In MONUMENT 0: Haunted by wars (1913-2013), the choreographer Eszter Salamon looks back over a century of warfare, using tribal dances, folk dances and other popular forms of dance related to conflict zones from all five continents. Her dance-archaeology research stretches from the eve of the First World War to the most recent conflicts. Together with her six dancers, Salamon moulds a striking ‘dance of death’. The dark and at times surreal scenario seems to afford the audience a glimpse of a hidden mass grave from which masked figures rise up and fight against the horror in vibrant rituals.
MONUMENT 0: Haunted by wars (1913-2013) is the first part of a series of pieces in which Salamon explores the link between choreography and history.
ESZTER SALAMON is a choreographer and performer. Since 2001 she has created solos and group pieces. Her work has been widely shown around the world and she is regularly invited to give presentations in museums. Eszter Salamon uses choreography as an extensive practice viewed as a machine to manoeuvre among various media: video, sound, music, text, voice, movement and bodily actions.
In her first works, the activation of cognitive experience questions visual perception, sensation and kinesthesia. From 2005 she started expressing an interest in documentaries and women’s autobiography, which led her to explore multiple formats such as dance conference, video-choreography or monodrama. Her research on speculation and fiction led her to create TALES OF THE BODILESS, futuristic opera without performers, picturing the possible ways of life following human extinction. Lately Salamon initiated a new series of pieces exploring both the concept of a monument and an attempt to rewrite history.
artistic direction Eszter Salamon | dramaturgical collaboration Eszter Salamon, Ana Vujanović | dancers Boglárka Börcsök, Ligia Lewis, João Martins, Yvon Nana-Kouala, Luis Rodriguez, Corey Scott-Gilbert | lights Sylvie Garot | sound Wilfrid Haberey | costumes Vava Dudu | costumes assistant Olivier Mulin | technical direction Thalie Lurault, Michael Götz | theoretical advisor, historian Djordje Tomic | production Alexandra Wellensiek – Botschaft Gbr, Sandra Orain – Studio E.S. | co-production HAU Hebbel am Ufer (Berlin), Internationales Sommerfestival Kampnagel (Hamburg), Les Spectacles Vivants-Centre Pompidou (Paris), PACT Zollverein (Essen) as part of Départs – European Commission (Culture program), Tanzquartier (Vienna), Centre Chorégraphique de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon as part of the residency program | support Centre Chorégraphique National Ballet de Lorraine – Accueil Studio 2013-2014, The Regional directory of cultural affairs of Paris – Ministry of Culture and Communication, The NATIONALES PERFORMANCE NETZ (NPN) – Coproduction Fund for Dance, which is funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media on the basis of a decision by the German Bundestag
THE ANTI-MONUMENTS OF ESZTER SALAMON
Last season we had the pleasure of discovering MONUMENT 0: Haunted by wars (1914—2013), the first part of Eszter Salamon’s Monuments series. In November, she will present the second episode at Kaaitheater: MONUMENT 0.1 Valda & Gus. In the meantime, a fourth instalment, MONUMENT 0.4., has been added to the series. Sitting in the late afternoon autumn sun, she discusses resistance to canonical history, elderly dancers and memory. ‘Writing history is not only a question of the past. It actually also shapes the future.’
After years of making separate performances, you decided to work in a series. Where does this shift come from?
I had two motivations to start working on this series. One comes from reflections on my art production. How do I produce my work? How much do cultural policies define my practice? How much do they define my desires, thoughts and actions? My life is based on projects, and that is not only because that is the way I want it to be. For example, in Germany – where I’m also based – one cannot make an artwork that goes from one year to another. You have to start and finish a project in one year. Working in a series is a counterbalance to this logic, which is also dictated by the market. The necessity of relating my artistic practice to history is a recurring theme. But what is new is that I want to insist on engaging myself in an open-ended project focusing on those links.
The idea behind the series is to create a set of works, both for the black box and the white cube. Through this constellation, I can invest in a practice, which develops in the long term and which goes further than only making artworks. It’s a process of writing history that is distinct from canonical art history. I don’t want to look back on what has already been written and archived. Instead of creating monuments for whatever is already well-established, this series celebrates the lesser-known, those who are neglected or repressed. It opens up new types of narratives, and that allows us to shift our perception and imagination. This is crucial because remembering and archiving is not only a question of the past. It actually also shapes the future. What we encounter changes what we can imagine. And what we can imagine can change the future.
As you said before, this is not the first time that you have taken a step back to reflect on dance and dance history. And most of the time, the resulting piece seems to be a celebration of dance.
When it comes to expression, I’m a post-conceptual artist. I don’t have a signature or one language when it comes to moving or performing. At the beginning of my artistic practice, for example, only slowness made sense to me. But in general, the questions I work with don’t lead to a certain style or expression. They do not even lead to dancing each time. Speaking and singing can be as valid as moving. I even made works without performers. Movement and choreography are my means to articulate questions, but dancing has never been the only way.
Dancing can be celebratory as long as it raises questions that inspire my work. Celebrating certain kinds of dances and expressions, like in MONUMENT 0, can also motivate me precisely because dance is not always a place of emancipation. But celebrating movement for its own sake doesn’t interest me. On the contrary, I often find it repelling. I don’t want to present something that is just fascinating in its form and generates a rather limited experience for the viewer. I’m always interested in proposing a complex experience, which is as sensitive as it is cognitive.
MONUMENT 0 is closely related to everything that has been forgotten, excluded and repressed in modern dance history and in history generally. The movement material is generated through the embodiment of tribal war dances. But the dances that are performed on stage do not stand on their own. They are not easily recognizable expressions that originate from places where the Western world has waged wars in the last hundred years. So I decided to investigate those dances. Not because they fascinate me, but because I wanted to put them in relation to the ‘colonial’ enterprise of the past and also address the neo-colonial tendencies of today, in which the art world participates.
How does MONUMENT 0.1 follow up on MONUMENT 0? Does the former also implicate a celebration?
Just like MONUMENT 0, MONUMENT 0.1 is based on fragments. Not on fragments of war dances, but on fragments of memory. It is a documentary fiction that I constructed in collaboration with Christophe Wavelet, Gus Solomons Jr. and Valda Setterfield. It approaches the history of American modern dance from the perspective of those who participated in its making, but who never became canonized. In the performance, Valda and Gus use their memory as a space of subjectivity through which they articulate lived history, far from academic framings and interests.
MONUMENT 0.1 deals with the relationship between art and life, and the relationship between aging and dance. The invisibility of elderly bodies on stage is another repressed and rarely addressed question: what does choreographic art do with performers who are older than 50? What do we do with aging bodies and their subjectivities? Can we value and include those poetics into our practices? Can we see them as affirmative, powerful and meaningful?
There is something precious in encountering the instability of memory, performance, the human body and life in addition to expressions of very vivid desires. This work could be seen as a gift, since it is so rare to see elderly performers on stage.
What about the term ‘monument’ in the title of the series?
The generic title of monument is a bluff, a provocation. Monuments mostly function as a response to the need of commemoration, national and official history. The works in this series will always remain below the number one, and will never reach the status of a monument. They function as anti-monuments. Instead of commemorating the past they propose to investigate actions of memory and archiving by linking the past, present and future.
Your method is often based on an encounter with someone else: another artist, another partner. How do you work together? And how did your collaboration with Christophe work out for MONUMENT 0.1?
It is true that I work with encounters and collaborators: dramatists, musicians, performers, theoreticians. I like thinking, doing and dreaming with others, with friends. Not only to create works but also to reflect on intimacy. These collaborations don’t always stay inside the art scene: some years ago I met and collaborated with several Eszter Salamons, my homonyms, in the context of two of my works. I really liked the dynamics of that arbitrary adventure, which destabilized and opened up my own practice.
It has also been an encounter with Valda and Gus. Gus was in the audience when I was showing a work in New York and I was stunned: all kind of dancers from all kinds of ages are here! As I was interested in working with elderly performers, I contacted him with a proposal to work together and he answered positively. And since I was looking for several performers he advised me to ask Valda. When I told Christophe about this project, he was very excited because it is very much in line with his own interests, and he proposed to join the project too.
Christophe and I tried to make something else than a programmatic piece. We didn’t want to cook something out of our proper knowhow and ‘put’ Valda and Gus in it. That’s why the encounter with Valda and Gus was crucial for our project. We had to create a relationship based on trust. We didn’t know each other and we didn’t come from the same culture or from the same generation. Valda is British, but she has lived in the US since 1958 and our artistic practice is very different. So it also took time to understand each other.
How did the fact that Valda and Gus are both elderly people with their own specific problems affect the actual making and rehearsing of MONUMENT 0.1?
We deliberately chose to work separately with them. We only brought the two together very late in the process. We wanted to emphasize their particular voices, memories and gestures. They also have a very different relationship to memory, to movement and even to physical ease.
We didn’t have very long rehearsal days. Valda and Gus preferred to have very strict timing, which is rather like the American way. But that is what they are most comfortable with. They are not used to working on a performance for three months. They might never even have done that before! We were like aliens to them. The time to wander and to try many different things is not at all part of their practice.
Where did you get all the material for MONUMENT 0.1?
For one month we did interview sessions with both of them, in New York. We collected about 50 or 60 hours of material! Most of the fragments are based on their memories. It took time to find out how to shape and address a certain memory in the context of a documentary fiction. Memory is not something that comes in just one way.
An autobiography is always a fiction: it is formed by the way you structure your memories. It depends on what you keep and what you leave out. It is not there as such. Both Valda and Gus have very specific relationships to memory, be it factual or kinaesthetic memory. In the performance, we tried to emphasize the issue of memory itself: not only the concrete events or things they mention, but also their relationships to it.
In the meantime, you are working on MONUMENT 0.4. Are there more monuments to come?
I have some new monuments in mind and others might come later. I will soon also start another series, which relates to my interest in female autobiography. It will mainly be a museum-based series, linked to the confrontation between the life stories of women from southern countries and the public space. These will bring new opportunities for encounters outside the art world.
Eszter Salamon in conversation with Guy Gypens (general director Kaaitheater) and Eva Decaesstecker (communication Kaaitheater).