BERLIN, GERMANY - When Selfportrait 24 premiered at Dock 11 in Berlin, both shows were sold out and packed. Twenty-four dancers are sitting in chairs on either side of a white square on the stage: the audience settles, and the piece begins. One by one they take turns presenting themselves with solos—some detailed, others physically impressive, and many inducing uncontrollable laughter. The element of improvisation is tangible and exciting, and the audience is curious to read the text scrolling at the bottom of the stage that announces the name, birth date, and country of origin for each dancer: South Korea, Germany, Columbia, Italy, England, Turkey, Canada, Brazil, China, Norway, Spain, USA, Japan, Cuba, Puerto Rico… they are eager for the chance to observe and meet 24 dancers.
Marcela Giesche (as seen in photo 1) joins thalo for an exclusive interview and describes the creative process behind Selfportrait 24 (photos 2 and 3).
thalo: It’s quite special to bring together so many professional dancers on stage from over 15 countries in the world. How did you get the idea for making a piece with 24 dancers?
Marcela Giesche: The inspiration for the piece came from an audition. In auditions you often have to present yourselves one by one towards the end. In that particular audition, the choreographer asked for 2 minute improvised solos, using only 4 movements or elements. You could do those 4 movements in different variations, timings, etc. We did the 4 movements, one by one, and I just remember being really fascinated by seeing each person so intimately—someone who had dedicated nearly their whole life to study movement.
In the piece that I created from this idea, the whole evening is in silence to highlight the power and musicality of bare movement as human expression. The cold setting is supposed to give the feeling of an interview, waiting room, audition, visa application—any application process where you have to present yourself.
th: One of the reasons you created this piece originally is because one of your collaborators from Russia couldn’t obtain a visa to appear in a performance. Performing artists have a lot of trouble with visas and work permits—how does that affect your work?
MG: Some of my most inspiring collaborators have been from countries that have challenging international relations with Europe. Because dancers are often freelance workers, it can be next to impossible to get a visa—they just don’t have the right status in the system. Even the most talented and internationally respected artists are often denied visas. This is a huge barrier to sharing work. Dancers are movers by nature: they break down language and cultural borders because their medium is a universal language.
th: The dance scene in Berlin is very fluid and international—there seems to be a lot of artistic exchange in Berlin at the moment. Who are the 24 dancers and how did you find them?
MG: Berlin is an amazing space for a lot of arts because there is a really great energy here right now. It’s similar—some people say—to the 70s in NY, because rent is cheap and there’s a lot of creativity.
The special thing is that the dancers are from all over the world, and they are all living in Berlin. They come from very different places and range in age from 20-50. I met them through teaching classes, performances, work, and their backgrounds are very different.
th: What was the rehearsal process like?
MG: For the creation of the piece, we did only group work. We had one rehearsal. We played games and ended up with a really strong bond. The group supports the individuals and sets up the atmosphere to take of the dynamics and transitions between solos.
th: Did the dancers find it challenging to create 2 minute solos using only 4 elements?
MG: What’s interesting about only doing 4 movements is that it allows you to let go of more than half of the choices you have to make for an improvisation. When people use repetition it immediately allows you to go deeper into the person. You get into how their mind works, their musicality, how their perceptions and self-perception works—because they are so exposed. It’s like a single interview but they only have limited words. They only have 4 words, so how you say those words becomes even more important than the words themselves. Each night the order of the solos is improvised. It’s a score—it is a new piece every night.
th: In some ways, the work embraces some traditional choreographic elements that were rejected for the past few decades, like facing the audience frontally. Is modern dance beginning to return to some traditional elements?
MG: Once you’ve rejected something and go another way and come back again you have so much more understanding of what that thing actually was in the first place. That thing becomes deeper and you are able to present it in a way that is maybe just subtly different from how you were presenting it before. You maybe can’t even talk about how it has changed.
You feel certain experiences—an atmosphere of knowing is there—you absorb something from the space. The audience—even the person who has never seen dance—will feel it. The history is written in the body.
th: What’s next?
MG: I’m creating a new residency and performance space called Lake Studios Berlin. I hope to bring a new version of Selfportrait 24 to the opening of our studio this summer because I found it to be such a strong way to connect the community with dance.
To learn more about Marcela Giesche or contact her, you can check out her website.
Photo 1 courtesy of Oliver Look
Photos 2-3 by Alena Giesche