'It’s important that the theatre can still be a non-digital space'

Lees hier een verkorte versie in het Nederlands.

Vera Tussing graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School, and has worked as a choreographer, creator and dancer throughout Belgium, the UK and Europe. She explores the relation between dancers and the audience and how this relation can transform. ‘A big challenge in my work is to actually make contact and to perform an encounter with the other rather than a ‘re-enactment’ of choreographic form.’ A conversation with Vera Tussing for her Kaaitheater residency (2017-2021).

In which way did your education influence the artistic work you make now?

My school education in Freiburg was very influential. I attended a Waldorfschule, which in Belgian is called a Steiner School. The school approached every subject from a theoretical and a practical angle. We built houses, did sewing, cutting, we worked with wood and so on. This constant switching between crafts influenced my working practice, in particular the method of approaching different kinds of materials. My woodwork and sculpture teacher opened my eyes to many different things. My ballet teacher in Freiburg was also very progressive and had a very broad sense of ballet. She introduced me to what one might call ‘somatic techniques’. Later, in London, at the contemporary dance school The Place, I mostly related to the teachers who were interested in dialogue and creation rather than the reproduction of pre-existing forms and processes.
Coming to Brussels was a big eye-opener for me. I developed a very empirical way of working here – very hands-on. I try things out, suspending my own judgment. This is easier in Brussels than in London, by the way. Dance in Brussels is understood as being beyond the ‘aesthetic’: it exists in very ‘pure’ and reduced forms, but also in all sorts of hybrid states, which of course I am drawn to. I knew this was the right context for me. I stayed in Brussels first to collaborate with Albert Quesada, and later to make my own work.

You see dance more as a social than a purely aesthetic practice.

I definitely am not primarily occupied with image-making and aesthetic choices around bodies. I want to explore how dance can exist as a relationship between dancers and the audience and how it can transform in that context. My starting point is not to change the codes of the theatre, but rather to show what is already there. I guess one could describe it as a mode of zooming in. For instance, we greet the audience at the entrance in The Palm of Your Hand and Mazing as a way of demystifying ourselves.

Movement that exists in relation to the other is my core business at the moment. I do not choreograph fixed statements so much as frameworks for dialogue. This may sound like a cliché, but in our case we take the proposition of dance as dialogue quite literally. I sometime refer to the audience as the missing collaborator in the room while we are creating or researching. Eventually the audience completes the team in performance. The rehearsal and creation time are ways of building strategies – the actual thing takes place in performance.

Spectators are often actively involved in your pieces, though in different ways.

There has been an evolution in my relationship with spectators. Already when I worked with Albert Quesada we wanted to challenge the audiences’ sensory apparatus. At the beginning of the piece, we asked the audience to close and open their eyes. In Sound Bed, an individual audience member was asked to passively lie on a moving bed, but what it triggered in terms of inward journey was certainly an active and engaged encounter. T-Dance has a traditional theatre set-up: the audience on one side, performers on the other, but we break the distance between audience and performance space primarily through language. We call out audience members and place them inside our actions and the encounters that we establish on stage. It’s more about the empathetic, imagined touch.

 In The Palm of Your Hand we searched for a different spatial set-up, with the audience standing and framing the space in an ellipse. The public embodies the boundary of the theatrical space. In this piece, most of the verbal suggestions that propelled T-Dance were translated into direct tactile encounters. So, in a way T-Dance is a proposal, while The Palm is the action – it is a touched dance piece. The spectator transforms from a passive to an engaged participant, who, along with the dancers, discovers and shapes the space. My latest piece Mazing, is more driven by the idea of oscillation, back and forth: sometimes the dancers are more active, sometimes we ask the audience for more input. There I add a new layer: the costumes, made by Sophie Durnez, act as mediators between the skin of the audience and the performers, the different materialities (texture, shape, colour) reconfiguring the encounter.

Touch is taboo in our current Western society. Why do you think it is important to use touch in your performances?

Dance and physical proximity or tactility have a long relationship. As dancers, some of us are very at ease being in touch with each other. Dance on stage has dissociated itself from that, while dance as a social practice deals with different types of touches. Historical courtly dancing formalizes a certain distance between dancing bodies; moving forwards through time we get to two hands touching, two bodies embracing, the rock-and-roll touch that pulls you closer to the other, and the rave that does not necessarily involve touch.

I feel that in artistic dance, gaze is often too dominant. A big challenge in my work is to actually make contact, to perform an encounter with the other rather than a ‘re-enactment’ of choreographic form. As for most people of my generation, my life is very influenced by the internet and smartphones, which allow for a very different sort of contact than dance. It’s good and important that the theatre can still be a non-digital space. Dance has so many more possibilities to be perceived and experienced. It would be a shame to miss that!

You find a nice and gentle balance in activating the audience. Never too brutal, never obliged, always in a gentle, considerate way. What are your tools to reach that balance?

Two books inspired me in particular. Markus Miessens’ The Nightmare of Participation is a book that Michiel Vandevelde once suggested to me after seeing my work. And Claire Bishops Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship really helped me to avoide the over-romanticizing of participation. These two theoretical works gave me a broader context for my practice, highlighting how problematic it is to see participatory work as a gift to the audience that everybody will immediately get very excited by. I try to operate less through the assumption of consensus and more by establishing spaces for negotiation. For me, participation is about finalizing the work together with the audience, making space for them to think about how they want to respond.

I try to remind myself that not all shows that feel great necessarily achieve this goal. Sometimes providing a space for people to disagree or reject your propositions is of more value. Although it can be hard to swallow, but that’s where the team helps. Our rule is that if the encounter requires it, you abandon the choreography at any point. For example, if somebody grabs your arm and you need to get out of it, don’t worry about maintaining unison with the other dancers. The structure of the work is there to serve the content: the negotiation of the encounter.

Your work seems to be easily translatable into different settings or for different kinds of audiences such as children or people with a visual impairment.

After opening up to the spectator-performer relationship, I also wanted to open up the space in which the work would reside, where it would be created. In The Palm of Your Hand, we performed and created in seemingly limitless spaces: beaches, in a courtyard in Barcelona, in the Royal Academy in London.

It was not my original intention to open the piece up to different kinds of audiences. I always thought my work was very niche. But programmers have approached me in various ways over the years, and often they see things in my work which I don’t. Its exciting. The work grows through encounter. It was exciting to see how we could perform The Palm of Your Hand for different backgrounds and different ages, without even changing too much. Maybe it is because my work is about the human body in a broad sense. It switches between many levels of the sense apparatus, which is something we all share as humans.

How would you define your relationship with Brussels?

For a long time I thought I could be anywhere. As a dancer and a choreographer, eighty percent of your time you are on the move. You are a nomad, not overly bound by language. Now I try to be in Belgium more, taking my residencies here. Dance can be a unifying factor in Brussels, a city where language is not unifying. In Brussels, there are also a lot of cracks where you can push through. It allows for things to happen, unlike in London where I had to send emails about health and safety for six months before performing Sound Bed. At the same time I also like the position of the outsider. Language-wise I remain in the UK. It gives me another point of view.

What do you expect from your residency at the Kaaitheater?

The invitation for the residency came as a surprise to me. But it also came at a stage in my work where I had finally found a working cycle that I was happy with. There was a sense of a trajectory that started to appear. So initially, the Kaai residency is not about letting me do something radically new – its more about allowing me to extend and explore the practice I have (only just) established. I have to say that shifting The Palm of Your Hand into a collaboration that invites partially sighted and blind audiences into the work is a very successful starting point for this, as part of Kaaitheater’s commitment to Humane Body European Network. I also like the idea of being a group of residents. I know some of them very well, like Radouan Mriziga and Benjamin Vandewalle. I like to explore the inside and the outside of the theatre. One of my ideas is to perform The Palm of Your Hand in different communes in Brussels, locating the work in unexpected spaces, at unexpected times.


Vera Tussing in conversation with Katleen Van Langendonck