Dancing to the rhythm of death - Laurent Chétouane's “Bach/Passion/Johannes”
Something old or the smell of starch
The St John Passion (in German Johannes Passion) is a sacred oratori by Johann Sebastian Bach. The original Latin title is Passio secundum Johannem and translates to "The Suffering According to John". During the first winter that Bach was responsible for church music at the St Thomas and St Nicholas church in Leipzig, he composed the St John Passsion for the Good Friday Vesper service of 1724. This is what wikipedia offers and this how I imagine that service: a cold and gloomy atmosphere, hard benches, the smell of starch, mothers telling their children to be quiet and sit still.
Something new or let's move
There is no sitting still in Laurent Chétuane's (choreography) and Michael Rauter's (music) interpretation of the St John Passion. Exactly 1290 years after Bach's Good Friday Vesper service the main feature of this piece is movement. One singer (Senem Gökce Ogultekin), 7 musicians (Emmanuelle Bernard, Lotte Dibbern, Clara Gervais, Nari Hong, Tammin Julian Lee, Michael Rauter, Mari Sawada) and 4 dancers (Lisa Densem, Sigal Zouk, Nitsan Margaliot, Mikael Marklund) in “Bach/Johannes/Passion” interpret the story of Jesus' betrayel, imprisonment and cruxification without one moment of stagnancy.
All 12 performers are barefoot and all performers constantly move. They arrange, rearrange, change and challenge themselves in the surrounding space. For example: the violinists sit next to each other, one of them stands up, departs and joins the cello. The cello player grabs his chair, drags it to the organ where he only leaves his instrument in order to wander around briefly with one of the dancers. Or the singer often in her movements resembles a dancer. As a result of these movements the boundaries of on stage roles become blurry. Who are the dancers when the musicians through their movements constantly define and arrange the space on stage? Who is the main singer when Nari Hang (flute) also sings solos? The audience is not let out of this questioning of roles: the dancers approach it throughout the piece and by eye contact seem to be asking: who are you and why are you here?
Something borrowed or deconstructing Bach
Just as the borrowed object on a wedding day can look differently on the bride the borrowed oratori by Johann Sebastian Bach alters itself in ”Bach/Passion/Johannes”. It is stripped from its sacred aura. Not only because it is not played in a church but because the musical grandeur is left out. The musicians play Bach's sheet music but neither is there a dominant organ nor a huge choir. Instead of musical richness there are reduction and rearrangement. The notation is reduced to its skeleton - the basic sounds. The evangelist is sung by a woman. The former order of the original story is desontructed. ”Bach/Passion/Johannes” begins with the end of the oratori - the burial of Christ. One could say choreographer, musicians, singers and dancers use the 1290 years old composition to reenact the tragedy of Jesus' suffering and destiny and at the same time allude other options of understanding it.
Something blue or dancing to rhythm of death
Is it allowed to dance to Jesus death? In Bach's era the answer would have been a clear: NO! In the twenty first century everything goes. However, this postmodern expression would oversimplify Chétouane's piece to an experiment that is only about deconstruction as it is understood in the context of postmodern discourse. There is more to it. While watching the dancers movements I repeatedly thought about the rituals of mourning. What do we do when the loss of death suddenly hits us? How do we mourn and how do we overcome? After a phase of pure grief we eventually try to replace the sad thoughts by others. A difficult task because the blue and dark mood that we are in does not simply evaporate, we have to delibaretly shake it off. Knowing that sadness will reappear over and over again. It is exactly in this very manner of perpetual reappearance how the dancers move in “Bach/Passion/Johannes”. Every twirling, every streching of arms like a cross and every crossing the room is signified by sadness. As if they try but cannot completely shake off the burden of grief. These movements emerge repeatedly with minimal variations and reminded me that I am watching a dance to the rhythm of death.
THE COMPLEXITY OF VULNERABILITY
Some impressions on my personal mobility in Rotterdam
Every minute is the minute to begin it
Make it broader
But the thing that brings me strength
Also gives me such torture.
But fuck it
Every time the seasons change
I’m completely overwhelmed
I hold the helm
Like the hilt of a sword
I’m a born worker
extract from „Renegade“, a poem by Kate Tempest
One of the reasons, why I chose out of the Menu Options to shadow the first week of the rehearsal process of R-ESISTERE by the italian/ dutch choreographer Giulio d'Anna, was a honest wish to witness a working process as an outsider and still get some insider informations. As a performer, young maker and dance teacher I usually find myself strongly involved in a creation process without having the possibility of getting insights from on outwards perspective, as maybe a writer or journalist does.
Looking back to a very rich and quite intense week, I have to luckily admit that I never felt like an outsider, but was instead confronted with a huge generosity of sharing ideas and adressing a theme by taking part, questioning, embodying and a little bit observing. However, attending the process for one week under the perspective of Communicating Dance, I realized that I directly approached it with different questions and that retrospectively I don't only feel inspired, but also fed with new insights of working methods enabling to rethink own approaches, objects and intentions.
I have been asking myself how to capture and to communicate the experiences of one week, letting not just my observations, but also the performer's actions, the discourse in the room come through and speak for itself.
The following text is a hybrid of an interview that I've done with Giulio on my last rehearsal day, aswell as memories on certain actions, comments deriving from the performers and other material, such as poems or youtube speeches, that we've been sharing during this week.
A way to talk about dance
TALKING TO MARIE TOPP: THE PROCESS, THE DIALOGUE WITH THE AUDIENCE, AND THE D. WORD
I interviewed the lovely danish choreographer Marie Topp, one of the three selected artists for this year's K3 residency in Kampnagel.
We talked about her process as a maker, the work she will be researching during the 8 month residency in Hamburg and how she thinks about the relation between the audience and her work.
Here is what she said:
G.N.: Could you talk a little bit about your background and what interests you as an artist?
M.T.: I graduated from the National School of Contemporary Dance in Denmark, in 2009, as a dancer, and since then I've been freelancing and been based in Copenhagen, working on my own projects more or less the whole time and more specifically in the last two years. Right now I am very interested in the field of kinesthetic perception, and I work solo, I'm very interested in solo practice. I have done two pieces, so I am really at the beginning of defining what my interest is, but it's very physical work and I investigate through my own body and physicality.
G.N.: Could you talk about the project that you will be developing during your K3 residency, what you will be focusing on and which will your approach be?
M.T.: There are still some things to define, because I applied with one project and when I was told I had got the residency I was already pretty far with that process. So I decided, because there are close links between the previous work I did and this one, and there was something that I could consider my practice, I decided to look at those two connected and I will think about it as a trilogy. During this residency I will make another piece and then I will work through all three of them, for instance in the second one there are still some things to figure out or to finish up, because I had no budget for doing the first two. So I will also revisit the first one, finish up the second one and make a whole new one. For what I have been researching, the first one has been about force, and how it affects the body, and the second one was about the moment just before an action, about expectation, about building expectation, so it has a lot to do with how you perceive movement, both of them are really looking at the kinesthetic perception and how you experience it as a spectator. So for the third one I will revisit some ideas from the first one, because I worked very little on that, for now I call it “the visible effects of force” and, I don't know what it will be, but it will go more into the research of this field. And it will be a solo. I feel I have an understanding of what I want to do, and it's not completely verbalized yet, so for me these 8 months will also be a way of reflecting on my practice and start verbalizing it in a sense.
G.N.: Watching several performances that have been presented in the festival, I have the feeling there is a focus on addressing the audience as a key element in the work, more specifically a fundamental part of it, either it being on a participatory level or in some other way. So I wanted to ask you how and when do you start thinking about the audience and their relation with your work?
M.T.: Right from the very beginning actually, when I start from the material, because it has so much to do with the perception of it, and in that sense I think it has a lot to do with the whole structuring of it. Especially with the last piece, that has to do with the moment before the action, so everything is in a slow transformation through half an hour, constantly working with building up and how to transform movement without ever letting go in the release, and what I want is that the audience is left in this state of readyness, or expecting, is starting to work out in their minds whatever the release of this tension is, and then it inever happens, this is kind of the structure of the piece, that it never gives in to this release, which makes people very uncomfortable, but it's also the point. So in that sense I think about it in the structuring, how it is perceived and how does that relate to the concept.
G.N.: Carrying on a little bit on this concept, do you have any practices or strategies that you adopt during the process to test or clarify for yourself how and what your work is communicating?
M.T.: This has actually been related to my working conditions so far, I always had short periods of time, often with a showing at the end, because I never had a long production. I think the good thing about it was that it made me show a lot of work in very early stages as a process, so I met the audience a lot of times and I took the feedback if it worked, but I feel I have a strong sense of intuition also out of just watching my work on video, to see if I think it works or not. So I think I mainly used it (showing the work) to confirm that I am in the right direction, I wouldn't say that I experiment with the audience. I mean I think I've known what I have been doing, I get the feedback that I expect, most of the time. Of course sometimes people don't get it, sometimes people perceive it as negative, what I am trying to do with the piece, because I want people to be in this state of expectation and a lot of people feel that the piece didn't succeed because “nothing happens”. So also sometimes people try to say it in a nice polite way even though that is actually what I want to hear! So I have a feeling that in that sense it's an honest feedback, because I heard it in many different ways, both from some people who understand the concept and think it's great and also people who didn't get it but had the experience and tried to say it without hurting my feelings! (laughs)
G.N.: Now for the universal question: what is dance?
M.T.: (laughs) I don't know and I also don't know if for me it's that important to actually define it. I think especially in Scandinavia there has been a lot of things going around about this field, and the term “dance dance” was invented. And “dance dance” is, you know, this dance (does some technical elaborate movements with her arms) and then there is the other dance. Dance dance is...Ohad Naharin, is when people dance contemporary DANCE, you know? And then there is other stuff...for me it's problematic and I think it's also because I come from a community that is very small and has not so many people, not so many scholars within dance, not so many people who are actually able to define and combine it with theory or set it in a context or have this discussion on a level that makes sense, so I think when these terms are used it's mainly to put things into boxes, so that it's dance dance if it's moving around, and if it's choreography where they're not moving around then it's performance and it's just like mixing, misunderstanding terms, putting things together, and it kind of made me want to step away from it because it's like there is nobody who is really keeping the knowledge and the understanding and has the international prospective of the arts so they make these strange definitions which make me not want to be part of it. And it's on all levels, also concerning dance critics, I had one calling me a “performance oriented concept choreographer”, in a main newspaper, and I was like what the fuck is that?!(says laughing) So I guess that proves, I don't want to be a part of it.
G.N.: and more specifically, what role does dance play in your work?
M.T.: I think it plays a big role because it is my training and my background so in that sense it's this schooling of my body, my mind and my gaze and how I orientate in the world and I think all of this is inspired by a grounding in dance. Also my work is very physical, and since I am working on my own body I think it is all there, it is definitely there.
What does dance sound like?
Have you ever asked yourself this question? To me thinking about it opened up a new door.
As a dance writer I was primarily thinking about dance in visual images, and dance to me has always been a visual art before anything else. While writing about dance I am using text in order to describe dance in its many aspects, I try to visualize it with words, and images or promo videos published along side the text somehow fill in the gaps.
I used to think that doing a TV or video feature on dance was a complex job, which technically it is, but communicating dance with sound only is a demanding task in a sense that you don’t have visual info to rely on to fill in those gaps you make as a writer. You’re on your own there. Actually it’s you and your sound recorder. This is something my dance writing colleagues from Croatian Radio, Katja Šimunić and Katarina Kolega have already mastered in, and I’m thinking about suggesting them to do a workshop in Zagreb for other dance writers.
As part of my individual mobility choice in the Communicating Dance project I’ve spent a few days in the Italian Bassano del Grappa (CSC Grage Nardini) participating in an inspiring workshop held by the BBC radio reporter Dany Mitzman. Here I’ve started to learn about how to translate dance experience into sound which I’ve never had a chance to do before, together with four other new sound-editing-dance fans Rita Borga, Sebastiano Crestani, Giulia Galvan and Anna Trevisan.
We started thinking in sound bites and about soundscapes, and started to hear better in general. We started noticing the tiniest sounds surrounding us. I took a radio journalism class in college but as everything in Croatian education – it was all history and theory, no practical learning opportunities. Dany introduced us to some tips&tricks of preparing and making radio features and we all have tried to apply it to dance. So we created our own first radio feature about a very interesting and important project happening in Bassano – Dance with Parkinson which you can listen to here:
People’s habits in receiving information have so much to do with multimedia today and some content is better articulated through images, video and sound then through text. So knowing how to use different media and channels of communication is important as much as knowing how to write.
I had a lot of interesting conversations with dance artists which I regret not to have recorded, and even more which I wanted to make but couldn’t find the time to transcribe them into text for publication, especially during festivals which are packed with content. I find that doing and audio recording of an interview and knowing a few tricks in sound editing could help in speeding up the time of publishing an interview, and even more in helping to get the message out there, than when writing a bunch of text. Of course, sound editing is an art in itself and it takes years of practice to be good at it, but one needs to start somewhere.
The Bassano workshop also got me thinking about two other ideas. First is creating new dance audiences – for example people with seeing problems could be informed about dance through sound. The second and more complex idea is the critical approach to visual culture.
This was triggered in my mind a few months before when I was following the German Dance Platform as part of Communicating Dance project and doing a video interview with Richard Siegal. His piece The Black Swan intentionally darkens the stage so the audience concentrates on the sounds created by the performer. The ideal review of this piece would be making an audio feature about it. This way the ideas from the piece would be communicated in the right way, becoming a part of the piece in itself.
To go back to the beginning, the Bassano workshop made me more aware about yet again another possibility of dance apart from its visual language, its possibility to critically address the visual pollution of today’s communication.
Radio feature credits:
Journalists and Editors: Rita Borga, Sebastiano Crestani, Giulia Galvan, Jelena Mihelcic, Anna Trevisan
Dubbing: Sebastiano Crestani, Giulia Galvan, Jelena Mihelcic, Manuel Roque and Alessandro Sciarroni
Mixing: Jelena Mihelcic
The feature was made during the workshop Communicating Dance Without Visual Support held by the BBC journalist Dany Mitzman at the CSC Garage Nardini in Bassano del Grappa, Italy, June 27-June 30 2014