Sabina Perry

Borderless Art With a Dash of Sour Candy Unicorns

Borders define most people’s existence. We sometimes get caught up in the notion that borders are natural, especially when they follow geographic features such as rivers or oceans. Ultimately, however, borders are human constructs, which in many cases enforce a distinction between “us” and “them”. The feeling of “us” can foster a sense of identity, for example, with a nation or a group. This can be a very beautiful thing. But the idea that identity does not need to be constrained by a political border is often experienced when we move across borders, and tested when the ability to do so is restricted.

Today, freedom of movement is being defended, challenged and fought by people and politicians alike. The mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando’s, response to the recent migrant crisis in Europe was to author the Charter of Palermo stating that “mobility must be recognised as an inalienable human right”. The launch of this charter was held at Goldsmiths University in London and was chaired by Professor Anna Furse, of the Department of Theatre and Performance. The location for this event clearly demonstrates that there is no question that politics has its place in the arts. It reinforces what many an artist has said before, creating art is in itself a political act.

photo: Jeremy Mimnagh

Sabina Perry is an internationally acclaimed (read: hot shot) choreographer and dance artist. Her Borderless Choreography is her political act. I can personally vouch for the fact that not only is it her desire to create borderless choreography, she is very capable of doing it. It’s wonderfully inspiring to see when somebody’s desire becomes reality. I was so lucky to catch Sabina in Cologne between her gigs across Europe, I almost literally pinned her down to ask her a few questions. Ok, so I didn’t pin her down. We tucked ourselves under a warm wool blanket on her sofa while we sipped tea and ate vegan sour candy unicorns in her gorgeous Cologne home.


Christina: ‘Borderless choreography’, can you explain this idea?

Sabina: I was born in Canada to American parents. In my early 20’s I moved to Holland where I officially “integrated” into Dutch society, they make you do an integration test. Then I moved to Cologne where I now speak German fluently. Since 2004 I’ve lived and worked around Europe, Canada and Australia. I, myself feel borderless.

But artistically the point for me is creating choreography that can be seen everywhere and not needing a specific cultural context for the audience to “get it”. The ability for a work to be seen everywhere is different from it being successful everywhere. My goal is not to be successful everywhere, but I always ask myself the question “how can I make work that I am proud to show anywhere around the world?” I don’t want to make a piece where someone can say “oh that’s a Canadian, or German choreographer, or a Dutch trained choreographer”. In my life I don’t believe in nationalistic borders and that’s reflected in my artistic practice.

C: Which artists do you think of or inspire you in their borderless-ness?

S: In the visual arts there are many, Anish Kapoor or Jeff Koons for example. But I always wonder if that’s possible for contemporary dance. But I would have to say that Pina Bausch is someone who is very borderless.

C: The late cultural policy expert, Dragan Klaic, once wrote “art can be international but audiences are always local.” Can you respond to this?

S: Well first of all I don’t know that person, but I think he’s a genius for saying that. It reminds me of Funny Girl, one of my latest contemporary dance works. It’s a dance performance that plays a lot with humor. I explored many different types of comedy in the creation process: slapstick, stand-up, painfully embarrassingly funny, which I think is really funny, and loads more. But comedy is very locally based.

In Funny Girl there are two different comedic parts and they were both received completely different in Germany and Canada, the two countries where I presented the show so far. In Germany they were kinda into the stand-up part but when it came to the painful comedy, it killed. They loved watching me trying to be funny, when I wasn’t and thought it was the most hilarious thing ever. They are into that “schadenfreude” thing, you know, the hilariousness of watching someone else suffer. Whereas in Canada they were really into the stand-up comedy but didn’t like the painfully embarrassing part where I am telling the horribly un-funny jokes. I think both parts are funny, which is why I have both parts in my work. My knowledge of the Canadian scene and German scene definitely helped me make my decisions as to what I put in the piece.

I will be presenting Funny Girl in The Hague on June 11, 2017 and I am very curious how the audience receives it. I have no idea what they’ll think is funny – if anything!!

C: How do you define quality for yourself in your work?

S: Being true to yourself. Creating something that you truly believe in and also being able to look at your work through a very critical eye. I ask a lot of people to see my work in early stages, in many different places, different contexts, to a wide range of people. I always invite at least 20 “outside eyes” during the creation process, fine tuning and getting as many opinions as possible along the way. It’s something I’ve always done and will continue to do. I also do public showings before the work is finished. They are not only helpful, I think they 100% necessary. I don’t think it’s possible to make something borderless in a vacuum, for example working with one close confidant/ballet mistress who you have worked with for a million years. I think you are doing yourself a disservice if you do that.

Borderless means the ability for a lot of people to be able to absorb the work. I don’t see any way to do that unless I get a lot of different people into the studio during the creation process. I’ve invited dancers, musicians, artists, organisers, administrative workers, the director of my old dance school – who I know for a fact has a very different opinion than I have. I want to find the one person who can say to me, “I can not watch that one section – that is unwatchable”. Because if I hear that then I can know that I am not succeeding in my attempt to borderless choreography and that I will need to tweak something.

C: Did you ever have someone tell you that something is unwatchable?

S: Yeah, I mean I took a bunch of things out of Funny Girl. Some things that I still think are hilarious. Like some very offensive jokes about pedophilia and all kinds of horrible topics. And even though I still think they are funny, they don’t have a place in this piece if I want to stay true to my own mandate of borderless-ness.

C: Having lived in both cities, how do Toronto and Cologne compare, other than the fact that they both have tall, pokey towers?

The CN Tower wins the weather contest

S: Toronto is a huge city with a relatively small dance scene. Cologne is a small city but the contemporary dance scene is almost the same size as in Toronto. Also, Cologne is very centrally located where as Toronto is more isolated from other larger cities.

The Colonius Tower wins the name contest

C: Why did you choose to live in Cologne?

S: My dad always said vocation or location. A few years back, together with other members of the MDKollektiv, a dance collective that I am a part of, we decided on settling in Cologne because back then it was a ‘small pond’ and so it was relatively easy for us to become ‘big fish’. Also, after living for years in Amsterdam, I felt that it was a bit oversaturated with blonde, female dancers. And in Toronto when I left school in 2004 I had the feeling that everything was staying the same, even though a lot has changed in Toronto since then. In Cologne I feel that there is still a lot of room to grow professionally.

C: Speaking of your profession, why do you choreograph? S: I honestly loved being a dancer. But I got to a point when I had the desire to be emancipated from the hierarchy. I didn’t want to be told what to do anymore. I had the desire to be in charge. And I think once you reach that point you become a really bad dancer. I wanted to move on. Dancing was amazing for 10 years, but I wanted something different. And being a choreographer is so different from being a dancer. Oh, and being a choreographer also pays a bit more 🙂

Sabina’s response to the complexity of borders is a utopian dream to get rid of them all together, in her art. But her multiple identities, created by the different countries in which she’s lived and worked, have guided her creation process. They help her identify what certain cultures dig and what others could do without. With all the feedback taken into account, at the end of the day she is the one in charge – deciding what makes the cut.

Funny Girl is playing at Korzo on June 11 in The Hague, the Netherlands. I showed a little clip of it to my mom and she said “now this is a piece I would like to see!”.

Banner photo: M. Maurissens

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