Dance, Cities, Politics: An Interview with Ana Sánchez-Colberg


Athens-based choreographer Ana Sánchez-Colberg has been making groundbreaking choreographic work for over 30 years. A dedicated educator, inspiring mentor, tireless author and passionate literature lover, she brings words, sounds, dance, theatre and a critical consideration of politics and the history of dance into her work. On the occasion of her participating in The Performance Shop this week as a guest artist with the work J[US]T 5: REDUX, we asked her a few questions about the work, her recent research, the ways that cities can inform a dance and the political implications of such a methodology. The following 4000 words are nothing but a scratch on the surface of her vast knowledge in and distilled experience of contemporary dance and artistic practices on an international level.

Ana Sánchez-Colberg, J[US]T 5 performance for Athens Intersection. Photo by Ana Gabriella Webb-Sanchez.

What is your relationship to cities: as a traveller, a denizen, an observer, an artist?

This is interesting because I think, definitely since I left home in my late teens, cities have always been to me emblematic of a place I wanted to be. They were always my immediate utopia. I guess coming from a small island in the Caribbean, the cities of the world where these idyllic places where real life happens — because you don’t think that real life happens in a small island in the Caribbean, although it does but in a different way. I have now spent most of my adult life as a citizen in a city, as a denizen of a city that is not my own. Because of that I guess my attitude is similar to that which Baudelaire describes as the flâneur: the modernist artist walking the city not in a passive promenade but a silent experience of the dynamics/ clashes of a city, as a compression of time and space, diversity living side by side. Which did not happen in pre-modern times when the world was organised as court and countryside.

I guess it’s no coincidence that I am thinking of my favourite person, Walter Benjamin, and his Arcades Project, and that in many ways walking through cities is awakening memory — both memory of the city and the memories of one that will now be connected to that city. I think it’s a fascination with histories intertwined and the intertwining being the monumental past — primarily in European cities and the way in which I connect and find a place (a humble one, very small one) within that history. So it's a way of dancing the dance of establishing that dynamic.

As an artist I am an observer, as a citizen I am an observer, as a traveler I never think of myself as a traveler, I think of myself as someone who can make home very quickly. Home is not a place, home is where I am. Therefore, walking the city and establishing these memories or these histories with the cities is a way to establish home very quickly. I’m not going to say viral because it has terrible connotations, but I guess it is a bit like that. It is a way of plugging myself into the life of the city so that I can have a life in that city. These cities have given a context and a content for my work. Inevitably my work reflects that which was happening or taking place at any of these particular cities at a time. My work shows a dialogue with trends, lives, topics. It’s not just about the industry; the dialogue is not with dance or not even topics of the body or being human in a very generic way. It is extraordinary how most of my work, dare I say all of my work, is connected to this sense of place, this sense of place and the city. Certainly most of my mature works, I should say from my late thirties onwards when I move away from the original inspiration of Tanztheater to my own work, cities are there. A searching, a walking, creating a universe within the city. This idea of the city having a microcosm is something that interests me.

What kind of dances can cities inspire?

This is a tough one, because we know that in cities aspects of city life get thematised: rush hour, traffic, the inhumanity, the Fritz Lang imagery, or now the problems with migration or economics or crisis... you know. The themes of the city don't interest me when they become representation, because this act of representation actually does very little to really address the city as an inspiration. For me the city-as-inspiration (and again I’m speaking of the modernist, I’m speaking of Walter Benjamin, I’m speaking of Murakami, I’m speaking of everybody who’s ever thought of cities in relation to their art) is more about a sense of history, a sense of place in the world, and the dance, the motion, the motility, the mobility that comes from that.

In many ways I think back to Lefebvre and think the city as a space that already shapes the response of the actors. There’s an aspect of our dance, our movement, our deployment, our flow through the city that is determined by the cities. The architecture, the rules, representational spaces, concrete spaces, imagined spaces of the city but also our own inscription on these spaces that is creative. I don’t think we only follow the flow of the city or the rules of the city. I think, again quoting Michel De Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, we also navigate our own routes within the city routes. This duet between the following (allowing to be taken by the flow) but also creating one’s own flow is for me the kinds of dance that cities inspire. And that flow being connected to issues of identity of who we are and how we are in the particular historical time that we live in. And if that’s not what art is about — as a dialogue, not as a personal expression — then I’m not quite sure what art is about. But that is also part of my drive to keep making art, the fact that it’s an open question.

How does the J[US]T 5 project relate to different cities?

That is interesting, because the project is now so absolutely intrinsically related to a dialogue with cities that I can’t remember how it started. It did not start there in the sense of something like “oh, I want to make another dance about cities”, but it had to do with me, it had to do with being in Athens. So in that sense it is related to Athens in a period were it was impossible to have a creative life here, because crisis hit us all in many ways, not just financially. It was a crisis of sustainability. Let’s speak about that. How does one make work in a state of crisis (not only in relation to access to resources) but what does it mean to dance when the world is in crisis? It was a real crisis in all sense of the word. A crisis not as a chaos but as a system, including my own system of being able to sustain. My work had reached critical point, so I much rather use those words than 'crisis' and 'loss' and that kind of stuff. I don’t want to think of crisis only as an issue of neoliberal politics, or joblessness, or money, it’s something systemic more than financial.

Because of that I suddenly realised that, although I was living in Athens, I had spent most of my time in Athens actually going away from Athens in order to be able to sustain my work. And I don’t mean touring, I mean resourcing myself as an artist having dialogues, being able to produce small pieces of work. So it was having to embrace a different scale in order to sustain my work in a different way. Although it was a critical point it was still creative, it was still interesting. I was quite inquisitive as I worked my way through these questions. And as I said because I am living here, very much here, but at the same time having not to be here in order to feed my work (and sometimes feed myself and my daughter) these dialogues with Athens, these dialogues between Athens and the cities happened.

I’m dancing about other cities and Athens while I’m also in Athens dialoguing with different localities. It’s almost like a multistrip of dialogues shaping the work and shaping the significance of the work. J[US]T 5 is never repeated, there is always a variable — even when in every event there’s a reiteration of five micro-moments, five performative actions, those actions are never repeated, there’s always a variable that will change to make sure that none of the five minutes are repeated. I change my position, I change the audience, I change the task in relation to the sound score, there’s always something changing, there’s always something making me navigate the event differently, there’s always something keeping me active in the moment of creation. It’s not an improvisation, I would call it more what we are now calling instant composition, because there are very strict compositional rules. As it happens with instant composition, in J[US]T 5 you know that people are following a task, and that gives an energy and a concentration in the performer that is visible. I am creating a score for performance. But there’s still a sense of participation, in the sense that there is a participatory thinking process going on in those five moments of the work.

Ana Sánchez-Colberg, J[US]T 5 performance for Athens Intersection. Photo by Ana Gabriella Webb-Sanchez.

So what are the political implications of a one-off, one-on-one dance?

I think that comes from the question of sustainability. And I posed this question with almost a naive stupidity on purpose: there is no money, there is no funding, people can’t really afford tickets, so the transactions between the art and the artwork, the artwork and the artist, the artist and the artwork and the audience has to change. Otherwise we end up with an economy of the haves and have nots, that only the people who work with stable organisations are able to make work and the smaller ones disappear. That the large organisations will swallow up the small. In many ways I see that and I know it’s highly problematic because we also do dialogue with these cultural organisations — and I am down with these cultural organisations, but it’s to understand the implications of the kinds of contracts we enter with them on different levels. I am not anti-organisation, it was just something that I needed to do at the moment, I wanted to put on hold the monetary transaction between you and me, between the public and I. But by doing that I set up a series of questions about this issue, and in many ways I am quoting Tim Etchell who has this beautiful essay in Certain Fragments about investment and the actor investment in performance. Then I take that idea of investment and take it further by asking “what are we all willing to invest if this monetary transaction is not happening?" And remember, it’s not for free: we are not completely off the grid but as off-the-grid as possible, both in terms of the spaces, the people, how it happens, when it happens, recycling, sustainable, you know all these kinds of things. So that’s how the one-off idea started.

That economy worked for me, and I’m not saying that this is something that everybody has to do. In my present ethical dilemmas that equation works for some of these projects, the J[US]T 5s. I’m curious to see why do other people invest in the J[US]T 5. For example, why did Cheapart decide to take it on-board [as part of the Athens Intersection programme in 2017]. Actually I never asked George [Georgakopoulos] that question. I think he liked it, he liked the proposal of this thing that was happening in the city, stopping traffic etc. I know he did, he told me so. They were willing to invest, not necessarily money, but they were willing to invest with promotion, putting it out there, helping me with the taxis, helping me move the stools, helping me move the floor. So it was a bartering that took place because this was good for them as it was good for me.

But look at the word that I am using, I am using good. Good, not profitable, good. There’s something good about this. Does the question of goodness then apply to the investment that the audience is willing to make? It is political because I’m trying to address what we call the social contract. The understanding that our actions are implicated and complicated in the fabric of the day-to-day living. And that complication is of human relations, about what is good and what is bad for people. Not just what is profitable. And it’s interesting because we speak of ethics and we think of morality, and we think of that only as something related to sexual activity [laughs]. Why is morality something that has to do with your sexual partners, it’s so funny. Mores is the behavior of a community. And ethics, well you guys are Greek, you know better than me what ethics means. It is the goodness of society. Doing things where the reward is good. Isn’t that extraordinary? Good! But art has become so implicated in the industry that it has forgotten its role as the harbinger of good. And good can be difficult, good can be shocking, good can be politically incorrect, good can mean many things — politically incorrect because political correctness has become fascist, you know what I mean. Goodness is highly debatable, it doesn’t mean that we are all dressed in white wearing halos with wings and harps. And good includes tough love, when something is going to feel really bad but it’s actually really good. How do we deal with that dynamic, the not-easy territory. The territory that is the unknown, that may produce anxiety, that may produce ambivalence, that may produce stress. We need to go in there as artists. Because the alternative is an anaesthetised pre-packaging which is killing the world. There you go, doesn’t get any more political.

Can you tell us about your use of spoken word as a soundtrack / sound score / soundscape in this project?

I would say that the spoken word has always been there, perhaps because my origins are in Tanztheater of the German kind. But I see that not as a stylistic feature, a blending of theatre and dance — which is actually a very bad description of what tanztheater is and in many ways is probably why I was then drawn to Hannah Arendt. And it’s because I connect two thoughts: the one is Bausch's beautiful statement that reality cannot only be danced, and what she means by dance is "in dancing", dancing technique forms. It wouldn’t be sustainable nor believable [otherwise]. Isn’t that beautiful? That was in an interview with Leonetta Bentivoglio in 1988. That statement of Pina is connected to Hannah Arendt’s idea that the subject becomes fully emergent as a political agent. So in many ways Hannah Arendt for me echoes Bausch; in different ways they’re echoing certain aspects of a complete humanity, human identity, agency. Words and action, actions and words wind off chasing each other's tail, as if to work against the dichotomy between words and actions, or the idea that words can never describe [actions] and then actions can never describe words. Well, we call that poetry actually: the space in-between, the interstice of words and deeds, that’s poetry. And poetry, Pina says, is also a dance. In many ways the relationship of spoken word and movement is for me a poetic dialogue, or a different kind of poesis between those two.

For J[US]T 5 what was interesting is that the words are fragments of city journals, of my writings. And these were writings that I never thought I would publish, but again things surface in different ways. And I always used to speak about these things through the writing process — I write a lot, I have copious notebooks, and these are not just rehearsal notes or choreographic notebooks or scores for performance like, you know, the way that Jonathan Burrows speaks about them or anything like that. No, they’re quite literary. It’s a capturing of the thoughts and the readings and the writings, it has a dialogue with everything that was happening throughout the process of the work, whether it’s a bus ride and I’m looking at statues in Stockholm, or it's that I’m reading Murakami as I am doing Mahler's Fifths [a dance piece from 2004]. All these things are captured in the notebook. And these fragments of the cities, of the dialogues with the cities, I used to call them “the excess”: it’s what I needed for this kind of work process to happen, it’s a hyperactive daydreaming which actually produces, it feeds back into the work. I always thought of it as an excess, an excess activity that needed to happen so that the core work, the dance, the choreography would happen.

When you see the words, they’re quite poetic. Most of them are written as poems — free verse of course, not rhyming poem, nothing like that, more Shakespearean than Romantic. A kind of song-speech I guess, a poem-speak. But what is interesting is that because they’re words and because they are tensed, meaning they have a verb tensed, it suggests time, the word suggests time. They don’t really suggest content, they don’t suggest narrative, they suggest a time and a space. In J[US]T 5 for example you are hearing a city, a time and a space, and because you are hearing it inside your ear it has the fantastic ability to go directly into the imagination. Most people tell me that they want to close their eyes and imagine the words that they are hearing. But then the figure of the dancer in front [of them] has a dialogue with that. Therefore it is a clash, these things are not homogenous; again it’s the dynamic of the city which we are attending to, different levels of past, present, futures, actual spaces, imagined spaces, internal spaces, private spaces, public spaces. It has a lovely poetic dissociative effect. You do forget the dancer and I think it’s lovely that I’m right there less than two meters away from the public and the power of the voice is such that they might forget it. But if they really want to look at the dancer it’s quite interesting to see when people realise that they have the choice to take one earpiece out. People who did that speak about hearing the other city and that there’s part of their brain still engaged with that imaginary space that both seems to be familiar and not familiar — but because I am actually hearing the now I can pay attention to the dancer more. I mean, let’s speak about phenomenology with what is happening in this situation, as a question of the audience becoming aware of the choices they are making in front of this event that is so multilayered in spite of its apparent intimacy.

So intimacy becomes a complexity. In many ways the large-scale [in performance] is frontal, it's two-dimensional or three-dimensional but it’s still a picture, it’s easy. Intimacy is actually complicated and I love that. We think that because something is near it’s intimate, that there’s some sort of automatic osmosis happening just because you are near me. But actually no, there isn’t. Intimacy, proximity is one of the most complex negotiations across human beings. By putting my work in an intimate situation through words that play with time and space, the complication of the intimate moment between the artist and the work — the work which is happening amongst all of us and the audience which is really, truly an audience — comes to the surface. And I love that because I’m tired of the banality of saying that just because I am close to the audience as a performer or that I’m immersing the audience in some sort of experience, an automatic sensory transferal of information is taking place. That's not true. On the contrary, that's why most site-specific performance fails, because it is actually more complicated than that, the everyday is complicated.

What is happening now is that our everyday is becoming more complicated than our stage. That’s why the stage is becoming so boring. Because there used to be a time that the stage was the arena for complication: whether it was the battles of Louis XVI or the operatics, the stage was complex, it was a microcosm. You know the metaphors; it was never a mirror, that’s not what Shakespeare meant, it was a microcosm or a magnifying glass. Now we’ve lost that, it’s become simple, as if the stage is simple. I don't think so. I think the stage is one of the most complex environments, it’s just that people don’t know how to use it and you can quote me on that one. The stage is a very specific site and it’s just that most people use it as some sort of easy backdrop, like a television screen, which is not.

I am interested in the complexity of the intimacy. It’s not easy, it’s not immediate, it’s not automatic. It’s actually really complex and very fragile, it is very scary for some people and it is extraordinarily liberating for others. That is the complexity of J[US]T 5, that is the complexity of urban living when we stop and put a 5x5-meter dance-floor in the middle of the street and we try to deal with what happens with the interruption, the sharing, the negotiations that happen in that street.

J[US]T 5: REDUX is a revisiting of all the J[US]T 5 iterations. How did you bring them all together in one performance? What should people expect?

If the original J[US]T 5 was spread through time, the redux is all being compressed into a single statement by compressing the space into one single reiteration in time, although within that there’s the five reiterations. That is why I brought them together. We are using the whole site of the Performance Shop and we are using five sites in which each one will be prepared to bring elements of the original location. Expect to enter into spaces that are like mini-installations and have elements of the cities. The work rigs the history of the cities [inside these spaces] so you’ll be able to see objects, material objects from the cities, almost like an archive installed throughout the house and environments to re-contextualize the five.

What is very new about this one is that I am inviting participation: I am creating a score similar to my score, which the audience can choose to activate one of the tasks and join me in the performative spaces or in a corner if they choose. There will be a score for performance that the audience can activate, but in simple ways, you know. I’m hoping that people will take the opportunity, I mean the fact that it’s inside the house is great. Hopefully we’ll create a sense of living room dancing where we are taking risk but we are also protective because of the context of the performance within the Performance Shop, and I think that is very much connected to Lia Haraki’s vision of the project. Hopefully in the spirit of The Performance Shop that will happen, that people will take risk — but by taking a risk they are investing in that risk, because they are in a safe space, although a space where they still have to make choices.

To download Ana Sánchez-Colberg's score for the J[US]T 5: REDUX event click here.

Interview by Kiriakos Spirou.
Transcript has been edited for length.

Ana Sánchez-Colberg: J[US]T 5: REDUX
23 June, 21:30 and 22:30

The Performance Shop
Nikiou 18 & Miltiadou 20
Athens 105 60
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