Training artists for innovation: Competencies for New Contexts

photo: Wilma Hurskainen: “He Doesn’t Like Water”, 2012

The book Training artist for innovation: Competencies for new Contexts was published in 2013, (the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts in Helsinki in Finland). It discusses the topic of artists who are trained for creating innovation in various contexts outside their own artistic practice. The book is  based on a  project, which  gathers together different agents in European countries, who are leading artistic innovation. Kai Lehikoinen and Joost Heinsius are the editors of the book.

The book-project brought together artists, companies, organizations, universities and cities, which have experienced artists working with them.  The idea for the publication came from the challenge that both society and businesses need new solutions and interventions, as they face changes.  Professional artists with artistic interventions can respond to challenges of today, bringing in new questions and ways of thinking. Artists “offer contradiction, as well as confrontation and friction, and they provoke new ideas.”  

Training Artists for Innovation: Competencies for New Contexts argues that artists who take the challenge for artistic interventions need specific training to establish their artistic know-how for new contexts. Artistic competencies can be trained, so to speak. Innovation can occur where artists, with their own practice and methods, contribute to the arts sectors and organizations, to the business world and sectors, where societal policies are made. The book responses to a framework of European context, but the idea can be shifted to other parts of the world.

A very basic question; are artists not innovative by nature, opens up a dialogue between artists and new contexts.  According to editors Heinsius and Lehikoinen, “A gap has risen between the arts and society that needs to be bridged and closed” .

Art can intervene not only on the walls of office spaces, but it can come to peoples’ working life as well.  This statement is inspired by models learned from community art, and by the experience coming from social and health sectors, where art has always been respected as part of human life.  The new innovation comes in the intersection, where businesses and organizations want to raise their creativity,  and understand their creator capacity in conjunction to human-based factors. As the book shows, the arts can add value, for example, by  bringing in emotional and aesthetic dimensions. Artistic interventions can boost creativity and raise energy, bring in new ways of listening, managing, and interacting with others. The book emphasizes that the term artistic intervention is understood as “interdisciplinary professional practice that takes places in business settings and involve professional art-making and creative arts practices”.

What are, then, the issues that interventions can tackle? Topics and issues of course vary, and depend on each context. Artistic interventions can be connected to strategy and concept development, to work processes, to team-building and social interactions, and to public relations, for instance. In the level of cultural policy, the arts have a key role, together with other creative sectors, to add into the diversity of society. In a larger societal (European) policy level, the following seems very relevant and welcomed, when thinking of the creative economy:

“At the national level, the starting points differ from country to country.  In some countries, it is the perceived gap between the arts sector and the rest of society that needs to be acknowledged – that is, the need for the arts to appear as relevant to other sectors in society. In other countries, innovation development welcomes the arts as the perception of shifting from technological innovations to social innovations and creativity.”

Training Artists for Innovation: Competencies for New Contexts  is a book that asks a relevant question of,  how to do it with the arts. It gives several examples of the relevant competencies that artists can embody for their interventions. Gerda Hempel and Lisbeth Rysgaard,  from Danish Artlab, write in their chapter Competencies – in real life, about their own model of working with artists and businesses.  What they suggest is that artists need to manage a variety of specific tasks that relate to understanding the culture of the organization: such as developing and describing the concept, knowing how to sell and negotiate, and,“how to engage and conduct the process, how to extract learning and evaluate, and how to support the implementation within the organization.”

Their chapter reveals that when artists share a common denominator, the artistic base, methods and tools vary in different art forms. For example, a violinist in the opera house has a different approach than an avant-garde performer who works in an experimental performance space.

Artlab founders and consultants Gerda Hempel and Lisbeth Rysgaard bring in the artist perspective of working with businesses. They open their Artlab Entrepreneurial Model (that is based on their 12-year experience in the field) and reflect this in relation to real artists, who they interviewed. This shows how artistic interventions function from the artists point of view. The model itself is like a metaphoric artistic house, which includes 4 interactive work spaces and a storage. Its aim has been to help professional artist who want to go entrepreneurial and find new job opportunities, or look for new management skills for their career. The house allegory with 4 spaces  includes: The Shop/Back office, The Workshop/Development, The Scene/Artistic intervention, The Shop/Front office, and Storage/place for new ideas. Artlab’s  model functions as a visual guideline to see  parallel tracks. It offers artists a tool to plan and prioritize their work.

Training Artists for Innovation: Competencies for New Contexts has a message for everybody working in creative industries. It offers chapters with real examples, and discusses  how real artists have solved their tasks, approached different organizations and worked with businesses. The book is a guideline to discussing competencies that artists need in order to work with various sectors.  It clearly opens a discussion, which goes to two directions. 1. Artists need more than ‘just’ their own artistic skills and competencies to go outside their craft. 2. Yet, artist have special skills and innovative qualities that (only) come from their artistic work and expertise.  To bring these two to meet; some common ways can be created.

In summary, artists need special qualities to work with organizations and companies; this includes knowledge of those cultures. They should have pedagogic competencies to set up methods and approaches for intervention. Artists also benefit from research competencies to find information, and to critically view the information and other collected material. What artists also should learn about, are skills in project management and marketing. 

(The book Training Artists for Innovation: Competencies for New Contexts is licensed under Creative Commons as BY/NC/ND, and it can be downloaded from the page/click the book’s link)

"Elephant Love" Pop-up Shop: Crowdsourcing for art and charity

By Patricia Chow
Last weekend I had my first photography show in Chelsea (New York City), as part of the High Line Open Studios.  Since my day job is in statistical research, this was my first experience putting together an art show – and it was fabulous!  The show was a great way for me to combine three completely separate facets of my life: the artistic side (I am a photographer and graphic artist); the volunteer side (I teach ESL 3 days a week); and my personal and professional networks, which were instrumental in ensuring the success of the show.
 
 
I first started to photograph when I was living in Spain in 1995, and much of my photography focuses on the different perceptions that a newcomer has of ordinary surroundings. Since beauty can only exist in the eye of the beholder, I have tried to convey the essence of what I find beautiful in a place, rather than what is commonly considered beautiful, which, in many cases, is simply familiar.  There are a few images below – you can view more of my work on my photo blog.  Selected images are available for purchase as prints on Society6 and facebook.
 
 
 
In addition to photography, I also create whimsical, stylized elephant designs.  “Elephant Love” is the brand name for these designs, which are also sold on Society6 and facebook.  They are inspired by artists and design companies such as Marimekko, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Walasse Ting, as well as by traditional folk arts such as Russian matryoshka (nesting) dolls and the molas that are embroidered by the Kuna Indians in Panama.  A variety of home decor and novelty items are available with these designs, such as posters/prints, blank stationery cards, throw pillows, iPhone covers, tote bags and clothing (t-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, etc.).  The bright colors are great for decorating your apartment or nursery/kid’s room.

Because my work is primarily digital, I appealed to my friends and family for donations to cover the cost of producing physical items for my show. This was my first attempt at crowdsourcing and I was very impressed by how supportive everyone was.   
In order to encourage people to support my show, I promised to donate the profits from the sale of artwork and merchandise to a good cause: the Institute for Immigrant Concerns, where I am a board member.  The Institute is a New York City non-profit that provides free English classes and basic social services to low income immigrants, refugees and asylees.  The amazing stories of our alumni have been featured in the New York Times and other newspapers.  I was a volunteer English teacher with them for two years before becoming a board member, and 
 
I continue to volunteer with them about 12 hours a week.  The combination of the artistic cause and the social cause was a great way to reach a wider audience.

We are planning one more open studio day in a few weeks (possibly Thursday, November 7), so stop by if you happen to be in the area!  Details about the event to follow soon…  In the meantime, check out my website, blog and facebook page!  Thank you for your support!
 
Patricia Chow  

Photographer, Block-by-Block Photography
Graphic Artist, Elephant Love
(Read Patricia’s Firstindigo&Lifestyle interview from April 2013 here)
 

Oblivia performance group and the Museum of Postmodern Art

Founded in 2000 in Helsinki, the international performance company Oblivia is truly a unique phenomena in the Finnish performance scene. The group transforms larger than life themes into minimalist performances. Oblivia’s group fuses different genres and nationalities. The members are from Finland and the UK have experiences in music, dance and theory, which allows them to play between suspended tension and sense of humor. Since its beginning, the group has attempted to create a common language in the performance. In June 2013, Oblivia will perform its recent work ‘Museum of Postmodern Art’ in the NEW Performance Turku Festival in Turku Finland. The performance is co-produced by at PACT Zollverein and Espoo City Theatre. The premier took place at PACT Zollverein, Essen in November 2012 and the Finnish premier was at Espoo City Theatre in November 2012. The performance is the first in a series of five and part of the five-year project Museum of Postmodern Art – MOPMA. Annika Tudeer, the founding member of Oblivia tells about the history of the group and about her own background in dance.

AT: In the late eighties I trained dance, contact improvisation and what was called new dance then. I then worked as a dancer and choreographer until I started at the Helsinki University in 1994 where I studied literature as a main subject, philosophy, theater studies and gender studies. I belong to the rather self-taught generation that mainly acquired knowledge and experience through training and working. I also did amdram and studenthteatre that was quite important as well. Oblivia was founded in 2000 in Helsinki during the European Cultural Capital year. I had this grand idea of creating a network and collective of artists doing site-specific work. However I had not realized that a collective does not have a leader who decides most things (that was me, of course) and is in charge, but that kind of leadership is better suited in a smaller group. We did 4 site specific pieces during that year that were very popular and had therefore a great start, and in the autumn Anna Krzystek from UK joined us and the smaller Oblivia that is still exists was formed.

I basically wanted to create an alternative working environment to most of what I had experienced in the dance and theater field in Finland, experiment how to work together and have fun and create high quality work, merging theory and art in an organic way, not paying too much attention to theory but rely on the fact that it is there. I was also very interested in structures, all kind of structures: working environmental structures, political structures, artistic structures, architectonical structures, and that was always part for the work somehow. I still organize the practical stuff together with our producer, but the artistic work is purely collective.

 How has the concept developed during the years?

AT: After doing site-specific work for a few years we decided to move into the black box using light and sound and start to explore the black box. It is the most challenging place and also the place for most concentration and innovation in performing arts we think. We are super organized, working away from 10-17 Monday to Friday over 4 months that are divided over the year. The work has evolved a lot, we work over several months with a piece, with pauses in-between where we tour or do other things (me mainly admin and networking). I also think that we have become much more many faceted in the work and how we perform and at the moment we are very much concerned with ideas of collaboration. Which means a lot of discussions and trials and errors. The work becomes richer and bolder all the time. It is minimalistic and maximalist at the same time. We work with an empty stage and fill it with ideas and images that are created in the heads of the audience.

How international are you as a group in terms of performances, touring, attending festivals?

AT: Anna Krzystek lives in Glasgow, so she commutes to Helsinki for rehearsals, we are occasionally on residencies in Europe, and our current project Museum of Postmodern Art that contains 5 performances over 5 years (2012-2016) has first an international premier and then a national premier. We tour as much as we possible internationally and although the growth could be swifter, we are touring quite nicely.

How do you generate and create the concepts, what are the terms of collaboration?

AT: Well, we decide on a theme, and since we like long term planning so the previous project Entertainment Island became a trilogy that was finished in 2010 and has toured since and now we have MOPMA (Museum of Postmodern Art) going. We decide on the big theme that is now art for five years and previously was entertainment. Then we decide on what kind of take we take for each new performance a little before we start to work on it. Then we start to improvise, devise material and do free association and a lot of talking and some field trips. Now we are working on the idea of bad art, and what that means to us and what it foes to us. We talked a lot at the beginning, had a workshop and at the moment we are in the second working phase where we go deeper in the material and slowly start to make sense of it and structure it. Basically we are the three of us (Anna, myself and Timo Fredriksson) working away, popping in and out of impros. But we have worked for 13 years together now so we have a secure sense of being in the studio without outside eyes. We have also started to involve our light and sound designers much more that is wonderful, so they share the process, the talking, and the figuring out a lot from the beginning. They also watch rehearsals and comment.


What is your opinion of the performance field currently, how do art and performance co-exist?

AT: I have a feeling that the field is growing rapidly, and that the boundaries are blurred totally. We have all diverse trainings: Anna studied at the Cunningham studio in New York for several years, you saw my background and Timo is a classical pianist. This kind of heterogenic diversity is perhaps not that common, but nevertheless companies and projects are vibrant and mixed. It is interesting and exciting times we are living in re: performances. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the quantity of performances, and work and activities and sometimes I miss a feeling of a clear trend and some leading stars and high quality work is not all too common skilled yes, but work that moves me is not that common at the moment. But in general I think that there is a very exciting scene going on at the moment.


Your most important influences?

AT: The old companies like Needcompany, Forced Entertainment, Pina Bausch, John Cage, – the usual suspects…

 Where do you see your project going, how do you balance the work and life, how about the ‘other interventions’?

AT: We are starting to reach out and are discussing several collaborations with other companies, which is a totally new situation. We intend to tour more and more for each year, and also to communicate more with other artists in various ways. Sometimes we feel a little isolated here, so we are working on breaking out from that isolation and become more part of the world, so to say. For me work and life are intertwined since my husband is Timo who is part of the Oblivia core and we have to deal with how to take care of our 9-year-old daughter as well. I have also been very active in founding the Performance center, ESKUS in Helsinki for working: with three studios, and a shared office for companies and individuals in the performance scene and independent scene in Helsinki. We have residencies, rent out spaces and work on different levels to be a supportive structure without being a venue or a production house.

 Oblivia will premier MOPMA 2 (that is the working title, the real title will emerge soon) in mid September in Trondheim, Norway at the Bastard festival. Until then the company will tour MOPMA 1 in Finland and Entertainment Island in Poland

MOPMA_v2_06
(Annika Tudeer and Timo Fredriksson. capture: Eija Mäkivuoti)

Oblivia’s website and Facebook page...

Minna Tervamäki and a new contemporary ballet

Minna Tervamäki, a former principal dancer from the Finnish National Ballet, is heading to a full-fledged freelance career as a choreographer and producer. This dancer étoile discusses about her current work as a multiple entrepreneur in the field of contemporary ballet. Her new premiere together with Compañía Kaari Martin and Kare Länsivuori opens at the Savoy Theatre in Helsinki on October 17, 2012.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The idea for interviewing you goes back to 2005, when you were rehearsing for your choreographic premiere “Something Else?”. This work was designed for three women dancers yourself including. You received very positive response when you hosted and produced your own evening presenting different choreographers. Would you describe how that influenced your later decisions to pursue your own productions?

Minna: That was a turning moment. I had been sketching to my desk drawer (metaphorically) for years, but I lacked the courage, which was needed to do it. All of a sudden, I just decided to take a full dance evening into production by myself, literally producing it too. Now, after I have more experience I’m only wondering how could I do it then, where did I get the courage after all to take care of the big production without previous experience. Then again, that is what usually happens, we grow together with our task, with the projects. And I had an amazing group of people to work with me who were so helpful. I had also decided that I wanted to express my artistic view to include the lobby of the Opera House. The Alminsali stage cafe and lobby were designed with certain colors and with candles. During intermission there was a saxophone player tuning, and on the walls we had an exhibition of the photography that displayed the performance works. The entire evening was carefully thought through. What I had in mind was to include women dancers and artists, who were strong and charismatic.

I feel that everything I have done; doing choreography, directing and so forth, has so greatly influenced my own dancing, it has been a positive experience. It has helped me to get oriented to other kinds of processes in my life. Right now, I look at the new productions as a whole, not just from my own perspective. Every work has given me ingredients for my own choreography and direction.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: At the moment you are preparing for a new premiere, which opens in Helsinki on October 17. What are you staging for the evening?

Minna: This evening will be my second collaboration with the Finnish flamenco company Compañía Kaari Martin. It is an evening by Tervamäki-Martin. Kaari will be dancing her amazing contemporary flamenco solo “Korppi ja kello” (“The Raven”). I will include first, my solo “SE2”, which is based on the idea that was born in 2005. “SE2” means “Something Else 2”, so the idea has developed further from the piece that I originally created.  What remains the same each time as a main theme of my solo, is that I use my huge and massive skirt structure as part of the dance. The skirt is a design made of an iron and crinoline, and it influences the movement, and how my body appears on the stage.

Janne Mikkilä
{Kaari Martin, Minna Tervamäki and Kare Länsivuori in their new premiere. Photo: Janne Mikkilä}

The main program of our evening is my new duet that I composed for myself and ballet dancer Kare Länsivuori. The duet is called “Koti/Home”. Our three works will premiere together at the Savoy theatre in Helsinki on October 17, 2012. In March 2013, I will premiere a new work called “Yksiö/Studio”, which is a continuation of the theme introduced in “Koti/Home”. It will be performed at the Aleksander Theatre in Helsinki.

The themes in my current projects Koti/Home and Yksiö/Studio are about building structures of our lives.  The works question how can we do this together and alone?  How do we define ourselves in our relationships, and are we alone? What is the role of the community in all of this? The everyday life skips over the sometimes rough and edgy parts.  These issues are also hidden behind the facades. In my mind, our society is too individualistic, and it leaves us alone too often with our struggles and questions.

My colleague Kare Länsivuori and I both want to create works that are touching the lives of our own generation and our age groups. We want to invite new, younger adult audiences to view the contemporary ballet, which has timely and challenging topics, and great storytelling. Then we use diverse venues for these performances.

Koti/Home is investigating an important topic of what it means to be in a relationship, and what constructs the every-day life in it. The duet between Minna Tervamäki and Kare Länsivuori builds up characters, who are mimicking the contemporary life. It also questions how to keep up the facade that we have to built to protect our private lives.  Like each of us today, professionals that have high public pressure lives need to built facades to protect their private life.  When changes happen, what is evident is that one survives when life is not structured around the success only.

“Yksiö/Studio” will handle a theme of modern loneliness, and the division between the private and the public. The work investigates the life in the city, where the neighbors are physically near each other, and yet people are often total strangers to each other. There is an unwritten law that people do not interfere in each others’ lives, and will stay more or less distant. The set-design in the choreography will include two apartments, and the stage will be divided into two spatial areas. There will be a wall between these areas: audience sees this contrast between the two dwellers, two dancers, each in their own apartment. However, the dancers don’t see each other.  Also the dancers will be improvising some of the material, which is adding an comical element for the work.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: I am so thrilled by your collaboration with the Compañía Kaari Martin. Tell me about this collaboration, how do ballet and your dancing meet flamenco and its movements? It sounds truly innovative, and I believe it is not really performed much in the world?

Minna: Yes, Kaari is a representative of a contemporary flamenco. And I am thinking about the contemporary ballet from the similar point of view.  I think that our techniques are based on our traditions very strongly, and we have found our own styles and interpretations inside of these traditions. Personally, I have worked with so many choreographers that their methods have obviously influenced my own movement interpretation. When I started to collaborate with Kaari Martin, I immediately noticed her amazing movement vocabulary that she created with her hands, how she was expressing with her hands. At times, it looked as if she was having the ‘swan hands’; she has a ballet training background, and she is using it. In Spain, for instance, the most well-known flamenco-dancers have a strong ballet training.  When I work together with Kaari, I am probably most impressed by her musicality, the exactness that comes with the musical rhythm, and how she lives in the musical moment. She is definitely as much a musician as she is a dancer.  I wanted to bring this same concept to the ballet world, because we too often focus on the technicality of the dancing. In the end, I believe, that all the dance genres are intermingling and creating fusions in the course of the time, as dancers deploy similar methods and the ways to move.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Since you come from being a well-known principal dancer in a major opera house, the Finnish National Ballet Company, you have a prominent career behind you. Yet, you are facing changes right now, as you are pursuing a free lancer career. I am convinced that the changes you are going through have been coming to you gradually. Where do you see yourself today, and what are the current questions that you have today in your career?

Minna: IT IS EXACTLY HOW YOU SAY IT, THE CHANGE HAS BEEN GRADUAL. IN FACT I AM PROUD OF IT, AS I FEEL I HAVE MYSELF CHOREOGRAPHED THE CHANGE. I STARTED TO CREATE DIFFERENT PRODUCTIONS QUITE EARLY, OR JUST IN TIME. THE EXPERIENCES WITH THE PROJECTS OUTSIDE THE OPERA HOUSE HAVE BEEN SO VALUABLE AND IMPORTANT. ALSO I HAVE COLLABORATED CLOSELY WITH OTHER CHOREOGRAPHERS WITH DIVERSE BACKGROUNDS, WHICH IMMENSELY HELPED ME TO GAIN COURAGE TO WORK WITH MY OWN PROJECTS.

In addition, I started my own firm in 2005, which includes creating dance productions, and lecturing for the business venues, companies and non-profit organizations. I tailor dance performances to these as well, and of course, teach dance courses and workshops. I decided to get training in some relaxation techniques, because I believe that the techniques that work with images and mind are a comprehensive way to take our inner and mental resources into full utilization. Almost by accident, there was suddenly a class called “Minna Tervamäki methods”, which gradually works with our body-placement, making our bodies stronger and more sustainable.

I have tried to be so open as a person that I have basically mixed everything that I have learned during my career. This includes Pilates, ingredients from different yoga traditions, from diverse dance styles,  gyrokinesis and Susan Klein technique. I have learned methods from many physiotherapists, since I have had injuries during my long career. My knowledge includes how to recover from those.  I gained a lot from my training in New York in the past years.

As we all know, the biggest question in our freelancer field is the money. I have so many ideas and creativity, but as everybody in the industry knows, nothing can really happen without thinking seriously how to fund the project. I think that it is more and more the challenge of today; when there are more freelancers and enterpreneurs out there, the money gets tighter too.  What I also reflect sometimes in my mind, is the audience: where does the audience come from? Even when there are so many amazing projects out there, the local audiences here in the greater Helsinki area are still quite limited. We are not a world metropolis like New York.

Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What are your plans and dreams for the future?

Minna: I feel that I am living a wonderful time in my life. My body is still in top condition, and I can enjoy dancing. At the same time, I am finally in the phase of my life, when I have a freedom to choose my own working rhythm, meaning when to work, and who should I collaborate with. I can basically structure my own calendar, after 28 years in a big ballet institution, this is absolutely a welcomed change.  At this moment, I am exited to have my first speaking role as well, I will be the narrator in Kenneth Greve’s new ballet “The Snow Queen”.

Esa Kyyrö
{Minna Tervamäki  as Dying Swan, The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: Esa Kyyrö}

Artist webpages:

Minna Tervamäki: (www.minnatervamaki.com/)

Compañía Kaari Martin: (www.companiakaarimartin.fi)

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)