Seated woman in vest and trunks, left arm stretched up, right arm bent forward, mouth open and hair flying. Behind her the diagonal rungs of a lighting rig and a vertical strip light. The whole photo has a deep red colour cast


Interview: Mette Ingvartsen on The Dancing Public

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Mette Ingvartsen in The Dancing Public. Photo © Hans Meijer
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When Mette Ingvartsen started working on her solo The Dancing Public back in 2019, a series of questions was the driving force of her dance. How to create a dance space that would be like a shared public space, even in a theatre? How to open the possibility for the public to be part of the dance, but without any obligation? Then, just as the Brussels-based choreographer delved into the history of dancing epidemics, the first Covid outbreak burst in Europe. Over the course of the crisis, the project took on a whole new colour and some more questions came up: how to stand side by side and dance together without apprehension in 2021–2022?

To begin with, I would like to discuss the title, The Dancing Public. Was the desire to dance with the audience the starting point of the project?

Indeed. This title appeared five or six years ago, when I was working on the creation of 69 Positions, where the question of audience participation was already at stake. A reflection started then: how would it be possible to engage the audience further within the performance itself? I began to wonder what function dance could have in our society, in our physical existence, as a social activity. I had in mind to work on social dances like clubbing, but also on the dancing marathons that took place during the Great Depression in the United States. I realised that I was interested in examining the connection between dancing and a state of crisis, in order to observe closely certain moments in history when the need to dance expressed itself urgently. I did not want The Dancing Public to be a party, to only convey the feeling of celebration.

How did you work then to create a space where people could dance together without it being a party precisely?

I made an extensive research about dancing epidemics or choreomanias, which took place in public spaces. They can be described as unplanned outbursts of movements that proceed by contagion: one person suddenly starts to convulse, to dance, and other people are dragged into the dance, creating an uncontrollable mass movement. I began to dive into these phenomena that punctuated Europe throughout the Middle Ages, and there I found a link between dance, public space, a state of crisis and a sense of urgency. The Dancing Public might feel as if it is starting off like a party, but then I mention the Black Death quite early on in my words. We slip from one register to another, and it can be unsettling. When imagining how to stage a performance inspired by this material, I first thought about how in the Middle Ages, performances were often staged on wooden platforms or wagons that were easy to set up and take down on the town square. When I started working with Minna Tiikkainen who did the scenography and the lighting, this idea remained and we built three wood and metal platforms, a bit like scaffolding, the basis of our shared space.

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I wondered what would make the urge to dance contagious now

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But two elements are nonetheless close to the atmosphere of a party in the piece: music, which is omnipresent, and the lighting which can recall the neon lights of a club.

The lights are hung up on metal poles, which can be a reference to street lighting, but also indeed to a club in a big city, or could be the lighting of a rave organised in a forest. The scenography as a whole suggests a space which could simultaneously be a public square, a club at night, an open-air rave, a mix of these different settings. As for the music, it did come very early in the process. As dancing epidemics thrived through contagion of movement I wondered what would make the urge to dance contagious now. For me, that has a lot to do with rhythm. I am easily impacted by rhythm, so I worked from this idea of a beat sustaining the duration of the whole piece.

Did you know from the start that speech was going to be a big part of the choreography?

I’ve had several conversations with collaborators who asked me at the start: ‘But why do you need to talk?’ Dancing epidemics are made of uncontrollable movements, to the point where the dancers are not themselves any more, language and rationality are somehow disconnected from the dancing body. But it was very important for me to take in charge a narration in the piece, in order to share the different layers of history that precede the movements that I do. Some movements look like they come from club dancing, some from contemporary dance, but there are also bursts of laughter, moments when I bark or compulsively scratch myself, which are movements drawn from descriptions of choreomanias that I read. It was important to me that the audience could grasp these historical connections. I am very interested in history, especially to witness how our bodies today are impacted by discursive perspectives from the past. With this in mind, talking and dancing at the same time made sense.

When you appear at the beginning of the piece, you’re almost like an MC heating up the room and setting up a rhythm. From this moment on, you are in charge of the energy, of its fluctuations, its contagion. It is an intense performance for you since the movement and the speaking hardly ever stop.

Rambling, speaking in loops, mumbling on pieces of sentences or chatting without being able to stop, these are traits that I have been able to notice in people involved in choreomanias. In my mind The Dancing Public had to contain everything at the same time: I would be dancing and talking and crossing the space and be among the audience and be alone at the same time. Trying to do everything at once has to do with the unstoppable movement that is specific to dancing epidemics, where an invisible force is pushing the body to be out of its own control. In this sense, I tried to invent my own ways of losing control, while still choreographing a performance. Speaking is therefore a way for me to create a great mass of information that is somehow beyond my control, and it pushes me as a performer to fuel this uncontrollable mass of energy. All the text is written, I do not improvise on the words, the choreography is written as well but not down to every little detail. There is always latitude and surprise coming in. In what happens with the public too, of course everything is left to the surprise of the moment and to improvisation.

About you speaking, you go from a pedagogical discourse to spoken word to a poetic text in verse, to singing… Why these variations?

I focused on working on the rhythmics of language, the poetics of the phrasing. In my previous pieces I often spoke to convey information. This is also the case in The Dancing Public, in part, but the sentences are quite short, interspersed with movement and physical engagement. Sometimes the text does indeed rhyme, sound like slam. One song takes us back to the 1930s and is about the dancing marathons. Another one at the end of the piece is more emotional, I mention escaping, being outside in a forest.

I had no preconceived idea of what these changes of atmosphere would be like, but I think it has to do with the way I worked with the music. Because of the Covid crisis I started working on my own. I researched and found some tracks of electronic music that I liked, over which I composed the text. The more I tried this text-music coexistence, the more I liked the track I was working on, so we asked for the rights to use it and keep it in the piece. It has been rearranged then by Anne van de Star. The text is therefore very much connected to the presence of music that made me want to dance first of all, which was a real, powerful source of inspiration. I rehearsed the text over the music, to witness how the phrasing could be modified by the rhythm. The desire to sing came like that for instance. I spent some time improvising, learning the text by heart and saying it at a pace that seemed to work. By combining music and language, I wanted to produce like a ripple effect, a shared pulse, like in a concert.

Mette Ingvartsen in The Dancing Public. Woman in trunks and sleeveless top, head thrown back and arms up, on a platform. Behind and to the right of her is her own shadow on the wall
Mette Ingvartsen, The Dancing Public. Photo © Hans Meijer

The special atmosphere of The Dancing Public is due to contrasts, we are between joy and fear, pain and pleasure, the Black Death and the dance. We navigate between euphoria and worry constantly.

It has to do with this idea of not having ‘simply’ a party, even though planning a good party is difficult. I was interested in experimenting with forms, with choreography, with sources rooted in cultural history that go beyond the existence of our bodies in the present. The piece is also experimental in the way it challenges certain codes of representation. Several people told me that they had wanted to dance during the piece but had not really dared to. They were not sure of what was expected of them. Each spectator negotiates a lot with him or herself during the performance. They stand close to each other, look at each other, it toys with what one allows oneself to do or not.

Our relationship to norms is also at stake here in my opinion. It is interesting to me to experiment with existing norms that teach us how to behave as a spectator in a theatre. It is part of this desire to create a potentially uncontrollable and unusual response from the public, it is possible anyway. The point is not to propose to the audience to go into a dancing mania, but rather to destabilise our frame of vision, our attitude towards a performance. Hopefully it questions everyone about the place they want to occupy in the space, whether you want to be close to me or not for instance.

How did you research choreomanias? How did the process to identify certain movements and integrate them into the choreography go?

My primary source was the book Choreomania: Dance and Disorder by Kélina Gotman, an important historical research on dancing epidemics, going from the Middle Ages to the present day. I was very surprised to find the dance marathons of the 1930s and the rave parties in the book: the connections I had made at the start of the project suddenly appeared there. These two examples are mentioned as contemporary versions of excess movement, inexplicable physical overflows in their own way. This book has been an important enlightenment. Gotman mentions the work of Doctor Hecker for example, who wrote down several descriptions of dancing manias. I looked for these writings and I found out different behaviours depicted, giving shape to erratic, uncontrolled movements: people who barked, meowed, acted like birds… I kept the descriptions and worked on translating them into my body.

A quick introduction to the ‘dancing plagues’ of medieval Europe

At one point you talk about hysteria and Professor Charcot’s work. Why?

There is a section devoted to Charcot and his research on hysteria at the Hospital of La Salpêtrière in Gotmann’s study. Charcot got interested in dancing manias because he found similarities between descriptions from the Middle Ages and what he was observing in the behaviour of his patients. I immersed myself in that story, and I also read the feminist theory which sheds a critical light on Charcot’s work. Because it turns out there was an element of performance in the way the patients were presented to an assembly of doctors – only men of course – gathered to observe the pathologies and crises of hysterical patients. The women were under hypnosis and it was about performing the different phases of hysteria. I have observed pictures of these movements which are extreme in their own way. In the different phases of hysteria listed by Charcot we find the phase of contorsion clownesque, the phase of trance or attitude passionnelle, the moment of resolution… These poses are integrated into the choreographic vocabulary of the piece. I also found out that Valeska Gert referred to these images in her work. This link was made visible in the Danser Brut exhibition which was on at BOZAR in 2020 in Brussels. It blew me away, because it was teeming with all these references I was working on, and it was suddenly amazing to see this network of connections woven through the archives. The choreography of the piece draws on the journey of this extensive research based on texts and images.

Even though you are working with loss of control, you don’t seem to be interested in going into trance states. You maintain a connecton with us in the audience, there is no gap.

I’m very interested in trance states, but for this solo that’s not where I’m headed. I think it’s related to the importance of speech and storytelling, to this attention that I have to propose a kind of understanding of what I’m saying to the audience. If I had leaned towards going into a certain state, I would have let go of that reflective aspect. We could have imagined a piece in which we all would have danced together until a point of exhaustion… But as it is impossible to initiate a state of trance that could last for days and days, I centred my research on how to convey the possibility of an infinite dance, the unrolling of an uncontrollable movement which could never end, in a framework which allows you to experience it.

However, I am interested in this duality between listening to my historical speech and being fully in the body, following the rhythm by tapping your feet on the floor or swinging your head, dancing. It is also for these reasons that after the piece is over, after the applause, the music is turned back on and people can stay dancing in the space. It’s still not exactly like a party, although the first five minutes may look like it. The music is on loop, and the original idea was to initiate a dance that might never end, a dance that people could engage in for as long as they want. The dancing manias lasted for days and days, sometimes weeks. Theatre space seems very restrictive in comparison, but it was a challenge to give shape to the work precisely in this space.

The starting point of the project, dancing with the audience, or creating a situation where people can dance together, suddenly became impossible with the arrival of Covid. In what ways has the core of the piece been shaken?

I started to work in December 2019, just before the crisis hit the European continent. I was intensely in it when the restrictions and curfews came up in Belgium. I went from working on a subject that interested me intellectually to finding myself stuck at home without being able to go to the studio or to the theatre, without being able to perform, rehearse, research with other people. This period was very intense, and violent, I felt that my body was accumulating an excess of energy that had nowhere to go, as if my cells were vibrating. Going from reading books to experiencing excess in real and physical ways was like a sudden understanding of what it was all about. I started dancing at home, in small spaces. Stress, frustration, control, fear, all became very real, bringing closer some information I had read, about how in some cities people started dancing to ward off the Black Death and ensure that it would not enter the city. Dance had different functions at the time: it was sometimes the cure, sometimes the symptoms of a disease and sometimes it would help cure the disease… All of this suddenly appeared in a very concrete way.

How did you manage to keep working alone, as the presence of other bodies is essential to The Dancing Public?

The first pressing question for a long time was: when will it be possible to create a piece where strangers can stand close to each other and have the freedom to move around? Six months of working with uncertainty passed before the work premiered.

There are still many points of negotiation between the solo and the context today, and it keeps moving along with the issues we face as we go. The fact alone that the audience is masked or not is a game-changer, since it is lot about looking at each other, being side by side, communicating. It is a very sensitive space, which makes us work with our coexistence. The piece can be cancelled any time, whenever the rules change again, because it does not respect social distancing, it is not covid-safe at all. But again, we are right at the heart of the matter, questioning how to become social beings again, how to dare staying close to someone you don’t know, how is it to see strangers’ mouths talking or smiling in front of you?

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I have the feeling that the piece works as a receptacle for suppressed, contained energy, finally bursting

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As you explained when the solo ends, music returns and the audience can stay in the space and dance. Was this ending present before Covid or did it appear in contact with the crisis?

The idea was present from the start, yes. Conceptually, that dance part was there from the very beginning, because as long as I am in the space, people’s attention is focused on what I’m proposing, on the performance, that is a particular type of gaze. When I disappear, the entire space stops being a place of observation and becomes a place of possible participation. No one is supposed to do anything in particular, everyone is in some way equal because there is no longer a performer to watch. It seemed important to me to keep the space open when leaving it. And it is also a sort of nod to the 1990s rave parties, places where I used to dance a lot as a teenager, which is very much a part of my movement as well.

This ending was a very strong moment in Brussels, a kind of liberation, joyful and intense. I have the feeling that it can also be a space of relief, like taking a moment to realise that we are indeed still here, standing, dancing, alive.

It is also the feeling I actually had, because indeed we have already spend a year and a half disconnected from each other, and the piece is working to reconnect something between us. It is in a way an invitation for us to try to understand the power that lies in being together. In Brussels, I felt that the public also needed to express themselves. On the first night, people were screaming, vocalising their reactions tremendously, encouraging me, which was both surprising and fascinating. There seems to be a need to release something physically and I have the feeling that the piece works as a receptacle for suppressed, contained energy, finally bursting. I am fascinated by the collective reflection on where our bodies are today, what kind of overflows or excessive energy we feel, how ready we are to be social again in a time where all of these aspects have been suppressed and stifled. I don’t know yet how far this blooming political potential of our coming together could carry us. I am careful because I have yet to see how the piece will evolve, but one thing is for sure: if we are depressed, tired, and repressed then nothing good will come out of us. 

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The Dancing Public, 2022 tour
February 12: La Scierie, Avignon, FR
February 26: Le Quartz, Brest, FR
March 5: CNDC, Angers, FR
March 11–13: Dansens Hus Oslo, NO
March 18–19: Kunstencentrum Vooruit, Ghent, BE
March 22–25: Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, FR
April 13–15: Le Subs, Lyon, FR
April 20–23: Dansens Hus Stockholm, SV
April 29–30: Tanzquartier Wien, Vienna, AT
May 5: STUK, Leuven, BE
May 13–14: SPRING International Arts Festival, Utrecht, NL
May 25–26: KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, Hannover, DE
June 28: Latitudes Contemporaines, Lille, FR

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