The Bologna Conversation
"Today, me, Roberta, I’d like to take responsibility and commit to build a thicker network, with our colleagues for instance." - "In the future, whatever role I’ll find myself to play, now I have experienced from the other participants diverse approaches or solutions to questions or issues linked to dance" Roberta, Greta & their first European project
A whole day in Bologna at Cassero: Daniele del Pozzo, Gender Bender artistic director, animates the conversation with the dance maker Roberta Racis and the dance dramaturg Greta Pieropan. They re-enact the two year project steps proving to have put their professionalism at stake, really.
Bologna, October 1st, 2018
Daniele: Welcome to both of you, I’d start with a consideration on what you were expecting when you accepted to join this project. I’d like you to think on the first-year training, particularly whether this time the training changed something in your development and practice, how was it beneficial to you considering where you were at the beginning.
Roberta: When I accepted to join the project I wasn’t expecting anything in particular in terms of what the experience could give me, and this made it easier for me—it allowed me to completely and freely adhere to the journey we lived together. I came to join the project as dance maker, bringing a range of experiences and practices that already existed and were consolidated. What changed significantly is the focus of course: gender issues and related topics enriched my practice by adding new questions that are bonded tightly to the body and involve a personal, universal and strongly political sphere; and that for sure took me to new body and conceptual paths, to different needs, by embracing a message that probably was already inherent to what I was doing but now it is clearer. Awareness and accessibility were two very important points.
D: Much of the PG journey was based on continuous sharing, on the continuous presence of other people’s gaze on you work. I think that for dancers and choreographers it is simple to transfer something physically, but I believe this project in a good way compelled people who work with their body to verbalize the processes that need to be transferred not only physically. And I think that this continuous gaze on the work of your colleagues brought higher awareness and responsibility. I’d like to discuss with you responsibility, judgment and gaze.
R: I’d like to say something about responsibility. The nature of what we do is ephemeral to me, is something that fleets into and out of view in the same time that it comes to be. Therefore a testimony of what we do is the process itself and its transfer, is looking for the meaning of what we do. For me the research, the process, the transfer and the verbalization of all this (without being restricted only to verbalization) is the testimony of this instant moment. And it is a responsibility: to explain, not only to intellectualize. This was vital in the second part of the project where everything revolves around the sharing with other people. As for the judgement… I think that opening your work to other people is an important moment; it is crucial because in the end exposure is one of the linchpin of what we do. A thin line always exists between wanting to protect yourself and expose yourself. I believe that creating a sense of community, which happened during the project, is also important as far as responsibility, judgement and gaze are concerned. Today, me, Roberta, I’d like to take responsibility and commit to build a thicker network, with our colleagues for instance.
D: Roberta spoke about very strong topics: community, responsibility, she spokes of the attention you have to put between protection and exposure. Your experience in this project is different. I was wondering what was your view on responsibility, sharing, and judgement.
G: I’d start first from judgement, because in my experience, in a country where dance dramaturgy does not exist, everything comes from critics. One of the first thing I learnt in this project, and that I’m still learning, is to transform my judgement in a gaze. A gaze that can be useful, whatever I want to say. Today I’d define useful as something that is capable of allowing an artistic project to grow. To grow does not mean only to improve, because my gaze is open to failure, is open to learning. It also involves learning with someone who express themselves through a language I know but that I don’t experience on a daily basis. Though it was very useful to share the physical practice with either dance makers of the projects because starting a dialogue from the physical practice allows you to create a first non-verbal link and do away with barriers, that are mostly intellectual in my opinion. A link is created, and even if I don’t think about it it takes us on the same level, surely it allows us to start a dialogue being less judgmental of biased. A freer dialogue.
D: When we trained dramaturgs and dance makers at the same time, we somehow compel them to interact among themselves with different means of expression: a dramaturg uses a lot words, thoughts, reflection, which are also part of the creative world of a dance maker, who though employs his body as a tool. You made an interesting point when you said that artistic practice somehow helped you as a dramaturg to open a different synchronicity on a different level. What kind of language should we found to put dramaturg and dance makers in communication?
G: To me language is crucial, also in terms of language barriers. But for me the need for the other participants’ physical presence became evident: first in Leeds, where I realized that meeting a dramaturg meant to start a conversation in a much simpler way. Than I think that the love at first sight for Jija didn’t happen when I first heard about her project—because at that time all projects were interesting — but when we had our shared physical practice in Leeds; therefore our dialogue did not rise from a series of questions about the work but from casual observation of elements we had in common. When in Bassano we shared our classes with the other dramaturgs all reflections and discussions came to be more concrete and useful for the project and the other projects. I think that now, for me and for the practice I’m building—since contrary to Roberta I didn’t have a practice—the important thing is to share at least a little bit of the language or a physical exercise with the dance maker.
D: I ask a mirror question to Roberta: in the relationship with the dramaturg, a role that is just beginning to emerge now in Italy, I wonder and I ask you how did you embrace this change and what did you draw from it?
R: One of the training elements of the project that I find the most interesting was learning by what tools and what means I want to build a relationship with the dramaturg. As so far I had never confront it as an author but only as a dancer, and as you just said the role of the dramaturg barely exists in Italy, and mainly for young—at least choreographically—dramaturgs to be present means to invest money, which is not always feasible. Leeds for me was a crucial time for all of us because we were all there, dramaturgs and dance makers… By the way it was a redeeming meeting because one of the crux still to be solved, or that me as Roberta felt during this project, is the dramaturg’s active and constant participation. In light of my experience and in view of a possible continuation of the project, I’d like to see dramaturgs and dance makers constantly side-by-side in all stages. The relationship with Nina begun as human beings: first our approach was personal rather than professional, when we met we discussed our personal experience and life. That’s a new thing for me: relating professionally form a completely personal point. I also realized that now I don’t want and can’t do without it.
D: Let’s start from the issue of how much did the theme of the project—gender identity representation, how through movement bodies represent precise identities or one’s definitions linked to maleness and femaleness, desire, sexual identity and so on—contribute to clarify to Roberta some of the things that were already present in her research, in her work. I wonder how much did your awareness of your role as creators grow—we are talking about responsibility towards oneself and what we stage or the discourse we are going ahead with. And I say it in a global context in which one of the most powerful shifter of mass opinion is the new awareness for the female role or the responsibility towards how we interact with women. It is not casual, also, that Jija decided to choose, with Greta, 10 female dancers…
G: We chose female dancers that not only are young but that have a specific training and look. It is therefore a thoughtful choice—we wanted them to be able to do anything technically, so we wouldn’t have to focus on learning languages, but give them for granted, and crank up a new series of contents and reflection that we are trying to build with Jija, so that their body can be the maker of something. So being aware of the assimilated language, and perhaps unhinge it, approach it from another angle… We are also working on the other people’s gaze and on the labels that people apply to us at first glance: well, they are already labeled…
D: So it was a conscious choice because you knew that that kind of dancers could suit the research and contribute to investigate that theme…
G: Yes, and it creates a sort of mental disruption within the practice, it disrupts what we all do, label people by their appearance. In our research so far we expect that the audience, when they see the dancers, will anticipate a kind of dance that is understandable, made by someone who grew in front of a mirror looking for perfection. How can I consciously disrupt this mechanism without activating the excuse of “too exotic” or “nice, but I didn’t understand”? How can I make them feel there is something that is not inherent to an inborn practice? Where this practice comes from and why it is so natural is a discussion that follows being mindful about it.
R: First of all—it seems obvious but it is not—the body is a powerful tool. And it is such because it can create imaginaries. Especially imaginaries that are linked to the core and center of this project: gender. One of the main point for me, one of the resources in my baggage of this experience is a higher awareness of suggestions and imaginaries it can create. What I can say now is that I want to try to keep myself as honest and whole as I can, because what I see—without it being a too harsh critic to some approaches—is that gender is trendy, it’s in fashion. So my political act of reclamation can stay honest towards my being aware of my ability to create scenarios, suggestions, body-conveyed messages on gender issues, that now I am definitely more aware of. I feel the need to talk about it, but I don’t want to be in thrall of a slogan: to me adhering to the message, joining the fight should always leave some wiggle room for dissent, for creating movement.
D: Let’s open another topic: internationality. The experience of this first year was talking in a trade language, English, that was the mother tongue of few people, whereas for the others was a sort of passport. It also meant getting in touch, especially for dance makers, with different realities—the partners of the project come from very different geographic and cultural areas, that are also very dissimilar in nature. I wonder what kind of enrichment or experience did you draw from this cross-country dialogue…
G: I think that an international context means enrichment. Each came from different experiences, and different political, economic, structural and artistic language situations, so it is easier to see my artistic work from diverse perspectives and do what I call “be the sponge”. That is to absorb from others anything that can benefit me now of that can benefit me in a few years. Therefore I learnt only by watching other dramaturgs and by listening to their comments or confrontations, even when I didn’t engage in the conversation and made clear right away that I wanted only to be an auditor.
D: What did you learn by watching?
G: For instance I learnt different type of approach to dance makers, I learnt how to start a dialogue by watching how the other dramaturgs did it. I watched how they approached other dance professionals, how they present themselves. I believe it is crucial the way you begin a dialogue and how to do it, that is what I kept an eye on most of the time because for me it is the most difficult thing to do. I also watched how the questions that arose in me as Italian dramaturg were different from the others’, who come from different backgrounds even only in regard to dance. It was very interesting to witness how their sensibility evolved.
D: Did you notice any differences among the diverse contexts?
G: I did, definitely. At least those I experienced or we talked about. Although there are of course similarities among Southern-European countries and among Northern-European countries. A Pandora box opened: we can talk about political context (the panic that the word gender evokes), or about dance (how it is made and how it gets inside a job circuit)… Also it is interesting to discover different ways of approaching problems, because in the future, whatever role I’ll find myself to play, having experienced from the other participant diverse approaches or solutions to questions or issues linked to dance is something that can benefit me.
R: Let’s start with the language: we spoke this broken English, an inevitable Esperanto, and I’d say that it was part of the training as well, as you had to express ideas in a foreign language that are already difficult to verbalize in your own language. The English language forces you to rethink about the way you present your work, to pay attention differently and leading you to simplify. I think that in the long run it was useful since I had to adjust and found myself to get rid of the excess, but without downplaying what I wanted to say of course. As far as the many many meetings… the encounter is another crucial theme of this experience. As from the encounter new questions spring, but also new answers, new horizons; first of all the pleasure of discovery. It is already inspiring to me to be in a city that is not my own, look at people that are not the ones I know, relate with artists that come from a different training, a different reality, who developed other practices and strategies to survive within the European network. Therefore it is a dialogue about strategies and practices that lies outside the mere artistic events and opens up on technical and practical issues we find ourselves set against to. Watching such diverse realities, the way the relate to artists and audience in different geographical context, in the present historical time…
D: What new tool or methodology did you use, develop, employ?
R: As far as the practice is concerned I surely found myself to implement and further articulate my abilities to work solo in the rehearsal room. Never before this experience did I have the chance to compare my work solo and collectively. So I had to interact with my work in the room by my own and develop strategies linked to a schedule. One important tool was for sure the articulation and development of the feedback system, which is not judgmental but assertive—this was a challenge and an enrichment in the articulation of my thought.
G: They were mostly new methodologies to me, because the only one I had and did used was the feedback, but I only had given feedback as part of an organization (as a guest of the rehearsal, or as a go-between the artist and the audience). That is why I tried to developed this methodology by not only standing in the audience’s shoes, but also standing within a research that is only in its infancy, far-removed from being a sketch. One of the methodologies I tried to use the most is to voice images induced by the ideas that the dance maker proposed, and from small movements, sharing all these images in a proactive way (without labeling or imposing them). Work less with words, being less academic and propose more images. That is useful to me mostly in a cross-country situation, because a clear literary-cultural reference for me may be totally unknown to a person who comes from another culture, and there exist the risk of creating a barrier where a dialogue was needed. That’s another methodology I used: work together through a language that may not be shared.
D: Were there instances of true joy, pleasure, connection, that led to new ideas, new motivations in your practice?
G: The purest moment of joy for me begun in Leeds, but definitely it goes back to the week spent in Bassano. It all started when I realized that my supposed weaknesses were in fact common to others and that we shared the same doubts, which were a base to demolish and build over again. Then in Bassano, the highest point probably was when everyone, as dramaturg, opened up to reflection, beginning with the idea of a personal archive and how to share it with others. That was a breakthrough moment, where our creativity too found more space, breaking the barrier of biases we ourselves had built around the role of the dramaturg. It’s pure joy because you experience the freedom of being creative with someone else, who is at the core of your artistic project, but in such a way that you are not subdued to their work. And also, for the first time I could see how I might be perceived as dramaturg, not only as part of the staff of a festival: to be seen with new perspectives and to acknowledge that I too have a voice is a moment of pure joy.
R: Many were the moments of joy, discovery, pleasure, self-awareness, strength, and I’m saying it with a lot of gratefulness towards the experience I lived through. The encounter is at the base of all my reasoning about joy. First of all, the encounter with my other colleagues, who I shared this journey with, was a seminal moment of debate, growth, exchange—a reciprocity that concerned above all artistic practices, as we came from diverse backgrounds; this alone encloses something priceless.
D: Is it possible for artists that come from very different dance practices, training and experiences to work an exchange?
R: It is possible and necessary, as far as I can tell. Given that everyone is allowed to exist, to say “I exist” it is not enough to see such declaration translating into a reciprocity, an acceptance. So we need to be opened to confrontation, and in order to do so we need to prepare the ground for it to grow and avoid thinking this confrontation is external or directing it to a specific end. The context favored us. The project created the context in which real and effective confrontation could thrive among us. At the same time each of us as individuals put ourselves in the position to really open up to confrontation and exchange, with the awareness of our particular differences, with no aim to flattening our practices, with no effort to persuading something was right or wrong, better or worse. And then the exchange was also at a personal level, which is invaluable, seminal, because we are all so different but at the same time we all live the same condition, that is being artists in this moment in history, having chosen to be artists, and therefore we shared doubts, weaknesses and strengths… Then the exchange was, even though more limited, between dramaturgs. I was lucky because I feel this kinship with Nina—but going back to the theme of the project: we are two women motivated by rather strong political intents. How could we make all fit in? How could we not fail our ethics and how could we live the sometimes necessary compromise in everything we do? Then there is another level—the encounter with partners, and I was confronted to politically and personally active people, who are ready to listen and question themselves, which is so important. Then there is an even further level—the many encounters with local artists during the project. I could quote so many names… And finally, just to put more irons in the fire, the encounter with the audience in this loved/hated sharing: they were important moments to probe and sift how much our discourse was clear and accessible, something that may be crystal clear to me can be misunderstood from outside if we are not able to put it across.
D: I’d like to ask an unscheduled question because from your words the picture that comes across is so beautiful. Putting together people that don’t know each other, working for such an extended period of time, through stages that in some instances were really intense and demanding could have created conflict, since among people that meet for the first time patterns of competition may develop. I wonder why in your opinion this was not the case…
G: Because we explained right away that it was a training project and there was no need of showing a finished work, ready to be bought. Also by giving ourselves the chance to work with dancers in a framework of exchange and training for all, and not teaching from a higher point. If there was competition it was of a good kind: work on myself to achieve the level of someone I regard so highly.
R: If there was not conflict it also depended on the fact that each of us, being aware of the opportunity, made a self analysis and did without the superfluous. Which for me, more that competition, is the delirium of vanity, the pressing, cogent urge for self-defense and self-vindication of one’s person, identity, value, uniqueness. Given that the preconditions were good, there was no conflict as each of us didn’t feel this pressing urge to vindicate something, to defend one’s positions at all costs, so there was much mediation and dialogue. If for instance I think of what could have led to quarrel, that was the exposure of the process: to what extent, how, how frequently do I want to open my creative process to people outside such process? Each of us has a different view on it—we discussed it and there was no conflict because there was mediation.
D: This is something that becomes evident to me now that you are telling it, I didn’t consider it before. But it’s really important.
R: On the subject of mediation between what was our work as dance makers and what surrounded it. How frequently do we want to meet the local partners? How does the dramaturg get involved into our practices and in the organization of the workshop? Of course we all had different opinions, but together we could find a mediated solution. Even the idea of the nature of our group was mediated: what is a group? What is identity? What is an artistic signature? What is research? How important is it for me? To what extent do I feel I need to defend my identity?
D:It seems to me that the group of dance makers was not a passive part but it was very assertive and active when it came to find solutions to proposals within a schedule, an order of activities. Next question: are you willing to discuss potential moments of real change that were fundamental for you and your practice? What about the moments in which you felt the most uneasy or challenged?
G: The twist might have been the time when we were coupled to the dance maker. That’s when you understand that the change has to be made also inside you as dramaturg—there is a change of pace and perspective that makes you becoming aware of your role, that compels you to ask questions on your work, on the skills you may have and how to adjust them to that specific dance maker. I think I was never really uneasy, but of course I was aware of my lack of experience, which triggered in me the consciousness of “I must be good and ask the right questions”.
R: I experienced a moment of radical change in Leeds, where I understood what I was translating that whole experience into, and that was clear also to those who came to see us during the sharing. I still tenderly and movingly treasure some of the things that Michelle D. wrote; she said that from the sharing she drew the desire to dance with me. That was a cathartic and liberating moment because up to that time I had never imagined I could provoke such feelings in someone who is watching me. I must also say that Madrid was another important moment, though not so easy, as for the first time we had the rendition of the end-of-the-journey sketch in a non-conventional performance space. It was a difficult but enriching time because this proximity, which I hadn’t considered at all in my work, offered me once again a different and new approach to the material I had. s'Hertongenbosch was a time of closure, that opened my eyes on the fact that I think I have a job I care for and I wish to continue to work on. Here in Bologna at Mit was a rather important time of exchange. I still remember a question posed by Gabriel: why can’t I and you can? Such question would probably discouraged me year ago, because I would have thought: “He’s right, what do I have to say on this theme?” Instead I aimed to the semantics.
The project is called Performing Gender and I am a performer; as for the second word, gender, I believe I have the right, the need, the duty to talk about gender from a point of view that may differ from the view of the majority within performing art.
I identify myself as a woman, I am straight, I’m a dancer who comes from a certain world, I experienced and I still experience every day on my skin gender-based violence, I have borne its consequences, I live with them on a daily basis and I can and want to talk about it.
D: One of the strengths of such question is who has the right to speak about certain things? And what is the artist’s role? Gabriel asked the questions but also answered it: after watching your works he said that you had performed and displayed in front of him his worst fears. One of his worst fears was standing naked in front of a mirror, something he recognized in Sophie’s work, which in turn she had translated from her experience with disabled people. That Gabriel reaches an answer passing through the experience of bodies with different abilities is an earthshaking translation process that only artists can make, I think that was one of the key aspect of the project—“Why you?”, because I think artists that work with the body are responsible of representing identities that otherwise cannot be described in words, given their mysteries and taboos.
R: Also because I find it super dangerous to say that only certain people can talk about certain topics. Where is activism otherwise?
D: And further more: if only those who had that particular experience can talk about it, than dialogue is no longer possible…
R: And it won’t be possible to make art any more!
D: Also: it won’t be possible to create a community, to create exchange, because if the ownership of such an experience is only mine, then you can’t add or say anything about it, ruling you out of a potential dialogue.
D: Can you summarize themes, analysis, discussions, connections that emerged during the training weeks of the project?
G: From a dramaturg point of view the single fact of first asking yourself if there is a definition of your role; of exchanging definitions; and also asking how to balance this role in your real life. How does this role integrate daily life? Does this role allow you to have weaknesses and to share them? What is your stance toward the artist? Do you ask them what is their idea of a dramaturg? Do you adjust yourself to it or do you attempt to find new methodologies? How much of ourself do we take inside a research that is not our own? To what extent should you rely on external sources of images and materials? What is the distance you want to put in-between?
R: Discussions and confrontations were diverse and touched upon connected but manifold topics. First we asked questions on our practices, on how we are able to translate in practice our questions on gender issues, what kind of access do we want to offer to our work. To what extent am I willing to mediate? How much do I open up or close down? What does being an artist mean? What does being an activist mean? So what is the boundary between form and substance and how much is form important?
D: I’d like to deepen the activism topic you just touched upon. Also because it can be addressed in many different ways. I ask you specifically what is the meaning of activism for you, both in dance and in gender, and how (or if) did your view change thanks to the project.
G: My idea of activism changed during the project, mainly because it became more real and less ideal/idealistic. I think I experimented what at heart I already liked to believe, but that I hadn’t really experienced yet, getting my hands dirty—it’s a sort of artistic activism, that sometimes can be even hard, front-line activism, which by using a different kind of language can be more inclusive or engaging. My idea of activism doesn’t mean only being active or being in the front line, but also being active in intercepting society’s dangers, needs, questions, and knowing that you can’t fight everyone’s battles, but you can for sure practice an intellectual activism.
D: We spoke before of transfer and generations. We had PG 1 and PG 2, and you – not all of you – had the chance to meet two artists that worked in the previous project. Did you have the opportunity of asking them how PG 1 influenced their work and their research?
R: We did, and I think that from speaking to Amy, Giorgia and Poliana it is clear that the effects and results of what happened during the project reverberated in the long run, even because an evaluation means also gaining awareness of what the project gave you. Since the range of experience the project brought in your life is so many-sliced and wide, I think some things you can evaluate only after some time.
D: Going back to activism—where do you stress it in your artistic practice and where do you think it was stressed in the project.
R: As a matter of fact I think activism is a way of being inside things, an active, not a passive, diseased way to see the world and see works, to desire exchange and to find solutions and strategies for this exchange to happen in a non-constraining manner. What I mean is that activism cannot be taught, cannot be revealed as an absolute Truth—is is an offer, it is giving voice to something I feel urgent, give it a shape that meets my desires and my imagination of dancer and performer. How do you translate this? It is translated into my attempt of staying honest; of defending my artistic intuitions even to the cost of clashing against tastes, interests and trends; of opening towards my colleagues; of quitting thinking myself at the core and unique, but of downsizing me, because this is also activism, as you are listening for real to other people without regarding them as “stupid” because they don’t understand you.
D: Let me add my view on activism; I believe the activism in which I recognize myself and I recognize in the project is also to be active and assertive parts who affect a reality in order to change it. Of course I work on a double dimension between operating to make a change of cultural perspective, and the role of the festival within the dialogue between artistic production and the public. I think my definition of activism is the inclination to operate inside the reality in order to make a change. The last question concerns the professional outcomes. I think one secondary but relevant aspect of the project is the possibility of connecting with other countries’ artists, which means opening up job opportunities in the offing. Can you both add something on this?
R: Encounter and exchange are enriching—the first interpretation is the encounter with the European dimension, and in my case to interact with 11 young artists based in the Netherlands. As a consequence my comparing my proposal and their experience and background will enrich my practice. The second interpretation is: I’m getting in touch with a space, a production center and a way of interacting with artists that are different from those I knew before. Hence many perspective open up, enrich you, and show you new possibilities.
G: I agree, perspective are opening up for everyone—we mustn’t forget that these dancers meet a dance maker that in the future might want to work with them; what if among the dancers there is the new contemporary dance Messiah who will call the dramaturg of the European project to curate his new grand production… This outlooks will find shape over time. But they are made possible thanks to the privileged space of this European project, in which you have the chance to prove your other professionalisms to partners that might already know you in other roles. It is a pool of opportunities: it might appear that the project will stop with the end of its events in calendar, but I’m sure it will go on thanks to its future outlooks.