YASMEEN GODDER + MONICA GILLETTE
Stace Gill and Maria Nilsson Waller (Flora Fauna Project, Ireland)
Yasmeen Godder (Choreographer, Tel Aviv, Israel)
Monica Gillette ( Choreographer and Dramaturge, Germany)
human, dance, Parkinson’s disease, scientists, dancers, emotions, structure, space, community, collaborate, learning, participation,
Stace Gill: We're delighted to give ROOM to choreographer, performer, and artistic director of Yasmeen Godder Company, Yasmeen Godder. And today we're also joined by one of Yasmeen's collaborators, choreographer and dramaturg, Monica Gillette. Thank you for joining us. Thank you.
Yasmeen Godder: Hi, thanks for having us.
Maria Nilsson Waller: Pleasure. We are gonna dive straight in. Yeah, we're just gonna get stuck in here. So Yasmeen, in 2016, yourself and Monica Gillette collaborated for a project working with scientists, professional dancers, and people living with Parkinson's disease [called "Störung/Hafraah"]. Can you tell us, was this the first time that you opened your studio to untrained dancers? And how has this impacted, inspired, and informed your work since then?
Yasmeen: So I will just start by saying that this moment the door opened and the group of people dealing with Parkinson's disease entered my studio was a revolutionary moment for me. Also, I can say that now, you know, five years after. We've always said that, you know, any workshop, any class was open for anyone who was curious. So there was never this limitation. On the other hand, there was never a very clear invitation and a very direct kind of openness, as a company, as a place to a particular group of people dealing specifically with something that has to do with some kind of a physical, neurological challenge, I guess. I was always very curious about a lot of things. And one of the things that I loved always about dance, is that I felt that whatever it I was curious about could actually enter. There was no limitation in thinking about, what is it? Whatever theme or subject or medium I was curious about, I always felt there was an entrance into the field of choreography. And that's why I was so drawn to it. Because as you know, starting off as an artist, I was drawn to many things like visual arts, for example. But I didn't feel that the dance field was limiting me. And so I could handle choosing the path of a choreographer knowing that I could always funnel whatever it is that I'm interested in. And I guess this-- so in a way, there was this moment of like, I guess a little bit of a shock of being like, wow, this is new, this is challenging, this is bringing up a lot for us, this is refreshing. At the same time, it was like, "Yeah, but of course this could happen. Like why not?" You know, this is why I am so drawn to this field-- that it has that ability to be open on one hand, and on the other hand, like, really, somehow present a mirror to you in a very direct way, and kind of I guess, challenge or have you deal with things in a very immediate and real kind of way. So I guess that was that, you know, and I can talk more about it, but maybe Monica wants to say something as well.
Stace: Maybe say something about the structure and the initial proposal that you brought to Yasmeen. How did you propose this to Yasmeen and how did you create this space together? If you could give us some practical things here as well about, what was the proposal and what was the structure? And how did you create the space when you actually finally got there together in the room with everybody?
Monica Gillette: There was a step. I mean, there's a few steps beforehand that might be good to mention. But once one step in particular was in a pilot project that happened before our project, which was called “Brain Dance.” And I developed that in collaboration with another choreographer, Mia Habib, who's in Norway. But really, I bring it up because I was working as a dancer in the State Theatre at Theatre Freiburg in Freiburg, Germany at the time and there was a kind of a pivotal moment for me where they asked me to be involved in the design of a collaborative research project. So already that invitation coming from the theatre where they didn't ask me to, let's say, only give dance classes to people from the community, but they said, can you help design a research project from a dancer's perspective, from an embodied perspective? And that initial invitation, I think, was kind of a pivotal moment because they were asking: bring your skills to the table to think about, like, the structure that we should live inside of. And this was a collaboration between Theatre Freiburg and University Freiburg and they invited Mia and I to create this structure for the pilot project. And something we landed on was the idea of having kind of like parallel tracks going on. So while we're creating dance classes for people living with Parkinson's, we also had a space for artistic research for ourselves, where we could be processing and questioning on a physical level simultaneous, but also separate from the classes-- so a residency that isn't obliged to create work, but it's somehow processing on a on a physical level, on an artistic frame of what's coming up for us inside of creating these dance classes, as well as meeting scientists of many different disciplines inside of it. So kind of operating on a theoretical level. And then we also created a track where we would meet the public, like meet the audience. So we had these four tracks of like meeting scientists, artistic research, developing classes for people with Parkinson's, and then also already having open houses where we had to already present our questions, or share our questions of our research, with the public. So not necessarily any answers; we didn't claim to have any answers, but to say, this is our research and this is what it means to have had to kind of engage your movement research and your artistic research on a societal and transdisciplinary level. And so that was about five months.
Simultaneous to us going through that, I was just coming out of a creation process with Yasmeen as a dancer in a piece, and there was a kind of a confluence of events. While we were preparing and thinking about what this experiment could be, she and I were in the studio each day and in creation, and recognizing that we had a shared spirit around what we were asking and what we were curious about. I was also quite attracted to how Yasmeen and her partner Itsik were always changing roles with each other and existing inside of different roles with each other in their creative work. And I thought, well, what would happen if I kind of like start to engage with Yasmeen also in this way of like, what if we do these roles with each other this time? And what if we do these roles now? So with each project, we kind of also reinvented our relationship with each other and how we collaborate. So inside of this, we decided to also invite Yasmeen and the company with the same structure and to say, let's go for a bigger collaboration, a German-Israeli collaboration, and let's expand that original structure-- bring in young researchers, also give the chance for Yasmeen to, let's say, employ her dancers inside of this other way to be together, other way to question, other way to dance. So also to challenge our question of what is a dance company, and how to live inside of that on a research level? So that's kind of how it was birthed, let's say, that's how that's how we took the step inside of that.
Maria: And can I just ask, following all of that. So there's a lot of different people in the room, there's a lot of different skills and sort of expertise. How do you create a working environment that is somehow equal that everyone can join in? Like, how do you bring everyone together? Is there any tools that you have picked up along the way?
Monica: Well, I think inside of the structure of the "Störung/Hafraah" project, the one that we're referring to right now, each of us or each, let's say, country-- Yasmeen approached it in one way for the company and we approached it a little bit differently, because we had different needs. Each locality has different needs. But Yasmeen maybe you want to first share how you all approached it or what your thoughts are?
Yasmeen: Yeah. Well, I want to start by talking about the fact that there was the winter school. Two meetings where all the collaborators--well not everybody, not the people living with Parkinson's disease, but the artists and the young scientists-- met for a week of like brainstorming and learning from each other and kind of sharing a week of research. And then we also had kind of two, well, we ended up doing two-- how do you call it? Like symposiums? I guess. No-- the conferences. I'll just share that. What was very interesting in in my group was that, basically, I was working with five other artists who... I guess three of them were, yeah, three out of the five were actually working in the company at the time and two others were collaborating artists, and each one took on their own research track and collaborated with the younger scientists. So together, we had this monthly meeting with each one of the duo's and we used, during this winter school that where we met in Freiburg, we actually created a bank of words that connected to all the different populations that were in this project together. So there were things like "unison" and "identity." And Monica remind me more-- "synchronicity" which I feel like it's still a word that I'm dealing with today.
[Everybody is an expert]
Yasmeen: Embodiment. So these were words that we did this kind of work together to bring them up. And then basically each scientist-choreographer pair would work with one of them and create a workshop around them. So there was a way of meeting around similar themes, but each person bringing their expertise. That was one aspect of it. The other aspect was something that was basic in our structure, or like, one of the key ways of approaching it, is that everyone in the room has an expertise in something. Also, the people dealing or living with Parkinson's disease, each one with their own way of experiencing it, is an expert in their bodies, and has the expertise of their experience. And so in a way, coming with this philosophy into the space and understanding that there's this dual learning process that's happening between all the different people with their experiences helped to allow or give space for everyone to share their knowledge and to also create situations or structures. Let's say, for example, with the scientists, they often worked on doing these experiments on us. This is what we discovered: that when you bring a scientist into a workshop, they'll use the moment to give out questionnaires and try out things, and somehow that really connected to artistic processes, you know. It really allowed us to have these moments where we were actually inspired by how do you design space. And by looking at these, let's say, these small experiments is also structures-- choreographic structures. And this started to inform all of us.
In addition to that, I'll just add that each one of the artists who was leading the classes for people living with Parkinson's was bringing their background of dance, whatever it is. So there was one man who comes from capoeira, so he brought a lot of that information into the classes. And then there was a woman who came from folk dancing and so she brought that into the classes. So there was not one format. There wasn't like one continuous format of teaching, not this one way of thinking about what's the right movement class for this population. And in that way, it challenged all of the-- I guess many of the-- stereotypes also, of what is right for people dealing with Parkinson's and what is wrong. You know, for example, walking back is considered dangerous or not allowed. But in a way, doing these circular dances with Shuli Enosh-- she was one of the artists who was leading [and] one of my company members for many years; she was doing the folk dancing, and we were holding each other and walking back and we're like, oh my god, we're walking back, oh, my god, you know, like, these things, were suddenly... you realize that first of all-- it empowered each one of the performers to be able to bring their own history of connecting to their bodies that was not necessarily connected to, let's say, my practice, or what I brought into the company, or how we warm up, it was their different practices. And this, you know, very pluralistic kind of approach to movement was also very effective for the people coming in for the classes, because it was, you know, for a whole month to be able to work with one practice of movement, and then to shift, was very right for people dealing with Parkinson's, as on one hand, it's very helpful to have repetition and continuity. On the other hand, it can also be a bit too repetitive, and you need changes and shifts to bring the body new kinds of impulses.
So there was so much about the structure that taught us about what we have, as performers, but also taught us about science and taught us about what it is to live with Parkinson's, and how each one of these could kind of cross pollinate and enrich, in a way, what we know or what we don't know. I'll just say that, you know, as Monica mentioned, the fact that I structurally have a company-- I mean, it's not like a regular, ongoing year-long company, but it's a project based company and I do tend to work with certain performers over a very long time--but to come together even before the project started, and we did two weeks ahead of time, where we just gathered, and we learned together about the disease, and we invited different people to talk to us about it. And just to think that, okay, here's a dance company, here's a group of, you know, dancers, performers sitting together. And we're, we're becoming a learning group, you know, where there isn't a leader, there isn't this one leader with the information, which would have been me, I guess, as the choreographer, as the artistic director. But I'm there, like everyone else, learning about this new information and trying to digest it and to kind of, learn from each other and how we perceive it. And one of the members of the project-- her mom was dealing with Parkinson's-- she brought in her personal experience of dealing with it.
I just want to add another detail that was a real learning experience for me. You know, when we first started out, we're like, okay, let's invite people. So let's invite I guess, scientists, and people dealing with Parkinson's disease, and people who may be teaching or leading classes for people dealing with Parkinson's disease. And we started making phone calls and people were so happy to come and talk to us. I mean, and to volunteer themselves to share the information that again, you know, being the dance company, that's like, you know, you're always like, financially, you're struggling and you're like, oh my god, everything is costing money-- just like taking, you know, bringing all the dancers to, you know, to the airport, or like buying all the, you know, insurance or having like, you know, some coffee in the space, whatever, you know? Like everything costs. And yet you're making phone calls to all these people who are, you know, again, experts in their fields, whether it was a scientist from the Weissman Institute to a doctor to a woman dealing with Parkinson's for many years to a teacher of dance for Parkinson's, and they were all so excited to come and share the information with us. And there was something so special about it to say wow, this studio is because suddenly becoming like a school. Like, we are defining the curriculum, we are deciding what is, you know-- and we're inviting people to teach us. So even before we met these different communities proposed in "Störung/Hafraah," there was already just the spirit of it changed everything, you know. And, again, it's these moments where you realize that, how often I think for myself, I realized that you can really enter this loop of how things should be or how things should work. How you should-- how to structure a dance organization? I mean, I don't want to think of myself as that, but how do you structure how you go about making work, developing relationships with collaborators, etc.? And here just by this proposal, so many new-- yeah, again, I go back to the door, but doors, open. There are ways of thinking about how to go about doing things, and how much there is a willingness for people to share and to be together in other ways. So yeah, it's all coming back right now. It's bubbling in me.
[ Hirearchies ]
Stace: We're talking to a few other people, obviously and what's striking me is that the models for working and the way that everybody is working, everyone that we're talking to-- it's like the perfect structural example of how we could live as a society. I was talking about all of these things. I mean, myself and Maria are talking about these things every day. We're discussing how are we dealing with all of the people that we're working with, no matter who they are, no matter what their role is. And then the dream world that you've just described, is like this opportunity for people to tap into their natural intelligence. Like what you were saying, everybody's body is coming with an intelligence. It doesn't matter whether you're a scientist, it doesn't matter who you are in that room--you are in your body. And if you are a body, then you're loaded with all of this intelligence. And to start tapping into that in a room with other people is incredibly intimate, first of all.
Stace: And it creates something very important that I think is trust, as well. And then more can be revealed, and then more can be learned. When you don't have a hierarchy, then you've got equality, and then you've got a perfect community.
Yasmeen: I mean, maybe one thing to add on the hierarchy level is that language became important on some levels, in the sense that I think dance became an equalizer between the scientists and the doctors and how they would identify patients. So off the bat, the word "patient" was banned from our project. And even though it kept slipping out, because of habit, this became really important for acknowledging the people that are living with Parkinson's that they are whole human beings that are our collaborators in this project, bringing their expertise, and certainly not patients inside of this context. I think that, in a way, at the beginning of this project, dance and our role as dancers inside the project was serving as mediators for two communities that exist on a very hierarchical level that doesn't always necessarily serve either of them. [Laughs] Like, isn't to the best of a condition for either of them, you know. The people that are kind of looking at doctors to play the god role to find the cure, which is certainly necessary, but it's like putting a type of pedestal or kind of distance. And the doctors and the researchers that are kind of, in this examining role or observing, objectifying--not objectifying-- but looking at their subjects with a distance. I think that, through this process, humanity was brought into the room that kind of shook everyone's approach to how to be together in all of our roles. And I think that this had an enormous impact on everyone to kind of feel empowered through the situation. And we had one young researcher, a neuroscientist, who said, where I used to see data, now I see people. That's still one quote that stays with me. Maybe one of the biggest successes we could identify in the project, is like, okay, now we see people, not certain titles or roles.
Stace: Did most of the scientists involved in this project have a neurological focus because you were dealing with Parkinson's?
Monica: It was different in both countries. In Germany, we had a really broad range, from mathematician to philosopher, to psychologists to neuroscientists, to micro technician, like someone who was literally, a young researcher that's designing the chips that go in the brain for deep brain stimulation for people with Parkinson's. You know, we had scientists that were dealing with this micro technology, but had never met someone who actually had Parkinson's, but then through these dance classes, started to meet these humans, and then started to think about their design differently, ways to measure differently. In a way, we kind of invited everyone to bring their expertise, but to also really let themselves be challenged on the way they think they know how to do things. So as much as we were being challenged on what are the production modalities, or the ways we exist inside of dance, the pathways to arrive at a work-- what Yasmeen was just describing-- or the way to have an institution or an organization or a dance company, we were also interested to ask everyone else to kind of shake up their way of knowing, actually.
[ ˛Inverstigating human emotions ]
Stace: Just listening to you speaking about the structure and all the people and the various ranges of backgrounds that were involved, that once you get them all into the room and you work with them like this, it kind of tricks them into being just human, from the perspective of the body. We need to ask you, though-- we've already gone over time, so sorry, are you okay with another few minutes? Because I'd really like to know [and] it's important that we touch on where that has led in your practice, Yasmeen, particularly in terms of human emotion and connection, and the community of the studio and the community of the theatre, and that intimate space that you seem to be driven [to]. What is it that grabs you about human emotions? Why are you driven to get people to open up to each other in this space? It seems to excite you.
Yasmeen: Yeah, very much so. I think that before "Störung/Hafraah" I did this project called "CLIMAX," which was for The Petach Tivka Museum [of Art]. It's a small museum in a suburb of Israel. There's a lot to say about that project, but if I have to talk about what is it about that, that brought me to 'Common Emotions', which is the work that I made out of the "Störung/Hafraah" research, was the fact that it was a three hour piece. So it was a durational piece in a museum, the doors were open. I took basically climactic moments from my repertoire, and rearranged them in a way that they could be almost like a series of slogans for a group of people to have together. So like a mini community, within the community of people entering the space and exiting. The first part of the piece was very climactic, it was intense, it had all the very extreme moments of a lot of my repertoire all together. And then there was a little break. And then the second part, started to slow down and slow down to the point that there was almost very little left in the space of movement of extreme emotion. So like, just one dancer at a time laying down in the middle of the space and then walking out and other dancer entering in and laying. But people would not leave the space. And when I was choreographing this, I was sure that okay, slowly as I fade out the work and the doors are open, people will leave. But actually, people sat on the floor and wanted to stay. And this moment really surprised me and really inspired me in a way to question, what is it? What is that? Why are people staying? Why are they here still? And I felt that part of it was about experiencing emotion together and wanting to sustain that, and being invited into an event, being invited to experience, but without boundaries about how to be part of that experience. And that there was almost like a level of hypnosis happening, that there was an alternative space of being together and that the dance work was just kind of a small reason for the bigger thing to tap into. You're talking about tapping into-- but to tap into our human needs to spend time together around something, whether it was feeling like we're being carried emotionally or that we were experiencing different things together in different ways, but we want to sustain that and be able to be in that exposed space.
So taking that, I carried that over to the next research of "Störung/Hafraah" [which was my piece] "COMMON EMOTIONS" because one of the things obviously (also from things that I just spoke about) that I was drawn to [was] these common emotions that were happening in the room; I was drawn to these common emotions that we were experiencing together through different tasks, and through just also the dance studio, just the fact that we were able to move together to share some simple tasks together. There was just a lot of that happening. And one of the exercises that are very, very effective and used a lot in our classes for people with Parkinson's is a mirror exercise, which is probably the first exercise you do in a composition class, when you know, when you're learning, composition, or improvisation. And it has, I don't know, transcendental powers-- this exercise. Because it's simple but it allows for two people to connect to each other in a place that's really hard to define. So I was drawn to this idea that you take these really basic things, in a way from the dance world-- these tools, these practices, that in a way we take for granted or I've taken for granted for many years-- and by sharing them with different communities with people who are not necessarily exposed to this, there's just so much potential of connectivity and of, common emotions, and of a place to connect through the body, but that allows for emotion to be present. So taking all of this information from "Störung/Hafraah," also about this awareness, this understanding that whoever is in the room is in the room, and to allow that to influence or impact whatever it is that you're representing [or] presenting. And almost to give it a visual effect, too. So the more the piece goes on, the trust is built, so more and more people enter the stage. And by the end, the space becomes like this one big workshop, like people are just doing all these workshops and it becomes less about what you're seeing and more about what you're experiencing.
Saying all of that, I'll just add something small that's more maybe on a political level, because there's just so much to say about it. I think that, you know, coming from Israel, there is this thing about common emotions that we grow up with-- like the narrative of the Jews in Israel and the narratives of the Palestinians. [In] each group, I think from a very young age, there's a narrative that also informs the emotions, and that these emotions are almost supported by the common emotions. It's very natural in a way [for there] to be this kind of infectiousness that happens emotionally and it has a beauty. There's a beauty to it, and it also has a dark side. And, to me, making this piece [COMMON EMOTIONS], I was always very aware of it. It's not just about the fact that I think, you know, that connecting emotionally always has, I guess, a positive effect. It could have also a negative effect, like on a political level, let's say, or because, you know, it could be manipulated. And I guess part of what was interesting for me in this piece is also to make that transparent. Like [to say], not everybody in the room has to do this. And people first of all could, say, reject the invitation; they don't have to join. And also, that there's always a witness; there are always people who don't feel comfortable and who sit on the tribune, and that for the witness, there is also something very interesting in watching this happen, in identifying with what's happening... also maybe rejecting some of what's happening... For me a lot of times, there's something about that in my work. There's not this obsolete way that I want things to happen. I want to allow for different feelings and for different perceptions of my proposal to be allowed to be present. So yeah, I just wanted to add that because it adds another twist to it. But I think ultimately, you know, with all of that, and with this element of criticism that I wanted to be present there, or to be allowed to be present there, there is something very fun and a little bit utopic in this proposal.
Stace: Yeah, the way you've created a community where even for a brief moment, it's very real. It's very ominous. It gives everybody the space to just feel what they're feeling.
Yasmeen: Yeah, exactly.
Stace: Which I think is really important for the world that we all start feeling what we're feeling, honestly.
Yasmeen: Mm hmm, yes, and opening up to each other, I think. Opening up to each other, that's a big one. Because there is a tendency, not because we want it, obviously, but there is a tendency to bubble up and to create enclosures to protect. But in a way, one of the challenges of the field is to try to understand why that's happening, and I think this project that we did gave me a lot of tools to start to shift a little bit some of my energies. The biggest understanding is that, for me-- that leads me these days-- when I'm creating a performance, I'm creating a meeting between people. I'm defining how is it that we're going to meet? That to me is very essential today in how I think about performance.
Maria: Monica, we're going to start to find our ending. Do you have anything you would like to add to the mix?
[ The dancer's knowledge ]
Monica: No, I mean, it's a beautiful chance to kind of re-look at what we did a few years ago. And considering where we are now, I mean, I think this was a quite a-- this project was a bit of a game changer for both of us. And we continue to collaborate with each other on it, and asking this question, which we began with at the beginning: What else is a dancer's knowledge good for? Where else? At first, how do we start to recognize this implicit knowledge, like the knowledge that's normally not spoken about?-- that's what we started to call "silent knowledge" at the beginning of the project. Where else can it embed? Where else can it extend outward to? I think in the last years, aside from collaborating with Yasmeen, continuing to ask this essential question has led me into many different projects, from working with people from migrant backgrounds or looking at a project called "Empowering Dance" which might be of interest to your setting here, which is looking at the soft skills that are implicit in dance practices. It's an interesting project-- www.empowering.communicatingdance.eu/ --which has a lot of tools and resources, and it looked at case studies of dance practices, and different ways that [soft skills] are showing up in community-based dance practice. And it's just continued [for me]. I'm continuing to just delve and investigate: where else can this knowledge be busy and where else can it build communities and shape society? So that's my little button or wrap up for this conversation.