed in the postures. People come together in pairs and receive questions which are quite big, like: ‘What is your racial identity? How does this affect your life? How does the way that people see you in terms of age, affects your life?’ Then each person has a minute to speak to the question, while the other listens. So, this structure concentrates people rather quickly. They immediately go to what is most important for them. My goal is not to solve structural violence in this event, but to help people become more aware of their relationship to it.

So, those are two examples of ways I have been doing that.

They both get under this umbrella of Choreographic Public Dialogues.

Dana: Yes, it is a term I have been using, because I haven’t found anything better yet. I have done several of them and the one I am working on here in Koln is the newest one where the question to myself is: ‘Why are wars so persistent? What are the real drivers of large scale conflicts such as wars? And are we as individuals connected to these drivers? Are we supporting them or helping to dismantle them?’

In this project we are using simple actions to provoke reflection and exchange, like walking and talking, answering questions with gestures, and mentally placing yourself in the position of another in a story.

Participants are divided into groups that move through three lines of action. One line has different groups responding to a set of questions with a series of set gestures that mean yes/ no/ maybe. So, everyone in each group answers at the same time, and everyone sees the other people answering. Using gesture allows for gradation in the response. Because often people don’t have a straight answer, they add qualities to the gestures to qualify their answer, which often creates comedy. People are laughing while they are trying to answer these difficult questions about their beliefs around, and relationship to, violence.

The second line is a kind of river of conversations between pairs of people. They take a walk together as part of the structure. Again, a very formal system. People are walking and talking together along a particular line. I was surprised to see the quality that emerges, physically, when people are in an intimate, relaxed environment, trying to really understand each other and having a set up that is not about, ‘we are going to debate,’ but about ‘I am going to listen to you, trying to hear what you say’. It’s beautifully open. It creates from the outside this physical image that is hopeful in a funny way, spacious, creating a sense of humanity.

In the third action line, people are seated listening to a series of very brief stories through headphones. The response that we’re getting from people is that this becomes a deeply physical experience, although there is no physical motion involved. We are using the mental imagery provoked by the stories, combined with the simple, visual imagery available in the room to try to lend people different mindsets around issues that come up around large scale conflicts. To create a mental motion between scenes and positions and experiences. So, in the project we are thinking of the body both as a place of expression and as a place of reflection. It is a place that we can use to communicate on a broader scale, rather quickly.

In these events, part of my goal is to use choreographic thinking to create a physical environment that allows people to see possibility; an environment that shifts people out of their habits of communication or provides a wall for them to run into so that they notice their habit, without it being annoying or destructive. How do we create a system that allows the internal and social mechanisms to become visible? In the beginning, these formal physical models that I use in the project sometimes feel uncomfortable for people, but for the most part, as long as they’re really effective communication tools, then people relax into it, and I’ve had so many times people saying afterwards: ‘I never had a conversation like that, on that topic, that didn’t escalate.’ So, I’m looking to just provide a little experience of a different type of interaction.

One last question. If you look back on your own journey, which aspects of your training and education do you consider most valuable? What would you recommend to young dancers still in training?

Dana: I would say: relish challenge; practice like crazy; become deeply skilled; don’t let anyone limit your sense of what dance might be; develop a robust curiosity about what it is that we do as dancers, and then widen that definition. Trust yourself.

I would encourage young dancers to question anyone who disparages skill. For me, the fundamental desire to dance is a source, a spring, which is not connected to a particular style, technique or idea. Sometimes people start to see technique and skill as a repressive force and, similarly they sometimes also start to see dancing as somehow separate from analytical thinking. If you see that happening, question it deeply. Decide for yourself what is valuable.

I would encourage people to be brave in the sense of ‘don’t narrow it down’; don’t assume that one thing is better than another, but let these things emerge in their full power: your capacity to think critically; your capacity to let emotion move through you; this powerful animal activity which dancing can be; and also your capacity to move with articulation and refinement. Become skilled in all those things and don’t buy into the belief that one is more important than the other. Don’t limit yourself. Notice that your freedom lies in you and in your decisions, not outside of you. The nature of freedom doesn’t have to do with the absence of structure or the absence of virtuosity or external direction. It has to do with your ability to move and think within any system.

A big part of what we practice as dancers is to develop an ease and ability to be present with uncertainty and doubt. To keep working and to understand that the nature of the work in the world of dance is really this daily one of practice that allows us to see, adapt and transform. This is what I love about dancers, their capacity to come back every day and start all over again, not to reach perfection but to renew the ideas and to decide which ideas will connect to the body, right now. That is what opens up the world of dance for me and makes it an incredible and exciting place to think. Skill is not something that limits us, skill is what emerges when we think deeply on things that are important to us.

Cologne, April 2016.


photocredits Dominik Mentzos

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