Rooting One’s Work
Choreographer Jefta van Dinther on his new work and his plans to found a more Berlin based working structure.
Jefta van Dinther works internationally as a choreographer. At the moment he is an Associated Artist with the Swedish dance company Cullberg. But he has found himself asking just what will come after this. Thus, a substantial funding he recently obtained from Tanzpakt Stadt – Land – Bund to found a structure in Berlin during the next three years comes at the right time. In Berlin, van Dinther‘s installative works, influenced by the city’s club scene, by visual arts and cinema, creating and exploring landscapes of bodies, sound, light, and materials, have been shown at HAU Hebbel am Ufer and Volksbühne but also at Staatsballett Berlin. “On Earth I’m Done: Mountains”, commissioned by Cullberg, will be presented at HAU2 in December.
Interview: Elena Philipp
Jefta, with the Tanzpakt funding you want to open a studio and establish a dance company in Berlin. What is the motivation behind this step?
I have lived here for twelve years now, and I want to work where I live. I’ve gotten married, we just got a dog, and I want to go to work by bike. This intention is also based on my history of flying everywhere for work. There’s a kind of excitement and thrill that comes with international work. But there’s also something ungrounded in it. I want more of the day-to-day connection to the place where I live. I have a good collaboration with HAU Hebbel am Ufer, where I’m showing most of my work, but until now there was no regular funding for me in Berlin.
Yet you are constantly producing new work, and with major companies, too.
I work on large scale productions, yes, but always commissioned, as a guest. I’ve been a freelance choreographer for many years now, living off of project subsidy, and there’s a limit to what you can do with that. It’s a limit of scale: With the production money you get, you can create a trio or a quartet. Under my own umbrella, I could never afford to pay more than five dancers – and those were well funded projects.
It sounds like a problem that many artists in the middle of their careers are facing given the current Berlin funding system: How can one create stability?
The life of a freelance choreographer and project subsidy isn’t manageable over the long run: The conditions you work under, the amount of work that falls on your shoulders as a choreographer, how perspective is limited, project by project. I’m concerned with artistic sustainability. And artistic longevity. I’ve been doing this for twelve years – and I might be doing it for another twelve years. The people I work with regularly – dancers, lighting, set and sound designers – we create a kind of family. I would like those relationships to not be so temporary and to be able to set up more secure working conditions, for us and others.
What are your plans for a Berlin based structure?
What I want to develop is a company structure, starting from a studio. I want to be in an exchange with colleagues in the performing arts scene, but also with music, visual arts. Internally as well as publicly. I am operating as an international artist and I won’t stop that, but there could be a new focus. I feel like I don’t know my audiences here in Berlin and I would like to share more work-in-progress, to play more and explore with formats and encounters. We will use the Tanzpakt funding to bridge the two: to work on large scale work and to do it on the conditions of the art itself. In the 1990s there was a generation of dance artists who were able to grow on their own premises, by founding a place or structure. It was a new phenomenon established around artists like Meg Stuart, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, or Sasha Waltz. Nobody in my generation gets that kind of funding.
Did being an Associated Artist at Cullberg alleviate the stress of project-based work?
Yes, that gave me a break from having to be in that rat race of application writing and managing the existing projects while creating new ones. I am Associated Artist at Cullberg from 2019 to 2022, and they have commissioned two new works, the solo “On Earth I’m Done: Mountains” and the group piece “On Earth I’m Done: Islands”.
“On Earth I’m Done: Mountains” will be coming to Berlin in December. What’s it about?
“Mountains” is about nature and culture. These terms are often used as polemic opposites but the work deals with how they are inseparably interconnected. “Mountains” is about humans and their environment – the planet, its resources. And it’s about archaic expressions of culture as well as futuristic ones. At the moment, I’m in the process of setting the work on three different dancers. In that process, the question of material came up. What are the building blocks of this particular work? What is translatable to another body? What is transferable from the documentation that exists – the videos, the notes, my knowledge, the dancers’? Plenty is transferable, but definitely not everything is. There’s also a whole archive and sense-making and relating that is carried and lived in each performer differently and uniquely. We need to stay sensitive to this subjectivity and keep an open mind in this process.
Could you give an example?
In “Mountains”, we use language a lot. Originally, we worked with the Portuguese language. Now, one of the dancers is Polish and with that language comes a whole new context of emotions, belongings, cultural markers. Can this rich field of associations be considered material, too? And how do we deal with the places it transports us to, without losing the work? We are currently testing how the idiosyncrasies and movement qualities of Marco Da Silva Ferreira, who will be performing “Mountains” in Berlin, are allowed to coexist together with the material of the work. How can his history and all he is be part of creating a new “Mountains”?