Walking, animal dances & becoming
Martin Del Amo in conversation with choreographer Martin Nachbar
German choreographer Martin Nachbar sure kept himself busy during his three-city visit to Australia. In Brisbane he undertook research for his PhD, in Sydney he taught workshops and in Melbourne he presented one of his dance works.
Catching up with Nachbar in Sydney, I soon found out that this was not the first time he had been to Australia; his wife is Australian-born choreographer and performer Zoë Knights and he had previously accompanied her to visit family. This was, however, Nachbar’s first professional trip to Australia, on which he actively engaged with the local dance sector. In three capital cities no less.
Now based in Berlin, Nachbar studied at the School for New Dance Development (SNDO) in Amsterdam, in New York and at PARTS in Brussels. Since 2001, he has created more than 20 dance pieces, some of which have successfully toured internationally. During the last few years, his artistic focus has been on investigating walking practices, which is also the research topic of the trans-disciplinary PhD he is currently undertaking at Hamburg’s City University.Brisbane
In fact, the main purpose of Nachbar’s residency in Brisbane—assisted by the Goethe-Institut—was to conduct research for his PhD. His thesis, Nachbar explains, asserts that performative group walking has the potential to create a stronger community, change urban life and increase contact between people. In addition to studying anthropological texts at the State Library of Queensland, Nachbar also participated in walking tours offered by the Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Brisbane’s city centre. Whereas these are mostly targeted at tourists, Nachbar himself has previously conducted walks of a more performative nature in the German cities of Berlin, Hamburg, Düsseldorf and Essen: “We invite a group of people, an audience, to walk with us, and we propose different modes of walking—backwards, forwards, really slow, really fast, homolateral [distinguishing between left and right body movement] and stomping. People can join us, or they can also step aside and watch.” The experiences of those participating in the walks are then charted through questionnaires.
Among the more unusual of Nachbar’s urban walking exercises is one that he calls the Quick Facade Walk: “The rule is that you stick to the facades of buildings as closely as you can. And whenever you come across an open door you have to go in, briefly explore the building or shop you’ve entered and then exit again.” And how do people, who are not part of the walks, react to this? Are the participants allowed to interact with them? “The walking exercises are usually conducted in silence to heighten the awareness for the sounds of the city. But yes, when people address you, you can answer.”Sydney
Teaching a masterclass for students of Sydney Dance Company’s Pre-Professional Year (PPY) as well as conducting a workshop at the choreographic research centre Critical Path, Nachbar’s subject in Sydney was not walking but “Animal Dances.” The workshops drew on a project of the same title he undertook in Berlin in 2013 comprising both a solo and a group piece. As for what fuelled his interest in animal dances, Nachbar reveals: “[Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari have an important chapter in their book A Thousand Plateaus called Becoming Animal, Becoming Woman. They talk about how ‘a becoming’ is not an imitation. Imitation might be part of it but it’s not its foremost feature.” After a short pause, he adds: “And it’s true. Because there is a lot of imagination involved, a lot of feeling and sensation. But since this book has been read by people like Xavier Le Roy and many other choreographers, it feels as if it has become forbidden to imitate when working within the context of concept-driven dance in Europe. And I thought, hey, I’m going to give this a go. So I started off my research with imitating praying mantises, horses and birds.” And how did he go with that? “It was a lot of fun,” Nachbar laughs. “Because, of course, you’re immediately confronted by the impossibility of imitating. You have to draw on your imagination and it’s really challenging, both physically and mentally.”
Nachbar concedes that Animal Dances received its fair share of criticism, precisely because of its premise of humans imitating animals. He puts this down to the currently predominant view that representation is something to be avoided in the arts. As much as he understands, he says, the limitations of representation, he is uneasy about the prescriptive approach some reviewers and fellow artists adopt on the topic. “To say about any art work—you can’t do this, you can’t do that—is completely undemocratic. It’s ideologically motivated and not useful artistically.” Nachbar seems determined to keep challenging commonly held views as to what is allowed in the arts and what isn’t.
So, what is the connection between his walking performances and the choreographic concerns underpinning Animal Dances? “I used to think that I always work on different themes for each project and I couldn’t identify what my choreographic signature or overarching interest was. But I’m slowly beginning to get a sense of what it might be,” Nachbar laughs. One of his major concerns, he says is definitely the idea of ‘becoming:’ “It’s a very important aspect of my work. Even in the walking performances. You could, for example, say that they are about the human becoming human. Bi-pedal locomotion is what distinguishes us from all other animals.”Melbourne
‘Becoming’ also plays a large part in the project Nachbar conducts in Melbourne, revolving around the reconstruction of the famous dance cycle Affectos Humanos by German expressionist dancer Dore Hoyer. The two-night presentation of his version of the work, was accompanied by a five-day workshop at Lucy Guerin Inc, part of the company’s Hot Bed program through which the work of international choreographers is introduced to the local dance community.
Nachbar’s research into reconstructing Hoyer’s seminal dance cycle began in 1999 and culminated in the creation of the piece Urheben Aufheben (2008) which he still tours. The original premiered in 1962 and a film of it was made in 1967. Working off the film was instrumental for Nachbar in orchestrating what he defines as a ‘meeting’ between Dore Hoyer and himself—across a timespan of over 40 years and two differently gendered bodies. He felt encouraged to do so by Hoyer herself. His research found that “she was interested in a particular unisex choreography in that piece.” He also was motivated by the impossibility of the task: “Knowing that I will neve be able to get rid of the differences, I had to embrace them.”
Nachbar admits that, from a modern day perspective, Hoyer’s choreography seems “strange and hermetic.” He says: “The question is how can you open it up to today and your own body, to think of reconstruction as a meeting rather than the attempt at perfect imitation.” These concerns were also to be explored in the then forthcoming, accompanying workshop: “I will ask the participants to choose one of the dances from Hoyer’s cycle [as glimpsed from her film] and devise a strategy for warming up for this particular dance.” This, Nachbar hopes, will allow participants to meet Hoyer’s work on their own terms, using their own skills. It’s the first time he’s run this workshop outside of Europe and he expresses great excitement about what the participants will come up with, especially given that Dore Hoyer plays no role in the Australian cultural consciousness. It will come down, he muses, to what strategies of ‘becoming’ each participant will devise for themselves.
Animal Dances Workshop, Critical Path, Sydney, 2-3 May; Hotbed Workshop #1, Lucy Guerin Inc, 4-9 May 2015; Urheben Aufheben, concept & dance Martin Nachbar, choreography Dore Hoyer, Martin Nachbar; presented at Lucy Guerin Inc, Melbourne, 8 & 9 May. Tour supported by Goethe-Institut.