Peggy Olislaegers – Dance Activist, Dance Dramaturge and Artistic Associate at Rambert
In the finance world risk is the name of the game. How hard are you willing to play? What is your appetite for risk? Are you willing to lose it all? Does that match with your goals? High risk can lead to high returns, but it can also result in deep losses. But wait… This article is supposed to be about dance, right?
Dancers and those working in the dance field face risk on a daily basis. How hard am I willing to play? What happens if I break my foot? What will I do after I retire from dancing at the age of 35? Will the show sell-out? Do I trust enough in my abilities to move across an ocean where the prospects for success seem greater?
In finance the outcome of risk taking is money – earned or lost. In dance, the outcome of risk is the ability to continue doing what you love – or not. Don’t get me wrong. In this world we need money, but we also need love.
Why then, do people work in the dance field? Are they crazy? No, they are not crazy. They simply have an itch that always needs to be scratched. Actually, I’d like to call it a cocktail that always needs to be shaken – a delicious cocktail of passion, drive, dedication and risk-taking. It is often the dancer you hear talking of their travels to far off places in search of that particular mentor, or following their dreams at the cost of long hours in the studio. Dancers’ ability to manage risk is clearly inspirational.
I am extraordinarily privileged to work with many inspirational artists. Peggy Olislaegers, dance activist and dramaturge is no exception. I had the pleasure of working with her while she was the Director of the Dutch Dance Festival. I can’t tell you how lucky I am to have had this lady as my boss. At the age of 50, Peggy stepped down from this position to expand her roster of freelance work with internationally acclaimed, cutting edge artists and future leaders across Europe and beyond.
We met at a busy restaurant in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Over the course of our dinner I asked Peggy to respond to 4 key words I had prepared on cards which she pulled at random. The task was to relate each word to her perspective of the dance world. She did more than that. As with risk, a term that applies to the financial world as much as to the dance world – Peggy’s insights can reach far beyond the dance world. Given this introduction, it’s no surprise that the word on the first card was:
Peggy Olislaegers: I love it! It’s not a negative thing, it’s not related to danger and it isn’t something to prevent or something to be afraid of. Risk is related to potential. Risk is letting go. When you say “ok, I take the risk” you understand that you say yes to a situation that you can’t completely control.
“Inviting yourself into situations where you have to let go is crucial for growth.”
Christina Giannelia: Do you have an example of a risk that you took?
PO: I think that one of the recent risks that I took was saying goodbye to my job as Director of the Dutch Dance Festival.
It’s a presumption of my generation and older that we have the right and authority to keep occupying the director jobs, adding more and more work to it, thinking we should do it all. For me it’s essential that at a certain point you leave so that others can take that space. People see that as a natural thing to do when you are 30 something, perhaps 40. Then it’s still appreciated or seen as normal, but when you are 50, it’s like “whoa, you’re going through a mid life crisis!” – but I’m not!
CG: As a dramaturge, is risk something that you try to stimulate in the practice of others?
PO: Absolutely, but in a warm way. When you work in the arts I think you have the responsibility to embrace risk. But I don’t believe in pushing people out of their comfort zone as a hard and fast rule. Sometimes it is important to stay in your comfort zone – to prepare yourself for the next period of risks.
CG: It is clear you think risk is essential, but you say staying in your comfort zone is also important – can you explain?
PO: It is totally acceptable and also very important for your growth to stay in a context where you can focus on crafting the things that you do.
When you take risk there is adrenaline because there is fear. The Dutch comedian Yoep van het Hek once said “artists are not addicted to applause rather they are addicted to going through fear”. I recognize that from the time when I was still performing. I know how it feels when you are in the wings and you say to yourself “Oh man, why did I say yes to this profession, this is totally stupid!” You hear the audience, you know it’s a full house, you know that the work is good, but you don’t know if you are good enough. And then all of a sudden… 5,6,7,8 the music starts and bang – there you are in front of a full house! That’s the addiction to going through fear – the adrenaline, the excitement and the catharsis afterwards.
And yes, that is super important, but growing older I learned that there are moments where you need to develop yourself in a calmer setting, doing things again and becoming aware of the values and principles that guide you. To understand how we can make our actions more sustainable.
CG: Can you share some of your values and principles?
PO: When I work with choreographers or artistic directors, being able to share a sense of humor is important for me. Also, it is essential that we are both working with an honest learning question – that we are both eager to dig deep in our research. Also, I want to be able to be hard-core and generous at the same time. When I am working in the UK, we talk about being warm but without mercy. A slogan that I use at Rambert is “playful yet profound’.
I also strongly believe in joyful and playful encounters. I fight the presumption that those are opposite to ‘deepness’. There is nothing superficial about joyfulness and playfulness. Both are essential in research.
“I try to break the myth that a truthful artist is a troubled artist. We are all troubled on a regular basis and hopefully we are all joyful on a regular basis.”
PO: Essential, of course. Nowadays it seems more and more difficult to focus.
CG: How do you bring focus to your work?
PO: Knowing what I want to be co-responsible for. If I work with a group of choreographers in a workshop setting, and we still have to get to know each other, the first questions I ask are “What is important to you?” “What makes you happy?” “What makes you fulfilled?” Sometime people freak out. They may think these are superficial questions, but they’re not. If you think they are superficial, you need to find a therapist and not a dramaturge. If you are focused you will meet people who will recognize your focus and who will connect to you.
CG: Have you ever been a part of a process where the lack of focus has actually brought some things forward?
PO: No. But, in a process there are always moments of chaos. There are presumptions that chaos is having no focus. Chaos is not a lack of focus. Chaos is more a result of being playful, a result of inviting possibilities and then being overwhelmed by the potential of things.
On the other hand, a lack of focus sometimes underlines that people have no urgency anymore. And if that’s the case they should take some time off, or quit their job.
“Man, when you are an artist, producer or programmer and you feel that you are bored or cynical or that your focus is fading away – get out! Don’t insult our art form! Get out! It’s ok, we won’t blame you for it, but get out!”
PO: I am thinking a lot about leadership lately, and female leadership specifically. Female leadership for me not related to biological make up and sex, but rather a certain style. For me it’s essential that, especially as female leader, we learn to underline that doubt is a very important tool that leads us to deepening our knowledge. Therefore having the trust and courage to doubt is an important quality of female leadership.
“Doubt is often mistaken for insecurity but being a leader is having the guts to question everything, share that doubt and as a result guide the people you are working with in unexpected ways.”
I am really happy that now I am also coaching several female leaders outside of the cultural world. Coaching is actually not the right word. I am their companion. I try to be next to them, think with them and respond to their questions.
CG: How has your idea of leadership changed over time?
PO: I have met people for whom leadership is related to authority, power and claiming permission to use and abuse their position and influence. It becomes very dangerous when you think that you know everything and that your truth is the only truth. If that feeling of superiority comes in, when you make the other the incompetent other… I am allergic to that kind of leadership.
CG: What are your thoughts on female leaders at the moment?
PO: There need to be more. Absolutely. I think girls are still brought up in a context which tries to define our roles in an old-fashioned way.
I am a mom to two teenagers and I’ve always worked full-time. That is definitely not normal in the Netherlands. Also, I’m married to a man who at certain moments took care of the kids much more than I did, which still is something that seems to raise eyebrows from other moms.
CG: Are you saying that female leadership has to do with the relationship between work and being a mother?
PO: Not at all, oh for God’s sake, no! But trust me, I know how it feels when you are in your 30’s and you don’t have a partner or kids. People may have expectations or suggest things to you in a way that makes you want to say “I’m normal, there’s nothing wrong with me, this is my choice!” Part of female leadership is fighting for the right for every woman to be alone or not to have children, if they so choose. It’s an insult if women are made to believe or told they should have kids!
PO: Everything is useless without a community. It’s so crucial for humankind for every individual to feel part of a community.
CG: How do you approach community and audience building, something that is very current in the performing arts. Can you share your thoughts on this?
PO: You cannot build a community without connecting to colleague human beings. How superior is it to think that you as an individual can connect to an entire group?! Groups are a collection of individuals, so connecting on the individual level is essential.
To build an audience you have to engage with its members. This is why I really like the term audience engagement as opposed to audience education. So, if you want to engage and build your audience and think “you people don’t understand what I’m showing you, but I will help you understand because I know better”, that’s really stupid. You cannot have the presumption that it is your task to inform ‘ignorant colleagues’ to become aware of what ‘it’s really about’… no…. come on!! Of course you can share knowledge but it should not come from a place of superiority where you think you know more than the other.
CG: You are very much connected with an international community across Europe, why is that important to you?
PO: I think nationalism is something to be afraid of if it’s related to feelings of superiority, protectionism and isolation.
“Therefore, working internationally is a political choice.”
Also, I’m a European and I strongly believe in Europe as a continent where there was always a constant flow of people going in and out and a sharing of knowledge and ideas. I am eager to explore how one can work internationally yet learn how to root locally. My work internationally is really important and not just in terms of wanting to work with artists from all over, but I want to meet audiences, or should I say I want to meet people, from all over the world. I want to understand what connects us.
I want to embody the belief that yes, we are connected. We are all looking for love in the widest sense and to have a connection with the human beings around us. That is a very primal need. We all want to be seen and we all want to be recognized and we all want to be loved.
The interview was conducted in April 2017.
Banner photo: Sofie Knijff