10. června 2015

#INTERVIEW: Jo Strømgren

This interview with the energetic and agile Norweigian choreographer Jo Strømgren was conducted over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He is not only very good at mixing diverse genres into his performances, but also at offering new and eye-opening answers to many diverse questions about dancing. You can read about his feelings towards Czech culture and fairytales, about different types of humor, about football and ping pong, and also about his insight that is much needed for his work.

Is this your first visit to Czech Republic?
No, I have been here several times and I grew up watching Czech movies. I have been mentally in Czech republic since I was a little kid. „Krtek. Haló. Popelka.“

I´ve heard that Popelka is one of the most favorite fairytales in Norway.
Let me show you something. I have it on my computer. It is funny. Let me see, where it is. I had a production of five acts called Estrogen last year in Moscow, in the Puškin Theatre. One act was … (showing pictures of the production, in which the characters are dressed in the exact replicas of the costumes from Tři oříšky pro Popelku from director Václav Vorlíček ed.)

That´s perfect. So I guess you really love it?
Yeah. We used elements of the movie on stage. We changed the storyline a little bit to create a big misunderstanding of the whole story of Popelka. There was always a sudden „ping“ noise and something entirely different happened.

So your biggest Czech love is Popelka?
(mimicking a sad voice) „Jurášku! Jurášku!“ That´s the horse!

Do you have Popelka in Norway with subtitles or dubbed?
It´s boring, but we have voices recorded on top of it.

Have you made any choreographies in Czech Republic before or is this your first job here?  
I have been touring with my own dance company almost every year. We come to Prague to visit the festivals. I also did a piece for a dance company here many years ago.

How would you define your work? What is specific about your choreographies?
I know exactly what you mean, but I made it harder for myself to answer this question because I do so many different things. This year I´m passing 100 productions on my CV, most of them are full evening performances, but it´s also a lot of contemporary dancing, classical ballet, jazz dance, entertainment, puppet theatre, theatre, movies - a lot of things. I´m very versatile. So I´ve gone away from the idea of creating one trademark, which is one way to get attention. It is difficult to define exactly what I do.

On the website of the Valmez festival I´ve read, that your choreographies are a little pesimistic but full of humor.
Yep. The common denominator throughout everything, is that the audience always thinks things are going to hell, but they don´t need to be depressed about it. Let them have some time while they wait for the ending. I noticed a few countries in Eastern Europe, like England and Scandinavia, etc. have this kind of humor and this viewpoint.

You mean a dark sense of humor?
Yeah a dark sense of humor. Italians don´t have it that much. Litvians don´t have it. Polish don´t have it that much because they´re too serious. Russians have it a little bit. So you know it´s a viewpoint that is mirrored differently in different parts of the world. So that means I´m not an entertainer. I want to use humor to get across a message, which is a little bit deeper and darker. I think the difference is that in the traditional theatre it´s either a comedy or a tragedy. You know it´s very genre based, but I think I like the entertainment level. You are not forced to see the message but there is a message underneath for those who want to. I like how the audience can sit and say: „We can laugh, but if we want something more, we can find something else. We don´t have to be intellectual.“ but in different countries it is often misunderstood. If people don´t see the deeper meaning, they just think it´s a slapstick or superficial.

A DANCE TRIBUTE TO THE ART OF FOOTBALL  // source: jskompani.no

For instance in England, they have a different mentality, they don´t read symbols as much as you with the Czech tradition of theatre – freedom of speech is something new here, and you have a tradition of art with multiple layers. In England they don´t have that tradition. So when I have performances that are performed in the UK it was hilarious for the audience but if I would present the same play, let´s say, in Belorus, people would be in shock - no laughter, but for them it would be political. It´s still the same show performed in the same way.

So you noticed that it´s being perceived differently by different people?  
Yeah, but it´s my job to have multiple layers. Once going international I think it´s important to have these different layers. I can do Popelka in Moscow because they know it. I couldn´t do Popelka in New York City, they would like: „What is this? Is it a strange version of Tom Sawyer?“

I´ve got to see a rehearsal of Dance tribute to Ping Pong on Wednesday, I wanted to ask if you collaborate with a composer for the music or is it music that you find somewhere?  
It depends on what idea and production it is. For this one we are trying a bit of caleidoscopic dramaturgy, which means, you don´t know what the next thing is. You go here and there through completely different music, with no connection. You don´t know if the upcoming music will be classical, pop or jazz, strange or new or old. It is on the same level of music that people know or have heard somewhere. It´s kind of a mind game about pop culture . In other shows it´s nice to have one type of music or a motive throughout the whole thing or music from a composer.

How do pick out themes for your choreographies?
I don´t go to the library, I don´t apply for money to go to a reasearch trip for two months to Bali. I think it´s good enough to live a normal life and read the paper and watch TV and mostly to think of thngs on that everyday level. So the ideas are in my head already. I work with small ideas. I like having a small dilema and making it big on stage instead of thinking like opera: life, death and the Greek stories. Where one needs to simplify these themes to get them across.

A DANCE TRIBUTE TO PING PONG // source: jskompani.no

I read that you often collaborate with companies, that are primarily ballets. And I know that you started with classical ballet. Is it important for you, that the dancers you are working with have the basis in classical ballet?
No, not so much. If people have just one technique I get a little stuck. For instance, there´s a good thing about America, that the borders between the genres are not so tightly laid out. So if we go to a contemporary dance company in America, some of the dancers might have been in Las Vegas, some were in classical ballet companies, or they could´ve just danced jazz, or have been in some hip hop groups – all these people are there together in one group. But dancers here in Europe often go to the conservatory and create more of a homogenous group of people.

Who is your most favourite choreographer? Do you think there is a choreography that you would call a masterpiece? Is there someone who you really admire?
To be honest, I don´t see much dance myself. I think it´s boring to watch. I like to watch other things - TV, movies. My biggest inspiration source has been Jan Švankmajer. I can see the brain of one person just working. For me that´s much better than a style, method or technique. It´s more of a communication from person to person. But a choreography as a masterpiece? I´m not sure…

I also read that you didn´t finish the school of classical ballet. Why did you decide to end it? What happened?
I think I just had a problem with authorities.

So there´s no big idea behind it: „I want to do something different“?
No. I´m not a provoker and I don´t get provoked either. It´s just that I don´t like being in a system. Last year I found out that I have no formal education. I don´t have papers of anything. I am a dilettante.

Dance Tribute To Ping Pong performed by 420PEOPLE, and also by your company is part of a Czech-Norweigan collaboration. How did that happen?
I met Nataša many years ago in Sweden and I met Václav few years ago in New York City on the street. We liked eachother – we are in the same generation, with the same thinking and the same viewpoints. So it was a natural choice to collaborate together. What triggered it was a EU funding that came up. In Norway especially, we´re not part of the Union, which leads to different collaborations with different countries. This year there was money for a collaboration with Czech Republic and we said yes - we already have a collaboration ready. It would have been difficult without the money because we are both independent groups.

How do you like working with Czech dancers? Are they any different? Is there anything specific about them?
If we´re talking about actors, they are more culturally secluded because they are with their own people, due to language. But the dance community is extremely international. So the curiousity about cultural differences is gone once you enter the dance studio. My record is 23 different nationalities in the same room for two months. When I am here, I´m not thinking of being in the Czech Republic, I´m just in a dance studio. Today we had a puppet in our show and he looks Asian and he speaks Czech with an Asian accent. We had to talk a bit about the humor with dialects of foreigners here. Suddenly we were not in a dance studio, we were in Czech Republic.

Now I would like to ask you about the Dance Tribute to Football. What lead you to combine football and dance together? In Czech Republic dancing, sports, and theatre are seperated with a big wall. Is it the same in Norway?
It was 1997 and I was deeply into contemporary dance. My friends and I were in the wardrobe and we were talking about how tired we were of contemporary dancing, rolling on the floor and being so intellectual all the time. We all played football before we started dancing, so we said: „let´s just take a break and do what we used to do, but mix it up.“ So it wasn´t a clever idea. It was an impulsive thing. We went to a football club and asked if they wanted to sponsor us. We were supposed to do this only in two cities – in Oslo and Bergen. It was seen by some Germans who considered it cutting edge. Suddenly we were on tour, not just throughout Germany, but actually the whole world. Because this was a new idea in contemporary dance. Afterwards I thought this is probably how ideas catch fire - stupid people in a garage somewhere come up with an idea and then other people make it important. The most interesting thing with that project was to see what happened when different types of audiences met in the same room. We also found out in Norway that this was a perfect thing for school performances. The first contact with theatre can be kind of scary for the children sometimes, but if they see football and dance together, perhaps next time they´ll go see just dance because they like it.

I saw a part of the choreography where a group of hooligans are dancing. Did you try to go deeper in the hooligan subculture to understand the people and their environment in this theme?
Now we´ll get into theatre science. This cheoreography was made in the mid-ninenties, in the postmodern period or whatever. There was a different expectation of what to show and what a show should be like. There was always this one word that I personally connected with in the nineties – fragmentation. It was perfectly okay to put things together, seperate them with a blackout and the wholeness of the show could be discussed afterwards. But there was no necessity of a dramaturgy in the sense in which it is now. A such thing as a concept was not in fashion yet. I thought more about what football is and how we can show all the different sides of it. The romantic side of it, the memories from a childhood, a summer vacation, the locker room, the hooligan thing, the beauty of the sport, the esctetics, just to name a few. It´s almost like a kabaret, a contemporary dance kabaret with a lot of small scenes. 

The theme of another one of your productions is ping-pong. Why ping pong? It´s not as popular of a sport or a big phenomenom like football. Why is there an Asian puppet in this production?
We thought like fifteen years after the Dance Tribute to Football, why not close the circle? We said: „Let´s do a stupid, tiny antagonist to football and let´s connect it with a theme.“ What is ping pong? You think it´s stupid, unless you´re playing it yourself. You can´t even watch it on TV because you don´t see the ball. The whole concept of the ball going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth… we added that. There´s something Asian about it. It´s very stupid, very simple and maybe it could be a basis for a philosophy. All around the world there are all these people who are searching for the meaning of their life now and are trying to put it together. In Norway we have females between thirty and forty and they just drink juice. That´s what makes them whole. So could we make ping pong into a fake philosophy? It´s not about the sport, it´s about the idea. We have this puppet of an Asian Guru, who takes money. Yeah, so it´s ping pong as the sport mixed with a lot of quotations from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and all these fake philosophies. I notice now, when I´m talking about it, it´s not a clear idea.

What is the diference working with your company as opposed to other countries?
Of course when I´m in Oslo working with my people it is a quick process because we have the same references. It´s a village syndrome. You say half of a sentence and the other one laughs at it because he knows the next part of the sentence. It takes more time here to get the same understanding of a theme or work. To the extreme, if I return back to the 23 nationalities in one room - it was the Nutcracker with the Vienna State Opera Ballet, which is one of the most old fashioned houses in Europe. It was the Nutcracker, and everybody knew what it was and we didn´t need to talk about it that much. I couldn´t do „Ping Pong“ with them, because I would have to explain too much. Not everybody knows Bruce Lee and not everybody knows ping-pong.

Do you ever cooporate with any other companies in Norway? 
Not really. I think the answer for small countries is to get abroad. There is so much competition within the country. It´s different to be in a dance company in France because you can survive touring in France all the time. For example, 420PEOPLE may need to get out behind the borders of Czech Republic where 99 percent of the audience, the money, and the tickets are.

We are slowly getting to the end of this interview. Do you have a message for our readers?
Yeah. About the theatre science perhaps? I work with theatres. Half my time is spent with dancers and my other half is spent with actors. There are always very interesting dramaturgical artistic discussions in theatre productions. There has been so much written and there is so much layering of competences. As in the film business, what is a good script? You can write several books about it, but very little has been written about contemporary dancing. What has been written about contemporary dancing dissapears all the time. Now I feel a trend, especially in Europe and Scandinavia, where the theatre science has entered the contemporary dance scene. A lot of interesting things are happening. But I feel that there is a lack of critical discussion about whether this is really important or not.

Do you feel there is tension between theatre and dance? Do both parties accept each other? Do you have any experience of theatre theory and dance theory clashing together?
As much as possible I try to avoid the meeting points, because I tend to get anxious. Of course, a dramaturg of a German state theatre will ask a lot of different questions than a dramaturg of a dance performance. I don´t think there is much respect between them. I think in general theatre dramaturgy and film dramaturgy would consider how to get a message across. They consider the viewer the whole entire time, because that´s the tradition. Institutional theatre and film corporations need money, need the ticket sales, but they still found ways how to be able to discuss the art form. Whereas in contemporary dance the tradition is different. We never had that knife on our throat. So there is a lot from dance theory, that is autonimous related to just the process and the art form itself, where the audience and the communication key is not interesting. When nobody sees a show, does it have its importance? It´s interesting how in theatre you need to have an echo from the audience to justify your work. The magic does not happen in the studio, it happens in a connection with the audience. 

Contemporary dance is evolving. Where would you say it is headed? In your opinion, where do you think it should be going?
I actually don´t have an opinion about it. I know trends. For example, the French Hot Couture brings a new color and style every year. We laugh about it because it´s fashion. It takes time to realize that our field is equally fashionable. I feel that contemporary dance is very much a victim of fashion. Natural change is a good thing. If everything would be fixed on what it was supposed to be, that would be bad. What I miss from people in contemporary dance is that they are not aware of being in fashion and being in the middle of a trend.

I have just one more personal question. You have created a dance tribute for both football and ping-pong. What are you going to do next? Because I really love Norweigian ski-jumping!
Oh Jesus! (laughing) That would be a show that would be performed just once and it would be very short, because the dancer would die.

author: Barbora Truksová
author of both translations (cz-en): Stephanie Van Vleet

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