edition Juli-August 2024

“The Magic Happens when You’re Able to Get in Sync with the People Around You”

Milla Koistinen in "Breathe", 2021. Foto: Dajana Lothert

What does dance have in common with football? tanzraumberlin editor Johanna Withelm talks to choreographer Milla Koistinen and Thomas Broich, tactical coach of the junior section of Hertha BSC (from July 1, 2024 Head of Young Talent at Borussia Dortmund), about working with structure and chaos, the importance of swarm intelligence and synchronization, and how trust and belonging, but also unforeseen rule-breaking, contribute to the magic of both disciplines — on theater stage as well as on the football pitch.

Interview: Johanna Withelm


Milla, what motivated you to present your solo Breathe (Premiere in 2021) on a football pitch?
Milla Koistinen: I was thinking about collective joy and euphoria and ecstasy, and this was the starting point for the piece. I was visiting my parents, they live in a small village up north in Finland. Being there on a fully empty football pitch, the memory of the euphoria and collective gatherings were tangible, and that felt like an exciting place to create something. Then during the creation of the piece, we also spoke a lot about the pitch as a quite masculine, geometrical space. So how do we break this with the movement, the material of the objects and all this? Maybe take over that space with something softer.

Do you have a connection to sports or to football yourself?
MK: I come from an athletic family. My father was also a football player in his youth, my both parents were physical education teachers. So, it’s very present in me. And I like that both the minds of an athlete and an artist are intervening and coming together.

Thomas, you are tactics and methodological football coach. What interests you about tactics?
Thomas Broich: It’s about finding solutions as a group. Football can be very chaotic and you can be thrown back to yourself, but in a way we’ve got a very own choreography at all times. We have to move like a swarm. It’s about thinking ahead, being on the same wavelength, looking through the same lens. If we are aware of the weaknesses and strengths of the other side, we can come up with a solution that’s very close to perfection.

Would you see your work as a creative or artistic work in a way?
TB: Football is a very creative sport to me. The pitch is huge, and the task at hand is to control the ball with your feet. This is incredibly difficult, and we have to come up with very creative solutions all the time. So, I guess at just one performance level, handling the ball as a skill, as an art. And then to perform that sport collectively that is really demanding and rewarding at the same time. And even the approach, I guess, is similar, in terms of the hours we have to put in to become experts and what we are doing and the way we have to train our bodies, our mindsets, we have to absorb a lot of theoretical information. So, I think it’s a very all encompassing, like holistic thing. And yeah, I know in the end it’s mainly sports, it’s still just football. But I guess when you delve a bit deeper, a lot of artistic stuff is going on as well. It’s different than art, of course, but I definitely would say this is the case.

In the sports press, when it comes to football, comparisons with dancers can often be found in the phrases …
TB: It’s all about being in control of your body, being able to shift your balance at all times, having a very low center of gravity, almost hovering over the pitch. You have to be on your toes the entire time. If you’re flat-footed, then you’ll be slow to react. So, it has to be dance-like, and we’re using those terms to teach kids.

I guess that working between structure and chaos is something that dance and football have in common. How does this shape your work as a choreographer and as a football coach?
MK: In my work, the structure is embodied, much like images that I work with. In Breathe, there were still images of football players in motion, but also other things, like from rock concerts or more historical images of collective gatherings. I have created some works in which the audience is free to move around, and what people decide to do and how they behave, affects the piece. This is an element that composes the space and brings chance into the game. In Breathe and also in the group piece Magenta Haze, I used a series of huge, air-infiltrated fabric objects by the set designer Sandra E. Blatterer, whose movements were sometimes very unpredictable. The fabrics represent joy and ecstasy and losing control. This was a real epiphany to me during the production, having this element present that’s greater than you are and that you can’t fully control. Thus, this was the element of chaos in both pieces, an aspect for me to accept and embrace. Overall, there’s a strict structure, in a way, but within that there’s a lot of freedom, and things can happen in various kinds of encounters.
TB: That really resonates with me because I like this idea of having a shared mental model of a game, but the interpretation is up to individuals because in the end, I guess it’s about expressing yourself as an individual. I don’t want to dictate exactly what anyone’s doing. Yeah, we share a common goal, but I sort of trust you to find your personal way of taking us there. And when we’re talking about sharing mental models and in case of patterns and formations, I really like rule breakers as well. Like, sometimes people take a detour, they take off on their own and it can be bad. Or, it can be really good. It can be spectacular. To have really radical creative elements at play can be surprising and very rewarding as well. And football is very fluid, very conditional. It may be due to weather conditions, it could be the opponents. Unpredictable stuff happens all the time on a football pitch. Part of the game is having a very clear understanding, a crystal clear idea of what we’re trying to do. But then we have to spontaneously react to whatever we’re confronted with. So it’s partly pattern recognition, and partly about having a predetermined plan. And then it’s about being intuitive and spontaneous, too.
MK: I also work with an open score, so, the steps are not fixed, everybody has to listen to one another. You don’t know what the other person’s going to suggest. You have to really listen and react. It’s also not about yourself. And so it’s not about me performing something now, but it’s more about this internal kind of game and listening and following.
TB: Yes, same with football. But the magic happens when you’re able to get in sync with the people around you — that’s what makes truly gifted players so special.

What do you think are the greatest differences between dance and football?
TB: I think it might be a major difference that we are facing opposition. So, we’re trying to create something, have our very own choreography. But there’s always someone out there trying to prevent that from happening. And that’s where an element of chaos comes in and somebody is very destructive of that — all of a sudden reality hits and we still have to implement things. And, something that really bothers me about football, in the end, is that there is too much focus on the result. There’s something else about the game that is not tangible. You want to go out there and be creative, express yourself, perform. You want to win the game but the ultimate thing would be to do it in style, with the right intent, with an element of beauty.
MK: And then I’m very busy with the amount of people that follow sports and the amount of people who follow arts. I mean, I think it’s clear why sports are so appealing. I’m curious how to bring something from that appeal into arts. Maybe not the competition, but the euphoria or this kind of feeling that I’m part of something, even if I’m not on stage or not the one playing. How can you connect? How can you have this empathy that you feel as a spectator? In my work we try to hit on that certain something, this feeling of belonging, also as an audience, as a group. Lately in my work I have been preoccupied with engendering a feeling for people that they belong to something …
TB: I think it’s also about creating a purpose for yourself. In football, there’s a lot of money obviously. But there are so many players. Only a small percentage makes real money, and all the others put just as much into it and get nothing. And artists, I guess it’s even worse. You might be able to have a professional life, but it could be that you’re putting everything into your art and you’re not getting much in return financially. Maybe you’ll get lucky … but even if you don’t, you still have a million reasons to do it. And I find that wonderful, too.

Milla, you are currently working on another piece that deals with sport again, in a way — can you tell us more about that?
MK: It’s another solo-group piece sequel that I’m working on. It’s starting off from the topic of endurance, but in a bit wider sense, so not only the physical endurance aspect, but also the mental one. I think it’s also related to the current state of the world and things that are happening around us, how you have to have resilience in these times and then of course, also there is the physical aspect to it all.

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