GUESSING WORDS – WITH PEN, SOUND, AND DANCE
With her pop-up dance piece Fliegende Wörter (Flying Words), choreographer Ceren Oran sensitizes school children to movement as a medium and a mediating element of communication. In a classroom that is often rather narrow-minded and strictly linked to the mandatory school curriculum, three performers* leave unusually different traces of thought and memory. What ignites this interactive performance: sounds and dance are everywhere at all times. To arouse curiosity and motivate the children, to be courageous and inspire them, is, for Oran, the most important aspect of her work.
Written by Vesna Mlakar
You know them: wonderful pop-up picture books. They are so very effective because of their element of surprise. The moment of turning a new page. No matter what the content is. Often these pop-up publications are artistically lovingly conceived with logistically elaborate designs. If you open the book cover or turn a new page, colorful flower arrangements, landscapes with animals, figures in the middle of a particular setting, or other complete scenarios jump out at you. Three-dimensional worlds made up of interlaced elements, which—comparable to vivid images in theatre—develop their effect of form, color and composition very directly. Mostly mute and motionless but decorative, they captivate the mind and challenge the imagination. Until you simply close the book again.
The institutionalization of the conceptual pop-up idea in the creative area of “Young Dance”
But what happens when the idea of spontaneously popping up images and stories in the form of snapshots is transferred to the performance field and especially to the genre of dance? Pop-up books for both children and adults have long enjoyed growing popularity. At the same time, professionals in the artistic field (be it music or dance) have for quite a while paid visits to schools and state and city theatres offering programs for teachers* and students* are also no longer a novelty.
Their importance for future generations has duly been recognized. The range of possibilities—and the chances that come with them—is constantly increasing. Certain companies have consciously committed themselves to the important social task of bringing dance to unusual places and directly to people for whom this art form would otherwise remain inaccessible. One example is the Gauthier Dance Company at the Theaterhaus Stuttgart with its own module Gauthier Dance Mobil, in which the ensemble performs with a tailor-made repertoire in schools, hospitals, or retirement homes. John Neumeier’s Bundesjugendballett in Hamburg also shows his productions beyond the theatre stage—and even performs in prisons.
In its three-year pilot phase, the cross-city cooperative initiative explore dance – Netzwerk Tanz für junges Publikum with its three partner institutions fabrik moves, Fokus Tanz/Tanz und Schule e.V., and K3 | Tanzplan Hamburg has decided to expand the directness and mobility of dance education in classrooms to include pop-up performances as a new format alongside of pop-up stores or pop-up restaurants. An inspiring impulse, which is well received in the pool of offers for the promotion of Tanz für junges Publikum. This was demonstrated once again when visiting a workshop and performance created by Ceren Oran, which is entitled Fliegende Wörter (Flying Words) and premiered in December 2019 in the music room of the primary school Grundschule am Bauhausplatz in Munich. Oran’s performance team included her Israeli dance partner Roni Sagi and the Austrian musician Gudrun Plachinger.
Serving the stage or trying out new things?
Since 2018, choreographers from the three partner cities of Potsdam, Munich, and Hamburg have conceptualized one stage production and one so-called pop-up piece each season, which can easily be performed in schools and a variety of public spaces. When asked about the specifications for the small, mobile format, Oran reported that, according to the call for applications for which she applied, the production was not supposed to contain more than three performers. The budget for both production and actors* is precisely defined in advance, as is the limitation of the rehearsal period to one month. These conditions already appear to differentiate between a stage commission that requires several roles and levels and the more compact pop-up format.
Usually, at least six to eight weeks are planned when work on a new production in the studio. And that’s not even it. “Developing a play, working out the basics and preparing the rehearsals usually takes me three to four months,” Oran elaborates. That is not comparable to the time required for a pop-up piece. However, the challenge here is to manage a completely different concept, one that allows the artists to get right into the target group and approach the audience.
The magic of estrangement
“Today—after having made this particular experience—I can describe the difference as follows: A theatre play exudes a different kind of magic. In Schön Anders, my next piece that will premiere on stage and which addresses the same age group, I invite the children in the audience to enter the magical world of theatre. In Fliegende Wörter, on the other hand, I get involved and engage with the daily cosmos of children. Here the school kids are part of our action (area), which is why we interact more and improvise often. That is something that is much harder to rehearse and try out when you are not at the concrete location, but in a sober studio atmosphere without being surrounded by the audience. After all, the spatial conditions and circumstances change from one performance venue to the next.
Oran describes her general approach as follows: “The approach and our workflow up to the premiere was completely different at Fliegende Wörter. We spent a month in the studio, which was only interrupted on three days when we held a total of four workshops. It was clear from the very beginning that we didn’t want to bring the children in as viewers and test their reactions in the last week, but that we wanted to involve them in the production process early on. To involve them in our research and ask them questions, to give them input and in return accept suggestions from them—that was always part of my concept.”
Spontaneity and improvisation instead of props
This raises the question whether or to what extent children and young people notice differences between the two formats, between a stage and a mobile production. This aspect can perhaps be examined more closely at the second explore dance festival, which will be held from July 8-11, 2020 in Munich. Here, all seven productions of the 2019/2020 season created within the framework of explore dance will be presented in quick succession. Also included will be Ceren Oran’s Fliegende Wörter—a charming pop-up piece that is designed as an experiential obstacle course for kids aged six years and older.
What is striking about this entertaining and fun production, which needs neither equipment nor props, is the original way in which the three performers make use of the classroom as such and play with various ideas of estrangement. In addition, it’s very much about interaction. And it shows that the sudden and spontaneous elements as well as the nature of this pop-up piece, which never overstressed the audience’s concentration, structurally determined the premiere.
Dressed by Sigrid Wurzinger in airy, casual brown outfits with little frill, Ceren Oran, Roni Sagi, and Gudrun Plaichinger march through the classroom door. Once inside, they cheerfully take a look around. The school desks were previously pushed against the walls, and the low benches are arranged in a semicircle. There are seats for the third and fourth graders as well as their teachers. It is rather crowded and onw can sense an expectant silence.
Exploring the room audibly
The three performers* can be heard taking their poses in the room. One by one they take out instrumental accessories from a linen bag they have brought with them. A cable winds its way loudly across the floor. With great speed three performers take turns working the electronic socket for the sound with its many plugs. With a first word scribbled on the blackboard, Oran sums up the common activity in his abstraction. It reads “noise.”
Then the audible exploration of the room begins. One performer slides across the floor while sitting on a trash can. Roni scrapes over a piece of carpet with his fingernails. Ceren grabs the desk and a chair. Once seated, her fingers drum across the table’s surface. Moments later she climbs onto the tabletop and lies on it, hands and feet groping in the air, while curiously looking at the ceiling. At the sink—in the opposite corner of the room—a slightly acrobatic sprint through the audience is followed by a hand washing duet that is accompanied by the splashing of the tap.
Dance as a means of expression and a theme
No one slips into a different role or becomes a character here. Only the way in which the two dancers* and the musician communicate with each other marks a difference to interpersonal contact in daily life. At the beginning of the performance, the trio embodies thought, perception, and emotion instead of making themselves understood verbally. Broken down to essential ingredients, Fliegende Wörter playfully demonstrates how important dance and space are for a choreography.
This theme also ran like a red thread through the prep workshop. One sequence, for instance, focused on the challenging task of being blindfolded and finding a way through a labyrinth of bodies lying on the floor. The blindfolded person was solely guided by live sounds. You have to be well versed in where right and left are in order to turn the correct corner when you hear the rattle or grater. Those who were assigned the job of xylophone players let their blindfolded classmates run straight ahead until their instrument fell silent. Everyone who participated had to concentrate hard for this fun experience to work.
With only a little technique to the performance
Funny highlight of one of the blind orientation courses: a number of small mistakes guided a candidate through the exit door, which was opened silently, and onto the corridor. Spectators and participants—everyone laughed out loud. And unanimously rejected the offer to take a short break. At the beginning of the next workshop section, the children were asked to describe their favorite animal with the help of a movement and a sound. Afterwards, they explained why they were gathered here and what it means to perform a play in a classroom without the possibility of using much technology. An exchange of knowledge with questions and answers.
Gudrun Plaichinger lifts her electronically amplified violin under her chin. Curtains are noisily drawn open and closed, a sponge is banged into the sink, the lights are quickly switched on and off. Rattle. Smack. Click, clack. Click, clack. One of the dancers* bends down—obviously shoelaces must be newly tied. On the blackboard the next word “sound” is displayed.
Rowing through the air with her arms, Ceren nestles into a group of children. Shortly later, she and Roni are throwing different moves at each other. They first only react to each other’s movements, but soon move farther away and make contact with the audience through softly flapping hand waves. On an impulse, some students* respond to them, others try out the vocabulary for themselves. Only the fourth grader next to me would like to know: “How many pages have you written in your notebook?” And then goes on to comment: “Cool, will this be on the Internet?”
Stringent interlocking: Workshop elements become part of the performance
Gradually, music and increasingly interlocking dance elements bring the term “rhythm” into play. Arms turn into lassos and there is a swishing and swinging between dancers* and students* across the room. When Plaichinger turns off the sound, the breathing continues to echo. Exhaustion while dancing, however, is not part of the pool of Ceren Oran’s word chain constructs that makes the creative journey in the classroom flow.
In the third and final part of their first workshop visit, Oran, Sagi, and Plaichinger showed how this works in Fliegende Wörter when asking the kids: “what do you think of when you hear the word sea?”. “Musicians* and dancers* then try to represent shared associations (beach, hot, cold, ice) through sound and with their bodies.” A short duet serves as a demonstration: Ceren and Roni—sometimes stretching high, then again huddled together—slap their bodies close together. Gudrun accompanies them with an acoustic range of alternating vocal sounds. On a first try, no one can guess the represented term “fire.” Yet in the premiere performance, the passage, which has been built into the performance, is recognized by those who attended the workshop.
“There is no right or wrong,” Oran explains and emphasizes. And he is excited about the many different impressions that the children have put on the blackboard, both new ones and those derived from the previous context: “dancing,” “dream,” “snake,” “funny words,” “jungle,” “water,” “exciting,” “ballet,” “sea,” or “beach.”
Take your own choreographic steps
At the end of the workshop the students are allowed to join in the performance. “It’s just a game—you don’t have a premiere coming up tomorrow,” Oran encourages the six groups. Each of them has drawn a different note from a hat and now has a few minutes to work as a team and create an onomatopoeic dance interpretation of terms like “gorilla,” “station,” “orchestra,” “sea,” “playground,” and “family.” It is wonderful to watch the short performances, the students’ first own choreographic steps. Even an entire story is among them. You see a surfer falling into the water and being rolled over—by a big wave or an angry whale. They create material out of which a piece could be created.
At the premiere, Ceren and Roni are not out of breath for long. With her interjection “I love it—it’s hot, dangerous, but beautiful to watch,” Gudrun Plaichinger opens the second chapter of the pop-up Fliegende Wörter. She plays a folk song melody, while the dancers face each other and perform a bouncing dance and then pull and push each others’ limbs until they fall, hug and hold each other.
First moving from “fire” to “bouncing,” the trio finally lands at the word “we.” The musician wriggles herself free from the knotted figure made by the performers and blindfolds Oran with a cloth belt. It now becomes part of the piece that Oran is solely guided by the knocking noises and mouth plops that her colleagues make. “Search” is the matching word, which is afterwards shown to have been written on the blackboard. A hurricane of rattling fabrics, clapping and whistling can be heard while Ceren feels her way through the room, brushing the shoulders and legs of the audience* members and finally settling down into a kind of blind dance, rocking back and forth.
The question of reception
The most impressive thing that stays with the students is the visualization of the word “mirror.” It is a scene danced out beautifully on two chairs in front of two desks, performed to the sound of groovy violins it is full of small gestures and finger spirals executed in mirror images. Finally, Ceren and Roni jump up. He runs to the front rows and imitates some of the children’s poses and postures—just as it was done by the table duet. She, however, suddenly begins to pull plug after plug until even Gudrun and her lively violin become quiet. As naturally as they appeared, the three performers pack up their stuff again and leave. An ending that appears to choreographically reverse the format-giving idea of “pop up” and turn it into its opposite. And yet, Ceren Oran adds a quick question mark to the last word “end” when he leaves the room. What a smart cliffhanger for the follow-up conversation!
In Fliegende Wörter, everything comes together logically, as if completing a puzzle. But what would a successful premiere be without one unusual question? At the Bauhausplatz primary school, this question is: “what is your religion?” On my way home, I find myself smiling at Oran’s honest and diplomatic answer: “Humanity!” This, for me, is a beautiful ideal that also characterizes her pop-up debut Fliegende Wörter and her professional approach to working with young people.
Choreographer Ceren Oran and her world of ideas
Choreographers often juggle with different performance formats. The 35-year-old Ceran Oran is certainly no exception, with premieres for children and adults on stages of the independent theatre scene or a dance marathon held in public spaces in the urban area of Munich.
Why the pop-up concept fascinated her as soon as she had read the call for applications? Ceren Oran is not completely sure. “Maybe I had entertained a parallel idea in my head for a while, the idea to work with limited space. The trigger for my decision to choose the small format was the desire to work with just one classroom instead of a classic stage situation. To take it one step further when developing and teaching workshops at schools.”
What she appreciates about explore dance is that here “there is room for many different artists* to work in very different styles. This is why I also look forward to our meeting at the festival in July. It will be a chance to see how diverse the patterns of the individual choreographers and dancers are.”
Flying words—from the idea to the finished piece
“At first, I wanted to work with sound painting.” This form of live music sign language, which was developed by the New York composer Walter Thompson in 1974 has been part of Ceren Oran’s career since 2010. “In rehearsals, however, this idea soon dissipated and disappeared. What remained was the connection between words and their visual quality. Above all, the question of how words become images, especially through movement and music.” To imagine what you hear when you read the word “honey” became a stimulating running gag in the team.
“I consider this kind of working process—this sort of derivation of word association chains—important when trying to enhance the children’s ability to interpret and think in artistic abstractions. Gradually, this process led us to the dramaturgical structure of our play.” As is often the case in Oran’s school workshops, the class teachers were also involved. “I always encourage that. They are role models and an additional motivation for the children.”
More than just an audience: children as creative partners
Looking back, Ceren Oran sums up how open-minded and inquisitive the students* were from the beginning on. They were open and willing to take up what they were offered in terms of impulses and tasks, and were eager to make new experience. The team was able to organically prepare them for the premiere and could at the same time give them the feeling of being part of the whole process and of contributing to its success.
“Children can be a very versatile and surprising source of inspiration. As we get older, we lose the mentality of children. It is always amazing to see what they can read into a play, how they comment on what they see and what questions they ask. It motivates me and makes me see some things more clearly. I really appreciated them as creative partners.”