A Flightless Bird and a Book on Bullshit

januari 19th, 2011

“A Flightless Bird and a Book on Bullshit”

By: Jochem Naafs
Published in: An Open Book. Dance is Dialogue. Rotterdam: Dansateliers, 2010.
Translated by: Wendy Lubberding, wendytranslates!

Zagreb, Rotterdam, Bassano del Grappa, London, Copenhagen, Madrid, and London again: six long months to spend experimenting, exploring, (re)discovering, stumbling into pitfalls, scrambling to your feet again, doing the obvious, or doing the inexplicable. Six months to boil your brains, to crack up, to wonder why in heaven’s name you are doing this, to substantiate, to feel and move like you have never done before.

For young choreographers there is a range of opportunities to meet fellow dance makers and learn about other ways of creating dance as part of an organised exchange. There are several exchange programmes, and Choreoroam is one of them. The question is how such an organised dialogue can be of significance for these artists. To answer this question I visited Choreoroam in Rotterdam, Bassano del Grappa and London, watching the artists at work, working with them, and interviewing them. Slowly but surely, I came to be a part of the exchange as a dramaturge. Choreoroam is a programme involving twelve choreographers from six countries, set in six different cities and lasting more than six months.

In 2009, the participants were Helle Bach and Lars Dahl Pedersen from Denmark, Alida Dors and Arno Schuitemaker from the Netherlands, Freddie Opoku Addaie and Frauke Requardt from the UK, Sanja Tropp Frühwald from Croatia, Sharon Fridman from Spain, and Helen Cerina, Chiara Frigo, Francesca Pennini and Silvia Gribaudi from Italy. They represent the broad range of choreographers and dance makers in Europe. As Helle Bach said: ‘What’s unique is that we are all so different. You can see what dance all can be. We don’t feel threatened because we are so different. Maybe we are just egos interested in other egos.’ Since this edition had concluded only recently, I also contacted two participants from 2008: Liat Waysbort and Tabea Martin, to hopefully help me determine the long-term added value of an organised dialogue. After my first observations and talks with the participants, I was able to conclude that the dialogue about the unfinished process plays an important role during Choreoroam. This is partly a consequence of the set-up and duration of the programme. I would like to find out the extent to which these dance makers consider a dialogue about creative processes as an addition to their work.

Although the first encounter for Choreoroam took place in Zagreb, the first actual period of working took place a week later, at Dansateliers in Rotterdam. This is where the participating choreographers shared their work for the first time. I visited Dansateliers during this week and went in search of what Choreoroam was about.

Rotterdam, 30 June – 4 July 2009
In the Dansateliers studios in Rotterdam, eleven choreographers – Frauke is not present during this week – are presenting their first drafts to one another. A preliminary concept, to be developed further. Not completely by themselves in a studio, but with assignments from others and feedback from the entire group. Dansateliers has asked a number of DJ’s to supply the choreographers with music, props, and costumes. Each choreographer has to integrate these things into his or her piece, which forces them to reconsider their concept, form, performance, and/or content.
This is one of the main ideas behind this week of Choreoroam: discovering new entries and angles to a concept. Together with the others I observe the different sketches from the auditorium, and see clay become something edible, a drilling machine become a dance partner. ‘Happy Birthday’ becomes something sad and sexy at the same time, and a clear connection emerges between a flightless plastic bird and a book ‘on bullshit’.

But the DJs’ input is not the only thing feeding the choreographers in Rotterdam. Perhaps even more important is the feedback from the ten other choreographers. After each round of presentations, there is an extensive dialogue. What have people seen, what have they felt? How can you respond to what was presented in just one or two sentences? How can you describe the things you read into or experience during a sketch? And what does all this feedback do for a choreographer?
Dramaturge Peggy Olislaegers plays a key role during this week. She coaches the choreographers; she will give them instructions and summarize things, she will comment on the comments, place a remark in a wider context, ask questions and provide instructions for watching the presentations. ‘What happens when you read or experience the performance/composition through the prop(s)?’ ‘Write down what you hear as detailed and obvious as it is, and then describe what you read/experience.’ She is transferring her knowledge of giving feedback and providing a structure for the way the feedback is offered.

The week in Rotterdam ends with an ‘open notebook’, an opportunity to show a small audience what a week’s work can produce. This public presentation not only forms a temporary ‘deadline’, but it also offers the artists an opportunity to talk to an audience that has not been present during the making. An audience that is unfamiliar with the history, and therefore has a fresh perspective on the work. An additional test to see if the dance makers are able to convey their intended messages.
I have observed the dance makers at work and have gradually turned from an observer into a participant. As a dramaturge I have entered into a dialogue with the choreographers. This second week of Choreoroam was an intensive period during which we all gained accelerated insights and made accelerated decisions. Decisions that were not definite, but served as starting points for further experiments.

What is the idea behind Choreoroam? ‘Choreoroam aims to build Europe wide communities of choreographers and bring a real dialogue and intellectual exchange to stimulate the participating dance creators. Choreoroam aims to enhance the professional and cultural development of these artists by affording them the chance to engage in other countries with other choreographers, workshop leaders, mentors and some of the leading minds provoking the creative processes in contemporary dance’ (OperaEstate website). As this quote shows, dialogue and exchange are the focal points. Choreoroam offers each of the choreographers the time and space to work on their own research, process, or their own performance. And in addition, a range of subjects and questions is tackled in each of the locations. Often, the morning will revolve around a joint dance class or warming-up. Besides these, the choreographers also attend workshops, visits, lectures, and performances as a group.

After the choreographers had met in Zagreb and gotten better acquainted with each other as artists and dance makers in Rotterdam, they had more time to work on a more individual basis in Bassano del Grappa, where they were coached by Amy Gale, Peggy Olislaegers and Roberto Casarotto. New impressions awaited them too, when they attended a great number of performances at the B-Motion festival, and taught workshops to each other and other dancers and choreographers. In London they attended a workshop by Rosemary Butcher, in Copenhagen they worked with dancers under supervision from Lille Carl and Tim Rushton, in Madrid João Fiadeiro gave them a workshop, and during their final week in London they attended a debate between Liz Lerman and Wayne McGregor and attended a workshop by Liz Lerman on constructive feedback. A varied programme offering different ways of exchanging theoretical and physical knowledge.
Choreoroam confronts the choreographers with other people who create. This means they will see other creators at work, and are asked to observe and to respond to premature ideas, concepts and movements, and that they will continually be working in an ‘open’ studio where others could come in at any moment. Because of this set-up, the research and exchange will be mutually influential. Artists will be confronted with other people’s ideas while they are working. Of course, this situation does not come about out of the blue. You simply cannot demand from each choreographer that they will keep their studio door open from day one or that any form of criticism can and may be expressed and accepted. How is a situation such as this established?

I think this is largely due to the set-up of the programme as a whole. Because the participants see each other for a week at a time, seven times in six months, they become a community in which the choreographers will feel safe enough to express and accept criticism. Each week together will strengthen the bond between the participants. In Bassano del Grappa the participants worked in smaller groups with more intensive coaching. I visited the town during the final two weeks. During the second week, all the choreographers got back together and presented their work(processes) to each other and the audiences of the B-Motion dance festival.

Bassano del Grappa, 20 – 29 August 2009
After a joint warming-up in the garage, followed by an espresso and feedback, five of the choreographers have spread out. Freddie, Alida and Chiara are working in the garage, Helle and Arno in the theatre. I am working with Freddie on two sketches that he wants to present at the B-Motion festival. In Rotterdam he was given a flightless plastic bird to work with, and he has brought this bird along. Whereas in Rotterdam he worked on imitating the bird’s attitude and on establishing an onstage relationship with the bird, in Bassano he is only using the bird as a starting point.

First sketch: Freddie is sitting in a doorway at the back of the room. In front of him is a small sheet of Styrofoam. I enter the room through another door, and exit past Freddie. The sheet falls over, Freddie falls over. This is followed by a scene in which Freddie portrays the will to take off and fly. His shoulder blades are the wings, powerful enough, but not long enough. His jumps are those of the flightless bird, trying to soar off time and again. He gives up and sits back down again, sets the sheet upright again, and I walk past him once more… Where Freddie was imitating the unmoving bird in Rotterdam, he is expressing the thoughts that come to him when he sees the bird in Bassano.
In the afternoon I visit Helle at the theatre. She is working on a few ideas. Together with Arno she shows me a scene she is working on for her next performance about dying: Snip Snap Snude. They visualise a synchronised samurai suicide ritual: harakiri. They prepare, slowly move an imaginary dagger towards their stomachs, plunge it in at full strength and cut open their stomachs from left to right. Although essentially they are both following the harakiri actions exactly and in synch, the two suicides do become personal eventually because of the little individual expressions and accents.
At the end of each day it has not only become apparent that the choreographers’ work differs, but also that their way of working differs. Each choreographer has about ten minutes to present his or her piece, a sketch or a short performance. We see new versions of the same excerpt, new scenes based on a certain theme, artists who will go to their own limits and artists who want to work from topical interest.

On 25 August the group is together again. Each of them has two more days to work on the piece he or she wants to present during their public ‘sharing’. I notice that for the audiences of these presentations, it is not quite clear that the pieces they will be watching are ‘works in progress’. Afterwards, Roberto invites the audience to discuss the pieces with the artists, but it soon becomes apparent they have mostly watched them ‘as they would a performance’. So the talks at which I am present become a little strained. The artists want to find out what the audience has seen, but mainly they want to find out specific things in order to get along in their processes. The spectators are willing to share what they have seen, but mostly they want to ask the artists their questions.

The Choreoroam set-up seems to invite the dance makers to open up their own doors. Two things mentioned on the OperaEstate website are important here. The first is the fact that the organisations want to create a safe environment where people can do research and share this research with others. This is achieved partly because they do not determine the full programme in advance. The programme develops according to the progress and the needs of the participating choreographers. The mentors, as Liat Waysbort puts it, will build: ‘a bridge between what they think is needed and what they see is happening. They are being flexible and dynamic enough to allow changes.’
The second factor is experiencing other artists’ creative processes from up close. The choreographers, mentors and other people involved share a creative process during Choreoroam. This has made the dialogue during Choreoroam special. It was not based on any performances the choreographers had made in the past, it was not about the way the choreographers would generally work, but it truly revolved around the processes in which the choreographers were involved at the time. Here, too, the feeling of safety is important, which is why the choreographers received new tools for conducting the dialogue and giving feedback about each other’s work.
A third factor that will stimulate openness, which is not mentioned explicitly here but which I think is of vital importance, is that the participants share more than just work. The choreographers share ideas, thoughts, meals, drinks, the studio, and their rooms. They are conversing, about more personal matters, too. Life and art are intertwined inside the artists. During my talks with them, the choreographers underlined the importance of this numerous times. Liat Waysbort, too, stresses the importance of the personal ties in addition to the professional ones. Because she got to know the others better in Rotterdam and Bassano del Grappa, she became better at understanding their work. She developed a deeper understanding for the things the others were doing, and why they were doing them. It has also influenced the way she is working now. She believes the set-up and content of Choreoroam have evoked this.
Next, I would like to tackle an important fourth point that is involved in these open studios, which is the role the audience plays. This includes both the potential and the actual audience. The artists were stimulated to think about their audience and also to assume the role of the audience. As Chiara Frigo said about this: ‘I trained myself to look at others. I watch the others as a maker, but I can also think “I’m the audience”. I’m now more aware of the many perspectives there are.’ But the organisation also invited real audiences. In several cities the week ended in an open presentation. From an ‘open notebook’ for a limited group of guests in Rotterdam to a ‘sharing’ as part of the festival in Bassano del Grappa. This opened up Choreoroam to the world and gave the artists an opportunity to share their creative processes with others.
The final week in London formed the conclusion to Choreoroam. This was where the participants gave their final presentations and made their plans for continuing the relationships, and of course where they discussed the programme for Choreoroam 2010. I visited London in the days leading up to the final presentation.

London, 14 – 16 December 2009
Right now, in studio 6 where I am writing this, Chiara and Helen are showing each other some pieces they have been working on. They are using the method they learned yesterday: Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Theory. This theory consists of four steps: 1. The viewer names the things that have struck him and appealed to him. 2. The performer asks a question. 3. The viewer asks a neutral question. 4. The viewer voices his opinion. It is a way of relaying your ideas and your opinion to an artist, both after a performance and during a process.

Helen presents a short piece in which she makes several fast-paced circular and wavelike movements with her arms and legs while remaining in one place. The excerpt lasts about three minutes. After step 1, Helen asks Chiara if it looks rushed, and what she might do to make it look less rushed. This second question does not fit in with Lerman’s theory, so she rephrases the question as: why does it look rushed? Chiara thinks it is mainly because of her timing. She never quite finishes a movement. After our return question we decide to give her some pointers instead of just our opinion. I tell Helen to work with more direction, to aim her movements. Chiara decides that Helen should make more clearly defined decisions as to the space in which she is moving.

What strikes me is that we are not only working on giving feedback, but we are also thinking about what we will and will not say when we are giving pointers. This exercise is more than just applying Lerman’s theory; it also makes you think about the how and when of giving feedback. When the exercise has finished, I interview Chiara about her experiences at Choreoroam. She had few expectations before she came, but now she is very enthusiastic about the whole programme. ‘You learn from being somewhere else, you learn from each other and you learn to know others. Choreoroam is a paradox: You see and learn many methods and in the end you know that you already have your own.’ She felt especially stimulated to think about her habits and seek out her limitations. She has also been given new tools to work with; paraphrasing Liz Lerman: ‘A good feedback lets the artist want to work more on something, that is what Choreoroam is about.’
In the interviews I take that day and the two following days, several of Chiara’s remarks keep coming back. Of course, each choreographer will have a slightly different focus, but one thing is clear: the dialogue about the creation of dance has been very good to all of them. On Thursday, the group ends Choreoroam with a public ‘sharing’ at The Place.

This brings me to my fifth and, in my view, most important point: giving and receiving feedback. This skill plays an important role when you want to have a constructive dialogue. Moreover, good feedback will not only stimulate your creative process, but also your readiness to share your process with others. During Choreoroam the choreographers have been introduced to various methods for giving feedback. They have been stimulated to use and, more importantly, to think about the different methods. Using different methods has made the choreographers more conscious of the role feedback can play.
What sort of feedback do you give and what is the best moment to do so, and what type of feedback can you or do you want to work with yourself? How do you give feedback, and perhaps even more importantly, when do you give it? These questions form important nuances. They make you aware of the function of feedback. Instead of simply saying what you think and feel, you wonder why you feel this way and what use it could be to the other party if you shared it. Being actively involved in other people’s processes will teach you a lot about creative processes in general and about your own creative process in particular. It will confront you with other people’s methods, which enables you to question your own methods. And it will make you conscious of your own perspective on things and especially on dance.

In this article I have given an outline of Choreoroam in order to find an answer to the question how an organised international dialogue can be of significance to dance makers. Essential to this dialogue is a safe and inspirational environment. Over a period of six months the choreographers have taken part in an intensive collaboration. They kept alternating periods of working together on their individual processes with periods in which they returned to their own day-to-day practice. This also gave them an opportunity to apply their recently gained knowledge in their everyday work environments, away from the safe environment provided by Choreoroam.

The role of the audience was often inescapably bound up with the sharing of the process. The artists were stimulated to think about their own audiences and encouraged to take on the role of the audience for the others. The dialogue with the audience and other professionals will make you conscious of your own perspective and with that, of the way you see dance; of your own preferences and your personal history. Personal development, professional development and the process of creating a performance will often be completely intertwined. Dramaturgy can sometimes be psychology, too.

Sharing the creative process and talking about the unfinished creative process are the main elements of Choreoroam. Knowing how and when to give feedback and how to deal with it will contribute towards your ability to participate in this dialogue. Responding to a performance, learning to describe and substantiate it are valuable skills for any artist.

A number of the participants see this exchange of thoughts, ideas, concepts, and views as a source of information for their own research. The dialogue is a part of their creative process. By offering it, Choreoroam seems to follow up on a development within the arts where artists are working increasingly more outwardly looking. Artists who are willing to participate in dialogue as a part of their creative process and who want to work on their art objects with others. With the participants in Choreoroam, I for one have been inspired. In the future we will be continuing our collaborative research and exchange.


Interviews with the participants in Choreoroam 2009:
Helle Bach, Lars Dahl Pedersen, Alida Dors, Arno Schuitemaker, Freddie Opoku Addaie, Sharon Fridman, Helen Cerina, Chiara Frigo and Francesca Pennini

Interviews with two participants in Choreoroam 2008:
Tabea Martin and Liat Waysbort

The websites of OperaEstate, Dansateliers, The Place, and Dansescenen

Thanks to: Cecile Brommer, Peggy Olislaeger, Helle Bach, Lars Dahl Pedersen, Alida Dors, Arno Schuitemaker, Freddie Opoku Addaie, Frauke Requardt, Sanja Tropp Frühwald, Sharon Fridman, Helen Cerina, Chiara Frigo, Francesca Pennini, Silvia Gribaudi, Liat Waysbort, Tabea Martin and Giulia Galvan.

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