Re: patterns, memory, thought

A dialogue with Martin Nachbar

Formen k√ľnstlerischer Zusammenarbeit 1 Dec 2010English

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Contextual note
This dialogue was first published in Heike Albrecht and Matthias Dell (eds.), Formen künstlerischer Zuzammenarbeit. Sophiensaele 2007-2010. 1. Texte, Berlin, 2010, pp. 26-27.

Why is the past such a productive stock of material for dance? How do tradition and the contemporary, the personal and the public intermingle in it? These questions reach us, choreographer Martin Nachbar and dramaturge Jeroen Peeters, shortly after the opening of nach Hause at the Sophiensaele in October 2010. We venture into dialogue, somehow perpetuating the artistic exchange we’ve entertained for years now, by delving into the past and reminiscing of Repeater, a dance piece for father and son that echoed Don DeLillo’s “laconic dialogue that fathers and sons can undertake without awkwardness or embarrassment.” Here is a fragment.

JP: Revisiting my notes from the very beginning of the process of Repeater in September 2007, I stumble onto the following: “How to tell a story without telling it? A ‘laconic dialogue’ as a revived narrative, a becoming that departs from stilled, fixed memories and documents. The piece ‘documents’ the process, which is a learning process that seeks to unlock the museum of the shared past, and move it into a laconic dialogue.”

MN: Yes, I remember the exhaustive talks we had when preparing for Repeater. To me, the idea of rehearsals as a learning process that unlocks a shared past is vital for any creation process actually. Even if a group doesn’t share a past, they all share the fact of a body that is full of patterns, traumas, this is to say: full of past. The learning process then concerns the process of understanding the piece and its needs. For Repeater, it was especially important to move all of this into a “laconic dialogue”, as my father and I actually had a shared past that was partially locked and potentially intense and maybe even overpowering. The “laconic dialogue” allowed for not facing the power of the past through drama but going with the power of the past choreographically.

JP: In his A Choreographer’s Handbook, Jonathan Burrows proposes the following definition of choreography: “Choreography is a negotiation with the patterns your body is thinking.”

MN: Good one. I find “patterns your body is thinking” a beautiful phrase but not yet detailed enough. There are patterns that my body thinks as it learns them. Also in the performance of patterns there is a degree of thinking involved in order to recreate the patterns in the audience’s presence. But there are also habits in our bodies that tend towards the un-thought. Certain postural and movement patterns have repeatedly been inscribed over a long period of time, so that it needs a strong desire and effort to unlock and maybe change them. These patterns are habits that my body doesn’t think anymore.

JP: Burrows goes on refining his definition and discusses the fact that “I am too familiar with myself to see anything”, which requires a form, a frame, a perspective that allows for taking distance and reflect upon the habitual. His second definition of choreography: “Something that helps you step back for a moment, enough to see what someone else might see.” In Repeater, something else complicated this situation: when it comes to family relations such as father-son, the “patterns your body is thinking” are more charged, they concern an opaque area of your identity. You can only address them in oblique ways. The role of the audience is then probably a different one: though they might identify with some of the patterns (being fathers or sons themselves, for instance), they also promise perspective for you, just like you promise a perspective upon their opaque past – the piece providing a form and a public context for this exchange.

MN: Maybe the “laconic dialogue” was a choreographic strategy in Burrows’ sense: something that allowed me to step back from the patterns my father and I were habitually trapped with. It allowed me to get aware and change at least one of them – a certain line of tension in the arms and neck that I had copied from my father and that my body didn’t think consciously anymore. In this case, choreography enabled me to re-think my body’s patterns and invent new ones. But in my definition, those patterns were of the un-thinking kind and choreography led me to re-think them, not so much by taking a step back and looking at them but by stepping through and feeling them. Only then it was the audience that gave the context or frame for eventually stepping back and seeing the patterns.

JP: Re-thinking is an interesting word: first realizing, then changing something. The example you give is perhaps closer related to the creative process than to the actual piece. I wonder whether this realization would also descend into the bodies of the spectators? I’m skeptical whether the spectator’s thinking actually has much bodily resonance.

MN: I agree with you that the spectators don’t necessarily rethink the patterns their bodies are thinking, when watching a piece. But they do share a space in which the dancers do this while they perform. And I think that the fact of patterns being rethought during a rehearsal process does have an impact on the spectators. Explicitly in their minds through the choreographic forms, implicitly in their bodies through patterns rethought for them.