And Setting Your City Apart
An interview with Christine Gaigg
It’s basic knowledge that Hollywood is a hub for movie-making and Milan and Paris are hotspots for fashion. Most of us are aware of the fact that Berlin has become the-place-to-be for many artists and “creatives”. Perhaps lesser known, is that Seoul is home to an explosive breakdance scene. Hub, hotspot, the-place-to-be, scene. These are all terms for places with distinct identities that speak to specific groups with similar interests, values and/or professions.
According to Will Straw, professor of Urban Media Studies at McGill University, a “‘scene’ seems able to evoke both the cozy intimacy of community and the fluid cosmopolitanism of urban life” (2001). Sociologists Daniel Silver and Terry Nichols Clark second this approach and go further in saying that to investigate a scene, one must ask “what is in the character of this particular place that may speak to broader and more universal themes?” (2014). In other words, what makes a place special and how does that resonate to the rest of the world?
While scenes interest me greatly, I am equally if not more interested in how and why these seemingly intangible concepts form in the first place. According to many scholars and practitioners, the development of scenes can be the result of what I like to call semi-coincidental alchemy. They arise and develop through a meeting of certain people, at a specific time, given particular circumstances, involving a multitude of environmental, social and political aspects and then poof!, out comes a scene! Kind of. While chance definitely plays a major role in the shaping of a scene, I believe the most crucial variables are the individuals. Especially in an arts scene, artists and their work are at the centre of this concept. Without them, there would be no scene.
This year I was at Tanzquartier Wien (Vienna) as a part of the Carte Blanche professional development exchange program, hosted by the European Dancehouse Network. Vienna is home to a vibrant contemporary dance scene with its own distinct flavour, characterized by its dedication to theoretical and conceptual practice. A place where the definition of contemporary dance is duly challenged and stretched. Personally, I find it intriguing how some of the most boundary pushing performances I’ve seen have come from, or gone through Vienna. A city that on the surface looks like one where emperors and empresses could still be passing by on horse and carriage – a dichotomy I still need to wrap my head around.
When I was there I met with Christine Gaigg, an independent choreographer, dancer, author and director of her company 2nd nature. Christine has a background in philosophy, linguistics and theatre sciences and played an integral role in the development of the Viennese contemporary dance scene and continues to her practice there today. Clearly, I was excited to hear her opinions about the genre; her views on Vienna then versus now; what makes a scene healthy; and of course to hear her discuss her own work. During our short conversation we were just able scratch the surface of what she thinks on the topics discussed. Here is a snippet of our meeting.
Christina Giannelia: From various arts professionals I have spoken with, I have heard that Vienna’s contemporary dance scene is greatly influenced by performance. To many, these two things may seem like the same thing. Can you explain?
Gaigg: First of all, there is not one specific Viennese style. But back to the question, there is a distinction between the two, between dance and performance.
Performance has two pillars. One is from visual arts; the other is from dance. The visual arts performance definition is that the artist replaces material, which could have been paint, video or any medium really, with his/her own body and psyche. There is a performative action, which cannot be repeated because something is being done to the body, which you cannot reverse. You cannot repeat it every night for a new show, making it a kind of singular action. The classical genre within the visual arts called performance art, has become more and more known all over the world, and not just in the visual arts communities. Marina Abramovic is an example of a Performance Artist. In London, what is called ‘live art’ is still mainly connected to this definition of performance art.
The definition that comes from dance, is what I would call an opening up of the possibilities of what is happening physically on stage but still coming from the physicality of the body or an ensemble. To be clear, we are not talking about the term choreography, we are talking about the term performance. So in the dance definition it can be rehearsed and/or repeated but the expressions and means are much broader than what you would call dance from a technical or traditional point of view. I think an important point is that not everybody who wants to do performance has to want to go through a dance education. Dance education takes many years and is not made for everybody. Dance needs a high amount of dedication and discipline and there are many prerequisites that not everybody wants to have. Not at all. Dance requires a certain technical base, so that one is able to do all kinds of physical movement, but also to have the choice to not do any kind of movement.
I have to say that, at least in Vienna, the exchange between the visual art world and the dance world regarding performance and its history is not very active. The two worlds influence each other a bit, but it is as if the visual arts and dance world are both preoccupied with their own histories and not interacting with each other as much as I think they could.
Giannelia: Do you think there is something specific to Vienna that influences the performance and/or dance scene?
Gaigg: In Vienna, we don’t have big ‘dance’ companies. Not to say that it is something that necessarily has to be here. If I compare it with Amsterdam, there they have more explicitly ‘dance’-focused companies. They have highly technical dancers, choreographer who make work for dance ensembles, in theatre settings. This type of typical ‘dance’ does not really exist here in Vienna. We could say that it might not even be necessary here. However, we don’t really have a choice in the matter. The reason why we don’t have a choice – maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing, but the reason is because we don’t have a formalized dance school here. There is a dance school in Salzburg and one in Linz, but not one in Vienna. I think this is the reason why dancers are working in different fields beyond typical ‘dance’ and are more performance oriented. It has been like this for a long time.
Before, I would have answered this question by saying that most people from my generation had to go abroad to get some kind of dance education and that that was a specific influence. Some people went to SNDO (Amsterdam) and others went to PARTS (Brussels). The generation that started to make their work in the 80’s and 90’s mainly went to New York. The people who studied abroad and came back, brought their influences with them. Now, there are younger people coming into the scene and making their own work. The advantage to this is that it is diverse and different things are popping up in the city. Again, there is not one specific Viennese contemporary dance style, which is why I think here performance is the umbrella term and not dance.
But what is it influenced by…? The fine arts scene is a major influence, along with philosophy. There is an exchange because of the theory department at Tanzquartier Wien. Also architecture and public space is a big thing here. These days, I think Vienna has a higher rank in the international landscape than many years ago.
Giannelia: What do you mean by Vienna having a “higher rank”? How did this happen?
Gaigg: Mainly because of Tanzquartier and ImPuls Tanz. Those two institutions attract people from other countries to come to Vienna. Recently people have decided to stay here, whereas before these institutions were established the situation wasn’t as attractive for somebody from outside Vienna to come here let alone stay.
Giannelia: What do you think is the relationship between a scene and an institution, like Tansquartier or ImPuls Tanz?
Gaigg: We worked for 10 years to establish Tanzquartier. By we I mean the scene. We came together, we had discussions to formulate and clarify what we needed and wanted. We had many different ideas.
It became clear that our job in developing the scene was to provide open training for professional dancers, because something like this didn’t exist before. This is because there was (and still is) no major dance school and there were no graduates who needed professional training. But then when people started coming back from being abroad, they needed classes. We held classes, invited teachers from outside and also produced shows. This was a forerunner to Tanzquartier and it was called TJunction. So, Tanzquartier did not come out of the blue. It was really something that we, the Viennese scene, developed.
Giannelia: We have established that there is a clear difference between dance and performance, and that Vienna is very performance oriented, why then, was the name Tanzquartier Wien (Dance Quarter Vienna) chosen?
Gaigg: This is a cultural-political thing. It has to do with funding. For a long time, artists who considered their work to be performance art didn’t know where to apply for funding. But there was always an urge to make it clear that this was a place not just for dance but also performance.
There was and is a sense of togetherness and this is a big reason why this place is the way it is. A lot of people see this place as a place where they meet their family. But now that I say this, maybe it’s true for a just certain generation? What needs to be stronger now, is the sense of togetherness when we talk about what we want in cultural-political terms in this city. For example, how do we want dance or performance to exist here and how can we support its development? The sense of experiment is of high value here. But, to be able to be experiment you have to fight for the right conditions. And for this you need another kind of togetherness. It’s more than just being nice and cozy. You really have to be able to talk.
Giannelia: What do you mean with ‘talk’?
Gaigg: The biggest difference between taking your art form seriously as opposed to doing your art as a hobby, is the ability to be open to have a hard-core exchange with the public, or not. If you take your work seriously, just showing it within the community in a sheltered environment is not good enough. You really have to confront your art with the public. As a scene or an organisation within a scene, you should provide these moments of exchange between artists, their work and the public.
Giannelia: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and work?
Giagg: I went to SNDO (School of New Dance Development in Amsterdam) in 1989. When I went there I had already finished a PhD in philosophy. So I knew I was not going to be a company dancer but I did this study to make my own work. This was clear when I applied. I started to make my own work in 1991. Then I stepped into what I called a structuralist phase, which lasted 10 years starting in 1999/2000. During this period I was with a composer and we built a whole oeuvre on loop grammar, difference and repetition.
In 2010, we opened the festival steirischer herbst (a big avant garde festival) with our performance “Maschinenhalle#1”. At the time, I was also directing theatre, but with choreographic sense. Always with the concept of the physicality of something called dance together with text. There was always a tension between these two elements. Departing from my work in theatre, I changed my path and developed a genre I call “stage essays”. In these “stage essays” I discuss political issues by means of my own texts alongside performers, who can be dancers but also actors. If necessary, I include music. But it’s a different approach than before. Before, I was busy with the material per se, and now I am busy with what I want to say There is always some kind of provocation in it. I have 4 productions in the stage essays genre.
The first one you probably heard of – the Pussy Riot piece “DeSacre!”. In this work I compare the Pussy Riot action in the church with Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. This production has to be performed in a church. The following piece is about the development of what I consider the attitude of our society towards sexuality in general and how it has changed. I made my own conclusions based on observations that I had been collecting over a long period of time. This work is a scene where 3 dancers; 2 women and 1 man, are improvising an erotic scene. At the same time I read bits of my texts, which are not improvised. There is a togetherness in what is happening – oscillating between how I think the situation is today compared to 20 + years ago, which is why this work is called “Maybe the way you made love twenty years ago is the answer?”.
The third piece “untitled (look, look, come closer)” is completely different. There are five tables and they are lit from underneath. At each table 25 audience members are seated while five performers come to their tables one after the other. The performers are simply making things with their hands, and not dancing. What is triggered in the audience, by the performers’ actions, are war images from the media from the past two years. The music was commissioned. It is noise which is very psychologically threatening and very much in your body and in your brain. When you sit there you have the response to flee but you cannot. So you have the feeling of being trapped while you have this ‘stuff’ that is being built before your eyes. The last work is called “CLASH”, and it is about the Orlando Massacre. In this one, I guide the audience through different spaces. They are not seated, they walk. They watch different reenactments and I tell them about the context.
Giannelia: Can you tell me about your next work?
Gaigg: I observe what’s going on in society and politics and if something pops up, it has to be a substantial idea. I am not just searching for something to be busy with. This has to be clear. It will be this way for the rest of my life. I am coming back to where I started. I was never just making a dance for the sake of making a dance. There were and will always be political implications.
For the next work, the plan is to investigate “Maybe the way you made love twenty years ago is the answer?”, which was made in 2014, and to look at what has changed since then and to produce a sequel. At the moment I am conceiving the format for this sequel.
Tanzquartier Wien is currently undergoing renovations and a change of directors. It will re-open in January 2018. I am very curious to see how the new developments of this integral part of the community impact the scene.
Interview March 2017, published September 2017
Banner photo: Lukas Beck