A figure seen from above, dressed in blue, dressed in red, moves across a concrete courtyard – under sunlight, within a triangular shadow. This is a (very loose) description of the dance piece ‘Genesis 2.7’ by Nicola van Straaten, an artist whose explorations in, and of, movement are intriguing, unexpected and thought-provoking.
These explorations take the form of short pieces and interactive experiments, which are housed on her vimeo account, and also include writings on dance, movement, and bodies done in her personal capacity and for the newly launched Anybody Zine. Nicola’s digital hoardings offer another glimpse into her curious mind, which you’ll find on para-pleure (an ever growing archive of umbrellas that have seen better days), choreogify (gifs made from her favourite pieces of choreography) and bed-lit (photographs of the all beds she’s slept in).
We spoke with Nicola about the ambiguous vocabulary of movement, finding new and dynamic spaces for performance, and contemporary dance in South Africa.
To start, please tell us a little about yourself and your various creative pursuits (both silly and serious).
I’m from Durban and I’ve been living in Cape Town for more or less six years. My life revolves mostly around trying to make money and trying to make art (the two very occasionally overlap). Some current creative pursuits that I’m taking quite seriously right now would be Anybody Zine, a small publication that I’ve recently started with two of my friends, Kopano Maroga and Julia de Rosenwerth. I’m also in the process of working on a project with the pianist Coila-Leah Enderstein, we’re creating a piece to some of John Cage’s prepared piano. It’s still in the pipeline but I am very excited for that! Some of my sillier and ongoing creative pursuits involve collecting photos of dead and abandoned umbrellas on the streets and photographing all the beds I’ve ever slept in. I like to collect things.
What is your earliest dance-related memory?
I can’t quite recall if it’s a real memory or if it’s a memory that I’ve built on a photograph. My two older sisters used to do ballet and my parents were taking photographs of them posing in their fancy dance outfits. I wanted to get in on the action so my mom fashioned together a tutu-type skirt and a leotard belonging to one of my big sisters. I think I remember feeling phony because I didn’t know the dance positions and I didn’t have the proper outfit like my sisters but I was allowed to wear lipstick for the pictures so that was cool. I started ballet classes shortly after that.
Did you study dance formally?
I was really into ballet when I was younger. I started lessons at about 6 years old and took it very seriously all the way through high school where I started tap and contemporary dance. After high school I started a Bachelor of Music in Dance at the University in Cape Town, which I found very quite intense in terms of training. This made me realise that I was actually pretty lazy and/or interested in other things so I switched to a general BA and majored in Choreography, Contemporary Dance and English Literature. I guess my dance studies have been increasingly informal ever since I graduated which has been fantastic!
I’ve always felt that there needs to be a broader body of writing and documentation around dance. As far as the performing arts go, dance feels relatively “un-archived” although I do think this is rapidly changing.
I’ve always felt that there needs to be a broader body of writing and documentation around dance. As far as the performing arts go, dance feels relatively “un-archived” although I do think this is rapidly changing. I started the ‘People Are Dancing’ blog partly because I wanted to train my eye as to how I look at choreography; writing about choreography seemed a good way to start. I also wanted to share my favourite choreographic works with friends who didn’t know much about dance, but were interested in artsy stuff. Often dance writing only exists in terms of reviews or academic papers and I suppose I also wanted to create something a little bit different to this.
The discovery of zines kind of changed my life. As a kid, my favourite thing after ballet was books. I’ve always wanted to get my hands onto more and better publications about dance and movement. So when I discovered this entire zine culture, I realised that I could just make my own book about dance. That was pretty exciting. My first zine was called “Dead Swans” and it was full of fun and angry criticisms of the institution of ballet, like riot girl meets Centre Stage. For about two years now I’ve been wanting to start a more long-term zine about dance, mainly because I think it needs its own dedicated platform. Also, the kind of dance that does get funding is often happening on a stage, but someone needs to recognise the fact that there is a lot of dance happening in a lot of different places. At the moment, we’ve just begun, but I really hope that Anybody becomes something that dancers and choreographers feel they can contribute to and take ownership of.
A couple of months ago you released a short film by the name of ‘Genesis 2.7’. Tell us about the piece…
I got this idea into my head that I wanted to find all of the body parts mentioned in the Bible and then make short film about each one, all filmed from a bird’s eye perspective (kind of like God is watching you). So I found a Bible and looked for the first body part mentioned…and it was ‘nostril’. I was a bit disappointed because nostrils, I mean, even the word is silly and a bit gross. But I started thinking about breath, about inhaling and exhaling and two opposing features that find definition in the other, this idea of two-ness and one-ness. I decided it didn’t need to involve an actual nostril for the theme of my idea to make sense (to me). So I sat on that idea for a while. Then I was housesitting a friend’s place and there was a beautiful empty courtyard and a perfect shadow dividing the space nicely into two. I set up a camera and improvised a bit with the space and with the shadow and then I simply decided this would be my first ‘Bible Dance’.
Will you be adding to this series of “Bible Dances”?
Haha! I really hope so. No – I definitely will be continuing this series, it just may be a bit of a long-term, never-ending project because I work full-time at the moment and apparently I make art pretty slowly so…
As a dancer, what sorts of things influence you and spark your creativity?
The two major things that influence or inspire me would probably be space and rhythm. Some spaces are so dynamic and interesting, they’re just begging for movement or to be moved in and when I discover a space like this, I find it really exciting. And then rhythm is obvious in regard to music, dancing to music is often the best (and some people would think only) way to dance, but rhythm appears in all time-based arts not just music. Creating choreographic rhythm is often very difficult but incredibly beautiful, so sometimes it’s good to tune into other rhythms around you to familiarise yourself with the skill of creating and breaking rhythm.
You’ve written before about the ability of dance to transcend language. What do you enjoy about communicating through and engaging with a vocabulary relating to movement? And what are the challenges in doing so?
I think what I enjoy most about communicating through movement is that you’re not too accountable to what you’re expressing, there’s a lot more room to not say the thing you’re not sure how to say. Verbal or written language is very useful for expressing concrete, non-ambiguous ideas but it can be so damning in its conclusivity (especially written language). I often like the ambiguity of movement, it lets the viewer bring their own narrative and that’s really nice because it makes the creative exchange very rich. On the other hand, it’s insanely difficult to create a movement vocabulary for that very same reason, the ambiguity of fleeting movement can be equally damning in its non-communication of ideas. Often an audience wants to be told the story instead of telling the story to themselves, and I think that’s fair enough. It’s a constant negotiation and balance (always) between the two, I guess.
I often like the ambiguity of movement, it lets the viewer bring their own narrative and that’s really nice because it makes the creative exchange very rich.
In a short film for your project ‘Verbal Scores’, we see a few of your friends responding to words purely through movement. What did this experiment reveal?
It revealed that my friends are awesome! Also it was a very interesting lesson in learning how various bodies and individuals are constantly engaging with a somatic discourse, even if their bodies aren’t “trained” in the dance sense of the word. In the 60s in New York, when Postmodern dance was in its heyday, a lot of choreographers were doing whacky experimental stuff and often they worked with “untrained dancers”. Although this is a term I recognise as useful, I also find it a bit silly because essentially everyone’s body has been trained by something, be it ballet or walking or culture. Sometimes it’s what you do with this training that’s more interesting than the training itself. It was really great and special to see how my friends’ personal and kinetic ‘training’ was manifested in that context of poetry and instruction.
Do you think there’s an engaged and growing audience for dance-theatre in South Africa?
I definitely think there is an engaged and growing audience for dance in South Africa, which is something I find incredibly exciting. Yet I’m slightly unconvinced about the future of dance-theatre in South Africa. By dance-theatre I’m referring to dance performances that take place on large, proscenium arch stages, with lights and nice seating etc. I feel that this type of theatre continues to be a stifling and problematic space for dance and performance to exist in, even though many dancers and choreographers (myself included) are aspiring to be in spaces like this.
So it’s tricky because as much as I love this type of theatre, I can’t help but feel that it is becoming increasingly redundant and absurd in our current context. It is expensive to run and maintain and it is inaccessible to most South Africans. It is not really a dynamic space anymore, yet it is still glorified as what ‘proper dance’ looks like. I think that this sort of theatre limits the potential audience for dance in South Africa. For a really engaged and growing dance audience to develop I think we need to start radically redefining where and how dance institutions exist.
Who are some of the local choreographers and dancers you admire?
I’ve worked a bit with Underground Dance Theatre, a Cape Town based company and I really enjoy their work and style. They create very collaboratively and I think that shows in their repertoire because each piece has a very unique style and voice. I really want to see what’s happening in Johannesburg, though, because I think the choreographers there are sipping on something magic! I watched a piece by Luyanda Sidiya, the current Artistic Director of Vuyani Dance Company at the Grahamstown Arts Festival last year and it blew my mind. Sometimes I feel a bit isolated here in the Cape and I would really like to see what’s happening elsewhere in South Africa. Most of the ‘greats’ get shipped off to Europe so I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of the choreographers and companies that I’ve wanted to. There are many of dancers I admire, but whose names I don’t know. A lot of the time they’re in nightclubs as opposed to on a stage.
If more dancers start trusting their own creative intuition and start adventurously pursuing their individual choreographic and artistic voices, that would be really amazing and important for the future of South African contemporary dance.
How do you envision the future of South African contemporary dance?
That’s a big question and I’m not really sure how to answer it, but I think the future of South African contemporary dance hinges a lot on collaboration and getting really broad with defining what dance looks like. The dance scene here can be a bit reluctant on the interdisciplinary nature of art, possibly because many dancers are perfecting their craft rather than discovering others. If contemporary dance opens up to collaborations with museums, galleries, bloggers, designers etc. it will really broaden the audience. In essence I think contemporary South African dance needs to be constantly redefining itself in order to stay relevant or challenging.
I also think that many young dancers are training really hard, imitating and perfecting a movement vocabulary instead of creating their own. Although crafting one’s technique is important, I find that many dancers don’t always see themselves as artists or creators and I think that’s a problem. Often there is a weird hierarchical dynamic where the choreographer uses the dancer’s body to fulfill an aesthetic vision and the dancer becomes complicit in this and even sacrifices their autonomy and desire for the sake of the teacher/choreographer/person in charge. Even if they don’t believe in the choreographer’s vision, they will perform the steps as best they can without asking why or how. It’s very strange. It’s also problematic because this means that the marketplace becomes stagnant and is monopolised by institutions with money. It’s limiting. If more dancers start trusting their own creative intuition and start adventurously pursuing their individual choreographic and artistic voices, that would be really amazing and important for the future of South African contemporary dance.