Bild på Anouk van Dijk. Foto Sophie Håkansson.

Power play

Text: Maggie Foyer
Photo: Sophie Håkansson

Anouk van Dijk operates at the tough end of the contemporary dance spectrum. She is daring both in concepts and in technique, as is evident in her internationally acclaimed work, Common Ground, which comes to Skånes Dansteater in February 2024.

Anouk van Dijk describe Common Ground as ‘a Swan Lake for the contemporary dancer’. Here the comparison is in the required stamina, emotional range and skill set rather than beautifully groomed feathers and aesthetic lines. It’s a gruelling duet for a male and afemale dancer in a shared space – the common ground which draws focus to the inherent complexity that partnerships bring and the need for trust in a constantly changing equilibrium.

Common Ground is austere, just two dancers and a white floor. Skånes Dansteater’s Artistic Director, Mira Helenius Martinsson, who chose the work, says it ‘gets to the bare bones of the artists.’ Van Dijk explained that prior to creating this work, which premiered in April 2018 at the Chunky Move Studio Theatre in Melbourne, she had been doing technically challenging works.

‘I’d been making really complicated works with live video interaction between set and sound, between light and natural elements, and I felt the need to do something simple. I just wanted to be in the studio with the dancers and look at the art of dance. I just needed to go back to the form.’

Over the 62 minutes of the work, the dance floor takes on a life of its own as the choreographic duel mirrors the mood in shifting lights. Van Dijk had high praise for the light designers she worked with in Australia: ‘The training of light designers, and also sound, is on another level from what I’m used to in other places.’ Australian Paul Jackson is the light designer for Common Ground and creates light settings that make the dance mat glow with jewel-like intensity. Towards the end of the work the mat becomes central to the action in a game changing moment. But no spoilers here!

Van Dijk says: ‘The form of the piece – sparse with subdued competition between two people – was inspired by political tensions at the time. The Trump–Clinton campaign and the symbols involved. Handshakes between world leaders as miniature battlefields. You realise that power is a spectacle that is constructed, and this took me all the way back to Louis XIV and the rituals of power. The dance floor in itself has rituals, so the political and the dance arena come together in this kind of subtle power play. There is also the power play between man and woman.’

I asked if she’d considered taking it further, as contemporary dance is comfortably gender fluid, and have the work performed by same sex couples?

Anouk came back instantly: ‘It would be a very different piece and no, I wouldn’t want that. I think the psychology involved would be less interesting to follow. Interestingly it has been performed by a couple where the male was shorter than the female and they became gender fluid twins. They both had shaved heads when they were performing it and at some point you couldn't see who was who. So it became all about fluidity rather than about masculine and feminine power. Whereas with Tara and Richard, (the original couple), it's still a man and a woman, but there are moments that it doesn't matter and also moments that you really feel the distinction between masculine and feminine power. Then we as an audience can look into the work and also reflect a little bit on our biased opinion about the role of men or our biased opinion about the role of women!’

‘With the Skånes Dansteater dancers it will be very different because they're very different dancers. In Malmö four dancers are learning the piece, and are divided into two casts. We had workshops to find the right combination so that the narrative is physically as layered as we can get it.’

Mira Helenius Martinson noted that she was first attracted to the piece by the challenge it afforded the dancers as, ‘something to deep dive into.’ Anouk van Dijk is exceptional in having devised a technique which enables her dancers to move with the fluidity and grace I thought only my cat was  capable of. They are also fiercely physical, giving themselves totally to the movement with
extraordinary courage and confidence. Named Countertechnique, the method shifts the centre from the traditional pelvic core and works to balance the body through three-dimensional counter-directions in a dynamic manner.

Van Dijk built the tool kit for this method on her own body and her dancers, for the specific needs of her choreography. The spur to create a new way of training was that moment well known to all dancers when you wake up the morning after a demanding performance or a particularly tough rehearsal. She explained:

‘Your body feels like a wreck, you try to warm up and it’s a real ordeal. I think it's been underestimated how difficult it is for a dancer to do this day after day. I developed Countertechnique because I love dancing and I hate that process. But now I have a system to solve it so I can warm up, train and be completely safe.

Your body is not something you switch on and the machine works. Your work is different every day and how it affects your body and mind is also different. I found the exercises that worked for me and my dancers, then I started to look into the underlying movement principles to create a body of knowledge that connects the body-mind working. Teaching dance educates me over and over again how to dance myself.’

Anouk van Dijk is one of the Nederland’s top choreographers. In 2012 she was awarded the prestigious Golden Swan for her outstanding artistic and academic contributions to dance in her homeland. She graduated from the Rotterdam Dance Academy in 1985 and remains a lifelong explorer of dance and the human body. She performed for over a decade with companies such as Amanda Miller's Pretty Ugly Dance Company before dedicating herself to creating and performing her own work. In 2012 she moved to Australia to take the post of Artistic Director of contemporary dance company Chunky Move, a post she held until 2019, creating 13 full-evening works and touring extensively. Currently Anouk creates works internationally and, after an absence of more than a decade returns to the stage herself in February. 

The text is taken from Skånes Dansteater Magazine 2024.