Figuring Age is a performance, that has its origin in a documentary film you made with three exceptional women, who have been part of the early development of modern dance in Hungary. Could you tell more about your interest to work with these women and the research to this documentary?
Figuring Age would not exist without the filmmaking process we went through beforehand. Which is wonderful because I’m inclined towards non-lineal ways of making performance. At first, it was not at all obvious for me to make a documentary, but due to the deadline and urgency of working with those elderly women, the process of filming became a necessary step. Irén, Éva and Ágnes were all above 90 years old when we started working with them in Budapest.
The initial research began in 2014, which was centered around questions like: how I situate myself as a young female dancer in the context of where I work in relation to where I come from. What kind of histories do I choose to interrogate and from whose perspective? I left Hungary when I was 18 to study dance in Austria and Belgium, and by then I’ve been living and working in Western Europe for years. During this research, I became aware of my complete lack of knowledge about Hungarian dance history, and I asked myself where does this gap come from and how can I address it artistically?
In the meantime, nursing my grandmother who was battling with Alzheimer made a lasting impression on me. I was confronted with her memory loss, the changes in her aging body, and eventually her death. When I met the elderly dancers, this experience supported me to enter into dialogue with them and build a close relationship.
From the beginning, I wanted to propose an inter-generational exchange as a way to address the silences, traumas and ruptures in the life trajectories of the dancers in relation to some of the main social and political transformations of the past century. I was fascinated by the physicality of the elderly dancers, but I was even more intrigued by how their experiences, their resilience, or their silences were inscribed in their bodies and movements.
Irén, Éva and Ágnes were once part of a heterogeneous movement, which was partly dance, but also gymnastics and a life-reform movement. All of them lived through several prohibitions: Before the war, as Jews, they were forbidden to perform on stage, while some of the modern dance schools were also banned because of their leftist views and links to the workers’ movement. After a brief period of revival at the end of the war, the entire modern dance movement was again banned by the socialist regime. It seems that the freedom of movement, of society and of women, is regarded as a threat by different political regimes and their ideological systems.
Engaging with the history of the three women, also became a way for us to deal with the current rise of nationalism within the post-socialist context. It has been challenging for me to try to understand, how people living in Hungary relate to communism/socialism today and to the period of the right-wing Horthy regime between the two world wars. Many people suppress the fascistic face of the Horthy era and regard it as the good old times. We asked ourselves how people’s sentiments towards those periods are navigated and instrumentalized by the populist discourse of the current government.
Would you like to speak about the transformation of your own body regarding the movements you start to inhabit by the embodiment of the three dancers on stage?
Figuring Age is about physical transmission of knowledge. During the filming process, I offered myself as a dance student to the elderly women and asked them to teach me choreographies and techniques that they learned or created themselves. Contemporary choreographers often address the question of transmitting such dance heritage via re-construction or re-enactment in order to be able to share this knowledge with future generations. In this work, we do not aim to reconstruct original choreographies, much rather I strive to embody the women themselves, very much in the age that we encountered them. Here lies the performative-political core of this work. The audience is confronted simultaneously with my young body and the physicality of the elderly dancers. The result is a fugitive body, a body that attempts to escape a rigid representation.
Let me describe some of the methods we developed for this performance. Firstly, we located each elderly woman in my body. This corporality is partly based on our personal memories of their physicality. For example, remembering the sensation of their weight while holding their hands and recreating their slowness from the experience of accompanying them through the apartment. But also witnessing their transformation when they began to teach or perform. And of course, we have been watching the filmed footages during the editing and subtitling process countless times. Gradually, the film-work itself became our choreographic score, a physical partition that enabled us to sculpt each of the women’s embodiment.
We meticulously recreated and enhanced their postures and gestures with the pull of gravity and heaviness. Listening to their distinct tonalities and rhythm, it was crucial to find the right speaking voice for each woman. Sustaining the sensation of old age during the performance, requires an immense physical effort. Finally, the work demands me to be present right there in the room, without letting go of the fiction for the whole time, otherwise it all just collapses into my biological age. So, if everything works out, the audience might feel that they’ve actually met three different women during the performance. A bit like encountering a ghost through the body of a medium. In our case, the séance is happening between the medium of film and performance.
When you look back at the encounters you had with these women, what stays for you, after having worked so long on the film and the performance, looking/observing them, their movements, listening to their stories and embodying them on stage?
Due to the long creation process, Andreas and I have been involved with Irén, Éva and Ágnes for many years. In consequence, our relations to them grew beyond just a concept or the project itself. Even though they have all already passed away at different phases of the working process, it happened to me only recently, that I’ve noticed they are actually gone now. Referring back to what stays for me: I’ve said a few times that I would like to do Figuring Age also when I get older, in 30 or even in 40 years’ time, so that the performance grows old with me and my body. I see it as a political act to take the histories of these women and carry them and their stories forward.
This interview was conducted around July-August 2021.
Photo: Barbara Antal