interview - Jan Martens.

(Ode to the attempt by Jan Martens, photo Phile Deprez)

Jan Martens is a Belgian dance maker and performer based in Antwerp. Having graduated from the Artesis Conservatory for Dance, Martens began to develop his own choreographic work in 2009. His pieces such as ‘Sweat Baby Sweat’, ‘Victor’ or ‘Dog Days Are Over’ brought him international recognition and continue to tour all across Europe. 

His current project ‘The Common People’ is a social experiment in which he is creating a blind date situation for non-performers. Next to that he is also creating a piece for the third year students of the conservatory’s dance department in Antwerp. ‘The Score’ is based on the music by American composer NAH and will be performed on 23rd, 24th and 25th June 2016.

In this interview Jan Martens talks about his creative processes, future plans and what in his opinion is needed for the dance field.


What inspires and triggers you? When do you decide to explore something further and make it into choreography?

I think it is different things with different pieces although there is always a biographical element. Things I am living with or thinking about. For example, when working on love duets, love was a big theme for me. I was searching within this subject and so the work then becomes a way for me to think about it and to deal with it. Dance system is another thing that really triggers me. I like to relate my work to what has been made, to use that and to make something new and different with it. That is actually often the starting point of my works, to which then the biographical element joins. I like when a clear autobiographical theme comes together with a formal dance history or art history based question.

Also people that I work with are a big inspiration for me and in that way I always look for diversity. I like working with people from different backgrounds, of different age groups and with different performing experience. I enjoy playing with what is perceived as not made for a theatre and then place it in the theatre.

You work with dance and your works are described as dance pieces yet in your performances it is, often taken to extreme, more of a mundane and daily movement that dominates. What is your approach to movement - your artistic language?

What I like very much is to look for language that fits a specific concept I am developing and so, according to each work, it can go different ways. For ‘Sweat Baby Sweat’, which is one of these love duets, I was looking for ways to translate in movement that love can be hard and demanding, that it can suck each other’s energies away. At the very start we thought about the rules and principles of contemporary dance and then did them differently. Lifting somebody you would usually keep two core centers together. We would instead use the element of lifting whilst keeping the centers away or, if you would do that lift using momentum as your motor, we would work with slowness and the unavoidable heaviness that came with it. We would also work with partnering positions from Yoga or Kamasutra, use the pacing taken from Butoh and then mix that with Rock ‘n’ Roll dancing. By doing so, you end up with something that isn’t necessary working but it becomes a new language. This language for me does come from the mundane, from what is around.

On the other hand ‘The Dog Days Are Over’ is based on what was done in the 80’s by Lucinda Childs or the last part of ‘Fase’ from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. I think that you could either take that language and do something different with it or use it in the same way and say something different with it. That molding of the language is a language that interests me.

How do you approach material during your creations? Are you giving phrases or tell your dancers to experiment with the given concept?

That again depends very much on the piece. ‘Sweat Baby Sweat’ was created based on very strict improvisational tasks, on which performers created the material. For ‘The Dog Days Are Over’ I have imposed a form within which dancers could then create materials. With other pieces such as ‘Victor’, we worked with very basic physical tasks that, by strictly isolating and putting different views on them, became a movement language itself.

Your works seem to play with a fine line between what is physical and what is emotional. On top of that, there is always a story that is told. Do you begin your work by looking for ways to express a certain story or do you start exploring physical vocabulary which then triggers and invites all the emotional content to the work?

For myself I start with the emotional content but what I present to the dancers is always very formal. I try to foresee what emotions would come out from imposing a certain form. When you start talking about what is to be achieved let’s say, it would no longer be a physical translation but rather mental or expressive one and for me it needs to stay on the level of the body. I am myself very busy with a story, but I try not to weight down any exercises or creation processes by the emotional content.

Do you search until you find the embodied version of the very starting point or is this specificity loosening up throughout the working process?

I know that I am searching for a specific thing, but I am not always sure what it is exactly. With ‘Sweat Baby Sweat’, because the piece was talking about such cliché theme that could so easily go so wrong, we knew we had to find the right language for it. The working process was no more about the story but about finding the accurate physicality and form. In ‘The Dog Days Are Over’, as the vocabulary was created much earlier, the search was much more focused on the dramaturgy, bodily limits and actual sanity of the work.

‘The Common People’ is your most current project with which you are now touring. What is the search behind it?

When beginning this project I was looking deeper into the question of how can structure, with no imposed emotions or story to it, trigger authenticity within performers. I figured out that in my previous pieces there was no real space for coincidence and that is what I was aiming for with ‘The Common People’. By providing non-professional performers with a simple score that provokes human encounters, I wanted to take my hands off the choreography. As you never know how the script will be translated or how people would react to each other, the authentic factor is very present.

Again staging what is humane and ordinary?

I think yes. I think it is also a way for me to broaden the perspective of what beauty is. That I think is something I am always busy with. Like in ‘Victor’ I wanted to question if a young boy performing next to an adult man can be beautiful or is it already perverse? In ‘Dialog’, which is duet for an older actress and a bigger actress, I wondered if we can forget the very first impression of seeing an older and a bigger person to then see these as beautiful? The same is with ‘The Common People’ which is very much about the first impressions and how these affect and organize our interactions.

Is it the first time that you work with non-professionals? How does it change your way of working?

I did work with a non-professional performer on ‘Victor’, but never with a bigger group like now. It is definitely much different. I never correct them or say something is right or wrong - this would cover the diversity that naturally comes out and which I am fascinated by. When things are not necessarily going great you just say a story to all, hoping that this one person will discover the in-between correction.

Are you comfortable with letting go of control?

Yes, it surely has more risk to it. We did already six shows in three cities and the last one, the Utrecht premiere, was not good enough for me, but that can happen. There were also some reasons, why it wasn't the best one. We couldn't rehearse on stage until the show started and once the performers got onto the space, it overwhelmed them. What followed was a certain theatricality that does not belong to the project and that can easily damage the fragile connections we are looking for.

It sounds like this project it working with something very delicate. How do you make sure you get the right essence from the people that perform it?

It's about preparing them well in the given time frame. I say things like: “Don't go theatrical”, “The most important in your encounter is the other” or “Don't be a slave of your script”. I tell them to forget the audience and to deal with the other, but of course that is not always so simple. In Utrecht we performed in the Stadsschouwburg with 400 people watching. The audience was very responsive and was laughing a lot, which triggered the performers to play along. Working with professionals you could say: “Whatever reaction comes from the audience, don't go with it, follow your own path and do what you think is needed”. With non-professionals, it is different. You can never predict how the audience will react and how that will affect the show, but that I guess it is the authentic factor I wanted to work with.  

All of your works are different, using different performers and concepts, yet there is always something in common. Using five words could you describe your style or principles that you are working with?

Minimal is a thing, hard-core in a sense of rigid is a thing, humor is important and ‘it’ being alive. That is at least what I hope for. That is only four though...

Are we going to see these elements also in 'The Score'?

I hope yes, I hope we will get there. After 'The Common People', I feel a strong need to choreograph again. At first the conservatory had asked me to make a variation of ‘The Dog Days Are Over’, but then decided on wanting to have a new creation, which would be based on similar principles. On top of that, ‘The Score’ is also my personal research on working with music, which is something I never did a lot of. I am in search of what could be done on music and I have the feeling ‘The Score’ is going to be quite of a formal piece. It should still be alive, hard-core and with humor though. I still need to find a way to melt it in, but for now we are busy creating material.

During creations, when do you actually know if a piece is ready? Is there a moment where you think that it’s finished?

Yes, but it's always different. With 'The Common People' I just knew during the last try out- we did. Of course we readjusted and made small changes just before the premier, but that always happens. With 'Sweat Baby Sweat' it was really about finding the language. Once I felt we found it, I was not worrying anymore. A couple of weeks before the premiere, the piece was far from ready, but we did a run slowing everything down and it felt like that is where the key was. Once the key is found, the worry is over. You realise what the language is there and then you need to adapt everything according to the rules that implement the choice of it. To know what you are going to do and to then think about everything that needs to go in the same direction is a very nice way of working.

From next year on you are going to be an artist in residence in DeSingel. Do you already have plans, ideas on how you going to use that residency?

We are going to have the office here, which is really great. I live in Antwerp yet until now I have never worked in my city, I was always working in the Netherlands or in Germany. It feels very good. We will also premier our new creations here in DeSingel, with the first one coming already in September 2017. We will also be having three weeks of technical support and montage in the theater, which we never had before, so to that I am looking forward. Also, instead of working in a 10x10m studio, we will have a big space to work in and that makes me very happy. It is great to have DeSingel on board for the next five years, because if we are going to talk with other co-producers, it's easier for them to trust in us or to be convinced that there will be a good outcome presented in a professional way that is worth supporting.

The work that you are premiering with in 2017, what is it about?

I'm not sure yet if it's going to be a trio or a quartet, but hopefully it will be a piece with the music by NAH. I still need to ask him, I hope this will be the case. For that work I am going to work with minimalism as a theme. The idea is to have three or four pieces, where each time they are repeated, there is less of it; less people, less material, less music, less lights. It is about putting things away, stripping things down. Ideally every time elements get removed, there would be a new piece coming out of that, even though it was part of the previous one, it would now carry a very different meaning. That’s what I am trying to do; something that goes from an abstract trio to a love duet to an existential solo. At least, this is what it is now in my mind, but you never know…

In this moment, what do you think is needed for the dancing field? What would you say is a necessity for the artists and their audiences?

I think we need to make connection. I think it is important to agree that we are on the same side as the audience and we need to convince people about that. We lost a lot of backup from the field, politics and people in general. We need to win them over in a way. And not by making dancy easy stuff, but by making art which has a base and concept to it and at the same time it is there for people. I think this is also a responsibility of programmers who, instead of dividing works according to what they think is right for their selected audience, should be convincing their audience that the other work could also be suitable for them.

Do you mean making work more accessible?

Yes and that also applies for choreographers themselves, that instead of performing only in theaters like e.g. Kaaitheater or Campo, they should perform in all various places. We need to perform a lot. We need to win souls again. I think that's important. 

Kinga Jaczewska and Regina Janzen, DeSingel, June 20016.