Unfolding the critical: Conversation between Natasha Hassiotis and Alexander Baervoets

Sarma 1 Mar 2003English

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Contextual note
This discussion was part of the colloquium Unfolding the Critical. Natasha Hassiotis is a Greek critic; Alexander Baervoets is a Flemish choreographer; his performance Swollip was part of the programme of Amperdans, the festival which hosted Saram's colloquium.
Discussion transcribed by Karlien Meganck

Jeroen Peeters: We invited some critics, a curator, and artists from within the festival to have dialogues about the critical within their praxis; out of their role, with their own blind spots, linked to that role, their strategies and their own praxis. It is not meant as an interview, as we want to avoid the situation of a critic interviewing an artist. Therefore we made up a little performance score: the conversation-rules of this afternoon. It’s talks of 30 minutes sharp. The participants in the conversation have equal roles, there is no interviewer or interviewee. There are only conversationalists. And two questions are central in the talk:
a. What is the critical component in your work?
b. How do you deal with criticism on your work?
Preparation was not required, although people could or can bring some material if they want. They can also use the space in whatever way they want. And finally ride the waves of your curiosity. So may I invite to take the forum, I'd say: Natasha Hassiotis, a Greek dance critic and political columnist, and Alexander Baervoets, a choreographer and dancer, with also a past as critic and dance historian for the first talk.

NH: I hope it is not going to be about definitions. … I have to say that haven't seen any of your work before. So all I have seen is last night's performance, Swollip, and this is my guidance to this conversation with you.
AB: And I haven't read any of your texts. .
NH: Good, so we are starting on an equal basis. So let's play now. We have half an hour , we can make life difficult to each other. I have a question. Swollip: can you give me some hints about the title? .
AB: Read it backwards. .
NH: As it is not very easy for me … I am not very practical….
AB: Then it becomes Pillows. .
NH: Okay. I had some obscene connotations when I read it. It only works this way? .
AB: I think so. Of course I saw connotations as well, like swollen lips and things like that. .
NH: I also had 'lollypop', which comes across in a very interesting way with the feeling I got from the performance. Those very young dancers… At first I thought: 'okay, there isn't a narrative there', but trying to decipher the feeling I had, I could call it a very abstract contemporary version of Lolita. So lollypop made a point to me. .
AB: I always think that connotations and meaning grow in the head of the spectator. .
NH: I think it is essential for mutual misunderstanding. .
AB: Actually, the idea at first was that it would be five women. I didn't find my fifth female dancer, and I thought I am getting older, so I thought let's take another chance. I never actually gave it a thought that it was me and four young women. But I have heard quite a few remarks on that, but it was never an issue for me. .
NH: Lots of questions are popping up. Did they give you a hard time to follow up with this very young generation? .
AB: No. .
NH: About the role: you took the role of a woman? .
AB: Excuse me? I took the role of a woman? .
NH: You said there was supposed to be a fifth woman. .
AB: No, not the role of a woman. .
NH: We are not talking of a very traditional, conventional narrative. .
AB: The thing is that you start preparing at least a year in advance and you have some ideas, very abstract. It was also partly due to the experience I had had in a previous production where there were two guys who gave me a lot of trouble. I wanted to work with women. I like working with women. It had nothing to do with content or story. .
NH: What do you expect me to understand? .
AB: Nothing. .
NH: I am going to write on the performance, so what do you expect or what would you like me to understand? .
AB: It would be a question rather. What kind of sense did it make for you? Or non-sense ….
NH: I had the sense of a renewal, a coming back of a style, a reworking, a remix, …. The atmosphere brought me to New York, an American loft, a laidback atmosphere. It was like the swinging sixties. I saw also the style of the performance, the interaction, this get-togetherness down in 2003. I tried to see if you could alter my perspective, if seeing this remix in 2003 could alter my perspective on spectacle, on what I expect from a performance, if you could interfere with my thinking, my prejudices, my expectations as a spectator, as a critic. And coming back to this renewal, to this remix of a style, it also gave me the feeling 'meaningwise' of a general atmosphere of a new phase in life. It was very joyful. I always look for a keyword when I see a performance, so my keyword in your performance is remix, renewal, rebirth, regenerate, re-whatever. .
AB: I think you are right there. But it has to do with my personal life. For instance the idea of performances in the sixties and seventies is something that people told me afterwards. It was not what I wanted to do. It was not a remake of New York in the sixties. And being a dance historian as, I know what happened there and I know where the links are, but it had to be a 2003 version. And my defense would always be to say that did could not have happened in New York 1970 for instance. I hope. .
NH: I am trying to understand the riddle that you posed yesterday. … So my keyword in order to follow the maze is rebirth of style and whatever goes with it. .
AB: How would you describe the style of Swollip then? .
NH: I would be lyrical and metaphorical, which I hate: lighthearted, joyful, thank God not very responsibility claiming from the audience. You could see where it would lead in the end because there was no other escape, no other way out. So maybe it was too much of a rebirth with this pillow fighting at the end. And all the other things I have said before. … And all I am trying to find out now is if you have altered my perspective. So then you can claim a serious position in my mind with your style. AB: When you go into a performance and you are blank; you don't know much about the person, you don't know the people that are performing, … do you have 'standards' for yourself, a framework by which you would test what you will see? .
NH: No. But actually it is good that you mention that…: we are going to fall in love in a second. … It is good that you mention that because I tried to test this new 'tendency' –or whatever you were trying to do, by engaging myself in a non-critical way, like in a phenomenological approach, like being directly as much as possible to the work. And it was kind of easier than other times. I think it was the work itself but I was also too tired. I didn't have much resistance to oppose to this thing. So at times I felt involved with the work and at times I thought: 'isn't he a bit old for this?' .
AB: You mean: old. .
NH: Don't take it as an offense. It is just an observation. I am just telling you what is in my mind. It is a comment I would make with other spectators, so why not telling you? .
AB: IT's okay. .
NH: … Not that I saw any deficiency in the performance, to go to the technical details… I just thought… AB: 'Shouldn't he be doing something else?'.
NH: No. 'Let the girls do it.' … I liked the drum. You are claiming your position in the performance. That is how I see it. .
AB: Claiming … you are in it so you go with it … It was pretty wild to my standards as well, so what can I say… It is a result of a process. It is nice to hear comments, like annotations, what they read, how they read it. What I expect from a critic is: do they know what the research was about? I claim to be researching certain things. .
NH: I don't know anything else than what I shared with you. .
AB: Maybe I think that people who would have seen earlier work of mine, can compare and then the statement probably becomes more clear. I can imagine that just seeing Swollip is a bit like: 'yeah, anything goes'. .
NH: Actually there is something there. There is a knot, maybe owing to the fact that I haven't seen any other work of yours or maybe it is not very translatable in words at the moment. So if you can give some info…?.
AB: One of the things I am trying to escape is formalism, unity of style. It is one of the things that I see most often in dance, that you have a number of elements that are supposed to bring cohesion in a work. .
All the people on the stage, trying to move in the same way, is one very traditional and often used way of getting to a small coherent universe. I try to test how far you can go. And it is not the first time. It's been going on for a while, a couple of years. .. How you can have individuals, moving as they move, with their different bodies, their different styles. For Swollip, for example, on purpose I chose people with very different bodies, very different styles. To see whether I could find cohesion on another level. So that is one of the hints I can give you. .
NH: Trying to escape formalism like you said, did you invoke a kind of narrative by having those pillows and people not able to balance very well with closed eyes? Sleeping, falling, eyes closed…..
AB: Actually the 'off-balance' is something I have worked with a lot and in this case it was a reference to ballet, where everything is about staying in balance. .
NH: What is your problem with ballet? .
AB: I have no problem with ballet whatsoever. It is an upside-down reference. .
NH: Meaning what? .
AB: Meaning that when everything is about balance, what happens if you start using the off-balance? It is an interesting field. It's been used in other techniques, like 'fall and recovery'. That is a sort of off-balance too. But what if you just let it go? This is just one example. .
NH: But you maintained your balance. If you stay on your head, it is a sort of balance too, which you pursued constantly. .
AB: But I was speaking of that one scene in the dark. .
NH: Can I ask you about that other scene: falling one over the other, the girls, ….
AB: The fights….
NH: And especially about that one dancer. I think she was abused. Everyone was stepping on her. I don't know whether it was personal. .
AB: No. That was the wild cat of the troop. I know who you were referring too but we were a great team. Teambuilding was an important part of the process. .
NH: A typical question: how many years were you working together? .
AB: It was just ad hoc. I even auditioned for this, what I usually never do. I wanted people of a variety. There was only one girl with whom I worked on two previous occasions. .
NH: So what is all this about balance again? .
AB: That is just one element. .
NH: You mentioned fall and recovery, so it is like losing and regaining. .
AB: I gave an example of modern dance tradition, where the off-balance has been researched as well. .
NH: Does it have a mystical element as well? .
AB: No. Of course for the viewer it can become, but I don't take that into account. That is the responsibility of the spectator: how to interpret this. .
NH: Is it the responsibility to interpret? .
AB: Yes. It is not mine. .
NH: What do you mean by that. .
AB: That I leave it up to you, whether you find this sentimental, aggressive, or whatever. You have a free mind. You are a person. .
NH: How do you make sure that you leave it open for me? How open do you leave it? .
AB: If later, for example after a performance, a critic comes to me, or just any person from the audience comes to me and tells me a story about the performance, it is fine with me. .
NH: Do you think I could – not as Natasha Hassiotis but as a critic – can understand your work? .
AB: I don't understand it myself, but I think you can understand it in a certain way. It can make sense. That is when I talk about reading. When I talk about analyzing it, I think there are not many possibilities. Or there are things I did without being aware of it. .
NH: How far can you go with interpretation according to your opinion? .
AB: Anywhere. As far as I am concerned. I know that in certain works that is not the point. You need to understand what it is about. My work is about nothing, apart from form. Of course it generates certain feelings, but that is up to the spectator. .
NH: After all these years, can you take bad criticism? .
AB: Yes. I was a critic myself and a pretty harsh one. .
NH: It all comes back ….
AB: Actually I have four categories of criticism. What I prefer of course is good criticism based on a good analysis. What comes second in my preference is a bad critique but based on a good analysis. And then comes a good critique based on a wrong analysis and finally bad critique on a bad analysis. Maybe what I am saying means that a certain work has to be seen in a certain perspective. If somebody comes to see theatre and he sees Swollip, he might be in the wrong performance in a way. Because it is not readable on that level. You can, but it does not make sense, I think. .
NH: Do you feel misunderstood? .
AB: No. Sometimes disliked. .
NH: But you can live with that? .
AB: Yes. .
NH: How does this past of you being a critic come into your present situation? .
AB: It has been very important. I have been a critic for fifteen years I believe. Plus I have seen many performances before and I continued seeing many performances. And I have this reflex of analyzing to the thread any performance I see. It has helped me very much in my work as a choreographer. That is my schooling: seeing performances - and because I had to write or talk about them – analyzing them. I hardly ever was descriptive in my critiques, so it was always about what I considered the essence. It was kind of measurable. But I admit it was my kind of seeing and I accept other ways of seeing. .
NH: Do you think that you may create a very dangerous power structure within your mind? The critic, who analyses works, who is a choreographer, who can criticize the critic and criticize his work? .
AB: You mean I am dangerous. .
NH: It is a bit too much ….
AB: I would never go back to criticism. .
NH: I would never go back to criticism. .
AB: Actually I didn't like the position very much. As I said, I was not the nicest critic around. I made more enemies than friends anyway. So after so many years ….
NH: Is it a privileged position? .
AB: No. Sometimes people think those people have a certain power. I think it is very relative. I am not afraid of the critics. I like open-minded discussions with critics, but they don't necessarily need to love my work. .
NH: What about the power structure I asked you before? The so to speak power structure of you being a critic being able to criticize a review you receive. This gives you an extra element. Maybe unconsciously. I am not saying you might consciously do something like that, like refuse a review because you know how a review should be written or what you expect. Do you expect something of a review? .
AB: No. Well, I have expectations. Sometimes I live up to that and sometimes I don't. But I can't play a role in that. Actually, when I became a choreographer after so many years of being a critic, that was a very fragile situation. It was probably easier the other way around. And I still live with that past, but… NH: What was the hardest part going from being a critic to becoming a choreographer? What was the hardest part of this transition? .
AB: Well, I suppose the people think that the critic is the guy who is supposed to know how it works. I am wise enough to know that there is a big difference between looking at it from the side and being in the midst of it and being kind of blind actually. When you are in the middle of a process, although you put like a framework, you try to format the work as it should be. But still, there is a lot of intuition. Especially if you want to go where not many people have gone before. It is a dangerous position for me, but I like it. NH: What was your biggest aspiration as a critic? .
AB: Not much. I wrote articles, criticism for people who had seen the performance. People who had not seen the performance I was writing about, would not understand what I was talking about. Sometimes I find it a bit strange with films. You think: 'good critique, I am going to see it.' A description -for me- is something a dog with a hat on can do. 'I write what I see.' .
NH: What is criticism for you now? .
AB: When it is about my work, it is reflection on my work. I see what I can do with it, see whether it is honest or whether there is a hidden agenda. That is the first thing. And then I see whether I can deal with it. And as I say I don't expect full report on what I do. But from this person's point of view, where did it make sense, or where did it not work? I remember when I was working on my first piece and I had been in the studio for only one month, somebody from the center came in and she said: 'there is not enough material'. So I gave that a thought and the next day I threw out half of it. So I deal with it. That was a very interesting remark. I thought it is not clear, so I will make it more clear. .
NH: I just want to ask one more thing: You said something before about blindness. I didn't understand. You mean that you were blind as a critic? .
AB: No, as a choreographer. Until you meet your public you're blind . Especially in this piece where there is such an interaction with the public … we never had people in the studio apart from one or two people. So we didn't know how it would be once we started touching the people or putting the bodies down on them or falling over them. We wouldn't know how they would react, so it was a relief, I have to admit. Because it kind of worked immediately. And the pillow-fight to which you referred was not foreseen. We were supposed to have a pillow-fight, not the public, but it was fine. .
AB: We have three more minutes… Do you dream of becoming a choreographer at some point? .
NH: No. I enjoy my job very much. .
AB: That is fine. Sometimes I got a remark at the time that I was a frustrated person, that I should be choreographing, so I think that is in the end why I did it. No, … I think I wanted to do it from the start. I have been on both sides. .
NH: No I will keep reviewing. .
AB: Or a dancer … (laughing) Maybe you are a bit old for Swollip, but ... (laughing) .
NH: Thanks very much, I will keep that in mind. (laughing) Can we engage the public? .
AB: Sure. Anyone has anything on his or her mind? .

Fransien Van der Putt: I am not sure whether I understood you right, but did you say something about Lolita? I wanted to know whether the Lolita-theme was in the positioning of the people, in the sense of a man and women. I haven't seen it, so I don't know. I would like to know how this meaning is ( 'verankerd' ) attached to the performance. .
NH: Well, I didn't say it was the definite version of Lolita. I said that it gave me a feeling that I was dealing with an atmosphere that led me, that brought connotations in my mind. It was the colors, the atmosphere, the age difference. It was a pale kind of lighting, at least from where I was situated, the music. It brought images to me. It was meant as a compliment.

Steven De Belder: My question is for Mrs. Hassiotis. One of the two questions that were asked to you before was how do you deal with criticism on your criticism? And you asked that question to him: asking whether he wasn't having too much power because he could judge as a critic over other critics. But I wonder how you would react to that personally, when some other critic would criticize your criticism. Or what is your position towards the situation that you take a position towards a work but the person who made that work or other people say 'sorry, but …'.
NH: Do you mean my position towards a critic's criticism or an artist's criticism to my work, or both?
Steven De Belder: Both, but not just the artist's criticism.
NH: Well, between critics, … we are in the same field. You know how a professional relationship is. You try to be as polite as possible to your colleagues. It is a curse everywhere I guess. But when artists do critics, they can be violent. You can get some violent reactions and then you decide what to do with that. I usually say: 'you have five minutes starting now'. You can say whatever you like, I won't respond, I won't comment. You can scream, you can shout, you can do whatever you like. Please notice that your time has started. And after five minutes of 'that's true', I say: 'I am sorry, your time is up'. If you don't have anything else to say, I will hang up. So you get all sorts of reactions. This is an extreme. You can also get: 'I am free to do my work, you are free to do your work, fine.' –we are talking about bad reviews. You can also get the let's talk-attitude.

Myriam Van Imschoot: I have a question because I want to go a little bit beyond the divide between the artist and the critic and maybe the typecasting that is implicit in polarization. I was really interested in the fact that an artist has a critical practice too. So there is a critical component and, Alexander, I would like to know how that works for you.
AB: I think I am my first critic to myself. My position is one of self-criticism and I am the first to be unhappy with my own work and I think you know it is rare to hear me positive about my own work. Normally I talk about mistakes or where I could not fulfill what I set myself as a task. It is criticism throughout for me within my own universe. And then it becomes like a handicap. So anything I see, I criticize. I can't help it.
Myriam Van Imschoot: That is interesting. You define criticism in the first place as self-criticism.
AB: No, actually criticism to me means being able to divide the essential from what is not essential. I am trained as a historian as well, which is to be trained in critique and then having this past of analyzing performances. And being a critical person by nature … But that is really what it is about for me: it is about going to the essence and trying to see whether you can fulfill your task. I probably know best what works and doesn't work in my work. I think I am my hardest criticizer, but it is what keeps me going. It's not negative.