I first encountered the Croatian-born choreographer Ivana Müller in 2006 in New York, during the Springdance Dialogue, an international gathering of dance artists organized as part of the Netherlands festival. A year later at the festival itself, in Utrecht, I saw her work “While We Were Holding It Together.” It made immediate sense, connecting that intense and humorous meditation with the strong, fiercely articulate and political individual I had met the year before.
Recently, Ivana and I reconnected—this time over Skype—to talk about “While We Were,” which was made in 2006, and can be seen here in its entirety.
Q: How do you feel about “While We Were Holding It Together” five years after having made it?
A: Just this weekend we have been performing the piece in Frankfurt, the original cast; there are four different casts that perform the piece. It’s a little bit like “Cats” the musical (laughs) …No I’m just joking But this brought a lot of interesting reflection about the piece in itself. The text is so specific but then so open at the same time, it can be read differently in terms of time and the place where it’s performed. For example, there was a sentence about Japan in the piece when we made in 2006, somebody says “I imagine we are Barbarella and The Bandits. We are now in Japan. Hello Tokyo!” And then there is the sound of emergency vehicle. Today it has very different repercussions.
And that’s actually the strong point in this piece. It has this direct connection to what’s happening in the world—it’s almost a matrix, a kind of machine that can produce reflection or imagination in different contexts. It works like this almost with every show: if you have 100 people in the audience they will make 100 slightly different versions in the show. They relate to it according to their own experiences.
Q: For me, a big part of the drama of this work was the juxtaposition of the freedom of imagination I had, as a viewer, and the increasing tension in these still bodies; they were like captives in a way
A: When you give somebody a very defined and limited space to maneuver, but a space that can be developed in depth, people really have a sense of being free. If you come to see theater shows that give you too much possibility as a spectator, you will not feel welcome. In this kind of context it’s a very limited and a very clear format, but people really get into it.
You can choose, actually, the way you look. And the way you participate as well. It’s very clear: if you don’t participate this whole piece falls into bits, it doesn’t make any sense. Because nothing really spectacular is happening. Although the fact of being immobile for almost 70 minutes is quite physical and quite spectacular as well.
Q: It’s a cumulative spectacle in a way?
A: Yes, but it goes in a very different direction of what we are used to seeing as spectacular. And to be perfectly honest, the idea wasn’t to create something spectacular, it was to get into the movement by the omission of movement. When we speak about spectators, how this specific condition creates a form of empathy. A lot of people told me, “Because they can’t move on stage, I felt I have to move more, to compensate.” And other people felt, “Ok, if they don’t move, I don’t want to move, either.” The experience of the body the spectator has in this show, it’s very interesting, it’s very present.
Q: How does that spectator-artist relationship change, when someone watches this work as a
A: The spectators who will watch this only on a video will get a more intellectual idea about the show. The experience of this piece can be lived only in the moment of theater, it’s made for that context. What influences when watching the piece is how the people in the room are reacting, how we as this instant community of performers and spectators create an instant reading of this piece. And because what people will watch in the video was recorded in 2006, obviously there are things that have changed, and they will not see those changes. We have all aged for five years—the difference between someone at 30 and 35 can be really big (laughs). Also I think what is really interesting, to watch this piece in one go, not to make breaks, to go and get a phone call or get popcorn (laughs) … when you are in the theater you really give yourself up to that time, and are engaged in that timeframe. When people watch it on the internet it is totally different.
It’s also true that participation in the theater is a whole different story. This piece happens only because those people come and watch it there. So this physical act of getting together, making an effort, being there, makes it happen in a totally different way than television. Television is like tap water, it runs whether you are there or not. The question of engagement is very different. We can never see this piece as work in itself in the context of television, we can only see it as documentation. And that’s very important. It wasn’t made in a televisual dynamics. There are no moments that are cut out or sped up, it really respects the theater time, which this was made for. Nils De Coster, who did the documentation, made a wonderful work. It’s really very difficult to watch something so still. It’s important that the spectator always has the notion of a total image.
When one of the performers describes a situation, that situation doesn’t describe only her or himself, but everyone on the stage: for example, “I imagine we are a band on tour…” The spectator all the time zooms in and out, looks at the specific person, a specific body part, and then the total image. This freedom of gaze that each spectator in theater has, you cannot relive in the documentation of it.
Q: What does it mean to be a political artist in 2011, in general, and specifically for you, as a Croatian living in Paris?
A: First of all, I think that being political in theater means we don’t employ the same ways, the representation of the political – it doesn’t really work to scream slogans anymore, because the publicity industry doe this already. Every single advertisement on television screams slogans. I think we have to be in some way like smooth operators. The physical engagement in this event, creating a community, that is already a political statement. Europe is becoming increasingly more conservative, right wing, less ready for experiments.
Going to theater, especially this kind of theater, which is not repertory, something known for 500 years, it is almost a statement (laughs). I think that in that sense, an engagement for me coincides with the idea of being a citizen, that we are aware of our context.
On the one hand, it’s not nice working without money. But the less money we have the more marginal we are, and then we can be let alone, we can develop ideas, ways of working and living, that can later influence the mainstream. John Godard said, it’s the margin that keeps the page. If you create a very strong movement on the margin, that will create an influence on the center as well.
And then if I think about being Croatian, I was most of my life really living as a foreigner, even in Croatia, and somehow this position was always very useful for me. It’s a very personal feeling I have, or experience I have. This being a foreigner gave me some distance to the place. It made it easier to see the world around me in slightly different way, because I hadn’t inherited a specific way of looking, a culturally based way of looking at things. I’m not only speaking about nationalities, but maybe it has to do with ways one wants or doesn’t want to establish oneself in a certain practice. Here I’m talking about disciplines, a certain way of working. It’s interesting to keep fresh eyes …
Q: With this in mind, do you put any adjectives in front of artist in thinking about yourself – European, or Contemporary? Or do you try to avoid those associations?
A: I get those adjectives anyway, every time I go to another context. There are different agendas, they want to label you. I’m aware of that, but I don’t really claim one as a potential territory that could protect me or promote me.
Q: The term “conceptual choreography” has been used in recent years to describe a lot of new work. I remember attending a panel once to address the work of so-called conceptual choreographers, and one of the panelists began by saying he had no idea what this meant, and didn’t accept it as a label.
A: Yeah. It’s a term that, also, maybe it was useful at a certain moment, to distinguish some specific way of working, but now… Every choreography I think is conceptual (laughs). You always work in concepts, right? Even in historical moments, everybody worked with concepts.
Q: Artists in New York are sometimes frustrated by the insular audiences contemporary work attracts. Do you share this frustration?
A: Luckily I have been performing my work in many different contexts, including big festivals with more open audiences, audiences that are not only practitioners…Yes I think it can be frustrating if you all the time see only the same crowd, but I’m on the other hand definitely against this populist way of thinking, that one should have to develop a large audience. Some work is just not meant for a large audience; it can be better to work within a small context.
Q: What have you been working on lately?
A: Last year was extremely busy in terms of productions. In October I did a solo “60 Minutes of Opportunism.” Artists are public speakers, we have a power to change people’s opinion and way of looking, so this was very interesting and also, I have not performed myself for many years— it has been very challenging (laughs) .. and I have lately done, for the first time in my life, a piece for children. So, it’s a conceptual piece for children, if you want (laughs). I have a big problem with the relation of children and adults in the context of children’s theater. Often adults pretend to be children, which is horrible, or the adults write text for children. When I watch these kinds of pieces, I cannot be critical; you always have this feeling, “Oh, they’re so cute.” You are manipulated, so to say, with the charm. And of course it’s not the children’s fault, it’s the whole setup. And I was thinking, :How can I do something in this area, which is troublesome?”I thought, “Ok, the kids will be spectators and performers, as well.” It is basically an audio piece, where children get headphones and instructions, and they make their own piece. Now I am preparing a lengthy project called Encounters. It’s like a long choreography based on the idea of thinking in public. I see it as a series of pas de deux (laugh)s in which different ideas and concepts can be moved around, and danced. But when I say “danced” I don’t mean really dancing it, but provoking some kind of movement in relation, between all those couples, like spectator and performer, image and text, backstage and front stage—all those couples that make theater theater.
About Ivana Müller
Ivana Müller is a choreographer, artist and author of texts. She grew up in Croatia but most of her life lived and worked as a foreigner.
Müller’s dance and theatre performances, installations, text works, video-lectures, audio pieces, guided tours and web works have been presented in venues and festivals such as Rotterdamse Schouwburg, STUK Leuven, brut Vienna, Frascati Theater Amsterdam, Kampnagel Hamburg, La Villette Paris, Wiener Festwochen, Theatertreffen Berlin, DTW New York, National Museum of Singapore, Saddler’s Wells London, Springdance Festival Utrecht, HAU Berlin, Centre nationale de danse Paris, Kaaitheater Brussels (for a more extensive list of works and venues please look at the page WORKS).
Some of the recurring subjects in Müller’s work are body and it’s representation, self-invention, place of imaginary and imagination, notion of authorship and the relationship between performer and spectator.
In 2007 Müller received the Charlotte Koehler Prize from the Prins Bernhard Funds (NL) for her œuvre, as well as Impulse Festival and Goethe Institute Prize for her piece While We Were Holding It Together.
Ivana Müller is one of the founding members of LISA (2004 – 2009), a collaborative production and discursive platform based in Amsterdam.
Ivana Müller lives in Paris and Amsterdam and works internationally.
Classical TV contributor Claudia La Rocco writes about performance for the New York Times and is dance editor for the Brooklyn Rail. She is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts’ graduate program in Art Criticism and Writing, and has taught and lectured at a variety of universities, festivals and institutes. She is a member of the Off The Park poetry press, where she is currently editing an anthology of poems by painters. Her poetry and arts writing have appeared in such outlets and publications as Artforum, failbetter.com, Slate, WNYC New York Public Radio and the anthology “Viva la Difference: Poetry Inspired by the Painting of Peter Saul.” She lives in Brooklyn.
We are glad to co-present this piece between ClassicalTV and dance-tech.TV (http://dance-tech.tv/) in special collaboration with dance journalist Claudia LaRocco.
Marlon Barrios Solano
While We Were Holding it Together by Ivanna Muller is the inaugural piece of the dance-tech.tv on-line series Choreography or ELSE: Contemporary Experiments on the Performance of Motion (launched in January 2011) presenting complete works on-line of more than 30 international contemporary artists.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.