by Marianne Valkenburg
Originally published by the Henny Jurriëns Foundation
Photography : © Greogory Batardon
“In the West there is too much emphasis on ‘Papa-Head’ and not enough on ‘Mama-Earth’”
The Venezuelan dancer, teacher, and choreographer, David Zambrano, has worked in North and South America, Europe, and in Asia. He likes best to teach in places like New York and Amsterdam where there is a mix of different cultures, and he dreams of living one day in a world without borders.
Q: You have written in your CV that you have dedicated your life to cultural exchange and to developing the creative process in a world without borders. Can you elaborate on this?
DZ: I have been traveling a lot since 1981, and since 1987 a lot in Europe. As a Latino, I had some problems with immigration everywhere, so I ended up thinking that it would be a great world if we simply had no borders. I have really always thought that way. This may be a dream in the real world, but not in the classroom. In the classroom I have my open borders. Especially in Amsterdam, where you have people from different countries in the same city, and all in the same classroom. Since Europe opened its borders in 1992, it is easier to travel through it. Before this I would go, for example from Spain to Germany, and immediately run into problems at the airport: ‘what are you coming to do here, how long are you staying,’ etc. And then I would have to leave these countries every 3 months or 90 days. Now it is a little easier, especially since I have my permission to live in Holland.
At a certain point (1984) I founded and directed a festival in Venezuela, and began to think about combining cultures, or making it a real cultural exchange festival. People would come teach whatever they had developed, and then perform. But not only perform — they came and got involved in cultural exchange with the different communities living in Venezuela. I was quite picky about the teachers — they had to be the kind of teachers that allowed the students to find also their own ways of expressing themselves. The people I selected were willing to share rather than simply come and dictate a specific form. This was a very exciting time, and it opened the door to other continents for me.
Q: Do you consider the dance world to be without borders?
DZ: I would say not yet. The dance world that you are talking about is the Western dance world. We have been influenced by only one side of the world so I still think that we can have more exchange. Sometimes I feel like we are quite behind in comparison to some martial arts people in Asia in many ways. What energy means for dancers, for example, is very different than what it means for masters in martial arts. While we (in dance pieces) really want to fly, to crawl into the ground, to jump from high places, etc., I think that in the West we often get lost in the theme of the choreography. The theme of a piece may be very clear in words, but the body still doesn’t quite understand it. There is then a gap; too much papa-head and not enough mama-earth. Yes, I think there is a gap.
Q: You write further in your CV that you believe in improvisation as an art form and in choreography as a way of developing it. What do you mean by this?
DZ: I don’t know you very well, but I believe that before talking to me, you read many books about how to speak, how to question things, etc. However, I don’t think that before this interview you read a specific book with a specific formula in order to ask a specific question. You have been using what you learned. This is the way I use choreography — as little books, or rather chapters in a big book. Sometimes I take a specific structure within which to work. I then set a movement vocabulary that can be repeated many times, and I call this then a choreography. You can repeat it over and over, you can teach it, you can express it at the moment. Then once you know these ‘words’ very well, you can repeat them and use them forever. Then in your life, whi ch is an improvisation, you can use them according to the needs of specific moments. When I go on stage and then need a specific chapter (depending on the moment, the public, the time, etc.) I open the book to the right place and say, yes, I can use this part right now. That’s why I say that I use choreography as a vehicle to further develop my way of expressing on stage.
Q: On the basis of what you have seen in different places in the world, do you have an idea of how dance will evolve?
DZ: I certainly have my wishes. I wish that many of these very important choreographers would be able to just get up and make a dance in front of one’s eyes. Some famous painters, you know, they just take the canvas and immediately do something — this is fantastic, and it takes 20 seconds. I would say to choreographers that they should just get up and make a dance in front of us, rather than using the situation of closing their doors, working for 6 months away from the world and then coming out with something.
Finally, I would love that we would be able to fully speak through the body, like how we are able to speak with words. I hope that in the future, maybe in ten years, that dancers will be able to write with their feet.
by EVA LARRAURI Bilbao
4 JUL 2012
“La improvisación enseña a sobrevivir en cualquier situación”
Zambrano propone a los bailarines que sepan utilizar lo que han aprendido para crear algo nuevo
El bailarín y coreógrafo David Zambrano ha impartido un curso sobre las técnicas de improvisación en la danza dentro del programa Bizkaia Bilbao Arte y Cultura de la Universidad del País Vasco. El pasado fin de semana interpretó en el festival Lekuz Leku, en Bilbao, el solo My fire is still burning for you (mi fuego sigue ardiendo por ti). “Tiene un doble significado. Fue un mensaje que escribí a mi pareja y también habla de que la danza sigue siendo mi primer amor”, dice.
Pregunta. La danza se relaciona con más con la disciplina, la técnica y el autocontrol que con la capacidad de improvisación.
Respuesta. Están equivocados. Siempre me hacen esa pregunta. Es un problema de educación, de querernos tener domesticados, pero yo desde que empecé a bailar he valorado la espontaneidad, la posibilidad de crear frente al público. Yo me levantó y bailo, pero con una preparación. Lo que aprendemos en las escuelas de danza, sirve para no cometer errores, para tener una técnica, para seguir una coreografía pautada, pero siempre va a aparecer algo inesperado, dentro o fuera del cuerpo, y hay que estar preparado. Las estructuras son básicas, en danza no improvisamos partiendo de la nada, hay unas estructuras, una historia, una información que nos llega cada día. Lo que yo hago es una reacción a todas estas cosas.
P. ¿Qué aporta la improvisación a un bailarín?
“Mis coreografías no cuentan historias, prefiero que hable el cuerpo”
R. Enseña a sobrevivir en cualquier situación. Después, aprender a usar muy bien lo que ya conoce para llevarlo más lejos, hacia cosas que no conoce. También, es básica para aprender a vivir el momento. Es un entrenamiento fantástico, pero no para ir en contra de lo establecido y lo estructurado, sino para contar con otra herramienta. A mí me gusta trabajar con las sensaciones y comunicar lo que siento a través de mi cuerpo, presentar imágenes a la gente que me está viendo que yo no soy capaz de verbalizar.
P. ¿Es parecido a la improvisación en música, en el jazz, por ejemplo?
R. Depende del músico. En el jazz hay unas estructuras que se siguen usando, las del jazz clásico en el que aparece el ensemble, se da paso a un solista, a otro, toma y dame, vuelve el ensemble, que sigue melodías establecidas, y la juegan de otra forma. Otros rompen con la tradición y tratan de crear música nueva. Eso se parece un poco a lo que yo hago. Siempre con un espacio abierto a la espontaneidad.
P. ¿Sirve para danza contemporánea y para ballet clásico?
David Zambrano (Caracas, 1959) abandonó sus estudios de Ingeniería de Computación a los 21 años por la danza. Se formó en Estados Unidos y acabó instalándose en Amsterdam, desde donde viaja por todo el mundo enseñando a los bailarines a improvisar. Pasados los 50 años, sigue bailando. “Hice una reflexión y decidí seguir con la enseñanza, la investigación y la interpretación”, dice. “Hay que aprender a adaptarse a cada edad”
R. Para cualquier persona. La danza contemporánea está influenciada por el ballet: un pie de punta es básico. Para mí lo importante es tener un pie que se pueda expresar con un vocabulario más rico que punta y flexión, punta y flexión.
P. ¿El trabajo de improvisación es para cualquier coreografía y cualquier bailarín?
R. Sí, aunque yo no sigo una dramaturgia. Me critican pero mis coreografías no cuentan historias, yo prefiero que hable el cuerpo. Los bailarines con los que me gusta trabajar, sean de formación clásica o contemporánea, deben ser personas que sepan usar todo lo que han aprendido. Usar quiere decir buscar algo nuevo, no repetirlo como se aprendió. Son cuerpos inteligentes, cuerpos pensantes que saben utilizar con sus limitaciones y sus virtudes lo que tienen dentro.
P. ¿Y que es más importante en la danza, el talento innato o la técnica?
R. Cuando hay un talento, siempre va a salir, sea como sea. Pero los bailarines, talentosos o no, deben investigar con todo su cuerpo y buscar soluciones por ellos mismos, antes de que yo se las dé. “No soy Google”, les digo. Lo que se aprende abre puertas y ventanas para presentar al público lo que sabes de diferentes formas.
Lene Van Langenhove
09 01 2015
DAVID ZAMBRANO ON IMPROVISATION AND THE POWER OF DIFFERENT CULTURES
‘I SOMETIMES FEEL JUST LIKE OPRAH WINFREY’
David Zambrano is known as a gifted improviser. His Flying Low technique, an extremely rapid way of moving which demands great strength and expressiveness, has heavily influenced the vocabulary of contemporary dance. A beguiling performer and dance guru, Zambrano is highly prized by the international dance community, yet outside it he is a complete unknown. Who is this Venezuelan dancer, choreographer and tutor who has had an immeasurable influence on the development of contemporary dance, and who tirelessly continues to inspire new generations of dancers?
Zambrano had originally wanted to study maths, but in the late seventies, computer science was all the rage, so after completing his military service he spent four years poring over algorithms and matrices. He soon realised that this was not his dream career and he ventured to plunge into the dance world. Soon afterwards, he left Caracas for New York, where for fifteen years he was the driving force behind the Downtown Scene with his energetic performances. In 2000 he moved to Europe. Having lived in Amsterdam for several years, this globetrotting dancer is currently based in Brussels.
What did the Venezuelan dance scene look like when you made your career switch?
At that point, I had absolutely no connection with the dance world, and my only knowledge of dance was from going to clubs. When I was thinking about becoming a dancer, I went to see all the dance companies in the country, but their performances were heavily influenced by modern dance and ballet and that didn’t appeal to me. However, I did enjoy some plays in the spirit of Grotowski, as well as some performances that were highly physical. The first workshop I attended was called ‘expresión corporeal’, and it was so inspiring that I immediately left for the States to study dance at the University of Illinois. I told my family that I was going to continue with my computer science studies. When my brother in law, with whom I was living, discovered that I was studying dance, I had to leave his house immediately. And when I eventually found the courage to tell my father the truth, his reaction was: ‘OK, but we won’t be giving you financial support any more.’ So I was thrown back on my own resources. After graduating in 1984, I moved to New York – I didn’t even wait for the graduation ceremony because you had to pay for it. That year, my mother died of cancer and I promised myself that from that point onwards, I would do what I wanted. And I didn’t need a degree for that.
How would you describe Manhattan’s Downtown Scene?
In the late eighties and early nineties I experienced two very different periods. The breaking point was Big Black Friday in 1989. Because of the financial crisis, arts subsidies were severely cut. The atmosphere was hugely influenced by the senator Jesse Helms and the tobacco magnate Philip Morris, who not only called a halt to the financing of art, but also wanted to introduce censorship. Before this act of wholesale destruction that affected the entire country, things in Manhattan were wonderful. Every week would see me improvising on a different stage, either on my own or together with colleagues such as Jennifer Monson, Jacky Shue, Yvonne Meier, Sasha Waltz and Ismael Houston-Jones (who at that time was one of the few black contemporary dancers). Also, we’d often work with musicians such as Sam Bennett and Yuval Gabay. We banded together as a group of improvisers and organised events in PS 122, La Roulette, The Knitting Factory and so on. There was an awful lot going on. Downtown there was Judson Church, where you could see free performances every Monday. On Sunday afternoons in the eighties, PS 122 organised ‘Hot House’, which was a great place to stage impro performances. On Tuesdays there was ‘Open Movement’, where you could improvise for hours with dancers from a wide range of different backgrounds. A number of theatres such as Dance Theatre Workshop and Danspace began to produce my work, and I was asked to create choreographies. I remember how happy I was with the subsidy from the New York Foundation for the Arts. The caffeine rush I experienced during that period was amazing!
Weren’t those spontaneous jam sessions an in-crowd thing?
In downtown Manhattan they were. The audience was entirely comprised of artists, but the venues were always jam packed. Uptown the audience was much more mixed – and getting there was our goal. I remember after a Trisha Brown performance in the centre someone saying: ‘Wow, you’ve finally made it uptown.’ And she replied: ‘Yes, but it’s taken me twenty years!’ Her patience and persistence was amazing. We of the young generation wanted to achieve that in just one or two years.
In the seventies, a striking evolution took place in the emancipation of dancers. Do you think that the development of improvisation methods played a key role in that?
Yes, but the two are not inextricably linked. When I started dancing, I immediately wanted to both teach and perform. I got up on stage without any kind of preparation or came up with something just before the performance. When I first performed in New York, I was described as an improviser, but I had no idea what that meant. The Downtown Scene was populated not only by untrained dancers who were into contact improvisation, but also by curious dancers who had studied ballet or modern dance. All these different kinds of people contributed different kinds of knowledge: techniques such as Skinner Releasing and alignment (aimed at achieving a correct, relaxed posture, lvl), Buddhism, yoga, etc. So there were all kinds of different types of improvisation in the New York dance world. My personal favourite is still the physical kind, where you can play with associations to your heart’s content and keep on moving the whole time. At the same time, in the Flying Low technique I developed an ever more sophisticated vocabulary to fall back on during improvisation.
How did Flying Low take shape?
While I was studying, I attended every single lesson at university, went running and did fitness training. But I knew nothing about stretching and suffered from increasing amounts of pain, until one day I could no longer walk. This resulted in my having to walk with the aid of crutches for six months. I didn’t want to rest so I went to the studio and rolled from side to side. I gradually developed a few small movements. Students who saw me said: ‘Wow, teach me how you do this!’ I interspersed my improvisation workshops in New York with Flying Low and along the way I developed a way of getting onto and off the ground without hurting myself, but whilst moving extremely fast. The technique is related to the principle of free-fall in physics: if you drop a ball from a height, you can use both the speed and the gravity of the ball. If you put this energy to good use, you can also do astonishing things with your body. You dive down and the floor becomes an ocean in which you dissolve in an endless gliding movement. Crucial to the development of Flying Low was the idea of creating a momentum using speed and body weight: a point at which you can go in any direction you choose with your body. It feels like flying, while you actually stay close to the ground. In those early years I was also influenced by breakdance. Street dance has always fascinated me and in the eighties you saw breakdancers on every street corner. I have continued to research the technique and still use it to warm up and to make contact with everything in the space, including the dancers.
Is that what you mean when you say ‘gathering, sending’ in your lessons?
It is indeed. We gather and send through one another, like light bulbs emitting light. You learn from one another, absorb what you have learnt and take it with you to the other side of the room. On the way, you pass people and you make a connection with them, as well as with the walls, the ceiling and the floor.
You were the first person to develop this sort of movement.
It is true that idea of getting onto and off the floor in a single fluid movement was new. In New York, I was the first person to roll like this and to make use of the spiral. But some Kung Fu master in Asia has undoubtedly developed a similar technique. The key to it is to make yourself soft and to use every part of your body to land painlessly. For me, it is an extremely important idea that our consciousness is not limited to our own body, but also extends to our environment; that everything is linked and penetrates through to us. Of course, many choreographers who have studied with me have transformed Flying Low into something else. I am happy when I see those influences reappearing in young students. When I am teaching somewhere, I always say: please don’t let it end here; develop it further.
What do structured and open improvisation mean to you?
Open improvisation is getting up on stage with no preparation. I’ve done this so many times that I find it easy to come up with a structure to base things around. I get a sense of the situation: as soon as I start to move I project my imagination, and try to channel my energy into a frame that is accessible to the audience. At other times, I prepare a structure in advance. When I want to research a specific vocabulary – how to express the way soul singers sing, for example – I make sure that there is a structure to which all the dancers can relate. We create rules and frame particular scenes that can be knitted together. Or else I use tasks whose timeframe and intensity I determine in advance. I love both these ways of improvising. If I am alone or if there are two of us, I opt for open impro, but if I am working with more people, I use structured impro to keep everything together. I love crowds that gel together. My aim is always to achieve that feeling of togetherness.
When you improvise, you are composing and reacting at the same time. How do you combine the internal, spontaneous sense of ‘being in the moment’ with a focus on the external view?
I think it is a wonderful challenge to make those two things work together. Because I have done it so often, I don’t find it hard to take account of things like timing while I am improvising. It’s like delivering an off-the-cuff speech: I can play with body language and the vocabulary of movement in the same way that someone else would play with words. It is wonderful to reach the point where I can use everything that my body contributes spontaneously to express myself.
You once said that improvisation is an art, and choreography is a way of achieving this.
Yes, I wrote that in the late eighties. You see, if you study Graham, you learn Graham phrases and go on to use them in your performance. The same applies to Cunningham, Brown, Taylor or Limon. Choreography is created by means of repetition. I developed a Flying Low vocabulary and came up with a whole series of phrases, but I never set them in stone. For every creation, I develop a specific vocabulary with which all the dancers can improvise. For example, for Shock I researched electric shock movements. I think that creating a choreography based on phrases is a useful exercise: by repeating an idea I can free myself still more of choices when I improvise. I can perform anywhere at any time, because the body has a memory. That is the ultimate goal. The rest is just about practising so as to be able to do it.
Just like in neurology or the study of cells, you are convinced that you don’t need leaders to come up with a new creation: everyone is a leader and everyone makes choices. In other words, your research focuses on alternative organisational models.
That is true of the Passing Through method. I do see it as a socio-centric community, where all decisions are made jointly. With Passing Through, everyone who knows the rules of the game can both lead and follow, in every part of the composition, and can continually switch between the two. No single movement gets the upper hand: it can come from any part of our being. The challenge is to create a playful, spontaneous composition that is enjoyable for the audience to watch. I developed Passing Through as a reaction to the hierarchy in the dance world. I wanted to create a space in which you can express yourself, where you can perform freely with others, provided you respect the rules of the game. I still enjoy doing that, but I also love doing the opposite: the egocentric composition, such as in Soul Project, where the dancers demand their place on the stage one by one and the audience has to arrange itself around them. For me, the key thing is that there should be an exchange at an equal level between all the performers, and that everyone’s strengths should be on display.
During your New York period, you went back to Venezuela every year, and even founded the Festival de Danza Postmoderna. How new was this whole movement in your home country?
There were a few international theatre festivals, but none that combined performances and workshops. Using the modest sum I inherited from my mother, I organised the festival for the first time in 1989. I brought information with me from the States about contact improvisation and different dance techniques. I also wanted to give the artists I had invited to teach at the festival the chance to perform. The first time, not a single Venezuelan choreographer would allow his dancers to attend the workshops, and not a single dance institution wanted to be involved. They were deeply attached to the tradition of modern dance and ballet.
So in fact, during the time that the Flemish Wave was redrawing the landscape here, you were single-handedly waking up the Venezuelan dance world?
Well, I didn’t do it on my own. Together with Carlos Paolillo, Director of the Instituto de Danza, I managed to free up a small amount of money. But that was only for the second festival: no one wanted to support us for the first. Along the way, I garnered more support and respect. In the first year, there were fifteen participants: psychologists, painters, people who wanted to move. In the second year, there were some dancers from the big companies who were a little more open to it, and the workshops were held in the Instituto de Danza. In the end, the festival reached out to five hundred students, who came from all over Venezuela, and the last one also took place in Columbia, Ecuador and Cuba. I very much enjoyed bringing a young generation into contact with what was going on in the international dance world. The choreography tutors that I had invited were happy to pass on their knowledge openly. I wanted them to stimulate the participants’ creativity and imagination, rather than tell them precisely how they should move. This enabled young choreographers to develop their own work.
Love brought you from New York to Amsterdam, where your partner Mat Voorter (a dancer and costume designer) was living at the time. How did you establish yourself in the Netherlands?
When I settled in Amsterdam, I wanted to share my dance background with the city. I had an idea for a talk show, in which I would invite performers to improvise with me to live music and then have a discussion with them. At the time, I didn’t enjoy talking on stage at all, and I thought it was high time that I learnt how to do it. This is how David Zambrano invites came about. Every month, I selected both an older and a younger choreographer, many of who were unknown at the time in the Netherlands, such as Meg Stuart, Mark Tompkins, Frans Poelstra, Thomas Hauert, Hisako Horikawa, Osmani Tellez and Simone Forti. We often succeeded in creating a very special, genial atmosphere, and the audience was intimately involved.
How would you describe the different art scenes in the cities in which you have lived?
In Western Europe there is a clear hierarchy: producer – choreographer – dancer – tutor. Bearing in mind that before I came here I was mainly teaching, I was right at the bottom of the pecking order, and it was extremely difficult to get support as an artist in the Netherlands. The Belgian dance scene was more open, perhaps because Belgium did not have a long tradition of institutes. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Wim Vandekeybus invited me to teach at their companies and at PARTS. It was not long before Charleroi Danses was co-producing my work. In general, I have always had very good experiences in Europe, which is also why I moved here when I did. But I’ll always have a soft spot for New York. I’ll be going back there soon to give a workshop and to perform in Judson Church again.
Many people have described attending one of your workshops as a life-changing experience. You’re a guru.
Ha ha! Sometimes I feel just like Oprah Winfrey. I’ve thought about studying dance therapy. I get enormous satisfaction from managing to put people at ease, from being able to offer them tools that really help them.
How do you manage to get students out of their comfort zone and challenge them to explore new possibilities? I remember that you regularly picked someone out and gave him or her detailed feedback in the form of a mini-performance.
I try to approach everyone as individually as possible. When I recognise influences from other dance backgrounds, I tell them that everything that helps them to express themselves is valuable, and that it’s just a question of how and when. If you slavishly follow a particular technique, you have a problem. It’s all about finding other ways to react in which you can use the knowledge you have accumulated, but under different circumstances and for other purposes. To use your life experience to the full as part of this process, you have to be able to put certain things aside, and call upon others.
It strikes me that, unlike many other tutors with so much baggage, you are very generous. You genuinely want to share your experience.
I love passing on knowledge, and I think it is fantastic to guide people towards inspiring motion situations. Since I was young, I have had a thing for social dancing, I want to become playfully invisible in other people’s eyes, I want to transform myself into whichever character or type happens to well up in me. I want to communicate this attitude, along with the awareness that everyone must accept himself or herself as he or she is. You can only achieve enlightenment by facing up to your ignorance.
You also enjoy sharing with your audience. In Africa, you literally brought your performances close to the people.
Yes. In Soul Project, the audience could experience every breath and every movement from very close by. We performed this piece in fifty villages in Senegal, Poland, Slovenia, South Korea and Costa Rica. By performing so close to the audience, I was also able to show them the power of the small gesture. Beauty lies in small things, like being in a small village and observing the meticulous movements with which people dance to the rhythm of the music.
Your choreographic work is pure, anti-conceptual, not trying to create special effects, but at the same time highly theatrical.
Of course it is exciting to explore rational thinking, but there is also such a thing as physical intelligence. Before I die, I would like to learn more about the way energy works in our bodies. I’m not sure when it became so fashionable to talk about the politics of dance. Luckily, though, there are still choreographers that want to explore pure physicality.
On the other hand, the mathematical side of you is constantly calculating time and space?
You learn to measure in the act of doing things. When you run towards a glass door or the edge of a roof, you brake instinctively. I enjoy playing with the way in which you calculate the distance without knowing it exactly, with the logic that makes you deliver exactly the right dose of energy. Timing is so important. If you are a second to late or too early when you tell a joke, it doesn’t work. I also try to estimate how you can use your worldly wisdom in a way that keeps the audience’s attention. It is a question of the correct dosage: it’s almost mathematical. And so I come back to my mathematical background. As an artist, and as a human being, I am searching for answers to the big questions that are also being posed by scientists: where do we come from and where are we going, is there a higher being, what is there beyond the earth? We are all searching for the meaning of life. Buddhists say that you have to accept the circle of life and death, as it is nothing more than energy.
You have been at this for over thirty years. How do you keep things fresh?
I keep on moving. I have developed a specific way of transmitting knowledge, and this keeps me alert. My curiosity is kept alive by the questions that dancers of all ages ask me. My imaginative capabilities are stronger than ever. And I have dreamt up so many different systems that there will always be one I can play with.
How are you dealing with getting older?
When I look at myself in the mirror, I notice that I am aging: less hair, sagging skin, a bit of a tummy. But when I am in the studio or on stage, I still feel like a child. I still have lots of energy – it’s perhaps even more intense than before – and I’ve now learnt to accept that some days I’ll be more inspired than others. I am still capable of communicating something to an audience and I still enjoy what I do, so you won’t hear me complaining.
Do you never think: everything has been done before? If you can look back at a long career, you will inevitably see things being repeated. The way Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan are now mixing dance with salsa is something you did thirty years ago in Ballroom.
Yes, and at the time Damien Jalet even came to see the rehearsals. But they have taken a different approach, with a clearly defined choreography and big gestures. But I like that. As long as someone is seeing it for the first time, it is new. And it is true to say that every era has its audience. In those days, I was deeply concerned with gender equality, not because of my homosexuality but because I wanted to break through that pattern of Afro-Caribbean couple dancing, where the man leads the woman. I regard equality between men and women as hugely important, and I truly hope that we will achieve this one day. I also hope that our society can be freed from its obsession with ideal bodies.
Jane Hackett, in collaboration with Jonathan Burrows, recently created a performance with ‘retired dancers’ at Sadlers Wells. When are you going to finally start up your project with older performers?
I would really love to do that, but so far I have been unable to persuade anyone to produce a performance with older dancers. Our society is so obsessed by eternal youth – in the dance world too, every season you feel the pressure to catapult someone to the status of rising star – and there is simply no room for older people. A society can only function if it nurtures both the wisdom of the older generation and the strength of the young generation. We have to look beyond age and appearance.
Many of your poulains, such as Edivaldo Ernesto, have gone on to make well-received creations. You seem to have a knack for scouting out new dance talent.
I never organise auditions, but instead select dancers during workshops. I look for dancers who are prepared to share their life experience through movement or who can contribute something from their cultural background.
How important is this cultural exchange to you?
Almost everything we know in dance – and in the arts and in life – arises from cultural exchange, at least between two people. I do not believe in geniuses, because every fantastic idea comes from a dialogue. When I taught in New York, I found it hugely enriching that students from Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East and Asia asked very different questions. I have learnt a great deal from this exchange of ideas and ways of thinking. I always try to create an environment in which everyone feels at ease, so that we can learn from one another. For The Rabbit Project, I went into the studio with seventeen young dancers, including two from Les SlovaKs. Every evening, we ate a dish from one of the dancers’ countries and that person would tell us about his or her customs, views on life, etc. In my work I strive for a world without borders, where we respect one another’s culture.
In these globalised times, isn’t cultural uniqueness being lost?
I believe that it is by sharing a culture that you keep it alive. What frightens me is nationalism, the idea that something is pure and only belongs to a specific group of people. No single culture is pure: cultures always arise from exchange with other cultures. Now, a world without borders is not achievable. There has to be some sort of control to halt wars of terror, the persecution of homosexuals in certain Christian countries, the spread of viruses, and so on. I sometimes dream that the human race has become so mixed up that there are only mestizos, and depending on where you live, there are specific customs. Because that’s the problem with globalisation: pressure from the media and from capitalism leads to the creation of meaningless uniformity. That is why I always choose handmade things, from clothing to food to the scenography for my creations.
Where does your fascination for folklore come from?
As a teenager, I once went to a celebration in the countryside. There, every religious celebration goes hand in hand with a special dance, which is often influenced by African, Spanish or French folk dance. From then on, I would go to celebrations in various villages in order to learn from the locals. It’s the combination of live music and the social side of things – old people dancing with children – that’s so fantastic.
You always succeed in carrying off projects without government support. How do you survive without subsidy?
In the past, I used to invest what I earned from giving workshops straight back into my projects, but for the last two years, all that’s been going towards the house we’ve bought here. In December I am once again going to rent a studio where I can work with three dancers, because this enriches my life. I can cover their accommodation and travel costs, but no more than that. I have never applied for subsidies in Belgium because I don’t have an npo here, and simply don’t have the time to set one up. My dream is to have my own studio. Of course, the advantage of working independently is that I’m not obliged to comply with anyone’s demands or rules.
Have you never dreamt of having your own company?
No. I often work with the same performers, but the group dynamic is different every time. The thing that puts me off a company is that you constantly have to deal with paperwork and meetings. I would much rather dance than talk about it. Of course, the improvisation-based work that I create is hard to sell, because it’s too risky. But I just have to dance: it’s a necessity. Last summer, I performed for the seventh time at Impulstanz in Vienna with the violinist Iva Bittová before an audience of a thousand people. She is someone who lives for her art and who will always find a way to create, and this links us together. I also have a strong connection with butoh dancers, particularly with older dancers like Horikawa and Tanaka. They keep on moving, and are completely dedicated to their art. They only perform a few times a year, but when they do, it is extremely powerful. Quantity has become a key measure of success, but of course, it has nothing to do with it.
by ANJANA RAJAN
May 19, 2010
Dutch choreographer David Zambrano talks about what dance and his travels have taught him
Contemporary Dance choreographer David Zambrano was in the Capital for workshops and performances in association with Gati Dance Forum and Max Mueller Bhavan recently. Ask him if it was his first time in India, and he succinctly describes it, “Yes, but in my dream, not!”
Zambrano's list of things that attract him to the country bubbles over — “I always liked the Indian music, and their clothes, and their fabrics, and their food, and their crafts….”
His early introduction to India and Indians came through his friend the late Ranjabati Sircar, the well known Contemporary Dancer. “I also saw Astad Deboo in a dance festival in the '80s,” he recalls. “And then in 2000 I saw Akram Khan.”
Zambrano's pithy descriptions sweep one along in a cheerful whirl. He was a judge at a scholarship audition, where Kathak and Contemporary Dancer Akram, now a star and celebrated for his virtuoso technique, impressed him immensely. “Sometimes I don't get hot when I see Contemporary Dance,” he notes frankly, adding an impressive male dancer is even harder to find. “He was very astonishing,” says Zambrano of Akram. “I like him very much.”
Zambrano, Venezuelan by birth, left his country of origin when he was 21. “Now I'm 50, so I've lived half my life outside,” he remarks. Based in Amsterdam, he receives support from the Government of the Netherlands and calls himself “very much a Dutch artiste”.
Having also lived in the U.S., he enjoys working with artistes from different backgrounds. “I always like dancers that represent different cultures inside the room, like a little United Nations.” This “UN of bodies” is a means “to exchange body knowledge that reflects the cultures of different regions.”
Like crepes, says Zambrano, adding colours and textures to his description: They are called by different names in different countries, they have different ingredients and taste different, but they are all crepes (pancakes)! Speaking in dance terms, he asks, why, for example, in one country do they move the pelvis a lot and in another they don't?
Dance movements are rooted in cultures and these roots can be fiercely sensitive. Do confrontations ever come up? “Oh yes, almost all the time,” he agrees, pointing out the “border between therapy and artistic personal development” is a porous one. Confrontation occurs “especially when you think ‘this is the way'.”
Trained in Ballet
Zambrano began his choreographic experiments with non-professional dancers. “When I started I never studied a specific technique for dancing,” he states, though he has trained in Ballet briefly. “When I arrived in the U.S., I learnt a lot from watching.” In getting a group together, “the joy of movement — that was basic,” he explains. “I selected dancers I met in parties. They were ‘non dancers', but they liked to move. I started exploring possibilities.”
After a while he realised how much he loved to perform and “frame situations”. In his words, he “got contagious” and decided he wanted “to go all the way to the stage”. So Zambrano eventually got to working with trained professionals, though that brought certain problems since some were more rigid in their approach.
Creating work and conducting workshops around the world, Zambrano, who loves “the energy that transforms you on stage,” has come to realise that differences can be dissolved and resurrected as tools. Even the distinction between movement as dance and movement as work. Take balance, a concept dancers toil and meditate over. “They do the same thing in Africa, when they carry the basket on their head and a baby at the back — and they don't study,” he says.
When he talks of observing newborn kittens, how their movements transform from chaotic to simple as they grow older, yet the ability to move energetically as of old comes back as soon as they see a mouse — “It's great to have that memory in there” — you realise for Zambrano, all the world is literally a choreographic project. As for cultural differences, he has learnt that travelling gifts one a vision with which to see afresh what one was born to. “There are many things you think you don't have in your culture, but when you go around the world, you realise you had it.”