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Talk with Isira Makuloluwe (molecular biologist – come- choreographer)

Isira Makuloluwe is a choreographer living and working in London. He has  just finished a work called 1951 to the music of Czek ’60’s Avant-Garde composer Miloslav Istvan’s 1951 String Quartet for ProART Dance Company. It premiered on 27th July 2012. His first work to pre-existing ‘classical’ music and not made by his long-term composer Jennifer McConachie, it was a new page in the choreographer’s career, entering a phase where the interpretation of music through its theoretical construction and making movement from it has become of great importance to him. The fine line between choreographing to music and re-writing the music (without changing it) via the dancing body has become his focus.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Isira, please, do not laugh; I’m wearing my glasses when I type. Tell me, how can a Molecular Biologist be a choreographer? It taught you awareness. What else? You have been choreographing since 2000, and before that you studied dance with various great dance masters in Europe and United States. Manola Asensio, William Louther, then you finished your studies at Alvin Ailey American Dance Center?

Isira: Don’t worry about the glasses, they suit you and I’m astigmatic!
I actually loved dance since I was a child, listening to music and making up complex (at least I thought so at the time!) group choreographies. I was mainly mad about hip-hop. Movement originality also became one of my obsessions. My ballet teacher is married to my physics teacher and he was the one who roped me into dance. I was told that I was always talking about dance at school and therefore should pursue it – to the disdain of my Sri Lankan immigrant parents. There are many metaphors between molecular biology and dance – spirals, DNA, life and all of those wonderful things that have little to do with my choreographic work. I got a good sense of numeracy from laboratory work; an understanding of the scientific method and writing and the rest of the time was quite bored. I should have studied Asian languages, anthropology or the fine arts – where I belong. But at that time in England, it was all about ‘following your father’s footsteps’ so I pretended I wanted to be a doctor like him until one day I woke up dancing! Manola Asensio gave me a lot of information that was transmitted to her by Rudolph Nureyev (in particular the essence of the Bournonville Classical Technique that he got from Eric Brun). William Louther got me a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey School. He secretly believed in me over his majority black students (in front of whom he was all black power) since I worked harder than everybody in class (mainly because I had to catch up so much) and stayed behind to question him endlessly. He was a genius, sad, dejected and lonely. First black soloist of Martha Graham, and co-founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – though many in the organisation would deny it now. (If ever they do – ask them who made ‘Hermit Songs’ for Alvin Ailey and co-created Blues Suite with Dudley Williams as a favour to fill an evening for the emerging Mr Ailey – it was Bill Louther).

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: We dance artists are quite serious people. It is all about the human content, I guess. The body is so social, cultural, affectionate, natural and unnatural at the same time. Your company name Dancetheatremedia describes it to me in a way that dance, theatre and performance are mediating something with real potential between human behaviour and movement. The body is a mediating device, as far as I think of it.  How would you explain it?

Isira: I agree. Nowadays I feel that conventional dance doesn’t have a singular place as before and we have to mix media and develop a new form of dance or theatre art in order to survive culturally. No credible state funding body has any decent money for the arts and even less for dance, so why waste time making small dance pieces when the arts community has so much more to share with us and we with them? Risky maybe, but we need to take risks to make a better and more stable world. With this reasoning, the performing arts are a fatal frontier for the closed-minded still working within the field. There is also so much to do in the area of humanitarian work, education, and corporate entrepreneurship. In Dance or moreover in choreography there are good and bad models for leadership and management. Take the good ones (not necessarily the ones making the most money) and apply them in business. This is one form of mediation. The body has been a form of mediation since prostitution was part of political negotiation! Mediation through movement is an interesting concept. Are also we talking about dance and movement’s use in therapy?

THEORIES

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: I also know that you have investigated concepts of reality, alterity and transformation, as well as memory in your works. Then, you have this interest in the language, communication and in games. Tell me about the games in your works? Games are abstractions. It feels that in some sense it is possible to manipulate your viewers, or to convey your perception of the world with your works?

Isira: I love sports like Track and Field, Rugby, Tennis, Soccer, Cricket, among others. Transforming or using games’ rules as a set of choreographic codes was something I worked on in the last decade. TOUCH was born from these ideas in 2007. Language (including dance) is ultimately our only weapon against ignorance and lack of understanding. The more languages we know the better. I speak a number of languages and it still freaks me out when I can’t understand a language in a far off land like China or India. Nonetheless, if you listen closely and long enough, intonations and body gestures can give away a language’s secrets and you can avoid a lot of trouble that way! Spoken words don’t exist without tones or a musical and physical expression of them.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How much do you think choreography also means theoretical designs, or a link to concepts? What is your favourite shape, or colour, or puzzle that organizes your choreographies? Games have space and bodies?

Isira: I’m not sure what you mean about theoretical designs. I have MY OWN THEORIES for making MY OWN DANCES but I would never teach them to anyone else as an absolute truth. I’m one of those people who fail to understand the purpose of MA’s or BA’s in choreography since the term in itself dares to convince students (falsely) that what they learn in some universities is HOW to choreograph. Such a personal, beautifully secret, intimate thing cannot be theorized or taught. But if someone needs to make money from that lie, so be it! I’m not against PhD’s in the analysis of practice as a reason to summarize one’s methods and ideas. But nothing more than that. Answering this question reminds me of the numerous books circulating about famous choreographers with photocopied scribbles and sketches that only they can understand. I do find it a bit ridiculous how we deify choreographers when only their works hold some degree of insight into who they are. And in any case isn’t it more interesting to know the dancers who dance their works? I usually admired them more than choreographers – all those apart from William Forsythe who also is an amazing dancer. My favourite colours (at the moment) are aubergine or pink (but it changes with the year). My favourite shape is spiral, and my favourite puzzle is the unlocking of my childhood memories in my native Sri Lanka.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your idea of where your choreographic practice is at the moment?

Isira: It has shifted a lot since I started making dance. My choreographies are completely influenced by my work as a teacher. Since beginning teaching five years ago I think more about composition and musicality than specific ‘ideas’ that may attract an audience. Like a composer of music, I try to find melodies and asymmetries that character the general harmonics and colour of a new piece. A dancer (usually my wife who is also a vocalist and pianist) helps me a great deal in this research in the studio. I like musical terms since they define dance and how to dance my choreographies. Afterwards, I start by filming a short maquette, which becomes a bigger body of work. The editing process of the dance-video clip becomes important in making choices for the actual work- camera angles, cuts and musical choices as made here.

My practice is also shaped by the global economy and my refusal to deliver a recognizable brand with commercial interest. I can further answer this question by the following observations since describing my work past and present is for the critics and less interesting that showing it to you live!

In recent years I have seen a lot of branding occurring to please promoters and producers (who are the ultimate gate-keepers) and this has led to mediocrity infiltrating the elite ranks of choreography. It has increasingly become a mundane and superficial art form whereas not only a few years ago it was a diverse and engaging one. I feel that nowadays one repeats a ‘winning formula’ that ‘sells tickets’ instead of pushing boundaries. We prefer to tour companies of dead choreographers like Pina Bausch or Merce Cunningham (which fills theatres for nostalgia sake) than to invest in young and talented choreographers. Dance therefore seems to have moved to the graveyard lately. Are we so afraid to look into the unknown and search for the talented unknown as opposed to the tried and tested (which usually means deceased). In that case we must question what is art all over again.

For me, the last great choreographer who irreversibly changed our perception is William Forsythe, who radically changed ballet and contemporary dance while leaving an indelible influence on the art world in general- fortunately he’s still alive! But why no one aspires to reach those heights cannot simply be blamed on the economy- there are few examples of pioneering leadership in our field as most dive for safety in career positions instead of living out their obligations as ARTISTS – and that means taking risks to advance the art of dance.

Also, the ‘conceptual dance’ or ‘non-dance’ movement of the French from 2000-today, while bringing about a radical ‘new way’ of thinking about dance (all stolen blatantly from 1960’s Judson Church and performance art from the US and UK) has made a joke of the art form and made quality dance education almost redundant in Europe. It has become more important to create dancers without technique but cultivate interesting ‘personalities’ in the most important schools. The basics are no longer a priority; hence the dancer therefore graduates neither as an actor nor as a dancer. Who would want to hire a 20-year-old dancer with no technique or experience but possessing an interesting ‘personality’ is beyond me. My company mainly hires dancers over 30 as a rule with strong technique and human baggage. There are exceptions to this rule but they are exceptional human beings at a young age.

I continue to make work in the hope that its singularity will not diminish its market value under the present aesthetic and political conditions imposed by the gatekeepers.  Hence, I try my best to keep making work that interests me, listen to my instincts, not satisfy trends unless I like them, and compose dance with discipline and love for dance and the dancer. I can’t do more than that.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You teach youngsters, and are concerned about what is going on in today’s society, how would you describe this connection?

Isira: The young are the future and yet most countries put them in programmed boxes that limit their creative potential and thus their ability to CHOOSE their direction in life. This added to physical frustrations coming from lack of sports in education or moreover dance in education has (in my opinion) been a factor in the increase of delinquency and religious indoctrination of kids via fundamentalist groups and child crime organisations. In Sri Lanka we have all this nature yet the kids are educated to be big money-makers (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc) without any harmony or understanding of the blessing that our natural environment provides. The system teaches them, like in India to copy Western models, proven failures, for growth, position in society via clichéd careers, and acquisition of wealth without consideration for the poor. I’m slowly working towards a dance-based program to mobilise children to achieve this harmony via dance and the practice of ecological study and maintenance. Hopefully this will make better and more conscientious students and graduates in Sri Lanka.

LABILE

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: I remember the solo Labile that you created for Finnish ballet principal dancer Minna Tervamäki. The solo for Minna premiered at the Finnish National Opera’s Alminsali on 9 December 2005. It was based on Minna’s own experiences from surviving the Tsunami in Thailand’s Khao Lak, in December 2004. You really wanted to translate her experiences of this trauma and event into an intimate choreographic work. The work was reviewed well in Finland, and it was also performed in 2006 at Monaco Dance Forum. You met at the Kuopio International Dance Festival. This is the same festival, where you won the prize for choreography with your French company, VIVID.danse in 2003.

I remember this huge pink plastic bag of bubble wrap that was on stage and Minna just was inside of it, coming out in an astonishing way. It was almost as if an alien was being born, the audience was not sure what was going to happen. And, after that the movements were so different, such virtuosity, with mathematical exactitude. The image was of total vulnerability despite the technicity of the dancing.

 

Isira: The title of the piece was ‘Labile’. Here are the definitions of the word: In chemical and physical terms: labile (adjective) readily undergoing change or breakdown; and in human terms: liable to change; unbalanced or adaptable; ‘an emotionally labile person’-being or thrown out of equilibrium (or balance).

The bubble-wrapped package delivered onstage was a fragile object: the pre-packaged ballerina who then explodes into action despite the pain, fatigue or emotional challenger. Her bursting open from it was a sort of escape from the false sense of protection and perfect image that the Opera House often propagates. My collaboration with Minna was in order to question the falsehood of the Opera Ballet Company per se, where one cannot question or show feelings, as if nothing happens in one’s life.A slave to the dance, slave to the politics of a big house like National Opera Ballet and slave to the choreographic system (evoked recently as a caricature in ’Black Swan’). I was interested in Minna the ’pretty ballerina’ and all the expectations that surrounded her. Her technique was perfect and I simply wanted to challenge it through my movement style like any choreographer would when faced with such a perfect athletic and dancing specimen as she.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: And, on the soundtrack Minna was repeating ’I’m almost there, but not quite yet’. The struggle of ballet-dancer with her mathematical precision and ideal for perfection of movements and the perfect image of the body.

Isira: I noticed she was often saying ’eiku’ in the studio (among other things). In Finnish this means ’no’. It was as if someone was telling her that whatever she was doing was never good enough. I found it amusing and used it as a backdrop for highly technical variations. How would it affect her psychologically? How does the ’negative’ push a dancer to excel? And why the hell do we need such negative thinking in ballet to achieve results? This was what I wanted to question. I felt the title embodied the female dancer’s inner strength and adaptability to manifest other realities than her own at that time – which in Minna’s case was having survived the 2004 Tsunami and returning to work as if all was OK.

{Photos:Dancetheatremedia Limited}

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Jan-Peter Kaiku, a critic from Helsinki-based Hufvudstadsbladet wrote in 11/12/2005 about LABILE. The review speaks about how we received the work. What I find so intriguing is that he compares you to William Forsythe. This does not happen so often. Kaiku wrote:

The solo handled a theme of performance in an improvisational and jagged way. Phrases are repeated only to be quickly turned on their heads. The piece’s minimalism, changing dynamics and powerful pointe work are reminiscent of William Forsythe’s reforms in classical ballet. The plastic packaging, the choice of music and the text provide humorous perspectives to the portrait of a dancer considering her many self-images and the scene situation. These questions create movement and change.

Isira: Any comparison to Forsythe is a great complement though my movement style is very different. I think the critic was comparing the sense of risk and deconstruction of theoretical ideas that perhaps the great man also deals with.

COLLABORATIONS AND IDENTITY

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Then your collaboration with other designers, which is of course so close to my own approach. Media?

Isira: I’m interested in all forms of multi-media though the goal is to purify and often throw everything out. More recently I’ve been more interested on set and lighting design for dance. The key for me is in the music and lighting. Often media and sets can upstage the dance and one loses a sense of meaning. If someone applauds the set and says nothing about the piece or its message, I have failed. Both have to work in harmony and the choreography should still remain the principal object of desire. Often setdesigners forget this.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: I love Jennifer McConachie’s music; she is a female composer working on diverse forms. You have collaborated since 2003.

Isira:  Jennifer is a genius. What I like about Jennifer’s work isthat she can easily cross from digital composition to acoustic-classical. It’s rare these days. She is Scottish but lives in Norway. I always insist on ‘open Nordic skies and changing light’ in her music. It opposes the energy and detail of my choreography,leaving breathing space for the dancers to make the piece their own and colour the dance. Recently I also collaborated with François Caffenne for Locked in Vertical, made for Phoenix Dance Theatre (Leeds. UK). This was also the beginning of a new and fruitful relationship between choreographer and composer.  Both know each other. My team is close.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Harrys Picot is your lighting designer. Tell me more how you work together?

Isira: Harrys is also a long-time collaborator. His ability to get under the skin of any choreographer and tailor the lights, transitions and effects to their needs is a unique skill. When we met, he was chief lighting designer of the CNDC d’Angers in the 90’s and 2000’s, he adapted to many guest choreographers. I was astonished with his flexibility. After No Place Like Home for the Geneva Ballet in 2008, he was kept on by the Ballet to continue to make the lights for some future works, all due to his talent and flexibility.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are Sri Lankan, and lived in Europe most of your life, in London, and also few years in Paris, recently moved back to London? Are you a World-citizen or something else? How would you describeyour identity?

Isira: Interesting question and one that I ask myself almost daily. I guess you can call me a world citizen. But moreover I am a world dance citizen. Dance made me learn languages and engage in differentcommunities. Through dance I met my wife. If I had stopped dancing at any time my life would have been very, very different. I was born in Sri Lanka and each day a part of me yearns for the sounds and smells of my country. The smiles of the people are what I miss the most. Europe and the UK occupy a large part of me.  Europe is so diverse and yet so small. It’s a maze and still has the imprint of the World War II and Communism. I’m not astonished all these events happened; I see the need for nations to have borders and identities. Everything in European history has been moving toward union (or occupation in other words) but it always seems to fail. Let’s see what happens next!

(Isira Makuloluwe’s website: Dance Theatre Media)

(Isira Makuloluwe talks about his choreography Locked in Vertical)

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