This Is It: Interview with Matthias Sperling and Vicky Malin

One of the beautiful things about This Is It – a solo choreographed by Matthias Sperling and performed by Candoco dancer Vicky Malin – is that the piece starts with a self-affirming image only to move past it and dig into what else ‘this is it’ can mean.

Given this observation as a starting point, both Matthias and Vicky discuss what they wanted to make visible, how they are broadening their own boundaries and an attempt to reconcile Yvonne Rainer with spectacle. What arises from both performer and maker is a shared desire for dance audiences to express themselves and not let the show stop at the edge of the stage.  

In discussion with Alexandrina Hemsley

MATTHIAS: I like the idea that the piece’s title has this really affirmative thing about it and then that we spend some time together questioning what it is. We spend our time and invest our attention in questioning the situation that we, the audience, are sharing with Vicky in that moment, so perhaps what this is, might be a shifting thing.

VICKY: Yeah I suppose that it is an exploration of things that are constantly changing. I feel like when I perform the solo, my relationship with the audience is constantly changing which I think is one of the exciting things of performing that piece. It, is about that space at that particular time.

It was really clear for me that there was an encountering of yourself, the space and the audience.

VICKY: Absolutely, yes.

Did you spend time in the studio with that kind of balance in mind or was the studio time very much about yourself and your body?

VICKY: If you are in a studio then there might just be two or three of you and you are in a different space but I think the same principles are going on [as in a theatre].  I’m going to get a lot more feedback and a lot more reactions from an audience full of people, but I think very much from the beginning, the process was about awareness of the space and people in it – it wasn’t just me being all internal in my head and in my body.

MATTHIAS: Definitely. Something that both Vicky and I were interested in from the beginning was thinking about how Vicky and how the work are practicing their relationship with the audience and how the audience is practicing their relationship with Vicky. I am very interested in Deborah Hay and I like the way that she talks about the only materials that she works with as time, space, self and other. Sometimes, I like to think that This Is It refers to those things in the sense that this is all we need to let the exchange of performance happen.

This is what we have and let’s see what we can do with it.

MATTHIAS: Exactly, yeah.

But then, the really fascinating thing is the piece has some very extravagant moments. It seems that within those quite abstract, specific notions you can still find room to play with theatre.

MATTHIAS: Definitely. That whole thing comes from an interest in playing with our expectations of spectacle and experience, and going to different extremes with that.

Matthias, you mention Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A (1965) as an inspiration for the piece…

MATTHIAS: I was just thinking about that again today! I really loved reading Catherine Wood’s book on Trio A[1] and there were a lot of things in it that I was interested in exploring in this piece with Vicky. A lot of them had to do with the idea of the power of the individual and the way that each of us practices our relationship with ‘the society of the spectacle’ – if I can use that expression from Guy Debord (1967) – which I guess nowadays would be like the advertising and celebrity culture.

Can you say more about those two influences?

MATTHIAS: Well, there was something about how Catherine Wood talked about Yvonne Rainer opening up new possibilities for the performance of the self that really directly related to what I was interested in working on. Also something about her constant expansion of the space that she had available to operate in, always widening her range of freedom in lots of different ways. I think also, the way that Yvonne Rainer in her ‘No Manifesto’ (1965) so clearly rejects spectacle, glamour and magic and make-believe. In lots of ways, I relate to and really believe in that and then at the same time, I recognise that I live in the society of the spectacle, Rupaul is my hero and I am happily infected by Lady Gaga. One of things that I thought was important was to deal with the way that both of those opposing tendencies are part of our daily reality, and we all need to retain the freedom to choose to draw a boundary between ourselves and the overwhelming force of the society of the spectacle, but we equally need to be able to participate in it because it’s what surrounds us and connects us. So we need to not reject it, but negotiate our relationship with it. In fact, Catherine Wood talks about Trio A as being that kind of a negotiation already rather than an all out rejection.

Writing in the Village Voice, Jill Johnston saw “a heroisim of ordinary people[2]” within Rainer’s piece, We Will Run (1963) and within This Is It, I felt a similar kind of courageous presence.

MATTHIAS: Wow, that’s fantastic [laughs]

VICKY: Yeah, put that bit in!

MATTHIAS: That was exactly what we were going for!

[laughs] It was very apparent! I also think that the piece’s courage came from the moments of vulnerability. What you were saying about expanding the space we have, seems so relevant for an individual dancer to be bold in that space of performing a solo.

VICKY: Through performing it, I’m finding already that the questions are always there. All these things that I have to juggle. But what I am seeing, is that as I perform, my confidence grows and my ability to be in that space in that moment with those people gets more interesting, exciting and enjoyable. I see the work as something that can just continue to develop. When I look back to the premier, I see a big change in myself, and my thoughts towards performing.

MATTHIAS: I think that’s so interesting because we were talking a lot in the beginning about this idea of moving the boundaries of the self and whether we could make something in which the audience could see a movement of the boundaries of the self. I think what you’ve just said Vicky, is about a movement of the boundaries of the self occurring over a period of time.

VICKY: Absolutely, yeah.

MATTHIAS: And, I’m still really fascinated by to what extent an audience can possibly see that in the movement within one fifteen minute performance. In some ways, I think that’s difficult. I think that we have tried to point towards that through your shift in the piece from being a contemporary dancer to being a pop superstar, but I think it’s so fantastic to hear about how you’re experiencing that actually happening over a period of time.

What is the solo like to watch?

MATTHIAS: Vicky makes me laugh so much! I have such a good time watching it. I really do love watching Vicky do the piece and I find it so thrilling as well to watch the audience. I’ve been in three different audiences out of the performances that Vicky has done and each time has been so incredibly different. One of the things that I would wish to become more apparent for audiences who watch the piece is that they are as much a part of the piece as Vicky is. Sometimes I get the feeling that a lot of people watching this piece assume that the piece finishes at the edge of the stage and I really, really don’t see it that way at all.

VICKY: And also, I think it’s fair play if someone watches it and they don’t find it funny at times, but if they do, I wish that they would feel free to express that. In the Queen Elizabeth Hall performance, when I was doing a particular movement, my brother just laughed out loud quite boldly and someone in the audience turned to him and gave him the evil eye as if to say, ‘What are you doing laughing?’. He felt like saying, “She’s my sister and she’s being ridiculous! Can’t you see that?’.

It provides interesting questions; what do people think is interesting or amusing? What can and can’t they express an emotion to?

MATTHIAS: One of my first desires with this commission came out of watching Candoco perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the year before. I was watching Sarah Michelson’s The Hangman (2010) and I just thought it was fantastic! It was so articulate and so intelligently funny in such a brilliant way. I was absolutely laughing so hard through the whole thing although not particularly out loud. I was amazed that I felt like the whole audience around me was so silent and so uncomfortable. I felt like it was a really missed opportunity for those audience members who didn’t allow themselves the freedom to laugh. One of the things I was interested in exploring was how an audience can allow themselves the freedom to laugh and how that can allow everyone in the room to get more out of the experience.

Maybe Vicky, as much as you say you shift and relocate your self during the performance, the audience need to take that up upon themselves as well… do you try and alter the state of the audience during your performance or is it about you trying something new with your body?

VICKY: I think it’s both and it’s simultaneous. I am aware of my assumptions of the audience’s reactions and the feelings of sensations that I am getting back and I do test that. I almost can’t articulate it but it is very much in that moment. I wouldn’t say that the whole time I am in one kind of state, I’d say I was changing. Then of course there are moments when I’m feeling a little bit out there [laughs] and vulnerable. I guess it is understanding that it’s okay for me to feel that and that it is okay for the audience to see that in the moment. Then there are also times when I feel really happy and in control and just wanting to do my thing!! Get myself out there!!

Did you see yourself as part of a bigger statement about the company?

VICKY: It’s a big deal for the company, it’s a big deal for myself and Matthias as well but I felt like it was a great opportunity and I really just wanted to grab it and go somewhere with it. Matthias as well is so involved in it and is such a part of it…

MATTHIAS: I’m still not getting out of your big hair!

VICKY: [laughs] …which is really nice because I feel so supported and I feel like I could phone up after a strange performance and we’d be able to talk about it…it was a really nice process to do but then that process is continuing.

MATTHIAS:  I’m really aware of how much of yourself you have put into the work Vicky, and I’m really aware of what a big ask it is. We’re doing this…well…you are doing this quite out there thing and you are putting yourself out there in so many different ways in such a short space of time. I feel like you absolutely deserve every ounce of support I can give you and everyone else’s too. I love the way that after the first few performances, the rest of the company made videos of themselves dancing and singing around backstage. It’s amazing!

VICKY: Yeah, they know all the words! To be honest, I have to try and fight my costume off them otherwise they’d have it on all the time.

It’s the dream of every dancer to have some shiny, shiny thing to wear.

MATTHIAS:  That’s right, and now we’re just starting to admit it to ourselves!

The song from This Is It is on iTunes, where did the inspiration for that come from?

MATTHIAS:  That was really an important part for me from the beginning. Ideally, I have been aiming for the audience to know very little about what they are going to experience before the piece starts but then that afterwards, they have access to lots of information about it. The song being released on iTunes, is one of the things that makes the distinction between whether Vicky’s activity is a real activity or a pretend activity. My interest is in the doing of real activities and so I really believe that when she sings her song, Vicky is a real pop star and her single is a real single; it’s really out there in the world. It’s not about a bedroom, standing with your hairbrush and your fantasy that maybe one day you could be a pop star. Vicky is actually doing what she is doing in front of an audience with the single already released and that distinction is really important to me.

I wonder how many audience members will cross that divide?

MATTHIAS: That’s the whole other thing then about where the performance ends and where the boundaries of the self end as well. And how these networks could go out further and further and further if we are prepared to see them that way.

The song This Is It by Vicky Malin is available on iTunes © 2011 Robin Rimbaud/Matthias Sperling

 by Alexandrina Hemsley from Collective Movement

[1] Wood, C. (2007). Yvonne Rainer; The Mind is a Muscle. London: Afterall Books

[2] 1963, p9 cited in Sally Banes, 2003, p.8

Candoco Dance Company turn 20 – watch video

Candoco Dance Company are celebrating their 20th birthday this year. Here’s a look at what they’ve got in store for us over the next week as part of Dance Umbrella at Southbank Centre.

See Candoco Dance Company in their 20th birthday celebrations on 14 & 15 October at Southbank Centre. Get tickets here. 

In conversation: choreographer Karole Armitage

Part of Dance Umbrella 2011, IN CONVERSATION is new series of discussions between festival artists, broadcast online in the lead up to, and during, the festival. This year Richard Alston and Ben Duke share their insights about some of the events taking place.

In this clip Alston and Duke share their responses to ’80s wild child Karole Armitage and her company’s performances of DRASTIC-CLASSICISM and extract from THREE-THEORIES at Southbank Centre as well as THE WATTEAU DUETS at V&A.


See Armitage Gone! Dance at Southbank Centre as part of Dance Umbrella 2011 on 11 & 12 October. Get tickets here. 

Artist profile – ‘punk ballerina’ Karole Armitage

Karole Armitage is Director of Armitage Gone! Dance an 11-member company based in New York. She was rigorously trained in classical ballet and began her professional career in 1973 as a member of the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Switzerland, a company devoted exclusively to the repertory of George Balanchine. In 1976, she was invited to join Merce Cunningham’s company where she remained for five years, performing leading roles in Cunningham’s landmark works.

Alongside Armitage’s more leftfield work, she is also known for having choreographed the videos for Madonna’s Vogue in 1991 and Michael Jackson’s In the Closet video in 1992.

Through her unique and acute knowledge of the aesthetic values of Balanchine and Cunningham, Armitage has created her own ‘voice’ in classical and contemporary dance. Armitage is inspired by disparate, non-narrative sources, from twentieth-century physics, to sixteenth-century Florentine fashion, to pop culture and new media.

Branded a ‘punk ballerina’ in the ’80s, Armitage merged classical dance with punk’s wall of sound, shocking audiences in New York. Next week, she returns to London for the first time since 1985, with her 1981 signature work Drastic-classicism performed to avant-garde pioneer Rhys Chatham’s clangorous score, played live by five guitarists amidst the dancers.

Karole Armitage, Photo: Terry Stevenson

See Armitage Gone! Dance at Southbank Centre as part of Dance Umbrella 2011 on 11 & 12 October. Get tickets here. 


Flayin’ Alive: Interview with choreographer Karole Armitage

‘I’m not dancing,’ Karole Armitage says, talking about the upcoming set of performances that Dance Umbrella will be presenting in London this autumn. ‘It’s too hard!’

While this is perhaps unfortunate, it’s also understandable. At 57 Armitage has no desire to get up onstage and shake a leg or, more accurately given her erstwhile gifts as a dancer, rocket into and then throw off-kilter an incredible balance. Now she’d much rather leave it to others (‘My remarkable dancers,’ she calls them) to negotiate her often fabulous mix of classical and contemporary movement.


Karole Armitage

As a choreographer, and the artistic director of the New York-based company Armitage Gone! Dance, Armitage has cultivated a reputation for artistic innovation that ultimately helped transport her from her birthplace in Madison, Wisconsin to a decade and half of living and making work in Europe. ‘Though I have a very independent, American pioneer spirit,’ she explains, ‘I am European in my expectation of how art can be produced and consumed. I’m still an outsider in the United States, and an explorer everywhere.’

Either side of the big slice of time she spent abroad, Armitage studied film-making, cooked up the dances for the terrific Broadway revival of Hair and worked with the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Michael Clark (in his novice days), Madonna and Michael Jackson. In 2012 she’s been hired to choreograph a production for Cirque du Soleil.

Clearly what fuels her work is a healthy push-and-pull of eclectic creative forces. Just consider her career trajectory. Rigorously trained in ballet, she followed a few seasons of dancing for Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève (where the repertory was exclusively that of the Russian-born genius, George Balanchine) with five years as an outstanding member of the masterly Merce Cunningham’s Manhattan-based troupe. For a young dancer, who at the time knew next to nothing about modern dance, it could hardly get any better – or so it seemed. ‘The first couple of years with Merce were thrilling,’ she says. ‘I was about 20 years old and he was creating me. I was learning a new way to think and move, and meeting Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg, and touring with John Cage. I loved it.’

Armitage, however, had a mind of her own. Eventually, as she admits, ‘The thrill was gone and I wanted to explore new ideas.’ And so she became her own muse, stimulated as well by the lovely abrasions that collaboration with cutting-edge composers (like Rhys Chatham) and trend-setting designers and visual artists (Charles Atlas, David Salle and, a little later, Jeff Koons) can bring.

A molten pixie with a voracious talent, Armitage became an overnight sensation in 1981 with Drastic-Classicism. An audacious mix of blistering, red-hot motion and blastingly high-decibel live sound, this controversial dance (at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 11 & 12 October) became her international calling card. It also reinforced her status as the reigning ‘punk ballerina’ of post-modern dance.

Those two words still cling to Armitage’s name, but she doesn’t mind. But how much of the punk label was real and how much, in the words of dance critic Arlene Croce, just ‘a sophisticated ploy’?

‘In the mid-1970s I was thinking about how dance was all about no,’ Armitage recalls. ‘No virtuosity, no emotion, no costume, no story, etc. This moralistic stance didn’t appeal to me; I felt it was leading to an audience of insiders. I wanted instead to connect to an audience with all the beautiful history of the art form, combining the refinement and poetry of ballet with the intimacy and intellectual tradition of modern dance – not to mention some rebellious rock (or punk) spirit thrown in. So yes, to a great extent it was a ploy, a device for forging a new dance vocabulary with a tongue-in-cheek relationship to punk. But the serious side of my interest in punk was that it wasn’t formulaic. Rock had become an industry (as hip hop has now) and lost its creativity. Punk was creative.’

As Croce wrote when Drastic premiered, ‘Classical values that were flayed alive, stayed alive.’ Time may have inevitably undermined this era-defining work’s shocking freshness, but it remains mighty lively. Armitage revived Drastic in 2009, tightening it up and underlining the innate rhythmic drive of the movement. In doing so she couldn’t help but notice how society itself has changed. ‘This generation isn’t as free as we were [back then], and that of course is due to changes in a world with much more economic pressure on it and reduced resources. We were free spirits with little understanding of how hard it is to survive and no thoughts of making a career. The new generation of dancers and musicians is more sober. Everyone is pretty wild in Drastic, and they have a great time, but [the work] is not as ironic [as it once was].’

Armitage recently revived another of her classics. The Watteau Duets (14 October at the Victoria and Albert Museum) was devised in 1985. Armitage herself originally danced in it, utilising both pointe shoes and high heels to jab, swivel and stamp the piece across. Staged as a series of majestic confrontations between a heterosexual couple, she calls it ‘a really liberated look at a woman’s sexuality.’ But, again, she notes how times have changed. ‘Today it’s hard to get a dancer to go far enough with it, and to dare to be raw enough.’

Still, Armitage is happy to have both of these ‘older’ dances out in front of the public once more. ‘Each of them works on many layers. They’re entertaining, aesthetically challenging and filled with exciting contradictions – hot emotion and cool technique, irony and sincerity, youthful rebellion and a love of tradition. They use dance to express contemporary culture, from sexual politics to the issue of how to mix high and low art forms – issues that artists are still dealing with today.’

In London, Drastic will be paired with two of the three sections that comprise one of Armitage’s newest dances. Two Theories (as it has been renamed) was inspired by The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene’s best-seller on the evolutionary conflicts of theoretical physics. Although Dance Umbrella won’t be importing Armitage’s kinetic take on Einstein’s theory of relativity, audiences will be able to dive into her interpretation of quantum mechanics and string theory. ‘I can’t explain these scientific theories,’ she says, ‘nor do I try in the ballet, but I have an appreciation for their poetry. By looking at them through the body abstract ideas take on human content, linking human rhythms and perception to the hidden forces that make up the universe.’

Armitage’s shape-shifting ensemble have been said to handle her writhing, undulant and volatile choreography – deliberately blurry at some points, and then extremely articulate – with great aplomb. ‘They’re virtuosos who are very fluid and free-spirited,’ she avows, ‘and each is a unique spice.’ As for the audience, the feeling she hopes to induce in us is the sort of ‘awed wonder’ that science itself can impart.

A self-described classicist, Armitage once categorised herself as ‘a marginal, intellectual sort of rebel. I’m not a mainstream kind of person.’ Rather than trash her artistic heritage, as she was once accused of doing, her underlying motive is ‘to warp and massage it and make it into something, image-wise, that’s very different than how people think it looks.’ She remains committed to making work ‘that communicates what it feels like to be alive. Theatre is a good form for describing politics; dance is a good form for erotic, existential and spiritual content.’ No surprise whatsoever then that it’s curiosity that keeps her going as an artist.

© Donald Hutera, 2011

See Armitage Gone! Dance at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of Dance Umbrella 2011 on 11 & 12 October. More info and tickets here. 


Get to know Candoco dancer Dan Daw

Dan DawHow did you get into dancing initially?
Joining Restless Dance Company nearly 10 years ago was my first serious interaction with the dance world. I had been exposed to it earlier in my youth theatre days, at which time, opted to turn my attention to acting. From the first Restless workshop, I was in love. I knew it was a place I needed to be at that moment in time, but what I did not know is that it would still the perfect place nearly a decade later.

Why did you join Candoco?
As a disabled dancer, being with Candoco was something I aspired to early in my career. Although I was with Restless, I did not think that being a professional disabled dancer was viable until I discovered Candoco.

I had spent some years working as a project-based freelancer, but craved the rigor that comes through working for a professional repertory company. Spawned by my sneak peek into the repertory world during the six months with Scottish Dance Theatre, I felt I was fast approaching the right place artistically where Candoco seemed like, was, and is, the best fit.

How do people react to the idea of a disabled person dancing professionally?
I think it a shame that this is a question that still needs to be asked in light of Candoco’s twenty-year presence. This debate aside, I think audiences are intrigued, and this is why the company has such an extensive education program, and often hold post-show forums in the hope our audiences come away knowing that little bit more about what we do.

How does Candoco approach the idea of ‘normal’?
The beauty of dancing for Candoco is that it is a company, which functions on the idea of the individual, and what is inherent in every one of us as people, and as performers. From my seat within the company, it could be said Candoco are not looking to approach the bogus concept of ‘normality’; it exists only as a concept, and I’m sure as a company we can go to far more interesting places.

How does Candoco approach a work that has been created for non-disabled bodies? What are rehearsals like?
In the creation of Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset/Reset, we have had the privilege of building the work in the same way Trisha Brown Company did in 1983. Staying true to its title, we learned a series of set material. With the splicing of this material, adapted or not, we built and reset it into a new kaleidoscopic form. As the building of the work relied on improvising and making choices in relation to the whole, it very much became ours, and less an arm-by-arm, leg-by-leg regurgitation of the work.

Within its’ making, there has been the chance to create new solos based on the ideas of the originals. Still within the realm of Trisha Brown’s aesthetic and idiosyncrasies, these gave rise to explore our movement vocabulary and its’ idiosyncratic logic.

What are the advantages and challenges of disabled and non-disabled people dancing together?
There are no advantages or challenges specific to disabled and non-disabled dancers working together, but there are infinite advantages and challenges when people dance together, irrespective of ability.

Broadly, the fact that integrated dance is becoming as professionally recognised as our preconceived notion of dance is an advantage unto itself.

Do you have a career highlight so far?
I have two career highlights. During my Candoco career, working with Wendy Houstoun was something quite incredible. I came to appreciate Wendy’s way of deconstructing dance by placing it in relationship to what it was that interested her. The other highlight was performing with Kate Champion’s Force Majeure at the Sydney Opera House. I remember it being a very proud moment.

What inspires you?
The one thing that continues to inspire me throughout my career are those little moments when the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. We all live for these moments, and it is when they happen whilst working that I know I am on the right track.

If you could dance with anyone, past or present, who would it be?
If I could dance with anyone throughout the modern history of dance, it would be with, or even for, Pina Bausch. She was, and her work is, simply stunning.


See Candoco Dance Company in Turning 20: Anniversary Bill as part of Dance Umbrella at Southbank Centre on 14 & 15 October. Get tickets here. 

Autumn Dance Season Announced

Our new season of contemporary dance goes onsale today!

The season starts with Jerwood Award-winning Brazilian choreographer Jean Abreu with Inside – his eagerly anticipated new work inspired by the effect incarceration has on the body. Powerful and raw, it explores violence,  solitude and hope within prison walls. Also accompanying the dancers live on stage for the only date in the tour are post-rock band 65daysofstatic. Not to be missed!

Jean Abreu Dance with 65daysofstatic, 21 September. Get tickets here.

Then we see the return of ADAD’s Bloom Festival with the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora. Exploring and celebrating dance of the African Diaspora, this three day-long festival featuring performances, workshops, film and talks. The highlight is a Mixed Bill from some of the leading African dance artists from around the world including the London premiere of Norway-based African and Caribbean company, Tabanka Crew,  stars of Norway’s Got Talent.

ADAD Bloom Festival Mixed Bill, 24 & 25 September. Get tickets here. 

And returning to Southbank Centre in the autumn is the UK’s premier contemporary dance festivel, Dance Umbrella. One of the hot tickets this year is Armitage Gone! Dance on 11 & 12 October. Not seen in London since 1985, 80s wild child Karole Armitage returns to the festival with the revival of a classic from the punk era and a new work. Striking, elegant and dramatic, Two Theories: Quantum & String is performed by the company of ten brilliant dancers, and explores the poetry underlying the pillars of 20th century theoretical physics.

Dance Umbrella at Southbank Centre, 9 – 15 October. See full listings and get tickets here.