Runa Borch Skolseg: Afterlife premieres in just a few weeks and in the program text you describe it as an alternative history. When I saw a rehearsal a few weeks ago I thought a lot about the project in relation to writing history, and how it both rewrites, transforms and negotiates with historical material. At the same time as it is not an archival work, but rather a fabled and speculative "take" on material that is familiar to many. Can you speak a bit about how you have worked to create the choreographic material and the alternative interpretation?
Louis Schou-Hansen: Yes, in Afterlife we’ve travelled back to the origin of the ballet in the Renaissance, when it was a social dance for Europe’s wealthy and powerful. So, before these social dances had the aesthetic that we recognize as ballet today. The idea with this was trying to enter the history of the ballet at its roots or, one could argue, where it all went wrong. The rehearsals started with a workshop led by renaissance expert Elizabeth Svarstad who helped us to reconstruct and learn original dances. This was both a technical starting point, since I didn’t know much about these materials, but also a place to form a shared understanding in our team of what we are potentially moving away from. From there we’ve been trying to disturb these dances, to pull them apart and reassemble them. A lot of remixing of various references from contemporary culture and the Renaissance is involved, manipulating the time and theatricality of how these were performed and altering their symbolic gestures. So almost all of the materials that one will see in the piece take their starting point from dances and various social activities from the Renaissance. By we I’m of course referring to the performers Elise Nohr Nystad, Amie Mbye, Georgiana Dobre and close visual collaborator Karoline Bakken Lund.
RBS: I'm a little bit interested in the Renaissance myself, and was thinking while reading this, if you know how the ballet positioned itself in relation to the other artistic and philosophical movements that originated at that time? Even though a lot was happening in visual arts, music, and philosophy, society kept a lot of the mediaeval and conservative values, and writers tend to call the Renaissance more of an intermediate period than a turning point, which people sometimes forget.
LSH: Without being an expert on this, I think there are some easy parallels to be drawn between court dances (pre-ballet) and other contemporaneous art movements in terms of class and access. Art usually depicted the rich for the rich and so did the pre-balletic dance forms. In order to take part in court dances you had to be wealthy, powerful or born into a certain bloodline, which is a tradition that can still be seen in ballet today. Dance during the renaissance was largely divided into two genres, country dances and court dances. Country dances could be danced by anyone and aren’t really the ones we immediately go to when talking about the history of western dance (as far as my knowledge goes). They aren’t unknown, but in the same way as for example with painting; when we picture prime-time renaissance art now, it isn’t the countryside arts that we focus on.
RBS: As I understand it, you have been interested in counterfactual speculation, which is a thought experiment that must be said to have had a renaissance (haha) in connection to the years when Trump was in power. In short, it is about imagining an alternative route that history could have taken. Can you tell us about the fantasies and routes you have imagined for the ballet and those which appear in Afterlife?
LSH: For me the starting point of the project has been to imagine a less rigid and less violent ballet that would be able to queer itself. One that demands less personal suffering and less assimilation in order to be recognised. In Afterlife we try to re-imagine the origin of the ballet, but it doesn’t necessarily imagine a historical route further from there. It centres the origin as the counterfactual point and suggests that the work needs to be continued in other projects. Something that strikes me when researching the ballet is that it hasn’t changed much. It’s a history that just moves along in time but without evolution. It still reproduces the same oppressive and exclusionary structures from the renaissance, but has only become better at covering them up. For me there’s a degree of pessimism and disbelief in the ballet being developed any further from where it is now. My ultimate fantasy is more about turning European ballet institutions into historical museums, go back and imagine something new. I'm not convinced by a queer, feminist or decolonial project which can't imagine such fundamental change.
When thinking about the aesthetics of Afterlife, what it was going to look like and what new narratives it could potentially produce, I tried to avoid visualising before starting the process with everyone in the studio. I’ve instead tried to imagine a shift in power and who this space is being produced by. We’re entering the work through a subtle fiction and through irrationality. We’re messing with, and to a degree ridiculing, parts of a history, and I hope that will be visible in the piece.
RSB: This is very interesting, I feel that the field in Norway has been very naive in how they work within the institutions and also about how much power they have to define and reproduce structures that can be very violent, for both the artists and the work, and it hasn’t seemed to change in like forever. But there is also something easy in saying “I'm not convinced by a queer, feminist or decolonial project which can't imagine such fundamental change.” Can you try to elaborate further your thoughts on this?
LSH: It is way too easy to say it like that and I don’t mean that things can’t get better within the institutions as they are now. But if we take the Nordics as an example, the general approach to “fixing” inequality within art institutions is to add a few “minority-projects” to the program each season, and then the work kinda stops there. This reduces these social issues to an empty form of representation that eventually leads to what some would call tokenism. There’s a lack of institutions being able to meet the projects on their own terms. A basic example could be how a project is disseminated. Say for example that I’m working on a piece where to verbalise it through a program text isn’t the right way to present it to the public. I don’t remember ever having been in a theatre where I think an alternative to “the program text” would have been an option. It might seem like a banal example, but it’s one of those things that affects how the work is being contextualised and perceived.
The critique goes beyond the personal and isn’t about attacking anyone for being amoral. It can’t be fixed by just one ambitious employee but needs a much bigger collective effort. Most bigger institutions that are supposed to support the freelance art field operate within very standardised structures that everyone more or less has to fit into. These are the types of problems I refer to when saying that we need to think about a more fundamental change. It isn’t just about curating a few minority projects, but all about how the institution as a whole meet, support and nurture the work of whoever has been curated into their programmes.
RSB: After I saw one of the rehearsals a few weeks ago, I was walking home and my imagination was running wild, and I started thinking about Lacan, who writes about how desire is always desired for / for the other, and how being a desired subject means becoming confronted with the social world as inheriting, shaping, and limiting, and as an extension of that, Andrea Long Chu's book Females, that I know you have read and been inspired by, which inscribes itself in a materialistic tradition with Fanon, Silvia Federici and David Harvey. Whatever. Anyway, I came to think of Chu's contribution to theorising the experience of being eroded for another's goals and freedom of action, and your project of trying to create an alternative space to the established classical ballet. I don’t know if these threads are too far out, but I wonder if there is something coinciding with your project. Have you thought about that or do you want to continue this vague train of thought?
LSH: This question goes quite hand in hand with what I mean when talking about assimilation in this context. The current project of many ballet companies is to include bodies and identities that they’ve previously excluded. The intention is probably nice, but I think it’s a misunderstood way of thinking about inclusion. It becomes pretty empty. Inviting a queer body or a racialized body into the institution of the ballet, is in most cases to invite them into a culture that has never offered a sense of belonging. This space isn’t shaped by minorities of any kind and will most likely demand some level of cultural assimilation so it can continue to function. So, where Chu describes the experience of being shaped for someone else’s desire, or through the gaze of someone else, most minority identities who are being invited into the ballet, will sooner or later have to re-shape themselves to satisfy the balletic gaze. This is also one of the mechanisms that I refer to when talking about violence in classical ballet. It’s basically a world of violence and I don’t even think that this experience is exclusive to minorities. Even the straight, white and abled person is doomed to suffer. Especially women. There are just different extremes of how it’s felt.
RSB: I Agree, I think this applies for many institutions, and it reminds me of this quote by Elizabeth Grosz. I can’t find it, so it’s a bit fresh from my memory but I think she writes something like; “We must not only ask ourselves what positions we occupy in space, but also how we occupy them and at the same time turn our attention to the intimate relationship between knowledge and power.”
As I understand Afterlife, you want to deconstruct the ballet's hegemonic hierarchies and mono-culture. The ballet has fairly simple understandings and interpretations of gender and structures, can you say something about how you have worked on creating counter-narratives and other fantasies/desires?
LSH: Yeah, the ballet is a super purist tradition, meaning that it has been developed and structured through a very exclusive segment of western culture and still is to this day. Afterlife is kind of the opposite. Almost everyone who’s been active in the process of making this work would have been excluded for various reasons back in the renaissance. What the product of this process and what new desires might be visible or not in the performance itself, becomes almost secondary. My guess is that most desires visible in the piece will be relatively familiar to most. The work doesn’t really seek that kind of originality. We haven’t been looking to discover something “new”, but rather tried to place our already existing desires into a context where they’ve previously been unwanted or unable to exist. We’ve tried to spend time together in a way that stands in opposition to the objectifying and robotic way in which ballet normally operates. More care, conversation and failing, a sort of anti-perfectionism. From this, various materials have appeared, and there’s an ongoing process of finding ownership and agency within those. The performance doesn’t as such try to fix anything, it rather represents or visualises a process that has only been started.
RSB: You have chosen to show Afterlife at Mimosa, a studio that is not much like a black box. You have a group of performers with very different backgrounds, both formally trained and untrained dancers, and you work with Karoline Bakken Lund who works between different disciplines. Can you say something about how these choices play into the imagining and/or the rewriting? How have you worked together?
LSH: Karoline and I wanted to move the ballet out of its traditional environments which is often opera houses that represents a class and an economy, that feels alienating to probably even most Norwegians. The dances in the renaissance was mostly performed in courts and semi-private spaces. So, the idea with performing at Mimosa, an artist-run workspace organised by Karoline, is to go back to a semi-private but more communal and less pretentious space. We have been discussing the project since very early on, and she’s in charge of the costumes and the making of the space. I’ve always preferred working with mixed groups. It creates more friction and disturbs everyone’s standardised way of performing, producing, and so on. It makes it harder to assume or predict what directions things will take and forces you to somehow be very present in the work. If I were to work with a group of performers all trained in the same tradition, I think the project would automatically be set up for failure. It would end up as this “pseudo work” where we don’t really do the practices that we’re claiming to do. It would just be stupid.
RSB: In a preface you sent to me, Jack Halberstam writes; “if we do not try to fix what is broken then what?” I don’t know, at its core, it feels like Afterlife tries to rewind time, to compose an alternative fantasy where you take responsibility for expanding our understanding of the ballet, something I feel very touched by. After the rehearsal, I also thought of Helen Cixous idea of ‘Écriture féminine’, when she says: “I am not trying to create a feminine writing but to let into writing what has been forbidden up to now” which also resonates for me in relation to what you are trying to achieve in Afterlife. I don’t know exactly what the question is, but maybe to go back to Halberstam, if we do not try to create another narrative, or more narratives and alternative routes, what then?
LSH: Well, some of the ideas that Halberstam writes about in that preface I sent you are definitely present in Afterlife from the perspective of practice. For example, the notion of not trying to fix something that can’t be fixed. Afterlife assumes the thought of the ballet is so deeply rooted in its own complex oppressive systems, that unless it is torn completely down and rebuilt, nothing can ever be truly fixed. So, instead of “fixing” the ballet, Afterlife goes for a space of ‘opposition at a distance’. To go back to your question about not creating other narratives, I would say that we are trying to create other narratives, we just don’t do it inside of the ballet or its already established institution. In the work we adopt some materials from the ballet, like some of the dances and gestures, but we don’t really engage further than that. After all, it isn’t our job to try to fix the institutions that have deemed us unfit to be a part of them in the first place.
Runa Borch Skolseg is a playwright, dramaturge, critic and poet. She has written plays like Peer/Bitch, Det siste Epos and City of Passion. She has worked as a dramaturge and editor for Verk Produksjoner and Mette Edvardsen, and is a part of the interdisciplinary collective Carrie.