Dance, Embodiment and Education

In April, webteam member Tessa Smorenburg interviewed Roma Koolen of dance collective MAN || CO and Joosje Slot, a student of Anthropology (University of Amsterdam), in Amsterdam. What follows is their discussion on the value of art and embodied practices, and ends with a criticism of our education system, which promotes exclusion.

Roma Koolen is a dancer at the five member Amsterdam dance collective MAN || CO, established in 2015. They make theatrical dance performances and with their show ‘When we cried confetti’ they won three awards at a theater festival in Utrecht (NL) in 2017. Koolen says that MAN || CO sees it as their mission to make modern dance more accessible to an audience that is not usually found in theaters. Koolen tells that this is important because dance is often seen as an abstract artform. When she spoke to her friends after one of her dance shows, or when she had taken them somewhere, they told her they didn’t understand the performance. According to Koolen however, it’s not a matter of ‘understanding’, it’s another type of language that apparently does not translate very well. In their performances, MAN || CO aim to connect with the public and therefore expect an active attitude of their audience. In this they are aware that if they want people in the audience to not close themselves off or sit back in their chairs, they need to meet the audience halfway. One of the ways they do this is quite literally. For example, in a scene from ‘When we cried confetti’, Koolen sits on someone’s lap in the audience. In addition, MAN || CO works with associative imagery, and music is an important element as well. In addition, they organize open art house days, so that during the process of coming up with the performance, the audience is invited to provide feedback to clarify whether their message being received.

Roma Koolen in “When we cried confetti” Phorocredits: Bart Grietens

This year, the theme they investigated was ‘loneliness’, and this is where the show ‘When we cried confetti’ came from. “Loneliness is recognizable to everyone, and all five of us were dealing with it in some way at that time”, Koolen says. Through physical research, they look for interesting imagery and like to work with clear contrasts, this time ending up with loneliness in the context of a party. For their stories they look at real-life examples. On one of these open art house evenings, they engaged with the audience and recalled memories of their birthdays. “There were some really sad things that came out of that,” says Koolen. “My solo, for example, is inspired by the story of a boy who, on his seventh birthday, drank what he thought was water from his father’s glass, which turned out to be wine. He got drunk and had to throw up at his own party.” In her solo you might not actually recognise this as the story, but it does inform the intent she uses in her dancing. For Koolen, she approaches dance in the same way as an essay, but with a greater social aspect to it. “Art is another way of analyzing and criticizing society”, says Koolen. The performance is, for her, the conclusion of where her research currently stands, told in imagery and motion.

When Koolen tries to explain what she does exactly when she dances, she finds it hard to answer. Joosje Slot refers to specialized body techniques, a term coined by anthropologist Jaida Kim Samudra (University of Hawaii). She says that the movements that dancers people have been practicing for a long time are ‘embodied’. If you ask someone what they are doing, they will not be able to capture it with language. “You kind of take them out of their embodiment because you ask them to reflect on it,” Slot explains. Koolen adds to this: “I recognize this completely. As soon as your words indicate what you are going to do, so that the other can imitate your movements, it never works. But if you perform the movement a lot and then the other person imitates your actual movement, it’s actually a lot less difficult.” Slot indicates that this relates to the way we learn, and that it is personal. There are two tracks of knowledge transfer, either through language or via feelings, but these are approached hierarchically. For example, our education system is based solely on thinking that knowledge should be transferred rationally. “But people who learn in a different fashion are left by the wayside,” Slot says. She mentions a video “The people vs the school system ” (2016) of anthropologist Prince Ea (USA) to illustrate her point. Koolen, in her daily practice of dancing, notices that she finds it difficult to rely on her body because she wasn’t taught to do so, and she is therefore critical about how we are formed by society. “There seems to be a general inconvenience and alienation when we talk about dealing with our bodies,” she says. But to make our society aware of this embodiment, it is a necessity to speak first in the language of the general discourse, Slot concludes. And art can make a critical and valuable contribution here.

MAN || CO will perform at the international theaterfestival Amsterdam Fringe Festival, which is held from 7 to 17 September 2017.
For more information and other show dates: (in Dutch)

Photocredits Image on top MAN || CO : Anne Beentjes

About the author: Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg

Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg

Tessa Roberts-Smorenburg (1987) graduated as a master in Ethics of Care and Policy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL) in 2015. She currently holds the double position of ethical consultant, and policy advisor in the Centre on the Quality of Life and Survivorship, at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in Amsterdam (NL). This centre accommodates the physical/psychosocial, supportive and survivorship care for cancer patients. As a sociotherapist she worked in direct contact with patients in psychiatric clinics. Her previous experience at TAAK brought her in contact with visual artists and care institutions to whom she provided an ethics of care perspective during research and project development for the programme “Art & Care”.

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