“IN THE MIDDLE OF LEARNING IT MYSELF, I TEACH IT TO YOU” 1
Notes from Davvi residency, December 2022.
Two weeks of research conducted by Kaja Haven (Visual arts & music), Hilde Ingeborg Sandvold (Choreography and performance) & Louella May Hogan (Dance/Performance and choreographic input).
We were at Davvi to research and develop on the project “all my feelings left alone on a winter night”, formerly known as “Shuffle Play”. Shuffle Play was a project initiated by Corpus, a (former) contemporary company under the Danish Royal Ballet at The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. The piece was supposed to have premiered March 2021, but got cancelled due to COVID. We have since been in the process of attempting to create a version of the piece, suited for the freelance scene. This residency was our first chance to “work on the floor” after the cancellation.
From what to what? - a short recap:
Shuffle play was a large-scale work, created to be performed in A-salen at the Royal Theatre (large black-box). The original scenographic set-up was expensive and not suited for travel: a floor to ceiling orange room with eight large (orange) objects: a tree, a furry hill, a sun swinging from the ceiling, a giant fan, a smoke-machine, a large abstract shape… Each object had an inbuilt speaker, in addition to a general PA, totalling at a 13-channel-setup giving us the possibility to work spatially with panning sound throughout the room. All of it lit by a simple grid of parkans lighting different parts of the room at different times. In addition, we had a team of about 25 workers (technicians, stage-managers, administrators, dancers, tailors etc..) at the project's service.
All of this changed when the project became homeless. The first strategy of Kaja and I, was to create a conceptually similar, just slightly less technically and scenographically demanding version of the setup, a version more suitable for the nomadic lifestyle of freelance production. We had a well worked-through application, and solid co-producers at hand and felt confident when we started to fundraise. However, in October 2022, when we met at NORA in Porsgrunn to plan our residency at DAVVI, we had not yet managed to get any money. Having started the project in 2019, we were more than ready to get things going “on the floor”, and decided to strip it all back, asking ourselves “what can we do with the ideas but no backline, no money etc?”. We radically changed the setup by removing the paint, the speakers and the light, and reducing the large objects to eight cone-animals:
This new setup was what we brought to work with at Davvi. The change, however much it grew out of the ideas of the original setup, made the work at Davvi a reality-check of sorts, challenging us to again and again answer versions of the question: “When are things what they were, even if they are different?”. Or in other words: Which ideas that fitted in the old piece, can be transferred directly to this new room? To what extent does the orange room with the big objects, and the light room with the small objects carry the same performative potentials?
OBSTACLES and STRATEGIES
On the route towards answering the questions above, we found ourselves often circling back to questions of what it is that we want.
What it is that you want in general, serves as an important motor and compass in art-making. In a field with no objective standards, no way of defining definitely what is better or worse, valuable or not, you have to go by and be driven by what it is that you, the artist, believe in and want. In this project in particular, understanding what we wanted with clarity, would in addition make us able to see what materials were directly transferable from the old version of the project to the new. We had to understand what we wanted to do with each material, understand each material's desired function and why we wanted each one there to see how to fit them in their new home. When a material that seemed to function in the old setup itched in the new, we asked ourselves where the material came from, and aimed to let our understanding of the function help us find the right alteration of the form.
We knew that we wanted:
To create a sense of flipped hierarchy between performers and objects. We wanted to create a room in which you as an audience-member would have the feeling of objects and people being personified to a similar degree.
To make this happen, working with sound coming directly from the objects was an important tool in the original setup. Each object would have auditive materials following a personified logic that would make the audience recognise the objects as having a voice through which they made statements and passed through emotional landscapes. For instance, the furry island would be a combination of bass-lines, cat-sounds and Cardi-B, the smoke-machine a sad Justin Bieber. The dancers on the other hand, would be stripped of their voice, and become channels of sorts - places for materials to pass through but never settle, the dancers constantly in a state of receiving rather than producing, always seen in relation to the objects. The objects would become animated, and the dancers more inanimate.
The first obvious OBSTACLE to this original idea was the current lack of speakers connected to the objects.
I`ll get back to that.
A more surprising obstacle was:
OBSTACLE : SCALE.
In the original setup, the objects were as big as, and even bigger than the dancers. The dancers could melt into them with their whole bodies, be on top of them, disappear behind them etc. With that, the objects would take up as much space, and be as important in the room as the dancers. In the new setup, the dancers were so big in relation to the objects, that with the dancers in action, the cone-animals easily became forgotten little things ready to be crushed under dancing feet. Or so I thought.
Interestingly, Kaja did not really agree.
The problem of scale was something that I as a choreographer was more busy with than Kaja as a visual artist. For her, the small things were to a large extent the same as the big things. They represented the same, parted the space similarly and could work with the ideas of the old piece in a similar way. For me, the space seemed changed radically ; A tiny chair may be an exact copy of a big chair, but if it can no longer be sat on, its function for the body is very different.
The obstacle of scale taught us about the powers of interdisciplinary collaboration; Kajas` point of view invited me to challenge my understanding of the limits of the physical world in which I as a choreographer working with the body operate, and enter more imaginary, limitless ways of thinking.
Practically, we were challenged in our ability to;
Convey an imagined reality to an audience.
“when the dancers in the old setup would melt into the objects, what would that look like, with the tiny objects?”
We passed through some possible solutions:
Using words / descriptions. For instance, I could do an action while stating that I was doing it on top of the cone-animal. This solution does give the audience a chance to imagine that as truth, but was quickly disregarded as it opposed the original wish of making the performers into things. Any theatrical intervention, like animating the objects by using them as puppets, guiding the audience's attention by giving the animals spotlights to speak in etc were solutions that seemed to reduce the cone-animals back to things subjected to our theatrical powers. Through these strategies, we (the dancers) would no longer be living in the world of the cone-animals, but rather be making it. We would explain a world to the audience, rather than let them enter it.
Simply fully imagining something to be true. We tested performing the merging as if it was actually happening. In some cases, the fullness of an imagination within a performer can be enough to convey an imagined reality to an audience. Our attempts definitely created a sense of relation between the objects and the dancers, a performative specificity and tension, but with the objects being so small, so non-responsive we often felt held back by the obstacle of:
Volume. As soon as the dancers did more than being almost entirely still, in suspense, it seemed that the empathy with and focus on the cone-animals dissipated. It seemed that almost any material that was allowed to develop for the dancers left the cone-animals behind as unimportant, inanimate objects.
Could we (the dancers) bloom, develop, and bring the cone-animals with us, without using the tricks of theatre?
Possible solutions were:
Working with perspective: If we had a large room, the dancers and the cone-animals could exist in the same world, but separate from each other. For instance, you could let the cone-animals be close to you, and the dancers far away in the distance. From that perspective, you would get to see the small as big, and the big as small, leaving more space for the dancers to do and the cone-animals to be.
Working with materials that did not develop: we attempted bypassing the challenge of the dancers becoming too much the main characters by letting them do much, but never fully becoming anything. If the dancers would just enter and exit “randomly”, creating a sort of chaotic rhythm of seemingly unrelated states and materials passing through the space, would this tickle the imagination of the audience? Would the lack of linear narratives from the dancers leave room for the cone animals to become themselves? I found interest in randomness as a strategy for bringing out creativity in the audience's perception of things, but the muchness of it all still made it into a place of potentially forgetting our small friends - even if only for a moment.
Accepting the use of materials that naturally worked: The last resort. Accepting the situation. For instance; we made a series of images/situations where the dancers functioned as landscapes for the cone-animals. The dancers would intake different positions, and be still while the cone animals were placed on them by another dancer momentarily leaving their role or by an outside secret helper. We tried running different cone-animal-conversations (sound) on top of these images. The situations seemed to be absurd and abstract enough to make room for the audience to imagine things, and the way that the cone-animals inhabited the dancers made it somewhat easy to imagine that it was in fact the cone-animals having a conversation. Small changes of the dancers' positions seemed to make big differences in what kind of reality the image proposed. Tiny actions like a sharply timed change of an eye, the flick of a finger, could create whole new understandings of the proposed images. An option could be to accept that with this cone-animal-setup, the piece would be built on dancers in different ways being landscapes. I could even imagine that by spending time with these already working materials, we could find ourselves surprised by something bigger and wilder growing out of them after all.
We will see about our patience and bravery.
Last but not least, i would like to mention our reflections on:
Format: We (Kaja and I) wanted to work together in a way where each of our professions would have equal amount of focus, as flat-structure-colleagues and co-creators of the work. The original format of the project was a theatre-piece, lasting approximately one hour. To have Kajas' spatial, visual and auditory work have a similar standing as my choreographic work, we spent the time at Davvi imagining the piece as an installation, a place where the audience can enter and exit as they wish.
As a choreographer, I am used to thinking of dramaturgy as something happening on a time-line, one thing after the other. Making an open installation, I had to consider how to build a world that can give the audience an experience, even if they do not know what happened before or what comes after.
I find that the challenges and the potentials of the installation-setup are intertwined: To be freed from linear dramaturgy releases potentials of creating based on the logic of a world rather than a sense of chronological order. There is room for slightly reckless and intuitive creation in the non linear timeline; if something could happen in the universe you imagine, it can be allowed in the work, even if you don't exactly know how it got there. Materials that are argued for through a storyline on the other hand, can no longer be trusted. When creating for a free range audience that comes and goes, an important skill therefore seems to be to be able to clearly differentiate between materials that stand by themselves, and materials that are carried by chronology.
In some cases, the two can be deceivingly similar. We found it necessary to keep reminding ourselves that the differentiation, the caution with chronology, is not a rejection of development. It is only the materials where it is necessary for the audience to follow a story of sorts that needs to be altered. Development, things going somewhere, materials changing like a living landscape, is welcome and wanted en route towards a dynamic piece of work that can also be enjoyed from opening to closing.
In short; the freedom you propose for the audience to have in a free range installation format, poses both challenges and liberties for you as a creator. The awareness of where to find one - the liberties, and the other - the challenges, can help you guide yourself through an enjoyable process and towards a successful outcome.
EPILOGUE / HUNTER - GATHERER theory:
Sometimes, I describe entering a choreographic/creative process through being in either HUNTER or GATHERER-mode. The HUNTER creates by having a vision that it hunts, a clear end goal, whether it be a methodology or an idea of a final product. The HUNTER is obviously affected by its surroundings, but creates with a sense of first and foremost following an inner compass. The GATHERER on the other hand starts creation through actively entering into situations, and locating and using what is present there. The GATHERER listens to its surroundings, to information and materials existing by virtue of, for instance, a meeting between collaborators or an artistic proposal coming from the outside, and continues on to create with the gathered materials and ideas.
Shuffle play / all my feelings left alone on a winter night was always a collaborative project at its core. It was initiated by someone other than Kaja and I (by Corpus), and all the people involved (dancers, technicians etc) have affected the work. There is in a way a sense of it being a nobodies project, of it being a project belonging merely to itself.
The possible Obstacle that that creates, is that one as a creator may have a hard time finding oneself in it, a hard time understanding what it is that one is looking for, and at times even why one is looking.
This obstacle can be bypassed by remembering that it is possible to create from the mode of the gatherer. Creating in the mode of the gatherer requires deeper listening and observing beyond one's expectations and beliefs. When one fully commits to this type of creation, true collaboration can be possible, and one can be surprised by finding interest and value in things one would not have found in the mode of the hunter. While the fear can be getting lost or on the wrong track, the gatherer does propose a chance to broaden your artistic identity and knowledge. That potential for learning has been present in this project from the beginning through its independence from a singular creator, and through all of the curveballs that it keeps presenting us with.
The work continues.
Thank you to Davvi - senter for scenekunst.