Dance Day 2022 in conversation with Marc Vanrunxt, Liz Kinoshita & Zoé Lakhnati
It’s 2022. Contemporary dance started to color the Flemish cultural landscape about 40 years ago. It’s about time to evaluate the state of affairs. For this occasion, Dag van de Dans asked me to engage in conversation with three dance artists, each in very different career stages. Belgian choreographer Marc Vanrunxt was there when it all started. He has made more than forty creations since the early 1980s, a period during which he has played an important role in the development of the Flemish Wave. Today he shares his knowledge as a teacher at KASK in Ghent and as artistic advisor for a significant number of choreographers. His company Kunst/Werk is located in Antwerp. Liz Kinoshita moved from Canada to Belgium. She studied at P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels from 2004 to 2008. Since then, she has worked with ZOO/Thomas Hauert, Tino Sehgal, and Hiatus/Daniel Linehan among others. Alongside she makes her own work, in which she examines the mechanisms of the musical. Zoé Lakhnati is about to graduate from P.A.R.T.S. this year. She was born in the South of France. She’s trained as a professional ballet dancer, but wanted to explore her own artistic voice more in Brussels. We can follow Zoé’s journey at P.A.R.T.S. on the podcast Generation XIII created by Delphine Hesters. I wonder if they all know each other.
“Apart from the fact that I don’t think I have real success, I feel very successful because I do what I wanted to do all my life” Marc Vanrunxt
Zoé: Marc, what P.A.R.T.S. generation are you?
Marc: Good question. In Belgium, there are more dancers than those who went to P.A.R.T.S. actually. I have nothing to do with P.A.R.T.S.
Zoé: Oh, I understood this interview would be between different P.A.R.T.S. generations?
Marc: No, I'm from another strange part of the country, which people in Brussels don’t always know. It's called Antwerp. Before P.A.R.T.S. was founded in the mid-nineties, some people were working already in the dance field in Flanders. There was a small scene in Antwerp, which is now kind of erased and forgotten. I would say almost. Thank God now for Jan Martens, Ann Van den Broek and Koen De Preter.
Zoé: So you work in Antwerp?
Marc: Well, that's a funny thing, I mostly work with ex-P.A.R.T.S. students from different generations, like Lise Vachon, Igor Shyshko, Peter Savel, Georgia Vardarou. I used to work together very closely with Salva Sanchis. Before he returned to his homeland Spain, we were both artistic directors of Kunst/Werk. But we work in Brussels because most dancers are in Brussels and I'm the only one who has to travel. Actually, it's a big drama in Antwerp. There are so few places for dance. It's really getting worse and worse. So we rent studios in Brussels. We also sometimes work in Leuven or Ghent. I guess that’s the Flemish triangle for dance now?
Annelies: So now that we’ve established that context, what are some of your hopes, or wildest dreams even, for the dance scene in Flanders that we could work towards?
Zoé: In a way, for me it's quite difficult to project because I’m currently still in school and I have this institutional context around me, with an extremely busy curriculum that enables us to meet so many other artists. My view on the field without the context of this institution is not quite there yet. I have some perspectives in Belgium as a performer. As a maker, I think most things might be happening in France the next few months. I still have very good connections there. So I have perspectives, but they are short-term and shaky.
Liz: I was very lucky, when I finished school I had plans for the next couple of years. After that, things kept rolling along, thankfully. At a point I started doing more lobbying work with groups like State of the Arts and Voices of Dance, where we try to see a little bit more how dance is situated in relation to the general public, or within society let's say. So not only focusing on my own artistic path. I think that the pandemic really opened my eyes on the questions of the importance of culture in society. Since the cultural sector was the first to close and the last to open, I really needed to examine where dance would fall in terms of what is considered essential. So planning for the future, as a mid-career artist, my energy has somehow shifted towards measuring how I want to invest my time. My love for sharing performance with a public is strongest, however I also really enjoyed participating in an Open Monday, organized by Hiatus. It’s a free and open door format, during which I could share my practice with dance professionals, amateurs and dance enthusiasts. They come and participate because they are curious about dance! It was really heartwarming to see people from all walks of life come through the door. Of course I can also relate to Zoé’s short-term perspective, because it hasn’t been that long ago for me. But I can say that even when some doors close, the next day a door could open right after. You have to roll with the punches. Really, there's a resilience in the field of dance. And the resilience survived the Corona pandemic. It was so challenging, but we made it through.
Annelies: When you say “we”, are you referring to a dance community? Do you feel part of a community in Belgium?
Liz: Well, having gone to PARTS, that’s a strong community that I feel exists, and there are others.
Marc: For me it’s different. I don’t think there ever has been a real strong dance community. It took a really long time for contemporary dance, or however one would call the things we did, to be taken seriously in Antwerp. Perhaps because the ballet was so dominant there? Even today, if there would have been a dance community, we would have so many more places for dance. Instead, at least in Antwerp, dance is disappearing from the public sphere. To be honest, I see a lot of things disappear and not so many new things happen in response. So I was very sad when Salva went away. It is only once in a while I come across people that I connect with, no matter what generation they’re from, like Étienne Guilloteau for example. My favorite place to be right now is the drama department of KASK in Ghent, where I’m teaching a lot. The students are so wild and daring. In that sense my dreams are perhaps not so wild: but I would really like to have more space, or visibility, for dance in Antwerp.
“There's a resilience in the field of dance. And the resilience survived the Corona pandemic.” Liz Kinoshita
Annelies: Liz, you were part of the core members of voices of dance, which was something that grew during the pandemic. What is it exactly?
Liz: The reason why it was called voices of dance was because at the time many lobbying groups were trying to change the Arts Decree and the artist status, but these conversations were happening without any group that was actually representing dance. Some of us felt a strong need to organize and speak on behalf of this specific sector. That became a community too, investing in things to advocate for the dance field. It started during the lockdown, but this is a continuing story. It was challenging and fascinating working on ethically representing such a genre, but we aimed to keep it as honest as possible. I was really hoping that a platform like Podium19, which was also set up during the pandemic to stream theater, would be a continuous story too. Wouldn’t it be nice if national TV would feature a (dance) performance or documentary every month?
Marc: Podium19 regenerated this occasion of showing something to an audience, which gave us focus and a drive again during the pandemic, but it is such a different platform than the theater stage with a live audience. I do think it's necessary to make visible what we're doing in dance though. I don't have a television, but I think it might be a good medium for a lot of people to get in touch with unfamiliar things, to make dance more accessible. Of course, there's a lot of stuff surrounding dance on YouTube, like rehearsals, trailers and interviews. It’s endless, but it doesn’t reach the same people as national TV would. I was really hoping that this Podium19 could be continued, but obviously after reflection about the dos and the don’ts. During the pandemic, it was all very hasty, very rushed.
Zoé: Yes, that's why I found some of the things I saw a bit sad. I understand why it existed, but I don’t really think it is what we need right now. We already are so often looking at screens. If it has to continue, it would be more for performances that are conceived for TV.
Marc: Yes I agree. We didn't have time to do that and the only solution I could come up with was to only film closeups. I didn’t feel the need to capture the whole stage, but to capture something that you wouldn’t ordinarily see in a theater situation. To see fabulous dancers from very close.
Annelies: The cultural sector is going through a rough patch for a couple of years now, with the corona-pandemic only being the tip of the iceberg perhaps. How do you pull through this?
Marc: What keeps me going actually is the fact that there's a lot of work to do still. I want to make clear that dance is a language. There are different languages and you have to study a little bit to understand them. So it's not a small thing, but it's still a big fight. What else keeps me going, as an aspect of that, is my rebel against dance that is too narrative. I strongly believe in dance as an experience for the people who do it, but also for the people who watch it. So it would be nice that we have an audience that you can train little by little to be open to just enjoy and experience what they're seeing. I think we should challenge ourselves by challenging the audience. To raise the bar a little bit, perhaps?
Liz: I heard audiences are not very keen on returning to cultural spaces yet post-pandemic. I think the first concern of theaters now is to get the audience back in their venues and then we can rack our brains about how to support audience for dance specifically. Perhaps an anecdote: I was performing in Germany in a museum situation last week. There was one day that the museum had a free opening while the usual entrance fee was maybe 10 euros. That free day, it was packed. So sometimes I feel like if, once in a while, there would be that investment from an institution, or city funding, to provide free access to something, more people will show. I think that's the sort of initiative that potential audiences respond to these days. Those occasions seem to make the difference.
Marc: I think it’s nice that venues like Kaaitheater are offering the pay-what-you-can option. But well, prices in Belgium are relatively okay if you compare it to London or Paris.
Liz: Yes, but if prices go up more in the aftermath of the crisis, it’s going to make the whole sector be that exclusive elite thing it is sometimes accused of being, because you're reaching only a specific group of people that can afford to spend that amount on a weekly or monthly basis.
Annelies: Is an initiative like Dag van de Dans an interesting means to train the audience, since many activities are offered for free, especially the ones outside and during daytime?
Liz: Totally, we've played several times on Dag van de Dans events, and it's always like a bit of a broader demographic that turns up just because it's free and so open, out there. Maybe there are some workshops for kids or street dances. You just have this great crosspollination of dance circles.
Marc: I think that’s also what I really enjoy anyway, to dance outside. I like that during Dag van de Dans we really go outside, literally leave the building. For me the actual strength of the day is really what happens during the day itself and not in the evenings: literally taking dance outside. Rosas’ Slow Walk was genius in that respect, not only showing something but also getting participation of the audience, random passersby. That’s really experiencing dance.
Zoé: Yes, definitely dancing outside is helpful. More helpful than flyers and posters. We will dance in Brussels central station with P.A.R.T.S. this year. Last time we did something similar with Maria Hassabi in Bruges. We were dancing for 12 hours in the train station in slow motion. People were looking at us a bit strange and of course couldn’t answer their questions while we were performing. But afterwards, the choreographer told us to let them know what was happening. When we explained about the festival, people really returned the next day to come and watch again. So, I think intervening in public space is quite exciting as a form of communication with and toward audiences.
“Intervening in public space is quite exciting as a form of communication with and toward audiences.” Zoé Lakhnati
Annelies: What else excites you in the current landscape?
Zoé: I think it’s exciting how I feel part of a generation that has a renewed interest in popular culture. In the current research of my fellow students, I notice this urge for researching modes of entertainment, something that was perhaps lost in former generations for a while. They maybe even opposed it? I enjoy that a lot.
Liz: When I speak to an audience or talk with them afterwards in the bar, it makes me so happy when they tell me that what they saw was energizing. You know, when they're thankful and happy that they came. In the evenings, many people are drained, because of work-life balance issues, and when they see people give energy, make surprising proposals, and maybe sweat on stage, that energy can be contagious. That's been my experience. For example, I try to always take someone with me to the theater, who doesn’t also work in the field; for me, it’s invigorating to see how worthwhile the art form when observing these friends.
Marc: I was surprised, for example, to discover that even theater studies students had so little experience with watching dance performances. Some of Annelies’ students interviewed me for a class assignment and they didn’t know who Pina Bausch was.
Annelies: I hope that doesn’t make me look like a horrible teacher! But yes, one of my own dreams for dance in Belgium would be to make room for much more dance history and theory in the curriculum of our students. Or, if I can be really wild, I hope for Dance Studies to become an academic discipline in its own right, like it is in the Unites States.
Marc: That reminds me. Almost nobody writes about dance anymore in the newspaper. If I compare it in the 80s and early 90s, so many people were writing about all the new things. People watch a movie because they read something interesting about it in the paper, perhaps an interview with an actor. If that doesn’t happen for the small players in the dance field, then how can we attract audiences to our shows? It’s a sort of negligence on behalf of the editors, I would say. I would like to have a Flemish magazine like Contredanse or Tanz!
Annelies: Looking back at the past 40 years of your career, is there one thing that you’re proud of in terms of dance in Belgium?
Marc: Sometimes I look into my notebooks from a long time ago. One confession is that I have a lot of same ideas for many years, but another is that many of the worries are still the same. Like insecurities about what the next year is going to bring. It’s maybe a cliché, but I think that’s probably part of being an artist, trying to face the difficulties. I'm a positive person, so I always believe tomorrow is going to be better. So apart from the fact that I don’t think I have real success, I feel very successful because I do what I wanted to do all my life. I started out dancing quite late, when I was 15. I was finding my way as an amateur in a field that existed out of ballet. 40 years ago, I once thought: “imagine I could earn money with this”. For many years now, I’ve realized that I do! I'm really happy about that. It's a big fulfillment and it's an ongoing story. I still don't know what tomorrow will bring, but I’m proud that this dream I had 40 years ago has become reality. Aside from that personal achievement, one of the biggest positive changes in the landscape is P.A.R.T.S. and how that influx of international dancers changed everything. Also for very practical reasons for me, it opened up the range of dancers I could work with. That was a huge boost!
Annelies: Do you feel like what you do is acknowledged as a genuine career?
Zoé: It really depends where I go. Unlike some fellow artists, perhaps, this was never an issue in my family, because many people in my family are visual artists. My mother supports me a lot. Still, in general, people can’t really imagine what it means to be a dance artist. When I venture out of the art field, it’s hard to make people understand what it exactly is that we’re doing. It’s difficult sometimes to find the right words to explain it.
Liz: It seems it’s easier for people to understand the idea of a ‘genuine career’ in dance when you can attach the name of a dance company to your work instead of explaining which project you are working on at the moment, no matter how exciting the project may be... With the back-up of a company, people generally relate this to the idea of stability and security that comes with a career. So their concerns actually come from a place of love and care, I like to believe.
Zoé: it’s really funny that you say that. I feel like when you’re fresh out of school, you have to make this choice between being stable and earning money by working for a company or making the art that you want autonomously. So then you compromise a bit artistically perhaps when you opt for the former. Or you go for your own thing, but it might not pan out.
Liz: But, definitely, I think in Belgium the perception on the profession is much better than in other countries. We can also say that we're very lucky for it! I remember a friend of mine who works in film saying that he wished that film had the audience that dance has in Belgium. In what other country do you hear that? I’ve heard the story of a friend who was held for hours at airport security when travelling overseas because she had filled out on her form that she was a dancer, they thought she’d try to work outside of a visa... Ever since, I always say that I’m a dancer who works for theater. I guess it is helpful to situate it sometimes. And there’s something to say also about classical dance as a reference for people. When you say you also have a training in ballet, people feel more comfortable with that. There seems to be a more general knowledge of how hard a ballet dancer works and what kind of training that requires.
Marc: I sometimes don’t even fight it anymore. My doctor thinks a choreographer sits in a chair all day. Or to make it easy for myself, I simply say I teach dance classes even though I don’t teach techniques. And indeed, the fact that you can name an institution, like a school, with the word teacher, reassures people. But yes, a lot of people don't really know what you're talking about when you simply say you’re a dance artist.
Liz: But those are the people that I'm bringing to the theater!
All in all, the three artists agree: Belgium is a great place to enjoy dance of all stripes. However cliché it may sound, there’s is also room for improvement. The spirit of this conversation brings out their eagerness to realize some of the mentioned hopes and dreams in the coming years, but they can’t do it alone. Are you with them on this?
Annelies Van Assche
* Annelies Van Assche is a dance scholar at Ghent University. She studies the relations between labor and aesthetics in contemporary dance, focusing on the experiences of dance artists. She is also a guest professor at the dance department of the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp and a founding member of CoDa | Cultures of Dance, a European research network for dance studies.
Pictures by Sien Vestraeten @ KVS