interview about the 18 steps research

What started this solo-research?

Curiosity. Curiosity about the ambiguity of the contemporary dance as an artistic field. A field that in some regions of the world has huge success, while elsewhere its almost non-existent. Wanting to understand the struggle it has in comparison to the other artistic fields, for example music, theatre or visual arts that in general seem to be much more “available” for a wider audience. Having the experience of visiting different hubs of contemporary dance in Europe (like Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, New York) I started to be more observant to what the engine of this, by today, seemingly big machine was made of. What kept it spinning, what fuelled it?  Observation became my hobby over the years. 

Was there something in particular you were looking for or trying to understand?

Yes. Why some work was considered more groundbreaking, more avant-garde. Which grounds were broken? What meant avant-garde then? What does avant-garde mean today? Does it even exist? Do we need it?

Having entered into the contemporary field by chance, observing it became a way to get more familiar with its culture. Getting to know it was like starting to live in a whole new culture, different from the one I came from. With origin in Russia I came from classical ballet, traditional dance and love for rhythmic gymnastics. Physical skill and affectionate joy were important values for me than. Both of which you find in those three domains. The skill and joy exist in contemporary dance, but it doesn’t have the same appearance as the conventional meaning of these words. In contemporary dance, skill and joy is a constantly shifting phenomena. It changes with time. So I wanted to understand these changes in time. In other words, Im interested in how values change with and within different cultural contexts.

Could you give examples, so it becomes more clear for the audience?

Well, simply put. In gymnastics, since it’s a sport, the valorization process is rather direct: you jump high, you are flexible, you turn without falling and you manage to catch the ball after a flawless turn while hugging the other leg as if it was an accessory. The faster, the sharper, the more breathtaking you are, the better. The tricks evolve with the years, so does the skill and joy of- and for it.

Ballet, which in a way isn’t far from gymnastics in appearance, has something more complex at play. Aesthetics. Hm, how to explain aesthetics? Let’s say, it’s a set of values that help you to perceive beauty, taste, sympathy for or in something/someone. Aesthetics change depending on where you come from, or in other words, depend on the context. For.ex if I am born and raised in Sweden, most probably I will find white glazed wooden floor pleasing and beautiful. While if I am born and raised in Russia the same floor will remind me of a sauna or a cheap country house and I would have hard time to see it as beautiful. Wood, in some cultures, cannot compete with gold and marble.

In classical ballet, the aesthetics are pretty stable, just as in classical art. There are agreed upon proportions, codes, body ideals, narratives and skills. Everyone agrees “when its wood” or “when its marble”. However, what is interesting is how skill enhances the aesthetics in ballet through time. We can see clearly that a “high leg (développée)” in 1930’s has about 45 degrees differences with a post-millennial high leg. Nevertheless, the main ideals remain. The changes are minimal and are solidified by an agreed upon (worldwide) training, classical ballet technique. The joy lies in the constant evolution of skill. Both gymnastics and ballet look easy but demand rigorous and docile body. It has its clear conventions, and the road to them is daily training and practice.

The conventions are broken very slowly and when they are, it is mainly due to the evolution in physical skill and material equipment (clothes, ballet shoes, stage floor, ballet barres etc). If you look at the ballet dancers today, their bodies are not far from an athlete body. It wasn’t always like that. But as the change is gradual and minimal one tends to think that it has always been like that.

Now, contemporary dance ( or/and post modern dance, post dance, modern dance, new dance, dance dance….) It does not have one unique technique, its does not agree one and the same term. It has, and again, depending on where you come from, points of departure in different traditions of dance and/or theatre. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that these points of departure are only similar, not the same. There is a common idea that contemporary dance stems in classical ballet. Yes, some does, but some other does not at all.

To make it simple, we can say that the codes and conventions of classical ballet became a reason to break them in order to search for new ways of disciplining the body. Or to overall bring a question why a body needs to be disciplined in that particular way? This of course touches the aesthetics too. Could there be other floor materials, beside the white glazed wood? Why not earth? Why not marble? Why not grass or clay?

 So if I would have to define a one thing in common in contemporary dance it would perhaps be this question: “why not?” or better “what if?”… A constant questioning, clearance of anything established…  Actually, the motto of contemporary dance should be Vive La Dégagisme!

Ok, let’s slow down…

Slowing down…

Con-tempo-rary suggests a “with-timeness”. Something that follows time, thus does not hold on to the past. Instead, it evolves, grows, develops. But, if it develops, it must have a source from which this evolution stems. Thus, “with-timeness” (con-tempo-rary) is always in one way or another connected to the roots of a time before the now. A past, a memory…and something triggers the desire to let it go, to move forward, to go on. But who’s past is being let go? The question of who’s past, makes the understanding of contemporary dance intriguing to me.

What most people, even dance practitioners, forget to take into account is how our bodies are (and have been through times) influenced by the surrounding political and socio-economical conditions. The way we hold our bodies, the way we walk, sit, communicate to each other changes with time. Perhaps it is harder to notice in the moment and is one of the reasons why looking at the past gives us an understanding that something indeed has changed. Just like when looking at my grandmothers photo album I get as fascinated with watching old videos of past dance-makers and wonder what triggered their movements? What were the values defining their dances?