Social Choreography
How You Surprise Yourself

“Knotunknot” von Dana Caspersen und William Forsythe in Berlin-Hellersdorf
“Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Berlin-Hellersdorf | Photo: Marion Borriss

In the world of dance social choreographies are currently on the upswing. Since 2011, the dancer and choreographer Dana Caspersen has been developing the performance project “Knotunknot” that engages with questions of migration and belonging.

Ms Caspersen, you have been well-known as a dancer for many years in Germany. For some time now you have been combining the fields of mediation, conflict research and choreography. What do these have in common?

The task of a mediator is to help people see situations differently and find solutions. This is also a working approach that choreographers practice in that they create conditions in the room that open up the possibility of a different perspective or a different feeling to things. Both the mediator and the choreographer try either to trigger or to avoid certain actions. In both disciplines inner and outer movement play a role. How do people react to certain structural specifications? Which conditions determine that we experience things the way we do?

You work with the term social choreography. On the one hand, that is reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’ “social sculpture”, on the other hand, the term crops up in connection with flash mobs or also with various actions of the Arab revolutions. What are your influences?

Artists from the realm of choreography are interested in transformational processes. So it follows quite naturally to think of actions in the public space. I used the term at first for want of a better one. Meanwhile I refer to my work as Kinetic Public Dialogues. My aim with these projects is to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of a conflict. I try to give action impulses that help the participants to reconfigure the dynamics - that have often embedded themselves kinetically - so that the potential violence in the situation is reduced.

  • “Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Eberswalde Photo: Marion Borriss
    “Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Eberswalde
  • “Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Berlin-Wedding Photo: Marion Borriss
    “Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Berlin-Wedding
  • “Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Berlin-Hellersdorf Photo: Marion Borriss
    “Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Berlin-Hellersdorf
  • “Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Eberswalde Photo: Marion Borriss
    “Knotunknot” by Dana Caspersen and William Forsythe in Eberswalde
Several former members of the Forsythe Company, for example Richard Siegal and Steve Valk, later engaged with participatory and social questions in their own works. Was this topic always in the air among the members of the ensemble?

William Forsythe loves to ask “what the things are also”. The company has always been a research group as well. We ask questions such as “what is this also that we haven’t yet seen?”. A kind of exercise in wondering. It’s not so much about doing things differently, more important is seeing them differently. So I’m not surprised that former members of the Forsythe Company still go through the world with this perspective and apply it to social issues.

In connection with social choreography the term “aesthetic action ability” often crops up. It means doing the right thing in the right moment. Can this be trained?

In most cases sensible actions do have a certain aesthetic quality. Not in the sense of beauty, but because they function well, they work well. Rather like in nature where simplicity and effectivity are bound to one another. I think we practice aesthetic activity by developing a kind of resistant curiosity – an interest in the mechanics and significance of a situation, even in a difficult situation.

For three years now you have been developing the dialogue piece “Knotunknot”. In this you ask the immigration society about its socio-political and societal attitudes. You have worked in various places including, for example, Raunheim near Frankfurt, Berlin-Hellersdorf and the Berlin district of Wedding. Were there any notable differences in the reactions of the participants?

In Frankfurt, on the first evening, 80 percent of our participants came from the financial sector. At first I was afraid that the group was not heterogenic enough. But then it turned out that, even with similar social backgrounds, what people connect with the feeling of belonging is very different. Yet it also turned out that there was an unexpected commonality. Many participants had gone through east-west migration experiences in the post-war era and the real physical experience of hunger had left its mark on them. In Berlin- Hellersdorf, in contrast, there was great heterogeneity, participants with very different backgrounds and origins. But considering that the atmosphere there is tainted by the aggressive, hostile activities of the neo-Nazis, I did have the feeling that the participants had come together primarily in order to counteract this difficult situation. The atmosphere seemed calm and focused.

The system of “Knotunknot” is an opinion survey, which is portrayed in a spatial triangle. You ask questions such as “Who is in favour of allowing homosexual partners to get married?”. The decision does not take place in private but is expressed by means of spatial positioning.

Yes, that’s why the body is so important. You have to represent your decision spatially: I stand here, the others stand there. Can I cope with this? And if I only made a pro-forma decision, how does this feel physically? I think many people behave differently at Knotunknot than they would if they had been on their own. You could say they are cheating. But that, too, is something they have to cope with. My aim is to generate attention to one’s own thinking as well as to that of others. People often surprise themselves. In Berlin-Wedding some people cried because they were so emotionally moved by what they had said.

Are your “Kinetic Social Dialogues“ social work or art?

I use skills from both spheres. I find this border area very interesting.