Dancing to ‘re-member’ the body

Critically acclaimed Swiss choreographer and performer Anna Huber recently reprised her 20-year-old solo ‘unsichtbarst’ (Most Invisible/Invisiblest) in Chennai. She was in the city for a workshop she conducted for the third edition of March Dance 2019, an annual festival held by the Chennai artists’ collective, Basement 21.

‘Invisiblest’ examines the condition of “performing and spectating”, of “seeing and being seen.” And Anna Huber’s almost translucent fragility belies her physical endurance and strength. “Huber’s fragile physicality is paired with a strong presence; her expression is simultaneously subtle and powerful…” reads the citation for the Swiss Dance and Choreography Award that she won in 2010.

Huber’s engagement with questions of the body, its vulnerability and presence, of perception, space, architecture and interdisciplinarity, touches philosophical depths. She spoke of what dance means to her and of concepts related to “allowing the body to reveal its meaning.” Excerpts:

Is this your first workshop in India? How was it different from workshops in Europe?

I’ve done shorter workshops and ‘sharings’ in Chennai and Delhi before. This experience was different, deeper, more intensive. The advantage of a 10-day-workshop spread over two weeks is that it allows for process-based work. I’ve always been interested in questions of process, whether here or while teaching in Europe. I prefer to see my method more as sharing and facilitating than as teaching. I’m not so intent on teaching techniques as I am on opening up peripheral perceptions in a multi-layered, sensory way, of everything around us, not just what is immediately visible.

Cultivating perception is key to creative work and since this is dance, a movement workshop, I approach it with physical and cultural awareness. For me, differentiation and refinement of the body as an instrument, a seismograph for change, is essential. One must work within both its simplicity and its complexity, its duality and contradictions, its inside/ outside binary and also, always, as a perceiving and thinking body that relates to space — the real, concrete, architectural space — which is also a social space.

Photo: Sharan Devkar Shankar

Photo: Sharan Devkar Shankar

Tell us a little bit about some of your ideas, like ‘architecture of the body’, or notions of ‘authentic’, or ‘inter-discipline’ in performance.

Each of us, not just actors and dancers, has patterns of moving through space that we may or may not be conscious of — movement patterns, habits that we might be able to drop if we realise them, thereby breaking patterns. The relation to space is always there. The more conscious one is, the more facets, nuance one will find as a creative person. We walk through the world with our bodies, bodies that are constantly changing in relation to things and contexts as well as within themselves (ageing, pain). By ‘architecture of the body’, I try to convey that the body is my instrument, which I mean to know and fine-tune like a musical instrument. At the same time, it is an object of research, of investigation: this ever-changing body with its chances and challenges of constant transformation.

I don’t want to bring a technique or method and impose it on dancers, or insert it into a local context. I want to open up different perspectives and approaches. Each one must discover and redefine the ‘authentic’ for themselves from their own ways of being and moving in relation to their questions and concerns.

As for interdisciplinarity, I like collaborating with musicians, visual artists and light designers. Interdisciplinarity is also site-specific. In ‘unsichtbarst’, for example, I am working within a limited 5 sq.m. space and I found myself discovering and revisiting memory landscapes.

How has the return to this 20-year-old choreography been? What has changed?

I created the solo as a young dancer and had no physical challenges. Though my body was free, I was not interested in showing off any virtuosity. I felt everything was already done and I was questioning every single movement or step. I was at zero point. But this realisation was also liberating in a sense, because play became possible. I started playing with material in absurd, self-ironic ways. I scrutinised form and non-form as a binary and realised that everything, even the amorphous, is still form. I discovered that dropping layers, peeling off, playing roles, taking off masks, all create further new forms, different layers of presence — a disappearing and a reappearing in a sense.

I toured with ‘unsichtbarst’ for 10 years till 2008. ‘Unsichtbarst’ itself is a bit of an impossibility. It means invisiblest — as if there are degrees to being invisible. The latter half of the word, barst, in German (also in English) hints at bursting; in a sense, it could be interpreted as exploding into invisibility. But does that mean anything? The climax of invisible is extremely visible. I’m not looking for answers. I’m interested in the challenge of trying to convey this in a performative situation.

I was invited to perform the solo after a decade in Switzerland last November and in France in April this year. The Chennai workshop came as I was getting ready with preparations for that. I was keen to see how the questions I had asked then had changed. Obviously, I’m also 20 years older now. I liked the idea, this time round, of ‘re-membering’. The English word works as it suggests the idea of rearranging/ replacing one’s limbs (members).

What I discovered was that my square stage too has a physical memory, which allowed me to be much more precise and subtle. Simultaneously, there are possibilities of new facets appearing — a recreation in small ways. I allowed myself therefore to change what I wanted/ needed to, to drop something, add another, not in big ways but to refine and nuance it further.

Anna Huber. Photo: Sharan Devkar Shankar

Anna Huber. Photo: Sharan Devkar Shankar

Contemporary dance styles have moved away from linear narratives or from telling stories. How do you see the audience reading a text like this?

Everywhere this question is being asked: so what does it mean? I like it when people say, “I have no idea about dance, but it was fascinating.” I love an audience that comes with no preconceptions or expectations. I wish for an open-minded audience as much as for responsive, open-minded artists. I wish to reach out through dance on multiple levels in a non-hierarchical way: sensually, visually, aurally, kinaesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally. When one comes out of a performance or an exhibition, one looks at things differently. In a performance, you realise your body differently and, when you walk back home, you think, “Ah our body’s not so banal…” Walking itself is a highly complex movement leaving personal imprints and traces.

I guess that people already know this if they come up to me after a performance because those who didn’t get it would not come. They would just leave. They would think, “It doesn’t talk to me,” which is also fine — it is a response. But for me, definitely, dance is not a narrative, a moving from A to B, although it does have a dramaturgy, or a kind of an abstract story — even many, perhaps — within it. I like to create something that has different levels of possible readings, something that is multidimensional rather than being uni-dimensional.

As audiences, we also bring our own knowledge, experiences, in reading what we see…

Absolutely! We even bring our daily moods. What I realise is that some people are not used to silence. Therefore, for them, it becomes challenging to sit through silence and slowness. Particularly in ‘unsichtbarst’, the music is really minimal, it does not serve dance and the dance does not follow the music in the sense that it’s not danced to the music. It’s more of a soundscape — another layer of aural perception.

How did your own training and practice converse with that of the participants? How did this help the exploration?

Most participants were sophisticated dance-makers themselves, some trained in Bharatanatyam and had years of experience in contemporary dance as well. Others had experience in dance-theatre forms like Therukoothu. The question for contemporary dance is also how to deal with the idea of tradition. Not rejecting it, of course, but also not being imprisoned by it. The challenge is to create your own personal idiom.

I’m not in the least interested in or impressed by the superficial ornamentality of any classical form; can it be beautiful when I’m not touched by it? Neither do I want to impose any contemporary Western techniques. I wish and encourage dancers to find personal approaches, ways of processing things rooted in their own contemporary idiom. The richer your sources and background, the more you are able to play with different shades or nuances. This is what I mean by ‘authentic’. I believe this is possible by holding on to the quality of permeability, fluidity, and porosity — durchlässig in German. We were, for example, opening up awareness of the potential of in-between spaces, gaps, negative-positive forms and the idea of leaving and reading traces. I hope I was able to convey some of these thoughts in the March Dance Workshop, and look forward to further processing and resonance.

The writer is a doctoral scholar at the Dept of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras.


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