Isabelle Schad: practice, continuity and infinite limbs

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An interview with German choreographer Isabelle Schad, known for large group works and for mixing Eastern philosophy with somatics and folk dance. Accompanying the audio is a fuller text edit of the interview.

Springback Magazine
Springback Magazine
Isabelle Schad: practice, continuity and infinite limbs

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German choreographer Isabelle Schad is known for her large group works in which many bodies move as one. Inspired by her training in Aikido and Shiatsu, she mixes Eastern philosophy with principles from body-mind centring, embryology and traditional European folk dance. In 2012, together with lighting designer Bruno Pocheron, she founded Tanzhalle Wiesenburg, a former ruin-turned-dance-studio in the city’s northern district of Berlin-Wedding. At Tanzhalle Wiesenburg, Schad hosts an array of artist residencies and performances, as well as ‘Open Practice Sessions’, free training sessions in which she shares her practice with her community. In the summer of 2021, Beatrix Joyce joined the sessions and approached Isabelle afterwards with a few questions.

BJ: Isabelle, you came to Berlin in the early 2000s, after leading a somewhat nomadic lifestyle. Do you feel you’ve found stability, since founding Tanzhalle Wiesenburg?

IS: Yes, it was one of my main wishes to find my own space. I wanted to build a sense of continuity, which was very difficult in Berlin. At the time I was living in Berlin-Wedding, and after some long walks Bruno Pocheron and I came across Wiesenburg, a homeless shelter and cultural initiative that had some spare space in their back yard. Back then it was a complete ruin, full of rubbish and over-growth. So with the help of a grant from the EU, we decided to patch it up and make it into a dance studio and theatre. Now we have a beautiful pearl in the middle of the city, where we can work with people on a continual basis and host residencies and performances that are accessible to the free scene.

BJ: When you perform in your own works, do you gain a different kind of view, from the inside, than when you choreograph on others?

IS: It’s the same, really. When I’m on stage, I constantly sense the connection with the outside. If someone else is performing and I’m on the other side, and I’m not quite sure what they are doing, I might get nervous. I ask myself: ‘why is it going that way?’ Usually this doesn’t happen when I’m on stage myself because my focus is directed both inside and outside at the same time. And now I learned just to hold the space and not to worry about it any more.

BJ: Yes, that reminds me of an exercise we did during the workshop: one group was performing, one group was watching, and the people in the groups kept swapping over. It felt as if creating and watching was reciprocal, as if any one of us could be in either role.

IS: Yes, that’s true at the beginning, but at a certain stage things become very skilful and require a great deal of experience. This type of knowledge needs to be constantly reformed, renewed and remembered. The impact and the essence of what can be transmitted through a solo or group work develops when the group has spent more time together and undertaken the same training. With certain things you can jump in, other things grow through time.

BJ: You trained in the Japanese healing practice of shiatsu. How does shiatsu and your current work as a practitioner feed into your choreographic work?

IS: In my classes, I try to teach the techniques and the theory as accurately as possible, such as the grips, the meridians and where they are located. In my choreographic practice I then take bits and pieces from my shiatsu practice and compose playful little loops or movement patterns. My creation process is thus shaped by attentively watching and observing, as well as through filming the material. This I learnt from my collaborator Laurent Goldring, who helped me see that framing is a means to sculpting the movement and identifying that which becomes visible.

BJ: During the workshop you likened the body to a machine. With the many devices that surround us in our digital age, are you busy with technology and the notion of the body as cyborg? Or would you rather reject technology and work with other means instead?

IS: Oh, I choose a different way of working, that’s for sure. What we invent, from our industrial past to our current digital world, has to do with what we are surrounded by and where we are coming from. Nature and biology and machine-like mechanisms are sometimes so closely intertwined: is the movement reminding me of cogs in a machine or is it reminding me of cells reproducing, or the double helix structure of our DNA? When on stage I create a body with infinite limbs, composed of many bodies, these things blend into one another, and we see that in essence everything we touch is connected. Like a tree with its many leaves that all look similar, but each is different. This is the kind of togetherness I’m searching for.

BJ: Embryology studies the formation and growth of the embryo. How has it informed your practice?

IS: I am interested in experiential ways of repatterning ourselves through understanding how the body developed in the womb. And this process is very horizontal because no matter our origin, culture, race or education, it exists for all of us in the same way. We are all formed through processes of folding, wrapping, and creating space. This fascinates me as a way of seeing choreography as something we are made of.

Isabelle Schad, “Perceiving the Whole. Propositions from a Practice,” part of Somatic Charting. The House is the Body, curated by Elena Basteri and The Institute for Endotic Research, 2021. Photo by Sara Pereira. Courtesy of The Institute for Endotic Research

BJ: When you start to position the body on stage, do you consider it as a spectacle? Or do you rather see it in these terms of a natural organic being that has movement already ingrained in its form?

IS: There are different types of presences, such as the material body, the emotional body, the spiritual body… Each has a different type of outreach, energy and aura. As a performer, you simultaneously perceive yourself as a whole and as in the whole. The spectator, in the best case, also perceives themselves as both self and whole, swinging their focus between detail and overview. I aim not to pinpoint any specific message or narrative, but rather ask of my audience to allow their life story to be a part of it.

BJ: Indeed. What I think is undoubtedly graspable from your works is the importance of the live body, the importance of physical presence.

IS: Yes, very much so. That’s also why I don’t like sharing recordings of my performances on YouTube, as I don’t think this kind of video manages to transport the energy of the evening and the vibrations of the bodies present. And the joy of being in a space and feeling togetherness! It’s very difficult to document this in an adequate way. Alternatively, you can make an art film, which is another medium governed by its own set of principles.

BJ: I’d be interested in asking you what your opinion is regarding dance writing. As part of the “Open Practice Sessions”, you commissioned writers to reflect on the workshops. Does text appeal to you as a valuable way to document your work?

IS: I think it’s an interesting medium as writing is channelled through an individual’s experience, much like the physical experience of a workshop or a performance. And finding the right words can be considered an artform in itself. We just need to be careful that we don’t end up with too many words that might inflate the work and turn it into high knowledge. But if it’s written from an experience, one can feel it.

BJ: Yes, absolutely. I think it enables a different kind of description, which is filtered through a mind rather than through a device such as a camera.

IS: Indeed, but it really depends on which type of medium and which kind of engagement suits the descriptor. If your preferred medium is film, like it is for Laurent Goldring, then you speak through images. If you have a close relation to words and to writing, you can talk through text.

BJ: Lastly, I am curious about one more thing: had you not chosen the career path of artist and choreographer, what would you have been instead?

IS: As a kid, I always had two dreams: one was to be a dancer, the other was to be with animals. I still have an affinity for animals, as communication with them is so direct! When I’m cycling through town and I cross a crow on the street, I’ll call to it, “hello crow!” and they’ll give me a funny answer, perhaps not a verbal one, but it’s an answer all the same.

Theme: At work
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