Bruno Beltrão: “We are interested in the formal elements of street dance, but we don’t worship them.”
How did the invitation to take part in the Motion Bank project come about? What activities have you been involved in so far with the project?I think that our work really came to the attention of William Forsythe at the first night of ‘H3’ at the Raffinerie in 2008 in Brussels. Following that day, we spent an afternoon talking. At one point, I mentioned how Grupo de Rua was in a difficult situation in its hometown of Niterói and the lack of interest in the company. He told me that he had been in a similar situation in the USA and had moved to a country that offered better conditions for work. And then he mentioned that a project had been approved for helping dance professionals whilst also supporting their research projects. I still didn’t know what it was about, but he was referring to Motion Bank.
Motion Bank is the first step towards creating a dance library, a digital platform for knowledge on dance and its structure and a way of creating choreographic scores that can be easily accessed by both professional and general audiences. Why do you think you were chosen from so many choreographers? What is the significance of being Brazilian and working with street dance within this context?
Perhaps it’s because we deal with urban dance as a living form. We’re always trying to view it in a wider context and relate it to other structural forms. We are interested in the formal aspects of this dance style, but we don’t worship them. I don’t know what the significance is of being Brazilian. I don’t think you need to be introduced that way. It doesn’t break the connection I have with everything around me and with the land I walk on.
According to Forsythe, dance is undervalued by society today because of the public’s lack of understanding of its functions, its structures and its aesthetic. Hence the desire to create a new kind of dance literature, an interactive literature for a wider audience. What in your view is the ‘basic understanding’ that the general public has of dance?
The concern for how a literature could help dance better establish its presence is an old one, as is the angst about increasing its ‘market value’, to validate it compared to other art forms. I don’t see any sense in this complex. But this lament really seems to exist. So will a time come when the public says, ‘so that’s what they do.’? Does dance need to be noticed more? Does someone learn the way to read a dance, that there is something that needs explaining? I don’t know the difference between understanding and imagining. I no longer presume to understand anything.
I have a problem with the notion of a ‘basic understanding’, that there exists a general public, illiterate in dance. It’s strange we still believe in the idea that a performance only contains something for people who are literate in the topic. In my view, this merely serves to crystallise the roles that each play in this relationship. You have to consider that dance teachers and critics, for instance, are as inventive as the performers. The difference is that their discourse is presented as ‘a description of what is’.
I see Motion Bank’s work as creation and not as an explanation of the so-called occult code that exists in the group creative process. There are no secrets, nor an ultimate meaning to be deciphered in a dance performance. I once saw Forsythe saying that the origin of movement is never important. How can you show that choreographers, teachers and designers are never that indispensable to grasping a dance performance? How do you promote the view that we are all mediating and that an image is formed from an agreement, a game between the participants? How far can individuals read into this? What are they perceiving in these dances?
There is an amazing jumble of references permeating the creative process. Instead of untangling them to demonstrate clearly and simplify these paths, how can we further confound the interpretation of a moment? In what way does each person understand? This can be a privileged space in which to register the infinite images stirred up from the more or less stable system that is a performance. But there is another issue. If documentation is a betrayal of the materiality of dance, as professor André Lepecki has suggested by quoting the work of Jacques Derrida, what form of literature could be capable of capturing this slippery, non-historical characteristic of dance? And if we start from the idea that dance only really happens when it is improvised, what are we doing here? A challenge of Motion Bank could be to find a form of literature that takes on the monstrous challenge of entering into a dialogue with the instability of dance.
Are there cultural differences of comprehension between audiences in different places, for example Germany and Brazil?
There are differences of comprehension, not only between Germany and Brazil, but also from one person to the next, and from one moment to the next.
Since Synchronous Objects, William Forsythe’s first digital project, one of the major concerns of his research has been with creating choreographic scores, in other words to ‘conserve’ choreographies. What is choreography to you? And why is the issue of its conservation currently so important to the study and practice of dance?
Instead of asking what choreography is, maybe we should ask: who isn’t a choreographer? This project reintroduces the question of whether choreography can exist as separate from the body and the potentially performable nature of things. Why does choreography seem to be nothing particularly special apart from something synonymous with work? As soon as you try to define it, other activities appear that can also be viewed as choreographic processes. Or further still, does choreography exist?
The choreographer Jonathan Burrows, for instance, once said that choreography is about “making choices”, “arranging things in an order so that the whole is greater than the parts” or “what appears when we put one thing alongside another”. The performer and choreographer Siobhan Davies defines it as “the practice of putting everything together”, and Forsythe himself says that an important part of choreography is resisting previous definitions.
It really is difficult to see significant differences between the processes of writing, choreographing, cooking, driving, making a bomb, making baguettes or gardening. Is it actually possible to conserve? We will try to give form to the structure that guided our work, but by thinking about it, we remove ourselves from the sensibility we wish to capture. I think it is extremely difficult to achieve an adequate representation of the complex references and processes surrounding performances.
Is this a predominantly western concern, linked to the European and North American tradition of ballet and contemporary and modern dance? Or is this found in other areas too, such as popular, folk or urban dance?
Derrida refers to the insistence on the centrality of presence as an obsession of western culture: documenting as a desire for the origin and recording as fear of death. So then, this is not a question of style. Years ago, I found my visual-descriptive neurosis particularly seductive, as people expressed similar discomfort with the materiality of street dance. I longed for the time when we would have not just one reference language, but a wide-ranging register of gestures and processes for consultation and learning. Beyond an interest in creating an archive for teaching and reading the structures we create in our works, I think I’m interested in the act of registration as a stimulus for moving on to the next myth.
Behind Motion Bank is the democratic and collective idea of knowledge, as the aim of the database is to share the creative strategies and teaching methods of the invited choreographers. Is this open and generous method of knowledge transmission familiar to you, given your background in street dance?
I’m not sure how open and generous relations are in street dance. Maybe they’re as democratic and selfish as in any other style. Yes, there are moments when you see an unconditional exchange, but there’s no denying the presence of control, egos and an extreme, sometimes cruel, competition.
In an interview with Gia Kourlas, you describe your work as a constant translation of elements (from hip hop, for instance), as a game where transformation has the leading role and where fundamentalism and absolute narratives are no longer important. Does your decision to work with only men onstage in your last two productions have something to do with the given that the hip-hop world is highly sexist? Why not break with this absolute?
A critic also recently identified this as an unexplored taboo. I think it is dangerous to interpret the presence of only men in the group as a sign of our chauvinism, that an absence of women is sexist. It is simpler than that. Whenever we hold auditions virtually no women take part, if at all. That is the reason that we still don’t work with a mixed group.
What are your expectations for your co-operation with Motion Bank? Do you think this co-operation might change the way you approach choreography?
This project comes precisely at the time we are beginning work on our next project. I view it as an opportunity to question everything once again. I am anxious to start this research with the team led by Norah Zuniga Shaw and Maria Palazzi.
is a performer and researcher in the fields of Performance Studies, Performance Arts and Cultural Studies.
Translation: Nick Fenn
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Brasilien