Superheroes in woolen socks
Or: I pack my suitcase and take with me … a dance piece to spin!
Artisttwin deufert&plischke team up with a group of school kids from the free school Potsdam to develop a “pop up” dance piece, which collects moving stories about clothes and lives off the joy of dancing together. The highlight: the instructions for the entire piece can be brought to every stage with only 4 hours of rehearsal time: spinning (in German spinnen) weaves a web of stories, favorite movements, and a sense of commonality that can be cast (almost) everywhere. The idea: the piece that they developed in Potsdam will be performed in neighboring schools starting in January, and will subsequently be adapted and performed all over Germany – a dance piece to go, one could say, or spinning on tour.
By Alexandra Hennig
One thing should be made clear: as a spectator spinning has (re)awakens my faith in the transformative potential of dance: in this small format, much larger questions are negotiated, gender stereotypes are cast off, and the fourth wall between performers and spectators is torn down. To spin freely in dance is something that can best be down as a team – and thanks to the multiple meanings that the word spinning implies, this can be many things at once and can take on a variety of forms and shapes. Although the participants here work primarily with the textile dimension of the term, spinning nevertheless encourages them to wholeheartedly lose their thread.
Arachne was a talented woman
When deufert&plischke choose such an evocative title for a project, one can be sure that a number of associations, artistic questions, and themes from earlier works are at play, some of which the artists have tackled for quite some time: everything is connected. I remember that when I last interviewed them at home, Kattrin Deufert was so nice as to point out the large framed tarantula hanging on the wall, even before I could sit down (and be startled by it). A well approved precautionary measure for journalists with or without spider phobia.
And all that despite the fact that Arachne was, according to Greek mythology, a highly talented, rather self-confident weaving artist. In Ovid’s metamorphoses she challenges the goddess Athena to a carpet weaving competition, since she is sure of her artistic superiority. She should have, however, well known that no one defeats a goddess and goes unpunished. What happened, in a nutshell, was that when Athena realized that she had lost, her opponent had to make amends. Arachne, desperate in face of the goddess’s imminent revenge, was about to hang herself using her own loom’s yarn, when Athena transformed this very yarn into a silk thread and turned Arachne into a spidery animal with eight legs. Everyone taking a closer look at a spider web can very well imagine that the same artist is still at work here.
Woven stories in colorful garments
When seen before this background, spinning appears as a complex network of stories that encompass an artistic approach to textiles, the art of storytelling, and the connection of body-text-movement-structure and dance. But let us take up the thread again: I meet up with Verena Sepp, the project’s choreography assistant, after she has spent a first week of research with the children:
What she tells me about the work process confirms that the producers approached the piece with the attitude of wanting to create a mutual learning experience based on curiosity and openness. As a first step, they collected stories that the children told about specific pieces of clothing (which they then developed further in a collective effort). “I was very impressed with how deep and diverse the children’s stories were,” Sepp tells me. “It reminded us of the fact that our memories of particular situations or phases are closely connected to the clothes that we wore in these situations.” The range of stories that were recorded to become the piece’s soundtrack is as wide as it could possibly be. The children’s tales range from spectacular accident and rescue stories (the T-shirt that my dad held onto when I almost fell off a cliff during a hiking trip) to memories of familiarity and feeling secure, an emotional connection that remains tied to another person’s clothing (a mother’s sweatshirt that always used to be too big or grandpa’s captain hat).
How do we identify with our clothes? What kind of desires, fantasies, conflicts, or moments of change can we try on or cast off in the form of stories and movements? The possibility of transformation, of dressing up and playing a role, becomes literally tangible through the textile stories in spinning: with the help of clothes that were either previously collected or brought to the rehearsals, the participants used the first week to research a variety of movements. The rules for the piece were accordingly either developed from choreographic games or from experimental setups, as Verena Sepp tells me.
The children for instance showed one another their favorite movements and tried to use simple movement explorations to differentiate them further. Experiments such as the question: “can we make this movement bigger, smaller, more edgy?” were analyzed by the children with great care. Working with a group like this one naturally led to very specific findings and a very unique set of problems:
“One of the challenges we faced was that we had to put the rules for the phase in which we researched movements in words that were comprehensible to the kids. Children are often much stricter than adults when it comes to following rules.” Tasks like ‘we copy each other’s movements’ or ‘we move in the same way as the piece of clothing we hold in our hands’ creates drastically different images for trained adult performers and for children. “As adults, we tend to freely interpret a rule so that it works for us. Children on the other hand can become really worked up over the wording of a task and its impossibility. In the course of the week, we repeatedly had to check how we put something into words in order to find out what rules work best.”
Beyond doubt, what the producers created here is a piece that was developed for, but primarily with kids. Although the children initially voiced their disappointment when they realized that they would neither learn steps nor tricks and would also not participate in a theatre play, they became increasingly eager to experiment with what they were offered. Role play or questions of taste became less important as soon as the joy to develop movements really set in: “for instance in a large skirt that flies up when you spin around.”
10 of 78 movement inspirations as part of the rehearsal process.
Rehearsal impressions: “every body part counts”
When I visited the rehearsal space at Potsdam’s free school, the image of joyful movement and experimentation immediately came to life. While I found a seat to watch the rehearsal and take notes from the side of the stage, I felt the urge to join the little dancers who bustled around and focused on their task of ‘stealing’ movements (a term that allows more freedom than ‘copying’). Each of them chose different pieces for their outfits and was eager to correctly put the rules into practice. David Kummer, who is the second assistant besides Verena Sepp, guided the free movement session and repeatedly provided an impulse to change directions: “and now, everyone, steal as much as you can. Every body part counts.”!
Tightrope artist with bathing cape / gentleman in a hoop skirt / knight with bobble hat
After the lunch break, the group began to develop its figures: as templates, Thomas Plischke designed unusual figures that stand out because of their unique combination of garments and postures. After first gathering in smaller ‘work groups’ the children reassembled as a large group to discuss and establish the figures’ movement qualities.
For instance: “how does a knight in heavy armor walk?”
Possible question: “jumping may be difficult because it would cause the visor of his helmet to constantly fall open and shut.”
Derived movement qualities: “cumbersome,” “rigid,” “elegant,” and (importantly): “worries about his bobble hat.”
So what should be written on his playing card? The univocal answer in this case was: “rigid elegance!”
The rehearsal process showed that it is here all about the interplay of images, role models, and new interpretations. The instructions to the game and the figures’ movement qualities guided the participants as signposts without, however, supplying fixed rules:
“There isn’t something like that one correct movement,” Kattrin Deufert reminded the children at the end of the exercise. Although they were involved in nothing less than working out the piece’s score, everyone was again and again given the space to newly interpret a given task in his or her own way, to play with it and spin it a little further. “It is fascinating for us how deep the children’s individual stories about clothes are, but also to see how freely they make use of the garments that we provide,” deufert&plischke tell me. “For instance when two best friends try on one giant oversized pair of tights and just hang out in them for a while.”
Gender Trouble – easy-peasy
Clothes are, of course, always also social performance. They define gender roles and social codes; they can provide a sense of belonging or set boundaries. What we wear changes the way in which we move, feel, and how we are seen by others. What spinning achieves is to make us aware that different clothes can initiate a kind of game, that we can also use them to do away with clichés, images, and (dis)guises – and can, in doing so, create something completely new.
During lunch, Thomas Plischke and I talk about the fact that it surely makes a difference to develop a project like this one at a free school. “In contrast to our kids’ school in Berlin, we do not observe cultural clashes here, clothing brands do not play an important role.” That is why I find it all the more important that they have created a suitcase containing the instructions for spinning so that the piece will hopefully be performed at many other schools as well. It must, by the way, be noted that deufert&plischke know how to act around the kids: in an unpretentious and yet sincere way they are, in the best sense, educational without forcing a prefigured pedagogical concept onto them.
This is why the movement qualities of the figures, each of which slightly deviates from the norm, evolve in such an organic way.
Two days before the premiere, one can feel the excitement in the air. Towards the end of the rehearsal, one of the kids, who seems to know about famous theatre myths, says: “tomorrow, during the dress rehearsal, something has to got wrong!”
ON STAGE we have rarely spun as nicely
On the morning of the premiere I am initially reminded of a typical school theatre performance: excited kids, even more excited parents, the choreographers’ hearts beating faster… yet very soon, it becomes pretty obvious that spinning opens up a space in which we, as the audience, are really made part of the experience and are not just offered a grand show. We here watch a group of dancers at work who know exactly what they do and can therefore clearly enjoy their gig. The dancers do not follow fixed step sequences or an established choreography, but are instead guided by game instructions that offer everyone the space to show him or herself. First, the dancers all draw a card, choose a few items of clothing from a pile to design their costume, and circle the room in their own manner. As if adhering to a secret sign, they all suddenly stop and strike the same pose, pause, observe one another, and univocally yell a satisfied: “cooooooooooooooooooooool.”
The whole performance reminds me a little of movement choirs that were active in the 1920s—especially their way of working together organically and occasionally letting clear choreographic figures, qualities, or changes in speed emerge. Primarily, however, they function based on their common joy for the game. Towards the end of the performance, the audience has to chance to join them in this joy when cards with the game’s instructions are handed out throughout the room: suddenly adults, children, dancers, and spectators are jumping around. David Bowie sings affirmatively “Let’s Dance” and there are no bounds: one person claps rhythmically, another strikes a rock star post while a third dances trough the room with closed eyes, seemingly lost in thought. Hardly anyone remains seated…
What great instructions to spin – uuhm – dance! A free examination of the body and movement, of contemporary aesthetics and group processes can here be experienced in a very playful way. As a side effect, all of the participants have certainly developed a heightened sense for clothes. This becomes also evident in the two concluding questions that the children ask me (as a journalist): “how much did you write?” and, more importantly: “where did you get these socks?”