“A space for grief – and overcoming it.”
Interview with Lee Méir, André Lewski und Lidy Mouw on their production “von hier nach dort”
Interviewed by Elisabeth Nehring | 1. November 2021
Elisabeth Nehring: Hello to all listeners, my name is Elisabeth Nehring, I am a journalist and today, as part of the explore dance Journal, I am conducting an interview with artists who have worked on this project. I am sitting here together in a studio in Berlin with Lee Méir, choreographer, dancer and performer. With Andre Lewski, director, actor and performer and joining us is Lidy Mouw, artist and dramaturg. And she's sitting in the studio in Uppsala, so she's not with us right now. It's good that you are here. Today we are talking about your production "from here to there", a production that deals with the theme of farewell. You described it like this: it deals with what it means to say goodbye to people or just the many big and small things that you grow out of and together with the children you created a farewell tour to, as you write, celebrate the miracle of life. Why did you choose the theme of farewell for a production with children?
Lee Méir: Well, when the proposal came from the fabrik Potsdam to do a production for children, I asked myself what kind of theme would be important or would be interesting for children and just before that time, about a year before, my mother died and when she died in that time I realised that we don't deal with death that much, even though death hits us all, we don't talk about it that much and somehow we don't have the right tools to deal with death. Somehow, I thought ok, I'm an adult and we're me and my sister and family and we're not children but still in this meeting with death we're all children because we don't understand it, we can't understand it but it's going to hit us all and that's why yes this idea came.
André Lewski: Yes, and we also realised at that moment that there is a need to create our own rituals and to deal with this topic. And with this farewell. Because the official rituals offered by the religious or non-religious side were not enough for us to deal with this matter, and it is the same for children, for example, if you look at the classic German funeral, at least in the area where I come from, children are not allowed to attend the funerals, they usually stay at home.
EN: Where are you from, André?
AL: From the rural area in northern Germany. The children are usually at home and are somehow played with, but they don't really have a chance to say goodbye to their grandparents. And we also had talks in Munich with a psychologist who deals with the topic of farewells and death and children and communication, and we were confirmed once again how important it is to give children, as Lee says, tools to say goodbye to small and big things in everyday life as well as in special situations in life.
Lidy Mouw: This farewell, which is now connected with death, is of course one thing, but it is also much more mundane, this saying goodbye and really closing things off, ne, so in our society it is always about keeping things open, one says, creating another possibility and thus also really closing something off. That's something that's often missing in our society, and learning to do that or finding ways to do that better for yourself, whether you're a child or not. I think that's one thing that's very important in our lives and, well, of course it's the same with death and saying goodbye in the sense of a part of life or a phase of life is completed and also opens up a new possibility, so to speak. To reconcile or to come to terms with the same subject, maybe even, and that is something that is very, that is really completely left out in our society. It's always about moving things on and moving on, but never coming to an end.
EN: I'd like to follow up on what you said about the rituals, André, because the thought just occurred to me: you come from very different countries and cultures. Did you also address your own origins and the way you deal with death or farewell when you developed the concept? Because I can imagine, Lee, in Israel it's a completely different way of dealing with things.
Lee: It's a different way of dealing with it, but for example my family is not religious, and we realised very quickly that as a, how do you say, secular, you kind of look for a ritual, because you have to leave this time like this somehow now and we have tried as a family to develop our own rituals that have nothing to do with religion, but that they also have a spiritual level for us, and there is a custom in the Jewish religion, which I find beautiful is that when someone dies you have seven days where you stay at home and so friends, family, all the people who want to respect the situation, then they come over and they bring food and I find that quite beautiful because it's such a long week. And that the people who are grieving, they don't do anything like that.
AL: They come with food and you comfort each other and the pain is divided up a bit and whenever someone can no longer comfort you, someone else takes over. Then there are also times through the exhaustion, through the seven days, when humour can somehow arise and the whole thing loosens up and you go through a lot during this time and exactly the rituals that we did a bit during these seven days was that we made handicrafts and while we were busy with our hands, we reflected on the farewell in the conversations, which then also became part of or influenced the ritual that we developed with the children.
EN: So the ritual you developed was inspired a bit by customs in Israel?
Lee: My mother was also, she used to do a lot of crafts with us when we were children. Me and my sister and so for us it was quite natural to say goodbye to her by doing handicrafts. EN: Before we get to what your production looked like, how you created the concept, what was involved, I would like to hear from you again: you worked very closely in a team and I would be very interested to know how the collaboration went and what tasks you each had.
Lidy: We started as a team of five, and we basically did an exercise for the whole group on how to deal with the topic, so we experienced many different approaches to the topic and then a certain form emerged, so to speak, that we all liked and where everyone actually found a couple in it according to their inclination and also their interest. It was clear that it would be very participatory. And then it came about quite naturally, who did what. We then reworked it several times, because of course Corona always brought up new situations and we adapted our performance to them. Among other things, the fact that there are three of us doing it now is a consequence of that. But this has actually become a definite task in the sense that we hadn't set ourselves before. It came out of the process.
EN: And can you nevertheless make it a little more concrete? So how do I imagine it?
Lidy: Maybe it's even interesting to say that our roles are almost interchangeable for each other and we were also looking for a format that is actually also user-friendly for all people. So even that, what we have developed now, which is really a performative act in the end - a ritual as a performative act - but which can actually be done by many people, so the priesthood in the ritual is quasi very low profile and very easily doable for every person, and I actually find that quite great about it.
EN: Could you describe the format of "from here to there"? We've already heard "ritual", "participatory" - maybe you could give us an imagination of it, a description of what the whole thing looked like.
Lee: Yes, I just wanted to say that the way we worked together was that a lot of this work was "thinking and talking work", where we just had to imagine what would happen if we had 30-40 children now, and how much do we have to structure and how much space do we leave? We just had a lot of conversations. There were certain things that were my job or André's and Lidy's, for example, I did the costumes, that was my area, and André and Lidy clearly wrote the moderation.
EN: Describe it to us again, what happened, and then maybe we can imagine it with these different roles, which were also so interchangeable.
AL: Maybe first of all, we had contact with children very early on in our first residency in Potsdam. I think it was already in the first week, on the second or third day, where we practically prepared something with a rough sketch and then already had children in there who then did a ritual with us. And there was a relationship between practice and theory, or theory and practice, and we practically adapted the structure of the piece to the experiences we had with the children. A big point was then also, at what level of participation should the whole thing work? So it's really still meeting at eye level with the children, or it's a pseudo-participation where you actually lead the children all the time and determine what is to be done, and it was clear to us pretty quickly, or actually clear from the beginning, that we are striving for almost an eye-level relationship, as far as possible, in order to do justice to the theme and this, as Lee Eingang said so beautifully, that you yourself are also a child in encounter with farewell; with death. And that the beautiful, unifying thing is to create a situation where both we and those who participate in the ritual from the outside open up and get involved in these one and a half hour encounters with saying goodbye and dying.
EN: So the research and rehearsal process always took place in exchange with children?
Lee: At the beginning more, but later less because of Corona. Yes, but exactly this mixture of theory and practice was always so important, and I always find that important in participatory performances. And for the description of the piece: we always start outside; the piece starts outside and there we have a little introduction where we present the theme. We already make a close contact with the children, so it is clear that when we come into the space, we do something together. There are no spectators, audience and performers; the performance is what we do together. And then outside we have a little ritual where we leave everyday life outside and we try to leave our thoughts about everyday life outside so that we come in on another level.
EN: What kind of ritual was that?
Lee: Yes, you wash your hands and then we have a cloth like this and we knot this cloth into a string and so we stand in a very big row and everyone knots their last everyday thought onto this string.
EN: And then inside in the interior?
AL: Inside the interior - to continue - there is a lot of material that is already there. It's a whole landscape, a farewell landscape. There are natural materials, costumes, musical instruments, self-made musical instruments. It is perhaps important to mention that we only worked with recycled materials in the sense of a life cycle. We went to the recycling exchange here in Berlin and looked at what materials were available and how we could use them for our pieces. This also means that what is then practically used in the evening or during the performance is then recycled again for the next performance and parts of the things that are created will then always have a place in the next performances. So that the performance itself always grows and the traces of the last performance remain present in the next one. There is this farewell landscape, and then we all come into this space holding this cord, together with the children and the adults who are there - it is a piece not only for children, but let's say from 8 - 99, a family piece - and move through this farewell landscape and then first form a circle. And then everyone happens to arrive at a place where there is a costume, and that is then practically the work clothes for saying goodbye. Then the first transformation takes place. You put on these colourful costumes, which are later changed even further in the process of the play, and then the string is taken up again. And then you actually come to the first joint activity, which then also physically deals with saying goodbye again, perhaps Lidy can describe it further.
Lidy: Mhm okay, so maybe again about this space that you enter. André, you said landscape, I would describe it more as an installation. Like a kind of floor installation, where there are concentric circles with different materials. They are really arranged as circles and we work our way further and further outwards and everything that is used from these materials ends up in the middle, which means that afterwards the room is completely empty and everything that is in there has been transformed. So we noticed that this idea of transformations is very important to us, and ok, after this first phase of transformation with the work clothes, it is then a matter of weaving a web of stories of farewell, in other words, to go into the memory of each individual and each individual also tells his or her experience, a story that he or she has experienced. Or even several, when it comes to saying goodbye.
EN: That means you asked the children about your experiences and theirs, and they share that with everyone else?
Lee: The idea is that all the adults, including the teachers and us - we also share our experiences. It's that eye level with the children.
EN: How many people were there at the performance generally?
Lee: About 30.
Lidy: It's actually always such a movement from the individual into the group, so it's actually linked to the biographies of each individual. Because our stories are woven together in this way, because they link to each other. That's what we actually do. So there are a lot of threads. In principle, we are building a web of stories that deal with saying goodbye, and you really have to imagine it quite concretely like a net. There are about a hundred threads that want to be tied together, but each one of these threads is a story, and it wants to be told. And that's why in the end even the smallest pieces of thread are also "counted", so to speak, aren't they? I don't know how you can say that, so there is a story in it too and the interesting thing is that the children take it very seriously. It's no problem at all for them to abstract that there is a story in each of these threads. They also like the idea of going back to their own thoughts in order to keep some kind of order. That they think "oh no, but this is my thoughts here". So these knots on this rope. What we've noticed is that it's very nice for children to have something to do in this way, even during the storytelling. It's different if you have to proclaim something and the words have to fit exactly or if you can simply pause with the thought. And then you just wait. The nice thing is that it is a performance with a very special speed, namely a meditative one, that is, that is the part that is done and then this net becomes three-dimensional through, yes, bollards, I would say. Then this idea of landscape comes to life, where this net, which was flat, suddenly comes to life by being high or deep. So all these stories are brought into a kind of landscape through 3 bollards in principle. And through that you now have a kind of net, and then we jump from the past, which is in all these stories, into the future. André, maybe you can tell us about that?
AL: Yes, then the question is what you would miss in life if you couldn't even take part. And we don't verbalise that directly now, but we have paper and crayons in the next circle of materials, which is after the work clothes. And then you can either write down or paint these thoughts, i.e. what you would miss, and then insert them into this small landscape of memories that has already been created. That is to say, these bollards or these death peals, as Lidy says, have holes, are perforated and you can then roll up the secret thoughts that you don't want to share and push them in. It's like branches coming out of a tree and the things you want to share, what you miss, you can then openly knot into the net so that other people can read it.
Lidy: After that, we go on to look at that and then it's about making another goodbye, which you might not have done properly or which you might want to do again, by making a kind of representative for what you want to say goodbye to or say goodbye to again. And we do that in principle with dead materials from nature. So branches, all kinds of things that have dried up, so to speak, and then we make a representative of what we want to say goodbye to again, together, each of us individually, of course also sitting with each other, sometimes also in smaller groups and making a representative, so to speak, of what we want to say goodbye to again. And that also takes half an hour. It's a slow story, but it takes time and the children find it very nice to do it, because it's about imagination, but of course it's also about having time, because that's exactly what's problematic and we often don't have enough time. So many children are still there and many children or adults, when they have finished whatever they have done, look at it and think about it and also watch the others. There is something very calming about seeing other people so absorbed in their things; in the things they are doing. Yes, it brings a certain mood.
AL: And I would add that in the overall course of the performance up to that point, this time that is now spent, from my observations in the last performances, also serves to deal more deeply with the subject. That means that the first tears come, especially from adults, who are quite moved. And of course there is an equal need to talk about it immediately and to exchange ideas and comfort each other, and this half hour of handicrafts also serves the function of forming small groups everywhere who tinker with these representatives next to each other and comfort each other and share their stories of farewell.
EN: First of all, it sounds to me like a strong community experience, that a group that maybe doesn't necessarily know each other, because maybe not all the children know each other's parents, for example, or so, that suddenly such a community develops in dealing with this topic and of course the question immediately comes to my mind, what sensitive and problematic points were perhaps touched by the participants, whether they are 8 or 40?
Lee: So far we have only worked with school classes. The children have always known each other. Yes, there have been a few times when children became sad, and I found it very, very beautiful how they support each other so much. For example, there was a boy who really cried because he missed his grandpa so much. But what was nice, he was just there and his friends were with him and supported him, but they all kept everything going like that, that didn't scare anyone crying like that. What I was totally interested in is what kind of social or shared experience it is, because it's also like, the rules of society, like "Now we have time to be sad, but then we have to do something else", because there's always a limited time. And because the play is quite structured, like, now we do this, we build this landscape together, then we share our story, then we make these little characters then we make the costumes and so on; there are very clear parts that always bring everyone together. I think Lidy said there's always such a balance between what's individual and what's shared and I think that's very, very strong in this setup.
AL: To come back to this moment. Of course, I also spoke with many adults who were there. Whether they were teachers or social workers who are active in the respective classes. The formulation often came up that it was about farewells, where one really didn't have the time and the feeling: "now is really the moment when I can say goodbye to these people and really do it". On the other hand, as organisers of this ritual, we also pay attention to how the people are doing, we look around and see if there are any needs, we talk in advance with caregivers or teachers who are of course in close contact with the children and agree that together we can give support to the children who are sometimes overcome by grief.
Lidy: What I find exciting to mention is that we always oscillate between games, performance and ritual and for me it was very exciting to see "ok, because the game is always separating, there is a winner and a loser through the rules of the game. A ritual brings people together; that is, when people know each other a little bit, but through the ritual they come together and in the performance there is the watching and the acting and that this always alternates. I think it's a very special form that we have found and I also see it as highly artistic, this form that we have found for such a social sculpture.
AL: That's a little anticipation, but when we've finished the performance and are dismantling it, I feel really emotionally exhausted, as if I'd been to a funeral, and I also feel a bit like an undertaker who then cleans up the remains, so to speak, and puts them back in order. And the room is so full of stories and these moments that you then shared with the people. Yes, you can't do the performance more than once a day, I think, because it's really very intense and very exhausting and it has to be, when you open up and really deal with the subject, and you have to do it again every time as those who do it more often. Also to invite the others to open up. You can't play or somehow imitate being affected or being there; you really have to open up and make yourself available in the process as a performer.
EN: I can well imagine that this is a very important part, that you are really - let's use this term now - authentically present, really open and ready to participate, but I also found it very nice, Lidy, what you said with this, that it is also strongly structured. That there is a space for mourning, but perhaps also for overcoming or moving on, that is also the essence of the ritual, which is framed in a framework that doesn't let us, when we take part in it, simply go completely overboard. That the feelings somehow don't find a hold, but the feelings that come find a limit somewhere, perhaps a hold; they also transform themselves further and I understood that to be an essential part for you to achieve a transformation. There are also certain theories about rituals, how a good ritual, a farewell ritual for example, has to work in order to achieve a kind of transformation. Did you deal with this or did you just try it out more like trial and error?
Lee: For me personally it was very important that it becomes an experience and not such an "educational thing". In that sense it is really a ritual and that we are also, as André said, exhausted after this ritual. We always have to experience it anew. And about this term "transformation": I think in Western society, when we talk or think about deaths, we always think about an end and that's why I think we are so afraid of death. But in many other cultures and if you look into the spiritual or religious practice, this concept of transformation is very, very present and I noticed, also in the experience of my mother's death and also when she died, this week before, when it was already clear that she was going to die, it helped me a lot with the idea that it is a transformation and that she will always be a part of my life. But knowing her, she won't be there anymore and what else kind of helped me and also came into this piece was that I thought "OK, I've never lost someone so close to me, but I have a lot of experience with goodbyes because I've had to say goodbye to a lot of things." And that's why we have this idea of small goodbyes and big goodbyes in the play. And we also ask the children this at the beginning, "What is a big goodbye, what is a small goodbye?" Because for some of the children, when a friend goes to another school, it's a very big goodbye and I think it's also important that we give space for these small goodbyes.
Lidy: Yes, you asked where we as artists got our information. In my case it was actually personal experiences, how we dealt with parting in my family, in my environment, but we also dealt with the project "Unacknowledged Loss", which had taken place at HAU - Hebbel am Ufer a few years before. That was a whole story about losing things. And I also experienced some of the performances and found it very exciting as a project. I also experienced some things where I thought "Yes, that's really well solved or a good idea". But that was also connected with some of the things I had read about the ritual and also the connection. There is an interesting book called "Performanz", which is actually about the philosophy of language, but also about cultural studies ideas about performance or performance, and there is a very large part about rituals and which elements are in it. And then André also brought this book about "Levels of Participation", so for me as an artist these were also the things with which I could bring myself in, all this different information.
EN: How did your ritual end, André?
AL: Yes, after we had built these representatives and, each for himself, but together with all the others, stood in the circle, the moment of farewell came. Where you then step into the circle individually - to this landscape that is already in the middle, in the centre of this circle - and find a place in this landscape for the one you want to say goodbye to. You can then accompany this with words if you wish. But you can also do it silently. And then the moment comes when we transform ourselves again, because then these work clothes become festive clothes, that is, we have add ons, things that can be attached to the costume. They sound when you move around in them. That's also made from recycled materials. And then we decorate each other and do another moving ritual together, in which we say goodbye again and send breath into the centre and try to help all the things that are in there, so that they can really say goodbye and release, that is, we give energy from all sides. And then you will already notice in the movement, "oh we are also making noises". And then a dance develops from that, which then moves around what is built in the middle there and has been said goodbye to. And yes, this then takes on levels of exuberance, that is, at that point something is already transformed from all this sadness and letting go. Into either a joyful farewell or a joyful readiness to move on.
EN: When we spoke before Corona, when I visited you in Potsdam, there was still the idea of you going outside. But in the end I don't think you did that.
Lee: Because of Corona we had to rethink the play almost every month. When the children leave the room we give everyone a little present, a string or a flower or something that was material in the room and then we say "thank you". We thank each participant. But yes the play as it was meant to be in the beginning? Hopefully we'll do it sometime when the world is a bit, yeah....
EN: Lee, you just mentioned Corona and when you, André, just described the breath, "We give the breath into the middle", I immediately have to think of Corona and I would like to ask, on the one hand from a practical point of view, but perhaps also from a content point of view, whether this time that we have now experienced, the time of the Corona crisis, has also done something to the whole idea, to you, to the concept? Beyond practical changes or restrictions?
AL: Well, maybe you have to say at the outset that we actually did the performance with masks. We were worried that the use of distance and masks - and gloves were also discussed at one point - would be counterproductive in connection with this theme, because it is somehow about sharing and community, about feeling together during this difficult confrontation. And we said that it can't work if we keep our distance, if we are no longer allowed to touch each other. And then we found ways to create a connection through the rope without having to physically touch each other. And then also in the limitation of the audience present, in the limitation of us as organisers of the ritual, which was all due to the Corona situation. But I think we have now found a form where we can somehow deal with it really nicely despite all the limitations.
Lidy: So in terms of content, I would say Corona didn't really affect us. So it's not that it's become a more difficult topic or anything. I don't think so, because this theme of saying goodbye is always present everywhere. And I don't think that Corona has added a certain level in terms of content, really more practically: how do we do that? That was actually more the question.
AL: Well, only play-immanently, so: how do we deal with it?
AL: So how can we, in the sense of content, how can we stage this thing without having to be at a distance all the time or having the feeling that we can't approach the subject because we can't approach it physically?
EN: One question I'm still very interested in is what working on this production has done to you, as artists, performers and people?
Lee: Whenever I make a piece, I ask myself "What am I learning, what is new now? How can I learn something I didn't expect?" And what I find quite exciting with participatory pieces, but also so on a normal stage, and also sometimes so other formats like "from here to there", what I find quite exciting is the balance between "what can you control?" or "what can you expect?" and "what can you never expect?", so how will people behave in the space? And with children it's also a different story, and I love what I've learned. It's that art or that an artistic event can happen in any space, or in any situation. You don't need such a theatre, or you don't need such a specific artistic space to create an artistic experience. And I find that very important for me personally with this piece.
AL: Lee already mentioned it, this moment of control and expectations of how the whole thing has to work, because it's also so significant for you. You kind of want the mood to be all holy, all concentrated and so on and immediately, but then there are moments, for example we had a performance in a school where the floor was incredibly slippery and then all of a sudden a lot of children started to kind of prefer to slide around on the floor instead of getting concentrated, so to speak, and creating this ritual with us. And then, however, this actual occupation emerged at completely different points, that is, what from the experience of the performance, what it really taught me, is to once again really go completely into the moment and let go of any expectations. And to look from moment to moment how can I now work on this issue in contact with my counterpart? It can also be that this sudden outburst of urge to move is perhaps an evasive movement away from the topic, but even with the children who broke out there at that moment, they then came back to it in a different way at a later moment and seem to have connected with it after all. So there is a lot between expectation and reality that somehow touch each other and that has been a very beautiful experience and as a person I have to say that I had an experience, for example, where a child had died in a previous relationship. Nobody saw it because it died so early that there was practically no contact. And we were completely alone with this pain, it was not shared. And that somehow made it even bigger, because it was something so special and at the same time something so incredibly sad, the event that happened and it wasn't shared, wasn't caught and couldn't talk about it with anyone. And yes, later I was at my grandmother's funeral and then I imagined that the people who are now gathered there in the cemetery are actually there for this child. So I practically carried out this process, which we later designed artistically, somehow intuitively in the moment and it helped me a lot and somehow brought such peace into me. And now, in the performances that I have had, I have always carried this child with me, so to speak. And that helped me to say goodbye.
Lidy: What I took with me was really how richly you are given when you ask for it. So all these stories that we are given and what insights we are allowed to have into the lives of others and how open and yes, generous they are and how important it is to be able to go into such exchanges, which are otherwise not available in such depth, also in such concentration. That is something I particularly appreciate about this work, that we can experience so much from so many people and how open and uncomplicated it actually is to go into a deeper exchange if you are a little bit clever about it.
EN: Thank you very much for this conversation, it was very interesting and gave us a deep insight into your process. I spoke with Lee Méir, Lidy Mouw and André Lewski about their production "from here to there", which was realised in Potsdam, Hamburg and Munich as part of the explore dance project. Thank you very much.
Lee: Thank you.
Andre: Thank you.
Lidy: Thank you, you're welcome.