In your piece Dances of Death, you examine rituals and dances from different historical areas in relation to death. Could you tell about your starting point and the research for this piece?
Dances of Death departs from personal material. In 2019, my mother died of cancer. At one time she had the ambition to become a dancer, but that was thwarted by her parents. She had to study something ‘serious’. However, three short 16 mm films have survived. In the films, she is between 17 and 18 years old, during the glory days of her early dance career.
For a long time, I wanted to do something with this video material. That’s how the idea for Dances of Death came about. A dance performance that takes the motif of the ‘danse macabre’ or ‘dance of death’ as its starting point. Since the 14th century, this has been a motif that has been used again and again in the art of dance within European traditions. Dances of death have often been passed on in the form of paintings, drawings, narrative music, written sources and more recently, in the 20th century, through photographs and video.
The dancers learned the materials from the videos of my mother. And we choreographed those materials in a circle dance.
For the spatial structuring of the choreography, I was inspired by the two forms: the circle and the procession. The circle has a spiritual meaning of eternal movement, beginning and endings transform into each other continuously. In dance throughout centuries, this form has been continuously explored, from witch-dances in the Middle Ages to now. Also, the procession is a very common figure. It inspired the choreography in the last part of the piece, where possessed dancers are following up on each other, as if it were a procession of past narratives, figures, memories, trauma’s, persons that come into being.
Besides the dance materials inspired on the videos of my mother, we also looked through different sources throughout European dance history. These sources go from pagan European traditions to the modern and contemporary Euro-American dance tradition today. For the last part of the piece, the dancers mixed these sources with personal (physical) memories.
Also, for the costumes, masks, light and music I looked into past European traditions. The embroidery techniques in Christian garments for example, the emotional and therapeutic effects of colors in the lightning, the ghostlike textures of the garment, etc.
With Dances of Death, my aim was to create a journey through time to connect the past with the present in a contemporary staging. All this underlined by the question: how would a dance of death be danced today?
You invited a singer alongside with the dancers on stage. I am curious to hear more about this invitation and the working process you had together.
Kara Leva, the vocalist, entered the process in a later stage. My original plan was to work only with the voices of the dancers. But not all of them have an extensive singing experience, and I lacked the knowledge of creating something interesting out of their voices. So, after the first rehearsal period I dropped the idea, and we continued working with recorded sound. In fact, for quite a large part of the process I choreographed everything in relation the Eliane Radigue’s composition Trilogie de la Mort. But this more minimalist approach to the sound for the piece proved to be insufficient for me. As I worked with the history of the danse macabre, I also wanted to work with a European musical tradition in relation to death. While making another performance at Theater Neumarkt in Zürich, I met Kara, because she recorded something for the show. In our talk, I discovered that she has both experience with western contemporary music, and western folkloristic vocal traditions. That’s how the cooperation started, Kara joined the rehearsal, and we exchanged a lot of songs that have to do with death. Out of this long list we started to select songs that represent different European vocal/music traditions, and that’s how the final score came about. We go from Hildegard Von Bingen to John Dowland, from Italian Tarantella to the Greek Dance of Zalongo, from a completely altered composition of Morton Feldman to Henry Purcell, etc.
What is your relation and thinking towards rituals, both from the past, present and new ones we could invent as a society?
Working on Dances of Death was a way for me to connect to the spiritual again. As a teenager, spirituality in the form of religiosity made up a large part of my life, both in negative and positive ways. As a young adolescent I started to completely dismiss my relation to the spiritual.
Being confronted with some people dear to me that died, not only my mother, but also other people of a younger age, I started to reflect ways of sharing memories, of dealing collectively with emotions. In short, I started to be interested in the power of the spiritual again. This time one could say more from a critically informed position, and with a lot of carefulness.
Living and growing up in a West-European context, it was interesting to me to discover the European pagan traditions that have been whipped away by the Christian tradition. The physicality of those rituals inspired me. I think physically coping with death, we overcome the dichotomy between body and mind that for some part was brought by dominant strands in Christianity and later by modernism. The emphasis on physicality is important for me because of its connection with the body. Through the physical, we can give way to deep emotions and traumas. And by ourselves, we can rehearse the cycle between life and death.
Yet, the present time brings along a fundamental problem, which is also at the core of the song that acts as a sort of prologue and epilogue. The concept of synchronicity is central to the concept of a ritual. In a ritual you synchronize with something beyond yourself (be it a memory, spirit, God, etc.). In our present time, through the emergence of the virtual and increasingly digitized world, one could say that we are in continues synchronicity with ourselves. We are at once present here (in the physical world) and there (in the virtual world). Synchronicity, once central and unique to the concept of ritual, is now rendered meaningless. We have become ourselves infinite beings, always in tune with the non-physical world.
With Dances of Death, I do not have an answer to that central problem. And therefore, one could say the piece as whole becomes potentially a confusing question. Which is a state I very much appreciate because it is the state of not knowing where one needs to experientially find out things anew.
This interview was conducted around July-August 2021.
Photo: Illias Teirlinck