Jefta van Dinther, Swedish-German choreographer and dancer, has been making dances with and for contemporary luminaries (Mette Ingvartsen, Frédéric Gies, Kristine Slettevold, Keren Levi, Ivana Muller, LeineRoebana, and Xavier le Roy) for the past decade. Central to his work “is the question of what it means to be human,” and his choreography draws on themes of time, memory, alliance, and isolation. He is one of three choreographers to have been appointed to make dances exclusively for Cullberg, alongside Deborah Hay and Alma Söderberg, for the next two years. Veronica Posth met with Van Dinther in Graefekiez, Berlin, to discuss his award-winning “Plateau Effect,” which premiered in September with Staatsballett Berlin, and his approach to choreography.
VP: When did you start your career as choreographer?
JVD: My first performance “It’s in the Air” was made in 2008 and it was a collaboration with Mette Ingvartsen. I had worked for a long time with and for her before we made this work together. During that time I also created “The Way Things GP” and that was the first time I actually signed something as author. The process of becoming a choreographer was a smooth development because I had for a while been working in collaborative work situations. Also in that case, as dancer, I would collaborate as part of the artistic team. It was working as a freelancer and being part of the creative processes that triggered me to make works as choreographer. More precisely, it came out of an interest based on the will to do things that I couldn’t do within the projects I was part of. There was a desire to try things, wanting to investigate aspects that as a dancer I couldn’t do. This is how I started.
There was a desire to try things, wanting to investigate aspects that as a dancer I couldn’t do. This is how I started.
VP: There is a large amount of improvisation in your pieces. Has it been always been so or did it start after some time?
JVD: The first two to three performances were very set and only later I started working on the idea of practice. Practice was a word that was often used in a certain period of time and that I also picked up because I thought of it as a very interesting and directive, but also an open way of working. I consider practice and improvisation as two very different approaches. Regarding “Plateau Effect” with the Staatsballett Berlin, I was asked how much of this is set and how much is improvised and the answer is that it is in the middle.
I consider practice and improvisation as two very different approaches. Regarding “Plateau Effect” with the Staatsballett Berlin, I was asked how much of this is set and how much is improvised and the answer is that it is in the middle.
Improvisation is a too wide a word for what we do because we work very deeply on figuring out movement qualities, movement practices, spatial definition, relation to time, that at the end we could knock down the piece because there is a score and it defines which parameters you are busy with and when. When a new parameter enters, and how it is negotiated with another parameter, was there before. When do you drop a new parameter, how is it defined in space? How do we deal with the gaze in certain parts? How do we deal with the relations between the performers? How do we deal with the relation to the audience?
In one part of the performance, we relate through taking on the role of osteopaths. We engage in working on one body as a group of osteopaths and that image makes everyone collaborate in certain ways, attentively listening to the tissues of the body, the muscles, the joints and so on. So I use sometimes even narratives, stories or images as parameters that define the choreography and which makes specific what is presently in that moment. Most sections have also a defined anatomical structure that we apply and embody: in one part we are working with the muscular system of the body, in another part we are working on the organs. Moreover, I postulate questions like: where to put your attention in your body? Which anatomical, structures parts manifest?
VP: What is your methodology? From what you have been telling me it seems that there are similarities to Deborah Hay’s practice.
JVD: There are clear parallels. She also uses the word practice. She uses very clear phrases that mentally as a dancer you have to engage with. I have never worked with her before “Ten” within Tanz im August this year, when I performed as one of the dancers. We share certain method of work; I think in very different ways. I try to install a kind of trip for the dancers. What I usually do is to overload the dancers with too much to do so that the surplus effect of this is that they get un-censored and they can go in a sort of journey. That journey can be a physical one, an internal one, a psychological one, it can be an imaginary one and I guess most of the times is a combination of all those. But beside the experiential process and sensational one, even the emotion is actually what leaks out of it, and this is what is visible to the audience. In a way I am bombarding the performers so they are not really in control of what they express.
VP: So they work with their subconscious, digging in unknown territories, to then deal with the informations they find?
JVD: Yes. Sometimes it’s about anatomy, some others it is related to specific informations about time for example. On one hand it can be very technical information, on the other I am trying to open up and tap into spaces inside the people on stage that are also unknown, undefinable to them.
VP: So you work as a sort of demiurge. You have this information and you make them work in certain ways leaving them the possibility to express themselves and pull out something from their insights, but at the same time you give directions and structure to the actual practice.
They have to feel safe and they do, at least at some point. Of course during the process it is not easy because being in this unknown territory is challenging and can be very private. But at some point, we reach a place where we can agree somehow. We agree on what we are looking for and in some way we can recognize what belongs and what doesn’t. In a way we thereby create our own sense of virtuosity. They learn to direct and master it and at the same time is a changing process.
We agree on what we are looking for and in some way we can recognize what belongs and what doesn’t. In a way we thereby create our own sense of virtuosity.
VP: Will be every time different then?
JVD: Yes, but the spectators will see always the same structure. There are things that repeat themselves because they are part of the skeleton of the performance. Such as the tent that at some point will become, as we call it, the sculpture. There is a score but each movement in the body is not set at all. But what they work their way through is predetermined.
VP: Do you give any tasks to the dancers?
JVD: We create a pool of images that we share. For example I bring a video of an artist and we look at this video together. Then we do a session of the piece with this information in the back of our heads. Some things are very clear, some are very open, others very subjective, some very common, others very definable. It is a big mix. It is about surfing between many layers and learning how to understand the navigation better. How to have ten different things to focus on in a section of the piece and it’s the surfing between them that puts one into the foreground or background and that allows this surfing to be broadcasted. It’s really letting this become visible to the audience and not only felt by the practitioner.
VP: How would you describe the core of “Plateau Effect?”
JVD: The performance is about the dancer’s interaction with the environment, but also how this environment interacts with and affects them. It is about this game. How is and what is outside of us as a kind of consequence of something inner. But also how does this environment rule us, how it governs us. The performance relates to the question of how humans interact with the environment—on some sense its about climate change. What are the relations? Can there be an equal balance, or is it a ruling, governing one. Can the environment be something that governs us, that dictates us, can it be something we are trapped in? Something we control or something are we controlled by?
VP: What does the textile represents for you?
JVD: Just to express it in a word I would say it represents the environment going through many nuances, but I think of it as an extension, like a technological extension, such as an iPhone that has become part of our bodies. I also think of that fabric as a fibre that actually connects people. This is a material you work on and with, something we use to do things. Something we sail with, something we build houses with. If you think more narratively, this textile becomes even a ritual. As it raises up, in what we call the totem, it transforms into something that looks ceremonial.
VP: What was the driving force behind the creation of “Plateau Effect?”
JVD: There are different reasons. This is the first group piece I made. I had made a solo, duet and trio before “Plateau Effect” and then I was asked by a prestigious company, Cullberg, with a big budget, a big group and their own house, to make something. So on one side there was already something very specific about the conditions. Since they asked me to do something for a big stage, I was busy thinking how could I keep working the way I do, with integrity, although transferred to a big stage with many dancers. For me that was not a compromise, rather an interest. Some urgent questions came up such as: how can I expand the gestures so that communication can still be there? And how can I still keep the idea of experimentation on stage? This is crucial to how I work: the risk, the fact that is happening for real, is essential.
And how can I still keep the idea of experimentation on stage? This is crucial to how I work: the risk, the fact that is happening for real, is essential.
On the content level there is this anecdote which was a starting point for the work: I was on a cruise boat from Stockholm to Finland and I was on the deck. The ship would take eight hours and the people, at first seated in one position, started spreading out slowly and casually to inhabit the space within the duration of the travel. That process and scene was really interesting and made me think how people inhabit areas, how they take on space with their bodies, and how this changes over time. Moreover I wanted to work on the ideas of constructions, buildings, travels, nomadism, communication, really basic societal foundations.
VP: Talking about space, watching the piece I wondered how it would have felt were it staged in an industrial building.
JVD: For me this was very interesting because at the Komische Oper we have a romantic space. It has quite a small stage, the proscenium opening is ten meters wide and the romantic, decorative, red lush seats and the stucco decorate the space. On the other side you have this raw, contemporary, bright and dark set design. Basically it is contemporaneity meeting the classic. While we were working I felt it was like an invasion. We made the choice of going into the orchestra space, very close to the audience, screaming, break the boundaries of stage vs. audience, taking over the space and literally extending the fabric into the audience. So this was a really nice way to solve the problem of that particular theatre, and it was also a really beautiful answer to that space and a manifestation of the experimentation that Staatsballett is doing. I liked that strong contrast, it brought something out of the piece in a more forceful way.
VP: Kinship, alliance, isolation, estrangement, memory, and time are recurrent themes in your works. Can you tell me more about them? Why these themes are so important to you?
JVD: If I would say something very globally, I could say that I am interested in what defines us as humans. This is looked at in different pieces in different ways. Either by saying what is individual in relation to collective. “Plateau Effect” is really about what people can achieve together in a very concrete sense. It’s about something we produce and that we couldn’t do alone, simply because it needs more people to do this. So what it means to be humans as part of a society, as individuals in relation to collective, what is collaboration, what is tribe, how do we congregate. Some others pieces I made are much more about rituals or about the immaterial things that shape us.
I am also interested in finding what brings people together in a sort of ceremonial sense, in how we engage with each other, and the sense we create in order to be spiritually fulfilled. I have also been investigating the question of what defines us as humans in relation to non-human entities, in relation to animals, or in relation to technology. And the question about memory has also been really present. Memory as a substance that defines us as humans. The moment we lose memory, for example with Alzheimer’s disease, we say we lose ourselves. Artificial Intelligence also supposedly has no self.
VP: What are the substantial differences between working with Cullberg and Staatsballett Berlin?
JVD: Less than I thought. They are incredible and amazing individuals. What was really special is that they met through this piece. This project was the first work they did together and it is about consensus and dissensus. They got to know each other through this piece so for them was super powerful, and I think that power is visible on stage.
VP: Can you tell us what comes next in your agenda? What will be your next project?
JVD: I have an exclusive commitment for the next three years with Cullberg. They have asked three choreographers to be associate choreographers. Deborah Hay, Alma Söderberg and myself. They asked us each to create two pieces, so for the next two years I am with them. The next piece is a solo for one of the dancers of Cullberg that will premiere in Berlin in November 2020, and then I have a group work with the company after that. I like the idea of having continuity and commitment as choreographer for the next two years, but also teaching for them, becoming more and more involved. Long term I would like to be more settled in Berlin. I have been living here for ten years and I have never had more then ten days work in the city. So my aspiration would be to find ways to work here, setting something up in Berlin.