Creating New Social Facts
With a great deal of stamina and a long breath, Sasa Asentic´ and his colleagues from Per.Art, a group of performance artists with and without learning disabilites, have made their work a part of the mainstream dance scene.
For twenty years now, choreographer and performer Saša Asentić has been active in and on disability arts. He is Artistic Director of the performing arts group Per.Art in Novi Sad (Serbia) in which artists and performers with and without learning disabilities work together. They have been invited to this year’s Tanzplattform Deutschland with “Dis_Sylphide”, which is an appropriation of Western dance history. Three key works of the 20th century serve as a starting point – Mary Wigman’s “Hexentanz”, Pina Bausch’s “Kontakthof” and Xavier Le Roy’s “Self Unfinished”. The ensemble, members of Per.Art as well as of the Hamburg theater group Meine Damen und Herren, adopt this material to reclaim a place in dance history, overturning existing body norms and creating an idea of togetherness. In April, “Dis_Sylphide” will be presented at Sophiensæle. tanzraumberlin took the opportunity to talk with Saša Asentić about the significance of Per.Art’s work and his artistic and activist aspirations for disability dance.
Interview:: Elena Philipp
Saša Asentić, you’re rehearsing a new piece at the moment, correct?
Yes. The new performance is by Natalija Vladisavljević who in “Dis_Sylphide” reinterprets and performs Mary Wigman’s “Hexentanz”. Natalija is an interesting artist and writer who has been writing choreographic scores for some time. Initially they were meant to be published as her third book. But since she expressed desire to stage them we supported her to start teaching these scores to Per.Art artists and other dancers. Natalija chose the title “Dance in the 21st Century” and the piece will have its premiere in Novi Sad in March. After “Dis_Sylphide”, venues in Germany were also interested more in this kind of work: Kampnagel in Hamburg, the Europäisches Zentrum der Künste Hellerau in Dresden and Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt stepped in as co-producers for Natalija’s piece. This is important since it’s the first time an artist with Down’s Syndrome is being presented and co-produced in this context.
You have been working quite some time for this to happen.
It is pioneer work that we do, based on solidarity, self-organization and enthusiasm. The fields of contemporary dance and disability arts do rarely come together. As an artist, I try to connect the two fields.
How would you describe your aspirations, as both an artist as well as an activist?
One of my main motivations is to create opportunities for our colleagues with learning disabilities who do not yet have the chance to collaborate with colleagues from other countries, to present their work or to be supported at all. “Dis_Sylphide” was an important intervention in this regard. For my artistic practice it is important to also change things structurally and to think of possible impacts: that with our artistic work in public we create new social facts.
What do you mean?
For me, it was clear from the beginning that I didn’t want to follow the model of cultural work which exists in many countries: to get an exclusive space for disabled artists. This way the system thinks the issues are solved. Yet, in my opinion this model often only reinforces further marginalization and discrimination. Thus we need to make changes on the systemic level – and make everyone part of the scene rather than building specialized sub-scenes.
Does the invitation to Tanzplattform support your case?
It is great that our colleagues with learning disabilities will for the first time be present at such an important event. For me it’s also interesting to see that in the last couple of years the question of disability dance is one of the actual topics. But we have to be aware of how this is happening and if there are changes on an institutional and structural level. In the past 30 years there have been focuses and even action plans around how to make certain social groups or issues visible in contemporary dance. But those were often temporary strategies to simulate diversity within the existing cultural policies. We can also see the tendency that the contemporary dance scene focuses on certain social groups and problematics related to them for three to five years and then picks up on another one.
Against this background: How did you go about consolidating Per.Art’s work?
Over the years, we developed a network of cultural institutions in Novi Sad, where Per.Art resides. The mainstream cultural institutions really opened up for the work our group is creating. In December 2019, we premiered a piece at the national Gallery of Matica srpska, “We Are Not Monsters” based on the idea by Dalibor Šandor who is a Per.Art performer with learning disabilities. Dalibor created this performance in artistic collaboration with Xavier Le Roy, Scarlet Yu, Alexandre Achour, Olivera Kovačević Crnjanski and myself, with support from all other members of Per.Art. In this piece, Dalibor is interested in creating a different perception of disability by using performance and acting in public towards dismantling mechanisms that create prejudices about disabled people in society.
Per.Art celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. How did the ensemble come into being?
Per.Art was founded in a very specific moment in Serbia, in the late 1990s, which were turbulent years in this region; during the international embargo, Serbia was an isolated country. After the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, a humanitarian organization that was supporting refugees and vulnerable social groups invited artists to do workshops for children and youths. I started working with a group of youths with learning disabilities. We met regularly every week, sharing our ideas about theater. Per.Art as a group consolidated around an idea Natalija had. She said: “If the audience requested dignity from the actors it could judge for itself what theater should be like, and imitating life is neither beautiful nor cultured.“ Since then we didn’t stop to be there for each other, learn from each other and to make theater that doesn’t imitate life but that has rejected the illusion of the fourth wall and that instead of the (neither beautiful nor cultured) imitation of life offers its audience dignified performers as political subjects and theatre as a socially engaged act.
Could you give an example?
There are many... But maybe this one: Two years ago we had a very strong moment. We had been performing “Dis_Sylphide” at Künstlerhaus Mousonturm and were invited by the University of Giessen to teach a workshop to students at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies. I invited Natalija to teach about her “Hexentanz” score and her ideas. On our way, she said: “This morning I will appear as a choreographer for the first time.“ We were deeply touched by this statement of our colleague and friend: Natalija’s experience and her changed awareness of herself emerged from the infrastructures and experiences we had been creating together. Our shared idea of theater has the effect that everyone who takes part in it has the sense of leading a dignified life. Basically, for moments of subjectification like this one, and many more over the last twenty years – this is why I do art.