KoresponDance, Where Performing Corresponds with Participating
There are two dance productions that made me realise that the KoresponDance festival is not only about presenting the newest developments in dance and choreography. KoresponDance decided, it seemed, to reach out to both locals and visitors from other cities and countries to introduce what contemporary dance has to offer them. Sustaining a festival which aims to be open to as many visitors as possible as well as being intriguing for locals is not an easy task.
The performances I am Here and Metasystems, however, showed me the importance of the human element in dance as it celebrated everyone who moves be them professional dancers from France, Italy or eight different African countries, or the residents of Žďár themselves. The locals seem to have the opportunity to extend their understanding of the possibilities of the space they see as their home. They are challenged, and as far as I can tell, they appear to be excited about it. As an audience member, it makes me feel as if a certain amount of what we could call ‘bearable discomfort’ is curated, as engaging performances are chosen for the festival by the programme manager Casper de Vries. It is undeniably a journey of growth as the festival has been developing alongside the visitors for the last 10 years. By experiencing so many dance performances, the locals appear to be cultivating their own dance knowledge and tastes, all contributing to their self-expansion.
In addition, it opens the door to the possibility of graduating from viewer to performer which I could sense from those two productions which made me feel the strength dance confers to everyone participating in the festival. The ways the locals can claim their space by using their own performing body differ in both performances. It made me wonder who is usually the mover in the process of empowering amateur dancers to stand on a stage and perform? Do they have the freedom to gain power through unrestricted exploration or do they do so with the choreographer’s guidance? Do they move themselves or does the choreographer move them? It seems interesting to ask which practice is more comfortable for people who encounter performing in front of their community for the first time. I believe that I am Here and Metasystems offer two very different approaches, both showing that they can lead amateur performers towards finding their confidence and strength in dancing in various ways.
In I am Here, a dance production created by the Israeli choreographer Galit Liss, the common narrative that the social role of the elders includes being natural storytellers, is the starting point of the choreography. We value the decades of experience elders can recount to the younger generations. Liss takes this idea and shifts it so the power of sharing stories does not only present a knowledge their descendants can use, but it also intends to empower the senior performers.
As I sit down to observe I am Here on the outdoor stage in the Estate’s old fish hatcheries which are now a rather romantic area with small lakes and a view of the hill and pilgrimage church, 15 elderly women emerge to the sound of Vivaldi. They walk towards the stage and the audience. This view itself established, to me, the story of the power these performers have and confidently present. The music highlights their determination to claim the space and play with it as if the notion of play was not culturally assigned primarily to young people. The dancers who signed up for this project perform a piece of choreography that surpasses the limits of what one might imagine as the movements of an older woman. The audience members are confronted with the energy that the performers bring to the stage. I was urged to turn to myself and reflect upon my own ideas of old people. My initial reaction to the performance is to reconsider who are the dancers that we usually focus our gaze on, and to reflect on the role of senior women in our communities. To look inwards seems to be what the performance wants me to do. The voice coming from the speakers requests, in three different languages, to glance at my hands; to study them properly. Furthermore, it instructs the audience to think of all the lines we can see on our palms, and to go beyond them. We are to remember what our hands allow us to do. What memories do they hold, and what stories do they tell? As the audience members focus on their hands, lifting them up and positioning them in front of their bodies, it is as if they are a mirror image of the movement on stage. Finally, the performers take a step to cross the edge of the stage to symbolise the autonomy they create by participating in this choreography. I was surprised by the trust these women established with their bodies, and their movements as individuals and as a group. The women approach different people in the audience to guide their hands by moving their own hands. When I look around, I see that, as if it were completely natural, the audience members mirror the movements of the performers. The bond I feel by following the movements of the woman who chose to approach me is intimate despite us not touching each other. This part of the choreography is particularly moving for the strong emotion it evokes in me and once again, I feel like I have the opportunity to share the confidence and the strength that the performers bring to the space. I believe I was not the only one who teared up a few times during the performance due to the vulnerability I felt through their openness to share their space and body.
During the performance, I realised that Liss works with the feelings connected to the invisibility older women can experience in our society. What is tangible during and after the performance is the strength I can see in the women’s performances - it is as if they were sharing a new power which they found within themselves. It is as if they had reclaimed their visibility. Overall, moving through places freely does not usually correspond to our idea of older people. However, Liss, the local women and other elders on stage visiting from Israel showed me that they have the freedom to experience, and what’s more, embody joy and power.
Later, I move from the smoothing greenery of the Estate gardens to an industrial space of the local key factory. In this performance produced by James Batchelor with assistance from Jacqueline Trapp, the courtyard behind the factory transforms into a rough environment made of bricks. Metasystems is a piece of choreography that Batchelor has been developing since 2014, and it is always adjusted to the environment and the group of performers with whom he works. In the case of the KoresponDance version, which was prepared for the Tokoz factory space, some of the performers were Tokoz employees. When I enter the factory complex, together with the rest of the audience, the performers are already moving, walking with bricks that they systematically lay down on the pavement. After a half an hour of them lining up all the bricks from a pallet, they start to move within the geometrical scenery. Both the bodies and the performed construction site work as one organism. The only time the performance feels really organic, however, is at the very end when the dancers lay down to rest in their irregular cells made of bricks within which the performers seek comfort.
The question that I am sifting through in my mind is the philosophy behind the use of the bodies as a material and vehicle for building the structures. It seemed tiring. It seemed demanding on the amateurish dancers’ bodies. More than an organic metasystem, they act as a machine. The dance seems to dehumanise the performers as it moves away from individuality and authenticity. The goal is to carry out the transformation in a mechanised way which undeniably suits the factory setting. On the other hand, it seems to reward the performer only when they follow the choreography without making a mistake when rebuilding the bricks. One of the first comments I hear from one of the dancers after the performance is that they did a better job the previous day when they managed to be more precise. She does not seem satisfied with how today’s performance went. However, the dancers' willingness to be part of the project and the pleasant sense of inclusion that they describe says a lot about the significance of the performances.
The power that the performance communicates to me differs from I am Here in that the strength that it encourages is more physical than emotional. In Metasystems, the group is connected by their common goal - to build and to rebuild. With their own arms, they lift one brick after another and work together to build the structures. The aesthetics of the dance suggest that the power of the Tokoz women is something of which I, the viewer, should be cognisant and not forget. They are the ones building the very same environment I find myself in, where I sit and gaze at the satisfying process of constructing symmetrical formations.
By listening to and dropping in on the conversations, I get an idea of the different approaches the choreographers have when it comes to working with amateur dancers. It is not difficult to get an insight into the dramaturgy and a behind-the-scenes view of both performances since, to a large extent, the local audience members of this festival consist of the performers’ friends and family. Thus, they are not reluctant to come up to them after the performance and ask questions. At the same time, the performers seem to be happy to share their experiences which almost seems to be another way of gaining confidence from their participation in the productions. I was able to enter the post-performance discussion and show my interest which in return gave the performers the opportunity to talk openly about their feelings caused by both the rehearsal and the act of performing in front of a live audience.
I observed that Liss works with the power older people can discover within themselves which creates a light dance of joy and wisdom. Batchelor has a definite point towards which his choreography is focused, the performers told me when I asked if they ever questioned the tiring length of the performance. To me, it comes across that the performers are empowered more by their ability to execute the well-planned, precise movements that Batchelor teaches them, rather than in the freedom to move as they please. This controlled movement seems to encourage the dancers, as it gives them the chance to be expressive with their bodies in a way they would not be able to without Batchelor’s guidance. On the other hand, Liss works in such a way that she helps the amateurs transform into performers who come across as confident and seem to be primarily joyful about being on stage and having the role of an artist throughout the course of the festival. It is no less an important observation that the women seemed to enjoy themselves when they were not performing. I saw them sitting around in groups, eating ice cream in the sun, and in the late evening I heard them cheerily chatting in the accommodation that was provided to them as dancers. This made me imagine how much a performance can exceed the limits of the dance itself and bring about positive outcomes which last long after the performance is over. To me, this seems like an effective and a sustainable way of growing a confident local community of dance spectators and performers.
Empowering communities is quite an attractive goal for many artistic events. The idea that art has the power to be beneficial for an individual, and consequently, society as a whole, is rather traditional, however, it persists as a reason for many festivals to be organised. To me, KoresponDance succeeds in creating an environment in which not only a varied audience can feel challenged but also confident enough to want to participate in the performances it brings to the town of Žďár nad Sázavou. The space and options to move and feel the power of one's moving body is provided, and it comes in many forms - each showing us a different power of dance.
Editorial note: This text is written as part of an international writing workshop entitled Writing About Dance (On Body And Mobility). The workshop was a collaboration between Taneční aktuality and Performing Criticism Globally, kindly supported by EEA Grants, and the resulting texts were written in response to productions at this festival.
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