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ARCO RENZ――Dance Creation: The Body, Time, Space, Negotiation, and Collaboration

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Encounter with Dance

Makiko Yamaguchi (hereinafter Yamaguchi): Will you please tell me how you became dancer?

Arco Renz (hereinafter Arco): My parents are both ballroom dancers; they're champions, actually. After their competitive career, they opened a dance school. This is where I first learned ballet as a young boy. But as a child, I was not able to fit into the strict formality of ballet. So I started to learn ballet very young, and also stopped learning it very young. As a child I liked to imagine and improvise movement; just play around without the constraints of a codified language. Growing up in my parents' dance school, dance, music, and people coming together to connect through movement have been an all-present part of my childhood.

As a teenager I decided to study theater. I passed through Berlin and then moved to Paris. While practicing as an actor and director, I also studied literature and philosophy. In Paris I encountered contemporary dance. I discovered different ways to approach the stage. During a workshop with dancers of Pina Bausch, there was an exercise where we had to walk on stage, one by one, and tell the audience, "I am a dancer, because ...." When I found myself on stage, alone in front of the audience, I suddenly said, "I dance in order to say what I cannot think." This was the beginning of the artistic trajectory that brings us together today.

A photo of Arco Renz and Yamaguchi Makiko during the Asia Hundreds interview

Yamaguchi: Could you tell me more about your encounter with contemporary dance, when and how it happened?

Arco: I started to be involved in contemporary dance from 1992 onwards, this workshop in Paris I mentioned took place in 1994, and since 1995 contemporary dance became the only focus. In the early '90s, I perceived contemporary dance in Paris as a fresh dynamic art form; little institutionalized, it was a field for experiment, research, and adventure.

It was at that time in Paris that I met Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. She proposed me to come to Brussels and to experiment scenarios for what was to become her school P.A.R.T.S. I joined a group of thirty or so other dancers and performers for a workshop in Brussels in preparation of the school. These sudden experiences in Brussels opened up radically different ways of looking at dance for me.
Besides the physical aspects of dance, the interconnectedness of dance with other movement practices, with music, theater, and social sciences was a major ambition of the curriculum.
Rhythm classes with the great teacher Fernand Schirren were at the core of this network of disciplines. Structural analysis of musical, mathematical, and natural patterns made me aware of new fields of tension between dance and choreography, between movement and writing movement. I decided to join the first generation of P.A.R.T.S. to experiment on what it means to dance today, what it means to choreograph, to share experiences through teaching, and to deepen and broaden possibilities to say what we cannot think.

Forms, Time, and Space

Yamaguchi: I was always familiar of your name but I never quite knew why exactly you are often working with Southeast Asian artists. Is there any special interest for this region and its culture? We have done interviews for our Asia Hundreds series with artists and art-related people from Southeast Asia, for example Rithisal Kang of Amrita Performing Arts, Cambodia, Eko Supriyanto from Indonesia, and also Olé Khamchanla from France/Laos. They all mentioned your name in the interviews, so I thought we have to interview you; I was very curious how you work with the artists from Southeast Asia.
What was your very first encounter with the region?

Arco: The first residency in Southeast Asia was in the year 2000 in Indonesia, and it took place thanks to a personal encounter. In this sense the first encounter with the region was simple; organic, hands-on, and practical. There was openness and curiosity for this encounter to take place, but there was no specific professional, personal agenda, nor premeditated scheme. It was an instinctively aimless encounter. Aimlessness can be an essential condition for sustainable and dynamic encounters, because it allows for spontaneity and the quality of the shared experience becomes the focus of attention.

Earlier I had encountered Kathakali, Balinese dance, Kyogen, and Kunqu through extensive workshops and seminars in Europe. Together with the early encounter with ballet, these experiences had triggered in me an ambiguous affinity with formalized, codified movement languages; fascination and suspicion at the same time. In Europe, people are generally most impressed by traditional dance and theater forms from Asia rather than contemporary forms. These codified languages are often displayed in Europe in contexts romanticizing the oriental "other." I was suspicious of such constructions of mysterious oriental images and seemingly opposing poles of East and West.

On the other hand there was fascination about principles underlying movement that appeared as alternatives to what I had experienced so far in theater and contemporary dance in Europe. For example, the expressive use of hands and eyes is not just a superficial, formal characteristic; it points at a very specific relationship to space, where the body is the axis of space and the performer moving in space from this axis. This is a "vertical" notion of space which is very different from a body traveling through space and "taking" the space through tracing trajectories horizontally. And such, a vertical performance quality changes our perception of time.

The beginning of a traditional form usually starts with learning how to stand and then how to walk within the code of that language. This is very significant. Different alignments of the body generate different energetic potentials for the performer inside of the form. The interior aspects of form are extremely fascinating and insightful. This fascination has become the foundation of my work: what is happening inside the form? What is happening in the emptiness between people? What are the interior aspects of relationships and how can this be decoded? What is underneath and beyond the obvious signs? Sometimes noticing the unfamiliar around us, can contribute to recognizing the obvious inside of ourselves.

A photo of Arco Renz during the Asia Hundreds interview

Yamaguchi: You mean to open the form?

Arco: Yes, to open, to dissolve, to enter forms, or rather to enter the images of movement. The work in Southeast Asia during the past years is about designing processes to explore, question, contemplate, and reformulate images of the body in movement. These are processes of decoding formal images of the body and encoding alternative images with the interiority of the performer as the starting point; these are processes of undermining appearances and conventions. The performances are a by-product of these processes, reflections of their potential.

Yamaguchi: You told us once that you do something else as choreography. What do you mean by that?

Arco: Etymologically, choreography means "writing dance." During these processes, the movement is not definitely written but it manifests itself as ongoing negotiations. The dance here is a dialogue between forms and different qualities of interiority, constantly changing.

Yamaguchi: What do you mean by "interiority"? What is happening there?

Arco: The fundamental gate to interiority is breathing. It is the foundation of most processes that I have experimented with. Awareness of breathing is followed by the conscious circulation of breath through the body; and eventually this consciousness of physical breathing patterns (re)animates our consciousness of more subtle, energetic layers of breaths and beyond. The choreographic process consists of directing breaths through the body in ways that have an impact on the body and that alter or negotiate the body's image, its form in space and time.

The body is like a container, or a malleable cooking pot that has a specific shape. A fire fuels the liquid into the pot with heat, and the steaming heat inside the cooking pot changes the shape of the container.

Yamaguchi: How is the process of decoding like? Is this an analytical approach?

Arco: Decoding means being aware of forms, images, and then being aware of the potential and movement inside them. The approach is experiential, starting from breathing and heightened consciousness of the interrelation between inside and outside of the body. Analysis is only a part of the experience, and its role in the process depends on the situation.
In a nutshell, the practical process of decoding, of deviating from an accepted code, starts from breathing; the energy generated from the breath travels on specific spiral trajectories through the body and has an impact on the shape and movement of the body in space and time.

Yamaguchi: And after decoding comes encoding.

Arco: Intentional encoding can be part of the process. For example, to formulate a performance. However, during the working process a lot of time is spent improvising without intentionally fixing anything. Of course, improvisation is also a form of encoding spontaneously, even if the movement is not memorized or written.

Very late in a working process for a performance, the encoding of the language becomes a focus. By that time, ideally, encoding is an organic step forward. It is the consequence of multiple improvisations, negotiating or decoding the original codified language. It is important that each performer owns her process of decoding. My role in the process is to be a facilitator, an observer, a mirror, a partner.

I elaborate a structural skeleton that will facilitate the performers negotiation during the rehearsals, but also during the performance. This skeleton consists of structures or codes in time, space, and movement architecture, or the image of the body, still or in movement. The performance, just like the rehearsals, is a live, negotiation process of the performer, constantly decoding and encoding anew these structures.

The performer exists. The architecture or image of his body exists in time and space, and it is animated by internal forces or energies that create movement. All these parameters are interacting during the performance in an ongoing negotiation process, animated live by the internal processes discussed before. Movement is not always visible to the eye, but internal movement can become visible.
In Wagner's Parsifal, the hero tells Gurnemanz, "Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn' ich mich schon weit [I scarcely move, yet already it seems I have traveled far]" and the latter answers,"Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit." Here, "time becomes space."*1 Richard Wagner was a visionary.

*1 Richard Wagner, Parsifal (Act 1, Scene 1), 1865.

Yamaguchi: You mean, each performer is in this negotiation process?

Arco: Yes, each performer. It is very important that each performer is responsible and makes choices. A dancer always has the responsibilities of a soloist, even if the dancer is part of a group. Dancing is always a solo. This doesn't mean that we are alone and certainly doesn't mean the dancer can be insensitive of his/her environment.

Yamaguchi: You have to be very individual in thinking.

Arco: We have to be aware and responsible, we have to assert and enjoy the freedom to make choices. But an independent, isolated individuality does not exist; that is a modernist fantasy. We don't make choices isolated from the contexts and situations we live in.

The focus of the process is not on differences in personality or culture. These differences exist and they are a given. The focus of the work is on the cultivation and quality of multiple relationships: the relationship between each performer and specific time structures represented through the music; the specific spatial structures such as points, straight or curved lines; with physical images, that is body-architecture stemming, for example, from a specific movement practice; the relationship of each performer with his/her breathing; with the group of performers; with his breathing, his interiority, his environment, and so forth. Real situations, real relationships; not concepts. But concepts could be elaborated from the experiences. It is a process of devising through action, through movement.

Yamaguchi: It seems very concrete.

Arco: Relationships are concrete. And in an artistic, transcultural, and collaborative context, this means doing something together! Being creative together! Fundamentally, that's what collaboration is. The Latin origin of the word collaborare literally means, "working together;" it doesn't mean "using somebody to fulfill an ambition or agenda."
Collaborative work especially in a transcultural context is full of traps. And a certain degree of aimlessness can be a beneficial starting point for something real and concrete to develop. Dance is essentially a moment to be real. Being real, here, means to let go of polarizing ideas through an awareness of action.
Dance, essentially, is a practice that connects body and mind, action and awareness, time and space, interior and exterior planes, and sometimes it dissolves our ideas of "me" and "other."

Themes Coming up in the Creating Process

Yamaguchi: You talked also about themes of a process. What kind of themes did you have?

Arco: In the beginning of a process the encounter itself is the theme. The encounter is animated by breathing, a multitude of physical experiments and discussions that we share. Then ideas or images appear, often vast and open, such as "freedom" or "survival". Although there can be a challenge with translations, anybody, no matter what their cultural backgrounds, can relate to such ideas or images, especially as their understandings transmute from person to person and between different cultures. Ideas or images can give different colors to the physical experiences developed from breathing.

Yamaguchi: What do you talk about with the dancers?

Arco: We talk about life, the dancer's everyday experiences, their routines as well as outstanding experiences. We talk about what they do, who they are, what they're interested in. Perhaps we go to visit his/her family in the province if that's what a dancer proposes. We talk about and do a lot of things, following the dancer's impulses. It is important for me to relate to the dancers personally before engaging in an analytical cultural research. In my experience, if such research is anticipated, received ideas about the past of a culture dominate the personal encounter with the dancers today.

A photo of Arco Renz during the Asia Hundreds interview

Yamaguchi: No cultural studies.

Arco: Encounter and experience come before cultural studies and analyses in order to allow spontaneity, curiosity and surprise. But, of course, it is important to combine both approaches. We cannot see a person if we do not also see her society, education, ancestors, culture, environment, and so on.

Dance is the paramount medium for transcultural collaboration because it can consolidate these two approaches in order to dissolve polarizing, received ideas, and in order to be more responsive to the movement and resonances that are actually taking place. Thinking habitually produces polarizing patterns. Dance takes place in a vacuum of inter-being, an experience where time and space, interior and exterior are fully interconnected. Inter-being is a word that I borrow from the great Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. It superbly describes the potential of dance practice and reaches far beyond in describing the actual nature of our being human.

If we think of something to be divided and different, it will indeed appear to us as being divided and different. If we permanently think, "I am like this, and she is like that" or "Asia is like this, and Europe is like that" opposing poles such as Asia-Europe, him-me, her-me, and so on indeed will start to exist in my perception. I will "believe" that they are real. Dance can be a door to alternative, non-polarizing experiences and perceptions.

Anyway, through shared experiences and discussions, the rehearsal processes and performance themes are designed. Often these are reflected in the title of a performance. For example CRACK, a performance made in Cambodia.
The dancers were a group of six, young, classically trained Cambodian dancers. We met at a moment when obstacles of diverse nature challenged them to move forward personally as well as professionally. They shared this incredible drive to resist and push against the artistic, social, and political limitations of their everyday life in Phnom Penh. CRACK is about this drive, this energy to crack open a limiting container and to define new experiences of freedom and beyond.
At the same time all these young dancers shared a profound respect for the heritage of their classical dance and traditional Cambodian culture. The performance process of CRACK is a live negotiation of elementary, classical Khmer dance patterns from the inside through breathing, steered and directed by the dancer himself, showing us that these apparently opposing poles do not have to be contradictory.

A photo of Arco Renz and Yamaguchi Makiko during the Asia Hundreds interview

Arco:Another example is the performance solid.states, a duo created in Solo, Central Java with Eko Supriyanto and Melanie Lane. Our rehearsal experiences and discussions led us to the theme of "stability/instability." We investigated how Javanese culture attempts to negotiate harmony between these two poles. Javanese culture has devised techniques such as classical Javanese dance in order to bring about social and individual stability within an outside world that is perceived as intrinsically unstable and dangerous.

Eko, a dancer trained in traditional Javanese dance, negotiates the apparent stability and harmony of his inherited language of movement by destabilizing, aggressive impacts on his body. Melanie's starting point was the opposite extreme of the spectrum. She was born and raised in Australia, her mother is Javanese and lives in Australia. Melanie's dance started from an extremely unstable body condition and decomposed movements towards growing stability and harmony. Both dance trajectories overlap in the middle of the performance.

The performance takes place on an unstable platform; its rocking motion digitally steered through different intensities leading up to earthquake-like shockwaves. This is an example for limiting spatial structures we talked about earlier.

Negotiation in Working Process

Yamaguchi: Can we go back to the term "negotiation"? What is it a negotiation between?

Arco: Negotiation supposes that there is a relationship. We earlier talked about multiple layers of relationships during the rehearsal process and the performance. Fundamentally, negotiation takes place within the setting of an "Abstract Dramaturgy." The performer dramatically negotiates with the non-narrative parameters of time-structures, space-structures, and movement-structures. Negotiation is a noun that I use closely related to the noun "relationship." The dramatic but non-narrative character of the negotiation process is relevant. It is a physical process, a play of forces and energies, interior and exterior.

Architecturally, body-movement-images are negotiated. However, the choreographic work is not a re-composition of forms. This is important in our transcultural context here. To stay with the example of CRACK, the negotiation is not between a European choreographer and classical Khmer dance forms. The negotiation takes place between the performer and her own classical dance forms that are being investigated and negotiated from the inside; starting from breathing, she makes her own choreographic choices. Conscious breathing leads to a place where polarizations such as East and West dissolve. And it's an experience and performance, not a spectacle.

Negotiation is not always with classical dance forms. In the Philippines for example, the performance COKE, is negotiating dance languages of the Manila entertainment industries. Negotiation, in a broader sense, is a process to change perspective. It is a continuous discovery that movement forms, as well as ideas and beliefs underlying them are constructions and codes. They can be decoded, experienced, and encoded differently. Change, hence, becomes an organic potential, and this can create a mental space, a glimpse outside of our habitual subjectivity. These are experiences that are not limited to this or that cultural background.