Loops and Lines

Dance project with the Ballet of the State Theatre Wiesbaden

The Ensemble Modern is currently working with the choreographer Stephan Thoss and his ballet of the State Theatre Wiesbaden on the production ›Loops and Lines‹ (Thinking in Motion), which will have its premiere on 26 October 2013 at the State Theatre Wiesbaden and will then be shown nine further times during the 2013–2014 season. The evening is focused on Rudolf von Laban’s thinking and mindset; his teachings on the motion of human bodies will be transferred to the world of music and bodies of sound. Rudolf von Laban was one of the founders of the German »Ausdruckstanz« in the first two decades of the 20th century. Many of its protagonists had to leave the country during the Nazi regime; some of them returned, but not Laban. Thus, it was difficult for any kind of tradition to develop. Kurt Jooss, however, who had studied with Laban, returned from England and revived the Folkwang tradition of dance education in Essen, producing choreographers like Pina Bausch and Susanne Linke. Stephan Thoss (ST) has his very own connection to these origins. Melanie Suchy (MS) spoke to him about this, and about Laban’s theories.

MS: Mr Thoss, you studied dance at the Palucca School in Dresden until 1983. How did you first encounter »Ausdruckstanz«?

ST: Actually, it was a Latin American who explained the German tradition to me: Patricio Bunster, who had danced with Kurt Jooss and studied with Jooss’ colleague Sigurd Leeder. Nobody else at the school had any idea about it. Gret Palucca even forbade these lessons, so Patricio gave them secretly, in addition to his regular teaching schedule, and only for selected students. I was thirteen. We would talk late into the night. This went on for almost five years. Even during my first engagement at the Semper Opera, I kept riding my bike to his house, copying the books out by hand, since there were no copying machines. In a way, I feel that I owe it to him to pass that knowledge on.

MS: What is so fascinating about it?

ST: Basically, people have an inborn, very fundamental understanding of dance. No child has to learn to hop up and down when it is cheerful and to let its head droop when it is sad. We are born with a feeling for our body, for its motions and language, and they cannot be separated from emotional states. What do we actually do in our gestures: how dynamically do we move if we have a certain feeling, how do we occupy a space? Laban’s goal was to discover the answers to these questions.

MS: And how did he go about that?

ST: He worked a lot with children. Given specific themes, they did remarkably similar things, even movements they had never seen before. Laban said that the reason for this remained a phenomenon and a miracle. Jooss was less of a theorist; he implemented all that practically, as a choreographer, and together with Sigurd Leeder, he revised some of Laban’s theories and brought them into their own era. This is what I am doing again now: translating them for today.

MS: Surely all of that cannot be demonstrated in one evening ...

ST: No, but I will offer a few examples to make the systems or theories comprehensible. Their point of departure is everyday movement. After all, that is a »technique« for which there are no images, no little figures in books striking poses; here one has to do and imagine everything oneself. That is why it is timeless, and dances by Mary Wigman, who had worked with Laban, look very different from ours. That is due to a different way of dealing with the basics: how does the body react, how do we deal with the component of time (speed), with space, how do we treat energy? And then there are physical laws, like the force of gravity.

MS: Could you give us a concrete example?

ST: Consider, for example, the leap. Sometimes it only wants to show off: look how well I can do this. Otherwise, however, it always has an inherent motivation that tells a story. To overcome something as quickly as possible: I might jump away in fright at the sight of a mouse. This is called an initial accent. It does not matter where I land. Or I jump across a brook, then I have to hit the mark. That is known as a terminal accent. The inherent motive – hence »Ausdruckstanz « – is not the leap, but the element of »over something, away from something, towards something, or simply upwards«. Four basic leaps: all the others are only different combinations of those four.

MS: In this manner, Laban was constantly searching for the approach, the motive, the basis ...

ST: What you learn there is something much more fundamental than »technique «. The theory’s primary intention is not to lead to choreographies, but to make the dancer understand what he is doing. What moves us? Why do we move? In this, the human being is an animal, says Laban: we move in order not to starve and in order to reproduce. Unlike animals, however, humans are able to empathise with other cultures of movement. To gallop, to sneak like a cat. Perhaps that is why it turned into an art form.

MS: Laban said that »Music is born out of movement«.

ST: There is no music, no noise, no whimpering or rustling without movement. That is a law of physics. He knew a lot about music. After all, he also developed his dance notation out of the practice of turning a piece of music paper with staves sideways, so that movement in time to music could be written down, using as few symbols as possible.

MS: How do you begin the performance of dance and music on stage?

ST: First, the musicians and we improvise on five or six main ideas of Laban’s teachings on dynamics – this includes speed –, spatiality/icosahedrons and spatial transit. We are still experimenting with that. We will see what the musicians feel like and where they feel good. The state of being charged with energy – an aspect of dynamics – is very important for a dancer and a sound producer: little energy or use of muscle power results in a small sound; lots of energy produces a loud or stronger or sharper sound. Or we might test what constitutes a floating sound, or the difference between tones that are controlled centrally or peripherally. Perhaps tones produced from the centre of the body, like the corresponding movements, sound a little warmer than those that are reached for from the outside, so to speak, and thus seem cooler? I will moderate this part of the programme with short commentaries, and since Patricio always said, »We learn nothing about movement if we don’t move«, I will also ask the audience to do something.

MS: How does the principle of spatial intention affect a sitting musician?

ST: A tone also »transits through« the space. There are straight tones, and tones that arch, bending from bottom to top or vice versa. We feel, or see before our inner eye, that they rise and fall or meander. In principle, there are only three ways to get from point A to point B: straight ahead, in an arching movement or a round one. Additionally, Laban notated a wavy line, i.e. an arch followed by another arch in the opposite direction. Everything else consists of various combinations of the former. A movement shows itself in what lies behind it. The path: the German word Bewegung (movement) contains the word Weg, or path. It leaves a »trace«, for example a spiral, a crossing, a circle. It is like painting, or like taking a photograph of a moving torch light in the dark with a long exposure. Human beings have a certain ability to remember spatial intention, as they can remember melodies.

MS: What follows this first part of the evening?

ST: In the second part of the evening, these laws will be applied flexibly. We will interpret two compositions in this spirit. We have selected ›Eight Lines‹ by Steve Reich and ›Shaker Loops‹ by John Adams. I will find the performance form together with the musicians. I decided very consciously to go into the first meeting on stage without a fixed idea for a set design. Adams’ music has an element of a train, speeding up and slowing down again; this spontaneously gave me the idea of placing the musicians in a row, diagonally behind each other. From the audience’s point of view, this also results in a dividing line, with an area behind and in front, two wedge-shaped spaces. The sound and the performers of the sound, the musicians, constitute a membrane one can pass through, a wall of sound. We will merge with each other. Perhaps I will have a forest of empty items of clothing float in the rear triangle. The dancers emerge from the world of wrappings and of appearances into an area where they are pure.

MS: Do you have an idea yet for the octet by Steve Reich?

ST: We have yet to find a form for that. Perhaps we will raise the musicians on a podium. Some of them have relatively long breaks between the passages where they play; I would like to find out how we might be able to involve them and how courageous they are. Perhaps they can leave their places and the dancers can move into their positions? We must find ways of doing this without having the musicians put down their instruments and jump down; however, a set of stairs would generate too much expectation of predictable action. On the other hand, it should not look as if we were just filling in holes. In keeping with Laban’s intention, it is not necessary for the musicians to learn to dance.

MS: At the first encounter, you decided not to have the musicians disappear in the orchestra pit. You thought that the contact between the performers was important.

ST: I think that is precisely what makes this project intriguing. That meeting was also designed to put the musicians at ease, in case they were worried that the dance would encumber their playing. It was an instant collaboration. However, my goal is not for us to be identical twins, or all on the same wavelength. We will also find moments of friction, or we will behave contrary to the music. Dialogue does not mean always agreeing. This gives depth to the music, and also power, in the sense of »You can do whatever you want around me, I will remain calm.« Music can influence us, but it does not have the power to keep dancers completely imprisoned within its rhythm, or to assuage deep-seated emotions. It is not omnipotent. Thus, it remains human, and vulnerable. It wants to be heard, understood, and loved – perhaps also hated – , it wants to annoy and rouse people. It is like dance, which can also express even more, and more profoundly, than words.